The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
by Alan Garner.
Puffin Books revised edition 1963 (1960).
Reading this at the end of the sixties, fresh from the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, I felt confused and slightly underwhelmed. Despite its nod to Arthurian legend (sleeping king, Wild Hunt, sage wizard) and genuine sense of menace I missed the complexity of Tolkien’s saga, with its multiple locations, characters and interweave of plots. Nor did it share the light touch of The Hobbit despite featuring two youngsters in their early teens.
Perhaps the book’s misfortune was to be of its time, partly satisfying a hunger for epic fantasy but appearing, in contrast, as a pale imitation of The Lord of the Rings. Garner, whose first novel this was – he wrote it in his mid-twenties – recognised such weaknesses by first providing a revised edition for Puffin Books and later virtually disavowing it as “a fairly bad book”.
To dismiss it, especially now, would be unfair. For all the similarity of motifs – dwarfs, elves, underground mines, wizard, evil lord, powerful talisman, trolls, a final near-hopeless battle – what strikes me more on this re-reading four decades on are the differences. This is set in a corner of Garner’s native Cheshire, not in a secondary world like Middle Earth; the names and figures draw not on an invented mythology but directly from native traditions and languages, from Welsh, Manx, Irish and Norse folklore and literature (for example Angharad, Fenodyree, Morrigan and Grimnir, respectively); the main protagonists are not adult halflings but two, as it turns out, not-so-ordinary children; and the story is set not in some faraway land many millennia ago but in a here-and-now mid-twentieth century, with trains, waterproof macs, bikes, electric torches and ramblers. Even if the past is never far away, beginning with the milk-white steeds of the legendary but unnamed king…
Colin and Susan go to stay with their mother’s former nanny near Alderley Edge while their parents are abroad – the classic set-up where youngsters have a chance to mature without parental interference. Susan has inherited, via her mother, an heirloom from the nanny’s family, a teardrop crystal that we gather is the weirdstone of the title. There is something special about this stone because strangers, some very sinister, show strong interest in it, drawing the two children into a supernatural world that has little that’s fey about it.
The episodes that lingered long in my memory are still in evidence – the claustrophobic journey through the old copper workings under the Edge (I’d recently read Tom Sawyer, with a similar sequence), the chilling female trolls called the Mara, the brief vision of sleeping warriors in their cavern – along with many equally terrifying incidents and arresting images that I’d somehow forgotten.
Susan and Colin’s ages are never here stipulated but they are clearly around twelve or thirteen. Their portraits have been criticised as somehow being like cardboard cut-outs, but not only are they easy for young readers to identify with (although Garner claims not to write with a young audience in mind), they’re also resourceful and courageous, especially Susan who — despite the odd scream — is often prepared to take the lead over the twin. I find it fascinating that Garner, despite never being explicit, has gone for twin siblings as his protagonists: twins are notoriously often self-contained, as these two are, requiring just each other as companions; and to outsiders they sometimes lack individuality, as these two can do, barely conforming to male and female stereotypes of activity and passivity. We are given no visual clues as to their appearance so just occasionally they come across as shadowy and interchangeable, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
This can’t be said for their companions. The genial but bluff Gowther Mossock, husband of Nanny Bess, comes across as a real person, not surprising as Garner acknowledges in the sequel that he’s truly drawn from life, “straight and undiluted”. The two dwarfs — Fenodyree (inexplicably portrayed on George Adamson’s cover as carrying a goblet for his first appearance) and Durathror — are more easily differentiated, one cautious, the other more reckless. Finally, Cadellin, as the legendary wizard and guardian of the sleeping king is here called, does what wizards do, which is to go their mysterious ways while still aiding and abetting the forces for good.
This is an enthralling immersive read, well paced and often un-put-down-able. The set pieces – in the Morrigan’s mansion, in the mines, the cross-country flight, the final conflict with its unexpected revelations – are thrillingly handled. The novel does, however, end rather abruptly; this revised Puffin edition (a new 50th-anniversary edition was issued in 2010 with additional material) appeared in 1963 just as The Moon of Gomrath was published, and so one has to assume that the cataclysmic climax, wrapped up in less than half a page, was deliberate, to anticipate the action continued in the sequel (which, incidentally, had never been originally planned). As we have had to wait half a century for the trilogy to be completed — Boneland was only published in 2012 – we must be thankful that Garner stayed faithful to his creations, and to his readers.
The author’s ancestor Robert Garner was a local stone mason who, we are told elsewhere, is said to have built the stone circle which puts in an appearance in this story and to have also carved the inscription below the stone face at the Wizard’s Well:
DRINK OF THIS
AND TAKE THY FILL
FOR THE WATER FALLS
BY THE WIZHARDS WILL
Whether literally true or not, it’s in such ways that Garner establishes personal investment in the land, the people and their lore. But it’s also a area which, though I’ve never visited, is full of other resonances, like a cave full of whispered echoes. I’ve wandered through the prehistoric copper mines of Great Orme’s Head in North Wales and so have some understanding of the antiquity and conditions of the Edge’s mines.
Further forward in time we encounter what this story calls Llyn Dhu, the Black Lake in Welsh, modern Lindow Moss near Wilmslow, where several bog bodies from around the Iron Age were discovered in the 1980s, probably deposited as ritual sacrifices. And even closer in time, but paradoxically looking further back into time, the area is home to Jodrell Bank observatory with its radio telescope. This confluence of vistas of different eras has all added to the cauldron of ideas from which Garner continues to draw the elements in his tight-knit and individual stories.
Repost of review first published 25th December 2013: a reposted review of The Moon of Gomrath follows after