Friday, 31 May 2013

Why Colin can't remember - reflections on Alan Garner's 'Boneland' by John Ward

Cave paintings, Lascaux, France
(image courtesy of Prof saxx, via Wikimedia Commons)
Boneland must be one of the strangest sequels ever written. It is not Alan Garner’s best book, but for the questions it poses, it is of great interest to all of us who write for children.

It purports to complete the trilogy begun fifty years ago with his earliest books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The first made a powerful impression on me, perhaps because I heard it on the wireless before I read it (and I was startled to discover, on rereading it, that it was the source of a key part of the climactic scene in my own first book, The Secret of the Alchemist - a borrowing of which I was entirely unconscious). Yet the second made so little impact that only when I took it out of the library last year, in preparation for reading Boneland, did I realise I had read it before.

The strangeness of Boneland as a sequel stems from its lack of sequence: of the two characters who feature centrally in the other books, one - Susan - is conspicuous by her absence, while the other - her brother Colin - is effectively a different character: as the result of a traumatic experience in adolescence, he has undergone a personality change, becoming an autistic polymath who is now, in adult life, a professor of astronomy.

He has also lost all memory of the events of those first two books. In other words, to all intents and purposes, he has no connection with the earlier books at all (and even things that seem like links - the fact that Colin and Susan are twins, that she addresses him as ‘Col’, that their parents are killed in an aircrash, that Susan disappears - none of these actually features in the earlier books).

At first sight this seems almost perverse, as if Boneland were less a sequel, more a repudiation of that earlier work - and in a way, it is; but the question to ask is, could it have been otherwise?

Let us suppose that Colin survives into adulthood with his memory intact: here is someone who has personally encountered wizards, witches and warlocks, elves, dwarves and goblins, sleeping Arthurian knights and house-high troll-women, all in the Cheshire countryside; at the very least, he would have become a professor of comparative folklore rather than astronomy - it is impossible to believe that such events would not have shaped the rest of his life.

But the truth of the matter is that it simply will not do: elves and goblins belong in storybooks; there is no way to reconcile Colin’s childhood encounters with the reality of his adult life that would be believable. The only thing is to have him conveniently forget it all.

So am I conceding what some critics have long asserted, that fantasy is childish stuff, of no interest to adults, and of doubtful value to children, who would be better served by books about the ‘real world’?

By no means.

Fantasy, as it happens, does succeed best with children of a certain age, but for reasons that are the opposite of those put forward by its detractors: far from being an escape from the real world, it is for them an image of it.

Consider that the child entering adolescence stands on the verge of a mysterious world that he must soon enter, a world of which he knows little, governed by powerful hidden forces, a place where anything might happen: it is a prospect both daunting and exciting, in equal measure. Mapped, that world would resemble the products of mediaeval cartographers - a tiny area (home, school) that is familiar, surrounded by huge blank spaces furnished by the imagination, where be dragons.

Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 (image from Wikimedia Commons: public domain)
In other words, fantasy literature is a metaphorical embodiment of the fears and hopes we all experience on the verge of adulthood, when, though we long for freedom and independence, we are still the responsibility of other people - our parents, or those who stand in their stead. We seek reassurance that we can enter that world alone and survive on our own resources, and the emotional experience of doing that is what fantasy adventures allow us to try out.

Garner’s problems with Boneland do not arise from the fact that the earlier books are fantasy, but from his failure to keep the worlds in them separate. Colin and Susan’s encounters take place where they live; they do not go to the monsters - the monsters come to them. And because Colin, as an adult, continues to inhabit the same landscape, the question of what happened to all those fabulous creatures becomes an awkward one.

In his later story, Elidor - a fine work that manages to evoke an epic world without being of epic length - Garner ensures that there is a portal (in the liminal space of an abandoned church in the process of being demolished) so that the children in that tale pass into another world for their magical encounters; even the magical objects they bring back with them are transformed, in the mundane world, into mundane things.

But Colin, if he could remember, would know that the Weirdstone of Brisingamen - Susan’s Tear - is just up the road a way, under Alderley Edge, in Fundindelve, where Arthur's knights and their stallions lie asleep; he would know that Angharad Golden-hand’s floating island is down that way, somewhere on Redesmere - and it is unlikely that he would be more interested in distant galaxies, with that on his doorstep.

The View from Sormy Point, Alderley Edge (image courtesy of Randomgurn via Wikimedia Commons)

However, there is a second reason for Colin’s inability to remember, which has to do with Garner himself, and how he has come to view the business of storytelling. It is interesting that he rejects the label of ‘children’s writer’ - "I certainly have never written for children," he is on record as saying, though it is hard to argue that his first two books are not primarily aimed at a young audience.

