Thursday, 2 January 2014

Alan Garner – Thursbitch

Thursbitch will lead you down a strange and wonderful path

I only discovered Alan Garner as an adult, when I read The Owl Service. I wished then that I had read him as a child – my mother grew up with his books and spent a lot of time in Alderley Edge, the landscape that inspired them.  I started making up for this in 2013, reading The Voice that Thunders, a collection of his essays and lectures, and The Stone Book Quartet, (both of which I wrote about here) and now Thursbitch.  The latter two would have foxed me as a child reader, I now realise; I found them complex but overwhelmingly beautiful as an adult.

Reading Thursbitch requires you to learn a new vocabulary. This happens quite naturally along the way, as you listen to voices speaking a dialect that at first can seem incomprehensible. I love this kind of experience in literature – Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker does the same (see my post about it here) – and the knowledge that Garner’s language is both authentic and deeply loved by the author only adds to the pleasure. Here’s an example of what I could understand by the end of the book:

“And how shall we fettle, you ask me? Corbel bread. Yon’s the truth of corbel bread, and why we always gather it up each back end down along the saltways and fetch it here.”

The narrative switches between the mid 1700s and our own era, characters in each time sharing the same landscape, and signs slipping between the two.  In the earlier time, Jack finds the meanings in the landscape by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms (the ‘corbel bread’ in the quote above) and ritual, while in the later time a woman whose mind and body are deteriorating through illness walks with her friend, using both her rational knowledge and spiritual sense to commune with the stones and caves around her. Both narratives are powerful and moving, and the combination allows the reader to experience Thursbitch the place, life and death in a way that transcends era.

With both the language and the content, Garner cuts the reader no slack. His writing is always taut and it is particularly so here, and you have to work to get to grips with a world of beliefs expressed in unfamiliar words and patterns. I found I had some advantage through having spent so much time reading about folklore recently. When a character mentioned ‘Old Bouchert’ I knew he meant a hare, but only because of the strange coincidence that I had just been reading an Old English poem listing 77 names for a hare! When the people of Thursbitch built a fire of branches and bones, I knew this was the origin of our bonfires (bone fires) and that driving cattle through it was not for fun or to hurt them but to keep them safe. This book is full of folklore, and while I recognised much of it, much was also new and strange. Whatever your knowledge or ignorance of such things, it makes for an eerie world that is also appealing on some deep, instinctive level. 

The unfamiliar language, beliefs and habits in Thursbitch can make it a challenging read but it is all the more engrossing for the concentration it requires. The worlds of the book would be unique even if written about more straightforwardly, but the style is working as hard as the content in creating something unlike anything else, and plunges us more directly into this other world. Such distinctive modes of expression also create a dreamlike lens, such that you are often not quite sure what you are seeing. This only contributes to the sense that you area peering through time as through a snowstorm, with all the distortion and beauty that brings.

The story of how Alan Garner came to write Thursbitch is told in his lecture 'The Valley of the Demon', which is available to read here. The fact that elements of this story sat in his mind for so many years before he wrote it perhaps explains the intensity and depth of feeling in the novel.

In 2014 I will be working my way through Garner’s Collected Folk Tales and hoping to absorb some more of his magical knowledge and powerful way with words.

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