Watching the story unroll

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.
4th Estate, 2022 (2021).

‘Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!’

Treacle Walker

Deceptively simple yet cunningly wrought, Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker defies categorisation. Instead of easily slipping into one genre or another it does what many good stories do – it intrigues, enthralls, makes one think, conjures up images, presents distinct characters, and takes us through from start to finish before the stern critic can adjust their spectacles and sharpen their quill.

And, too, Garner does so much with so little. He gives us a limited cast of characters – Joseph Coppock, Treacle Walker, Thin Amren – and conjures up established figures from a classic British kids comic which ran from 1939 to 1963. He sets his story in a mythical landscape which evokes aspects of the Cheshire he knows so well and which feature in much of his writing. And he presents a hazy, elastic timeline which mixes the ancient past, his mid-century childhood, and the timeless feel of a fable or fairytale.

But above all this is the work of a visionary poet, of a shaman who is describing a journey to a spirit world. Nominations for literary and fantasy awards may come his way but we do Garner an injustice if we attempt to pigeonhole what he creates.

Stonehenge Kit comic strip by Denis Gifford (credit John Adcock)

Joseph is a young lad who appears to live alone, or at least he never interacts with anybody else in his house. He’s been made to wear an eye patch over one eye in an attempt to cure a squint and, when he’s not asleep in bed on top of an inbuilt cupboard by the side of his chimney, spends much of his time reading and collecting copies of Knockout. His favourite strip is about Stonehenge Kit and Whizzy the Wicked Wizard, his adversary.

But who is this outside his door? It’s the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, with his horse and cart, bearing strange objects to swap with recyclable material. Who is Thin Amren, the man who rises from the adjacent marshland with his strange cap? How does Joseph’s visit to the optician cause confusion? And why are the characters in an issue of Knockout simply missing from the Stonehenge Kit page?

How to approach a story composed largely of everyday dialogue and seemingly obsessed with popular culture? Garner himself tells us where he is coming from: “I have a mind of my own, and the words to express it. If that is a new voice, it is the voice of Aeschylus reading Desperate Dan.” He can’t be clearer – his mind is that of a tragedian combined with a love of outrageous wordplay, surreal comedy and everything in between, seeing correspondences in opposites and the past as one with the future.

What of the audience for Treacle Walker? For me – and I can only speak personally – I engage with the narrative as any spellbound audience member might, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns; I fear for Joe, I wonder about the role of Walker, I puzzle at Thin Amren’s nature; but I also marvel at the store of tradition that Garner draws on. Let me count some of the ways.

Hospitality and the crossing of the threshold; the ritual exchange of gifts; the healing Treacle Well of St Margaret, Oxford; the Uffington white horse (no donkey, this one); shamanic journeys through smoke holes; Alice Through the Looking Glass; the ritual murder of the man in the peat bog of Lindow (‘Black Lake’) Moss and the cap of the Trollund bog body; Hir Amren (‘tall Amren’) in the Welsh medieval tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, who’s said to be the son of Bedwyr or Bedivere who threw Arthur’s sword into the lake; the fabled second sight of the seer; and so much more. Then, after he has done his protracted research for a new work like this, Garner tells us

‘the closing sentences frequently appear, and I’ve learnt to write them down without question. Then it’s largely a matter of ‘watching’ the story unroll as a film and getting it onto paper. It’s a mysterious, but not a mystical, sensation.’

Booker Prize interview.

I can’t tell you how much this seemingly slight tale has appealed to me, and even moved me. For while Garner’s writing – what I’ve read of it – is nearly always intensely personal, the fact that he shares his own journeys with us, so that we may recognise that which may resonate and help us, shows a generosity of spirit. If you’ve yet to read Treacle Walker I hope when you get to it that you may also find a little of what you’re looking for.


Tungus shaman, engraving by Nicholaas Witsen, 1785

The Booker Prize for 2022 was announced on Garner’s 87th birthday, and though he didn’t win it the coincidence of the announcement underlined I think the significance of him being on the shortlist.

