Chosen by myth

Mow Cop Castle (built 1754)

Red Shift
by Alan Garner.
Collins Lion Track 1975 (1973).

I see in my mind’s eye an exposed cliff which has been riven by some past cataclysm: strata from different periods composed of contrasting materials now sit side by side, yet they belong to the same cliff face. In such a way Alan Garner’s Red Shift presents to my imagination: three stories from different eras cleaving together in one extraordinary narrative.

Shifting from the present (Cheshire in the seventies) to the English Civil War in the same part of the world, or to a remnant of the Ninth Legion trying to go native among the Cornovii tribe in the second century CE, the novel slowly reveals how different people in different timelines can somehow be linked by a number of strands: topographical sites, artefact, geology, astronomy, a mythic tale.

As with many Garner novels the book is intensely personal. A native of Cheshire with local family roots stretching back centuries, he sets great store by a sense of place and by objects suffused with age, tradition or ritual. But he also features troubled characters in protagonist roles, a reflection of his own mental struggles over the years, all of which go towards ensuring his narratives have a firm substratum of authenticity and truth.

The Blue Anchor Fault, Old Cleeve, Somerset

The three timelines which, conjoined by a chronological fault, we follow concern sweethearts Tom and Jan, both of whose families are itinerant due to backgrounds in the army or medicine, currently living near Crewe; a Roman soldier (here known as Macey, perhaps from his association with a prehistoric axe head), four other survivors from the ‘lost’ Legio IX Hispana, and a native priestess, who end up on Mow Cop, a hill now crowned by a folly and ruined cottages; and Thomas Rowley, his wife Madge, and sundry villagers from Barthomley who are besieged in the parish church by marauding Royalists under the command of a ruthless murdering officer.

At first all these lives are presented as distinct and different but pretty soon we begin to sense some commonalities: armed forces, violence, blood-letting, and psychological games; succour, stability and maternity represented by the women; mental disturbances affecting the two Toms and Macey; and the physical presence of the axe head in all three strands. But, like the strata in that buckled cliff, the text is disconcerting, much of it consisting of snatches of conversations, points of view meshing, even the same incident presented from the several viewpoints of those taking part in it.

The reader’s confusion is matched in how Macey, Thomas and Tom behave at moments of heightened tension: visions, vivid colours, preternatural strength, apparent fits or seemingly random flights of fancy. These too are like geological faults interrupting strata, with responses from different causes aligning in the narrative, blinding blues and silvers common to all three with red, often from blood, being an accent colour. The intensity of these episodes results from Garner’s approach to his craft, in which myth and temperament play key roles.

In a 1975 lecture Garner is specific about how he believes his fiction resides in myth: “the feeling is less that I choose a myth than that the myth chooses me; less that I write than that I am written.” In the case of Red Shift he identifies the myth as a ballad, “the story of Tamlain [Tam Lin] and Burd Janet and the Queen of Elfland.” Catherine Butler, then writing as Charles Butler, discussed how Garner’s treatment of the Tam Lin story varies from other modern fictional interpretations in that the focus is more on the Tam character’s distress than on the Burd Janet equivalents (though these are also integral to the plot).

The source of that distress was, I suppose, the personification of the Queen of Elfland: she it was who could turn humans mad, or turn their heads, who could deliver fairy strokes or alienate them from society. In another lecture, ‘Fierce Fires & Shramming Cold’ from 1996, Garner discusses suffering from manic-depression, only later diagnosed and accepted, and its relation to his being and his creativity. His description of highs and lows is akin in some ways to the violent mood swings exhibited (though in different ways) by Tom, Thomas and Macey in his 1975 novel, and suggest to me that the fairy queen role is indeed the part played by their individual malaises.

Red Shift is a disturbing novel, with explicit violence such as rape, maiming, psychological abuse and cold-blooded murder; this is a story that pulls few punches in bringing home the horror of past wars and present-day emotional betryayals. Yet it also offers examples of loyalty, succour and support for and from those who are otherwise victims. The Civil War strand is based on a true incident in Barthomley, the Roman episode extrapolates from a more distant historical mystery, while the 1970s strand makes the reader a fly on the wall observing a real relationship trying to weather familial and personal storms. I was drawn, mesmerised, into all three stories in a way that I just wasn’t capable of appreciating nearly half a century ago. This is an outstanding piece of fiction that really should be better known and regarded.

All through the novel we’re aware of a physical object counterbalancing the emotional seesaws, the stone axe head — perhaps originating from the Bronze Age — which holds meaning for each of the Tam Lin figures, a symbol of violence but also something to cradle. But Tam Lin would be lost if it wasn’t for the pregnant Burd Janet, however she came to be with child; and so it is that a Celtic priestess, Madge Rowley and Jan each provide nurture but also sustain a pragmatic approach to life.

1. Charles Butler. ‘Alan Garner’s Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of “Tam Lim” (originally published in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Summer 2001). Accessed 14 December 2021.
2. Alan Garner.’ Revelations from a life of storytelling.’ Edited version of the inaugural Garner Lecture given at the Wolfson Auditorium at Jodrell Bank in Macclesfield on 25th March 2015. New Statesman, 2 April 2015, updated 17 December 2015.
3. Alan Garner. The Voice that Thunders: Essays and Lectures. The Harvill Press, 1997: 106-125, 208-222.

