When William Mayne’s Vendale appears in Earthfasts it is largely a recognisable place, a Dales market town, but with features from the Lakes, the high Pennines: it is a composite of a number of places. Emmerdale is maybe one valley away one way; Wharfedale is another. De Fombelle‘s Scottish Highlands in Vango, the wonderfully named Everland, is similarly more-or-less fictional. In both these works the authors move the reader from one imagined place to another skilfully. Skillfully, in that the atmosphere of a place is beautifully captured – but maybe at the expense of accuracy.
But does that matter, except to a pedant like me? I am not sure that de Fombelle is really interested in the clerical dress of the Church of Scotland, for example, but I am sure he wants the reader to be with Ethel in her horseback chase after the lost sheep and the horror with which she finds her neighbours are hunting a human, not a deer. The rush of the story needs setting and landscapes, and I hold it up by quibbling. Vango is set in real as well as half-real places: so much so I feel it is in a parallel universe. What is worth speculating on, I think, is how de Fombelle makes the choices between accuracy and setting. The author creates a powerful fantasy that is atmospheric enough to makes us believe in a hidden monastery in the Aeolian Islands as much as a life of marginalised young people in the Paris rooftops. Fantasy, adventure, real and imagined landscapes all are presented together in a jumble. His own travels enrich de Fombelle’s writing.
Garner, rooted in his land and its past, however, offers a different challenge: fantasy in a “real” (I’ll come back to this) landscape. In doing so, he offers up for appreciation a topography of Staffordshire and Cheshire and Derbyshire – his corner of the world – that I am trying to explore in textual and actual exploration. Solvitur ambulando: de Fombelle has his Zeppelin; Garner has his walking boots. Visits are vital, Garner seems to say, reading is important. Get out the map, prepare your research tools. This is underlined in Rob Macfarlane’s essay The Gifts of Reading which, like so much of his writing makes me want to put my boots on, take my kettle and a sleeping bag and walk off. His description of the “famously ornate style” of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “hopschloss” across a doomed Europe struck me as a good connection with Garner:
Almost everything in his prose leads to something else (path to path, culture to culture, word to word)and this abundance of connection is itself a kind of offering up, or giving away. You feel, as a reader, passionately- perhaps even at times oppressively – hosted: Read this! Look here! Listen to that! Walk this way!
This is where the “reality” persists: we walk a geographically recognisable path through the adventures of Colin and Susan in Weirdstone and Gomrath; we have that path snatched away from us in Boneland. We are challenged to walk this way, and that, and that again (to use Garner’s own story, to go this way and that as lead by the Wizard, by Seven Firs and Goldenstone) to accept the Man in Boneland as the metaphor for the story of the area, as the first teller of the Garner Ur-Myth, in the Garner landscape. A deeper read, time spent reading the topography and archaeology (Read this! Look here!) of this small, magic area, and I am still challenged to accept the Garner philosophy of story and landscape. Ludchurch is an ancient cultic site before Gawain learns his lesson: Alderley is a place to encounter the uncanny before its landscaping for the visitors from Manchester.
So how “real” is all of this? What do I mean by “real”?
I mean, at one level, that I have been there. It is as de Fombelle’s Paris: I can see the bones of the authors’ settings. I do not need the streets to be named exactly, but more or less, this is Paris, this is Cat’s Tor… At another level, something is impelling me to look at Ludchurch and Alderley and Thursbitch in a different way. His meticulous scholarship tells me there are interpreters’ paths to follow, with James Dakeyne and Frederick Hackwood and Robert Plot, and geologists and archaeologists: this is at once a verifiable landscape and its own stage set on which Garner has placed not only his characters – Colin, Sal, Jack, the Man – but a maze of metaphor for us to pass with them. If it was easy for Macfarlane to forget, in the midst of his time in China that
literature might be there to thrill, perplex or amaze,
Alan Garner’s landscapes are there to tell us that “dreaming in Ludcruck,” telling the myth of a place, is at once to be playing with history and geography – and astronomy and archaeology- and yet is nevertheless a “true story.” He goes way beyond de Fombelle in playing with visitabke settings, and it is enough for now to ask why. The sonorous beginning to Garner’s 2010 lecture gives the best clue as to his intent:
the uniquely human quality: our ability to derive a sense of belonging through oral tradition, to create relationships with place through story.
and maybe that is as far as I can get tonight.