Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Alan Garner - essays and short stories

Garner finds myth in the landscape

Alan Garner is thought of a children’s fantasy writer, for books such as The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but he did not set out to be. Rather, he seems to have been driven to write by a fascination with place, myth and language. I’m reading his essays at the moment, The Voice That Thunders, and my favourite quote (so far) runs:

"What I owe to the Celtic mind is the realisation that language is music, and it is that which I must write"(p202).

These essays are full of other wise and wonderful observations about language. Garner makes the distinction you would expect between Germanic words for directness – he chooses “love”, “warm”, “go”, “hate”,  “thank”, “fear” as his examples – and romance words for distance, but also suggests that vowels represent emotion, consonants thought: “We are able to communicate our feelings in speech without consonants, and to understand a written statement when the vowels are omitted.” p45.

This points to the importance of the sound of prose, and supports the truth that ought to be universally acknowledged by writers (and was by Katherine Mansfield, who was a musician as well as an unsurpassed short story writer), that a story is not finished until you have read it several times aloud.

Dialect, which Garner uses so expertly, he cautions should appear sparingly, to enrich a text:

“The art is to create the illusion of demotic rather than to reproduce it. The quality of North-West Mercian, as of all dialects, lies not in the individual words but in the cadence, in the music of it all” p54.

His collection of four linked stories, The Stone Book Quartet, demonstrates this gentle use of dialect and cadence, embedded in breathtakingly simple prose that takes the reader directly into its world, even despite unfamiliar words for tools and craftsmen’s techniques. Unlike his other fiction (such as the books mentioned above), there is no fantasy here beyond the imagination of the characters. The world of these stories, shown in each case from a child’s perspective, is a solid, earthy one, peopled with stonecutters, smiths, scythers, men who with their hands turn stone and metal into steeples and weathercocks, and can uncover magic in materials.

As in folk tales (which Garner also handles expertly), there is scant description of actual feelings or character’s inner states. Rather, against the backdrop of plain prose, structured into short, direct sentences, Garner is able to make us understand profound emotion through the outward expressions of the characters, and by allowing image and metaphor to soar suddenly up and out of the material world.

It is hard to give an example of this plain prose and its effect, as the latter is partly cumulative, and means that when emotion does come, it sweeps the reader up in it mercilessly. But to give a feel, here is a snippet, in which a young boy, Joseph, realises that he wants to be a smith, to work iron rather than stone as his grandfather does:

“Joseph walked down the village towards the school and Saint Philip’s, over the station bridge. Everything he saw was clear. He knew something he didn’t know. It was the bell. It was the clock. It was the spires!

Grandfather had worked the chapel. But he had not given it the time. He helped on the school but he couldn’t ring them in. He had topped Saint Philip’s steeple, but it wasn’t the top. The top was a golden vane, a weather cock. Cock, clock, bell and at the chapel a spike to draw lightning. Wind, time, voice, fire – they were all the smith!” (p52).

In an earlier story in the book, we have seen a girl being lifted by her father to sit on this golden weather vane, surveying the landscape below. The boy Joseph climbs right inside the top of the steeple, amongst roosting pigeons, and finds his grandfather’s mark carved in the stone. These are startling, unforgettable images, carved in the simplest prose, and like the working of stone and metal by his characters, Garner seems to be making magic when he does this.

As Garner says in The Voice that Thunders, “The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words, at this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth” (p27). Garner manages to produce something mythic in his writing, and in the case of The Stone Book Quartet without any recourse to fantasy. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to be transported by short fiction, and to writers interested in language as a lesson in the power of restraint. I will be re-reading these stories many times trying to work out how Garner does it.


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