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 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).
http://alangarner.atspace.org/tl.html#edn2 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.