Alan Garner is a leading children’s writer, very well known amongst readers of a certain age (i.e. mine), very probably because (like me) they first encountered him at school and then moved on to tackle his complex and intriguing books at home. We read The Owl Service in my first or second year at secondary school; that (and the BBC TV version) made a lasting impression. As an adult, I returned to the books, and found much more wisdom and learning than I had appreciated aged thirteen or fourteen. Despite the passing of the years, I still suffer the acute claustrophobic horror I felt as a boy whenever I reread the episode in which characters crawl through tiny underground passages in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Garner has studied his folklore thoroughly: not just English, but Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Norse too. They are woven together into stories aimed at children but offering them sombre and thoughtful messages. What makes the stories so compelling, I think, is that they are clearly woven into the real British landscape. Elidor takes place in and around 1960s Manchester; the Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath are intimately located around Alderley Edge in Cheshire and the books even include little maps (just like Tolkien’s) so that you can trace the children’s adventures across the landscape, from feature to feature. Even the title of Elidor, seems to be taken from the Welsh story of Elidyr, who visited faeryland as a boy.
Let’s begin with a few more of those borrowed names. Amongst the blizzard of strangely named characters and creatures we hear of in the stories, there are:
- Ymir, originally a primaeval giant in the Norse Edda. Another of his names is Aurgelmir, which Garner also uses, in the form ‘Orgelmir’;
- Brisingamen is a golden necklace owned by the goddess Freja;
- Alfar- these fairy folk are the elves of Norse myth, just as the Huldrafolk, also mentioned in the Weirdstone, are a modern Scandinavian term for the fairies, the ‘hidden folk.’ Garner has a complex and intriguing set of theories concerning the elves. They are warriors, just like Tolkien’s, but they are being driven out of Britain by human pollution, which makes them physically ill and waste away;
- Morrigan, an evil witch in the two stories, her name is taken from Irish myth in which she is the ‘Great Queen’ and goddess of war;
- Cadellin Silver-Brow is one of the main characters in the stories, a wizard who guards the sleeping knights in a cavern beneath Alderley Edge. Of course, the idea of a sleeping monarch and of an underground realm are deeply interwoven in British myth, making this element even more resonant to readers. Cadellin’s name is lifted straight out of the story of Culhwch and Olwen in the medieval Welsh epic The Mabinogion. In this text, Cadellin is merely mentioned in passing as being the father of Gweir, someone who himself is just part of a very long list of men invoked by Culhwch before King Arthur. From the same list of names Garner also borrowed Kelemon daughter of Kei, whom he makes Celemon, leader of a band of celestial riders in The Moon of Gomrath;
- Atlendor is another name found in this list, and is used by Garner for the King of the Elves;
- Osla (also called Big Knife) is a character in two of the books in The Mabinogion;
- Lodur, a Norse god and Frimla, a goddess;
- Fimbulwinter is a storm sent to slow down the heroes of Weirdstone in their quest; it is derived from the mythical Norse Fimbulvetr, which is the ‘great winter’ that precedes Ragnarok and the end of the world;
- Grimnir, the ‘masked one’ of the Edda;
- Nástrond is Garner’s spirit of darkness. It means ‘corpse strand’ in Old Norse and is the place where the serpent Nidhug chews on the dead- this name is also borrowed by Garner;
- Angharad Golden Hand, a goddess/ fairy queen borrowed from the medieval Welsh Mabinogion. In fact, the Owl Service is almost entirely constructed around the Mabinogion story of ‘Math, son of Mathonwy;’ and,
- Uthecar is an Irish name lifted by the author from the Cattle Raid of Cooley; and,
- Durathor is the adapted name of the four harts that graze at the base of the tree Yggdrasil. These were originally called Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Durathrór; you may notice that someone else has already borrowed the second of these names…
Garner tells us in his concluding ‘Note’ to the Moon of Gomrath that he took many or most of his names from traditional sources, rather than invent them, so that others such as Albanac are probably all to be found somewhere. There was a real William de Albanac connected to the Arthurian legends, who might be Garner’s source.
