As I come away from Twitter this evening I am aware I have started a hare around “favourite” works by Alan Garner. Now, Mat raised a tricky question about “good books” and children’s books in his MA session in which the class explored the Brookes Early Children’s Book Collection, and this evening I feel pulled in all sorts of directions.
What do I “get” from Thursbitch as a novel?
Is there something that takes the edge off Boneland for me?
Is Elidor a better children’s book than Thursbitch is an adults’ one?
In response to Mat’s challenge these are crass questions here, I know, simple responses, not Lit Crit. I’m only going to look at the first one, and “which is best” faced with these two books is a game for the deluded: I have to admit this is just about taste, and that others can defend their own options as robustly.
What I love about adult Garner is his trickery. He deliberately lays trails of myth and language across his known landscape, dragging us (like the unwilling Mobberley farmer in the Alderley Edge foundation myth) around the countryside in search of his deepest roots. This is known territory. In Boneland- crudely recapped here and with a crystal-clear review from Ursula LeGuin here – Garner asks what it might be like to grow up having had some ambiguous and dangerous adventure as a pre-teen. But this is not really his motive, it seems to me: in linking a present story with a Mesolithic (or even pre-Sapiens hominid) story in the same place, he is challenging the reader to ask about time, about myth and religion, and therefore about people as storytellers. He draws on his own story, first seen in the Weirdstone and the Moon of Gomrath, but with a real reverence for pre-history, for advanced astronomy, and for the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, whose denouement is set in the area. Like the Green Knight, Garner offers a challenge to go beyond the comfortable, and does so in a moving and accomplished conclusion to the Weirdstone trilogy.
What I love about adult Garner is his trickery. In Thursbitch, Garner plays again with time – as he has in Elidor, Red Shift and the Owl Service – but here , as in Boneland, his argument is not just with simplistic and linear history but with how past and present are mutually influential. In Boneland, the Man, the shaman of a prehistoric refugium, is anchored in a spirituality that returns him again and again to Ludchurch, which Garner renames Ludcruck. I found myself profoundly moved by the place, on visiting it – and in contrast found Thursbitch no less – well, what? “vigilant”? “sentient”? but markedly less welcoming. It would seem natural, therefore, to like Boneland more than Thursbitch (I had read them both a number of times before the visit). But actually, much as I like (too weak a word) Boneland, and especially the prehistoric sections, I think it’s Thursbitch the novel that takes my prize, even if it’s Ludchurch, the place, the Green Chapel, Ludcruck that has my heart.
What I love about adult Garner is his trickery. He tickles me into action, into deep (as much as close) reading, and thence into the archaeology of story. In this way the mystical parallels that underpin Thursbitch play out Garner’s own insights into the valley’s potential as a cultic site. In making Jack Turner the jagger or packman key to the story, he is able to pull threads (yes, this is a Garner metaphor) of stories from 4000 BCE Sumeria, astronomy and myth from England and elsewhere, and weave the passing tales of local farmers he knows. In doing so he writes with an authority I do not feel in Strandloper or even Boneland. Can I defend this? Is it simply that in Thursbitch – and arising from Garner’s own evocative commentary on it in a number of places – I can see the trail of reference, half-remembered story, song and ritual? That I am flattered, or flatter myself?
There is that.
What I find so moving in Thursbitch is the complexity of his meditation on love and death. Sal, terminally ill, finds herself attracted to the place. Her companion, the Jesuit Ian confronts, with her, her impending illness. The barely spoken love they feel is half explored, and ruthlessly, painfully part of their relationship. In the eighteenth century valley, Jack loses his wife to the plague, loses his baby, and nearly loses his soul, too. The dual protagonists come so close in their experience of love and loss they discern one another’s presence in the valley – and in the end, when Sal and Jack meet the end that has been inevitable since their first appearance in the novel, there is some sense of a kindness in the way the Immortals end their sport with the two of them.
So it presses lots of buttons for me: it gets my mind racing, it excites me to think and read (and read and read) beyond the text and then go back for more. It has (and if you have followed this blog before you are maybe tiring of the references) dragged me up to the Tors themselves for (no pun intended, but inescapable nonetheless) a Peak Experience. Quid multa dicam? There is a lot more to say – a lot more work for Mat and me (and others) to do, unpicking the landscape and the myth and the story. But this will have to do for now; I think I have written enough to convince myself of my love and admiration for Thursbitch.
But I dream in Ludcruck.