What he is, first and foremost, is a writer rooted in a particular landscape - what Orkney was to George Mackay Brown, the Cheshire countryside in the vicinity of Alderley Edge is to him. However, in those first two books the spirit of place is heavily overlaid with a rather motley heap of borrowings from Arthurian, Norse and Celtic myth.

In his later writing, he dispenses with this: increasingly, it is the landscape itself, its history and prehistory, that furnishes the element of wonder that legendary borrowings supplied before. The prehistoric bull-painting in the cavern that features in The Stone Book establishes a theme that runs through all his later work. That is the other reason why Garner has Colin forget his earlier adventures: that way of telling stories no longer works for him.

Boneland, in fact, has much more in common with Garner’s more recent works, Thursbitch and Strandloper. A key figure in all three is the Shaman, who mediates between the tribe and the forces beyond - forces that imbue the landscape, forces with which the tribe must come to terms if it is to survive, controlling (or at least harnessing) them by enmeshing them in a web of ritual and story.

In Boneland, the Shaman (who is also an aspect of Colin himself) is the last survivor of an extinguished  pre-human race, probably Neanderthals; in Strandloper, it is an 18th century Cheshire labourer who is transported for sedition and becomes an Aboriginal medicine man; in Thursbitch, it is a Cheshire packman, who keeps alive the ancient Mithraic bull-cult among the country folk residing in a remote valley.

The implication is that the storyteller stands in a direct line of descent from the shaman of old, and the ideas and images on which he draws are an inheritance we all share from our earliest beginnings, but which in modern times we are doing our best to deny and forget.

The world of the fantasy story resonates with child on the verge of adolescence because she recognises it as an image of her own situation, something the adult is unable to do, because the very process of ‘growing up’ and entering ‘the real world’ is actually about acquiring a whole set of elaborate constructs to protect us from reality (which, as Eliot wisely remarked, humankind cannot bear very much).

We have work, we have mortgages, we have ‘lifestyles’ (a fine pretence, that we are actually able to shape and style our lives as we please, as if the unexpected was not at any moment liable to come down on us like a giant hammer) and - in the developed world at least, and in those countries where the social fabric still holds together and order is not breaking down - we collude in the communal self-deception that we have everything under control, that it’s all sorted, pretty much.

What Garner reminds us, as writers, is that our task is to open a crack in the walls of that complacency, and let in the light of wonder.

- John Ward
see my blog at Compleat Trowzer


Elen C said...

Thank you for such an interesting post. I often think that too much attention is given to individual books and not enough to whole careers. I tell writing students that they do not need to cram all their interests into one books, they will have years to exlore their ideas. It's great to hear something of one distinguished career.

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful, thank you. What a thoughtful, analytical post.

I have not been able to risk reading Boneland, though I know I should, because Garner's earlier books were so important to me in childhood. He became a bit of a cult hero for my friends and I. (If only I knew where my first edition harback of Red Shift was, with the code on the fly papers that it took us forever to break.) My closest friend from those days (who corresponded with and met Garner) is nagging me to read it so that we can discuss it, so I will. You've reminded me - I'll read it, and think about why Colin needs to forget. Perhaps because most people do forget - perhaps wilfully - the real nature of childhood.

Jane Housham said...

What an interesting post. Alan Garner's book were also very important to me as a child. The Owl Service and, particularly, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. But I think they have to stay there. When I went to live in South Manchester, some years ago, my first weekend trip was to Alderley Edge, to see it for myself. It was horribly disappointing, not matching up at all to the landscape in my head. And when The Weirdstone was done anew on the radio last Christmas (or re-broadcast then), I didn't enjoy that either, for the same reason. When you've truly entered into the world of a book, you just have to leave it be, I think. I won't try to read Boneland.

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Pippa Goldschmidt said...

Very insightful post - thank you!

jfmward said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I hope I haven't put anyone off reading Boneland - if you're interested in Garner as a writer, I'd say it is essential reading - but don't expect it to complete the first two books in any conventional sense. If it's a sequel to anything, it's Strandloper and Thursbitch. It is a very thought-provoking book, especially for a writer.

David Thorpe said...

Thank you for such a long and detailed analysis. Alan Garner has influenced so many people, and given pleasure to so many readers, that he deserves a study of his whole oeuvre If. The identification of the writer with the shaman is critical and true of many creative artists. The landscape of the mind is often far more interesting than the real landscape, which is why fantasy remains fascinating even for adults.