24 thoughts on “Chosen by myth

    1. Lisa, I’m impressed, I started to decode but eventually cheated by searching online tch tch! It’s such a rich novel, I keep thinking of things I could have said in the review but one’s got to call a halt sometime: every passage provides some notion that goes towards offering another jigsaw puzzle piece that adds to the overall pattern (Orion’s belt from which his weapon hangs, for example) and I still haven’t completed the picture!


        1. Hah, I borrowed it from the library when it first came out and was utterly bewildered! But it was haunting and I’ve waited nearly half a century hoping I’d be older and wiser enough to appreciate it better.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Annabel. We’re approaching its half-century so maybe a good time for a retrospective assessment?! I’m almost ready to tackle Boneland again. And then maybe his most recent, Treacle Walker


    1. Such a complex novel, Liz, it’s possible to write essays and papers on this — and many have done exactly that! I must have blotted out much of the violence on my first read that I remember so little of it; in truth it’s mostly spoken of matter-of-factly or alluded to more than described. It must’ve be hard for publishers to categorise it in the 70s: I borrowed it from what must have then been still called the Juvenile section and would now be called Young Adult; but as the present-day pair are old enough to go on to higher education it’s probably at the upper end of YA. Personally I found it challenging enough as an adult!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s written so much since the 1960s and his early fantasies, Helen, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of his work. I want to reread Elidor myself so, yes, I’ve also got a lot of catch-up ahead of me! 🙂


    1. And for me too, JJ, though I reread and reviewed two of his early stories here a few years ago. He has a new novel out, Treacle Walker, which sounds related to Red Shift according to a recent Guardian interview: what Alex Preston calls a “wonderful, time-collapsing” novel feels “like it contains the best of each of Garner’s worlds: the magic of his children’s fiction and the emotional and philosophical complexity of his adult world.

      Garner’s latest novel, he suggests, also belongs in this hybrid space. It, too, is concerned with time. Indeed, it seems as though the subject of time is the theme that underpins much of his later work – how we experience it, how we might refigure or alter our relation to it.” I’m really looking forward to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        That does indeed sound interesting! And to have the oompth to bring out a new, intriguing-sounding novel at the age of [pauses to check …] 87 is remarkable in itself!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There’s a pattern to many creative thinking types who continue to create as long as they can and with their marbles still retained — Le Carré, for example, or in broadcasting David Attenborough (just to name a couple of males). Hope I’ll be in a similar position, that is if the world hasn’t already gone to hell in a handcart by then…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. jjlothin

            Yes, the way the world is currently hurtling rather rapidly to hell in a handcart, perhaps it would be easier to take if we lost our marble!

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Fabulous review! I tried Red Shift a few years ago but gave it up after a few pages. I was fascinated by the idea of these interlocking story lines, however, and held onto my copy, with the idea that I would return on a better day! Your review makes me determined to do so.

    I really appreciated your discussion of the novel’s underlying themes/motifs and your quotes from Garner himself. This added so much to my understanding of what Garner was attempting to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Janakay! I hate feeling I’ve missed what a novel is aiming for and how it achieves it, so I’m glad I finally got back to this, even if it took it me nearly half a century! So you’ve really been vindicated hanging onto your copy of Red Shift, and I do hope you finally discover its rewards as a piece of fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rupert

    One of my favourite novels, but I am surprised you rate it as violent. All the violence, physical or sexual, is implied by the author, and I think young readers often miss this. For me it’s retained its power for 40+ years. I enjoyed your take on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment, Rupert, which gave me pause. I agree that most of the violence is implied — offstage as it were — and is nowhere near the graphic and often gratuitous violence that many thrillers have tended to include.

      But the almost casual mentions of maiming (by which we gather crippling) and gang rape, plus fatal poisoning, headhunting, shooting and stabbing to death, along with the twisting of sink taps and window-breaking, combined with threats of beatings and so on all, in my mind, combine to create an atmosphere of violence at the very least, almost imminent, always expected.

      The ‘modern’ episodes may be less physical than the historic ones but the gashes created by motorway and railway feel like metaphors for the modern equivalents of the slashing and bashing of yesteryears. And yet all of this adds to the sheer raw and shocking power that Garner’s novel has sustained for so long. It’s brilliant, and I’m so glad I reread it.

      Have you read, or are you going to read, Treacle Walker? So many writers I rate have praised this latest from Garner.


      1. Rupert

        I have read all of Garner, including Treacle Walker, which I’m afraid after several rereads I found very slight and disappointing. Red Shift remains the pinnacle of Garner’s writing for me, and one of my favourite ever books, although I also like Strandloper, The Owl Service and The Stone Book. Have you read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker? I read this around the same time as Red Shift and they have both remained with me… I taught Red Shift as a set university text for many years, and an annual rereading always revealed something new!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The Hoban book I’ve often seen referenced but not as yet read; and unlike you I’m not as familiar with Garner’s work (though I’m slowly getting there, first with rereads). I’m glad though that you, as someone who’s taught the novel, found my review of some interest – I certainly don’t kid myself that I’ve said anything new or innovative here!


  3. Goodness I read this as a teenager! It was my best friend’s favourite book so I promised him I would give it a go. Your review has brought so much more to it than I understood at the time. I shall have to give it a reread! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you do, Jo, it’s a complex but I think a rewarding novel. And, bolstered by experience, we’re more likely to get more out of reading or rereading this than our younger selves, allowing us to do more than just scratch the surface to reveal what lies beneath.

      Liked by 1 person

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