Alan Garner OBE: the modern Tolkien?

Today I’m going to be talking about Alan Garner OBE – the writer, not actor (I know this might sound like stating the obvious but there was a previous confusion over this!).

Last week we looked at Garner’s work as part of our module on British Children’s Literature from 1960 onwards. Although I was familiar with the titles of many of Garner’s books, I never had actually read any of them as I understood they were rooted in fantasy and, I must admit, it’s not my favourite genre. However, I had read The Hobbit recently and enjoyed it so I felt that I should go into this with an open mind.

And I am glad I did!

The required reading was:

  • The Owl Service (1967) – a semi-mythical story based on the Welsh tale of the Mabinogion
  • Elidor (1965) – a semi-fantasy story mainly rooted in the (then) present day but with references to a fantasy world
  • The Stone Book Quartet (1979) – a quartet of semi-autobiographical stories recording the lives of four generations of a Cheshire family, based on Garner’s own ancestors

You may have noticed there’s an abundance of ‘semis’ in there. This is because Garner’s works seem to rest precariously between two worlds, and often the difference between them is tenuous and fluid. Garner seems averse to setting his stories in one place or another and that perhaps reflects his authorial purpose.

It’s a myth! (Or is it?)

While Garner’s stories are often rooted in myth, they are quite different to writers like Tolkien and CS Lewis in that Garner prefers to situate the action in the real world. While Tolkien immediately introduces us to the fantasy world of Middle Earth and continues in that setting, and CS Lewis takes his ‘real-world’ children and throws them into the fantastical, Garner appears to do the opposite, bringing the  unreal into the real.

Why would he do this?

Well, apart from being different, which is always nice as an author, it does create an effective atmosphere for his reader. It feels disturbing almost to find the fantastical intruding on everyday life – there is no escape for the protagonists in their own world. They can’t escape through a wardrobe into the familiar because the mythical follows them. This is particularly the case in Elidor, where the four children, having witnessed the mythical land of the book’s name, and carried mementos back into the present with them, are sought out by villains to prevent them from helping the people of Elidor to attain their freedom and happiness. Even a unicorn makes an appearance amongst the derelict streets of Manchester, and the novel’s young hero Roland must try to achieve his mission in these circumstances, not in another ‘world’.

In The Owl Service, the three main protagonists – Gwyn, Alison and Roger – reenact (in a way) the actions of the doomed mythical lovers from the Celtic story of the Mabinogion: Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Gronw Pebyr and Bloddeuwedd after Alison discovers a dinner service with an owl motif on it. Their relationships become increasingly strained as each seems to be pulled into their corresponding Celtic characters’ personalities.

Our course notes have indicated that Garner’s style in these sort of books is akin to magic realism, often associated with South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and which David Lodge describes as:

‘When marvellous and impossible events occur in what otherwise purports to be a realistic narrative.’ (Lodge, ‘The Art of Fiction’, 1992)

While I can see this, I don’t really think it is similar to the South American writers I have read, in that the magic realism is so fantastical that you know something weird is about to happen, or is happening. Garner, on the other hand, blends it so deftly that the reader is often left puzzling what is real and what is fantasy. Equally, sometimes the distinction between characters is hazy so you’re never really sure if it’s the ‘real-world’ character acting or their mythical counterpart. I think our tutor’s suggested term is perhaps more appropriate in Garner’s case: ‘fantastic realism’. (Waller, ‘Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism’, 2008) In The Owl Service, events such as the patterns suddenly disappearing from the dinner plates and counting rats could be examples of this.

Say what?

Another distinguishing feature of Garner’s work is his use of dialogue and/or dialect to ground his reader in the real world before he can then sweep the rug out from under them with the invading fantasy. The Owl Service is quite unusual in being mainly written in dialogue – there is narrative too but a large proportion of the book occurs through conversation. Apparently Garner learned Welsh precisely so he could avoid using it but he still frames the dialogue of his Welsh characters and differentiates them from the wealthier family members.

The story is set in a holiday home/second home in Wales where Alison is staying with her mother and her stepfather and stepbrother – Roger. Gwyn and his mother are the servants in the house and this is where the tensions start rising. Gwyn’s mother Nancy is bitter about serving in the house and the reality of ‘reverse snobbery’ is alive and kicking. Her son Gwyn is determined to better himself and while he does his job well, he is also working hard at grammar school and, we discover, listening to elocution records to change the way he speaks. This not only highlights the difference between the Welsh ‘servants’ and their wealthy, English upper-class employers, but also between Gwyn and his mother, who wants him to not get above his station.

Similarly Alison’s interest in Gwyn is a cause of consternation to her mother Margaret, who is horrified with her mixing with a Welsh servant. Alison seems tempted to ignore her mother but the lure of tennis clubs and the trappings of a more privileged existence proves too much. All this is conveyed through the tense dialogue which succeeds in creating a convincing picture of the battles going on under that one roof.

Elidor similarly contains a lot of dialogue, mainly between the four sibling characters. The dialogue establishes the age hierarchy and Garner reverses this so that the youngest character – Roland – is the one who holds the power to Elidor’s future despite his eldest brother Nicholas’ attempts to warn him that ‘it is wrong to meddle’. The wrongness lies in Roland’s increasingly worrying obsession which threatens to take him over completely and perhaps this is Garner’s message: that we should not get involved with wars that are not our own? Or at least know when to step back? This is seen in leaders who blindly go into conflicts and dragging others into their mistakes and not knowing when to admit defeat. The sticking point is that while Nicholas appears to be the voice of reason, Roland is the more sympathetic character, who is desperate to remain true to his beliefs. Our course notes suggest that this is a case where DH Lawrence’s advice to ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale’ is relevant.

Reflecting reality: The Owl Service’s spooky story of inspiration

The inspiration behind the writing of The Owl Service deserves a special mention, I believe, because it’s a story in itself, and a ghost story at that. It’s a story of a labour of love but one where the ratio of researching to writing was very disproportionate! Apparently Garner spent four years pulling the story together but only 12 weeks writing it because, it seems, everything fell so neatly into place. The history goes roughly like this:

– Garner reads the Mabinogion: A man called Lleu marries Blodeuwedd, who was made from him from flowers. She, however, falls in love with Gronw Pebr and they murder Lleu. Magically, he is brought back to life and kills Gronw by throwing a spear so hard that it goes through the rock behind which Gronw is hiding. The rock becomes known as the Stone of Gronw (and remains so to this day). Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl for her part in the murderous plot. You can read more about it here:

– The legend stays with Garner for a few years, until his mother in law showed him an old dinner service whose unique pattern reminded her of an owl. His wife traced the pattern and was able to make an owl’s head, body and wings from it (just as Alison does in the book).

– Garner links the two together but still doesn’t write anything till he stays in a remote house in North Wales. He knows immediately that this must be the setting for his book and is helped with this realisation when an owl’s feathers brush his face as he stands in the doorway!

– Additionally Garner makes friends with 81-year-old Dafydd Rees who is the caretaker and gardener of the house. He tells Garner legends about the place, particularly one about a Native American Indian who killed a man hiding behind a stone with his bow and arrow.

– Rees also scratched the name ‘Blodeuwedd’ into a piece of slate before throwing it into the river. Garner had never mentioned the name to him before.

What the others say

Garner’s writing speaks for itself in terms of its quality and inventiveness but it never hurts to share a few famous fans’ opinions.

– Philip Pullman describes him as ‘…the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien’

– Neil Gaiman calls him a national treasure: ‘He was, I suspect, the first person to write what we would describe now as urban fantasies’.

And what about you? How would you describe Garner’s style and influence? What books have you read and what are your thoughts?


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