18 thoughts on “Watching the story unroll

    1. Language and imagery are what also worked for me, Cathy, as the story pulled me along. It helped hugely that I knew something about Garner’s interest in history, archaeology, legend and myth but I confess that Knockout comic wasn’t familiar to me except as a name – it was mostly Beano, Dandy and DC Comics for me at that age.

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        1. ‘The Skriker’ was only a name to me but now, having looked it up, I’m so impressed with your participation in a production of what sounds to have been a daunting, traumatic but important drama. I don’t know how much Churchill drew on English lore for this but it certainly suggests a knowledge of how English fairies bespelled, led their victims astray, and brought them to the edge of madness. Postpartum depression and psychosis are profound issues to be treated with sensitivity in a play, but I can only assume that’s what she achieved.

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          1. It’s a really powerful play Chris and like Garner she uses those old myths to say interesting things about how we live today. Maxine Peake was in a very well received production of it a while back, which I think might be available to watch online.

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            1. Yes, I was reading details of that production with Peake and it looked promising – especially as she’s an actor and a principled person for whom I have great respect.

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    1. Annabel, I loved this, as you say, entrancing fable – it’s one that I almost wanted to reread immediately, and will certainly hang on to and revisit in the future.

      I really must now get back to Boneland to reread and review, another fiction rich in themes and challenging ideas.

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  1. I still feel like I might need to read/re-read all of AG’s other books first to appreciate this – what do you think? Scare myself silly with the Owl Service again? I used to have nightmares about the White Horse of Uffington, too, but found him benign when I ran past him twice on my ultramarathon and training run (that was the fault of another book and TV series).

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    1. Oh, I think Garner’s an author whose work always repays a revisit, Liz – in fact almost every book of his I’ve reviewed recently has required closer attention than a quick read-through might offer. But I don’t think you’d need to go over The Owl Service again – this is a very different kind of book from that, in atmosphere, in themes, and above all in length. I should go for it, Liz!

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  2. I’ve only read one of Alan Garner’s books and wasn’t sure whether this one appealed, but you’ve made it sound very intriguing! For such a short book, there seems to be a lot going on.

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    1. This appears to be a story that can be appreciated in different ways, Helen, according to one’s expectations or experience. It’s a straightforward tale of magical realism about a lad visited by a mysterious stranger; or an exercise in imaginative nostalgia; a deep plunge into mythic depths; or a nonsensical if whimsical puzzle that may only elicit a meh from some readers.

      All I can say is that I was certainly intrigued, but that it may well be as Marmite is for many; and at least the dialogue is fun to hear in one’s head!

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    1. Well, you did sort of challenge me, Gert – in fact by saying you were looking forward to what I had to say about it you virtually strong-armed me into buying, reading and reviewing it, which left me no choice!

      Thank goodness I’d read it by the time the Booker Prize winner was announced… Yes,. definitely worth a reread!

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  3. Aonghus Fallon

    I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and finally did so last week-end. You say that Garner does so much with so little. I actually think that this narrow focus is what makes the book so successful (ie, more characters etc, would have diluted its impact). Somebody has postulated that the three characters are all aspects of Garner; that in essence he’s having a conversation with himself; so I guess there’s young Garner & Old Garner and – in the form of Thin Amren – Garner the Author, whose dreams create the reality these characters inhabit.

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    1. I absolutely agree, Aonghus; and even Kit, Whizzy and the Brit-bashers, though not aspects of Garner, were so internalised that they seem to live in his psyche, even after eighty years.

      In a Guardian interview he talked about his earliest reading memory:
      “In March 1941, aged six, I was lying in bed in an isolation hospital, recovering from measles, whooping cough and meningitis, and looking at the Knockout comic. My favourite character was Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit.”

      So Joe as young Garner and Walker, who hands his role over, as old Garner is a likely hypothesis; Thin Amren may also be a reflection of Garner’s Cheshire forebears who also seem to feature in one form or another in many of his works.

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