A variety of place names used by Garner are also derived from ancient British sources. These include:
- Logris– this is England, the Logres of Arthurian tradition, coming from the Welsh Lloegr;
- Prydein is Britain, the original British word being borrowed and mispronounced by the Romans to give us Britannica;
- Sinadon, is the Anglo-Saxon for Snowden;
- Minith Bannawg, these are the Grampian Mountains- mynydd being the Welsh for mountain;
- Dinsel is Cornwall;
- Talebolion, is Ynys Mon or Anglesey; and,
- Caer Rigor is mentioned in Gomrath; this place is lifted from the ancient Welsh poem Preiddau Annwn, ‘The Spoils of Britain,’ and it is one of several magical and mysterious castles or fairy palaces along with Caer Sidi. The name means ‘Fort of Numbness.’
Garner’s stories are rich with authentic fairy-lore (albeit shaped to his purposes). There are the light and dark elves of the Norse poems and the herb mothan that is picked by moonlight on “the old straight track” (that is, along one of Alfred Watkins’ ley lines). The plant is an authentic Highland Gaelic cure for faery harm, especially for cattle that have been struck by elf-bolts.
Lastly, two important creatures from British fairy-lore perform significant roles in the two books. The first of these, in Weirdstone, is the fynoderee. This fairy being is simply the Isle of Man version of the brownie or hobgoblin. They live near farms on the island but during the daytime keep out of sight in woods and glens.
The fynoderee is a typical hob. Bigger and broader that a man, he’s very hairy and clumsy but he is a great worker and immensely strong. The fynoderee will labour tirelessly threshing grain overnight, gathering in hay before a storm or rounding up sheep during a blizzard, but like many of his kind, he’s a bit dim, is sensitive to criticism and will reject human clothes if they’re offered.
Secondly, in the Moon of Gomrath, we meet with the terrifying shapeshifter, the brollachan. This monster of Scottish Highland tradition has eyes and a mouth, but otherwise it is simply a dark mass. Because it lacks any definite form, it will try to possess animals and steal their bodies for a while. A creature taken over by the brollachan will darken and have red eyes but it will soon wither and die and the possessor will need to move on. In line with its reputation, the monstrous brollachan almost kills Susan in an effort to destroy her magical powers.
The related bodach also appears, as a sort of armed goblin. Garner has made them even more fearsome than their folklore source. The bodach is the Scottish equivalent of the English bugbear and performs the same functions. They are consistently seen in the vicinity of places where children would be at risk: for example, the bodach an smeididh, ‘the beckoner,’ tries to lure the unwise and the unwary into danger. The corra-loigein looks in at windows at night, scaring children and trying to steal them away. This bodach can only enter a house if it is invited inside in some way; parents therefore stress how important it is for children to be very quiet after dark.
In 2012 Garner released ‘Boneland.’ He has always refused to write a third story in the Weirdstone/ Gomrath series, but Boneland was something of a continuation- although it is very far from being a children’s story like its predecessors- nor does it offer much salvation or hope to its readers.
Colin is found as an adult- and alone. Susan has disappeared- apparently dead. Given the events in Moon of Gomrath, in which she rode with Celemon and the spirit riders, and was, seemingly, increasingly distanced from her brother, I think we have to assume that, since the end of Gomrath, she has departed to be with the magical people of the otherworld. Susan’s contact with the supernatural, and her dawning awareness of her powers, left her dissatisfied and unsettled (what I have called ‘elf-addled‘ in other postings). Like others who have tasted life in another dimension, the mortal life no longer feels like home and (I assume) she has returned to live with the ‘fairies.’
As I mentioned, Garner is hardly alone in borrowing names and ideas from British and European legend; Tolkien did exactly the same. Why I prefer garner myself is the fact that his stories are located in a real landscape. I know that I could, if I wished, get a train and within half a day be in Cheshire, walking on Alderley Edge and seeing the very locations where Colin and Susan had their adventures. Because, too, the books date to my own schooldays, I can identify even more closely with their particular vision of a still post-war England. Elidor is partly set in the uncleared bombsites and slums of inner Manchester, for example.
Anyway, the books are plentifully and cheaply available online. If you do have a read, I hope you enjoy them.