‘Treacle Walker’ by Alan Garner

I’ve discussed previously the rich folklore and mythological foundations of the writing of Alan Garner. I received a copy of his latest book, Treacle Walker, for Christmas and have just finished it.

Treacle Walker is another strange tale that is deeply embedded in the legends and magic of the British past. A boy called Joe is visited by a rag and bone man, Walker. He swaps some old pyjamas for an old vase and a stone. Both turn out to have mysterious properties. The stone (a ‘donkey stone’) can keep evil entities out of a house. The pot contains the remnants of some green-violet ointment; Joe touches a little of this by accident to an eye and acquires what Walker calls “the glamourie“- he can see things that are otherwise invisible. Through the power of the second sight he has acquired, Joe meets a strange character who lives in the boggy land at the foot of the hill below the farm where the boy lives. This being, called Thin Amren, sleep submerged beneath the marshy water.

Walker starts to visit Joe. He produces a bone pipe from his magical pouch (called his Corr Bolg, a term from Irish myth meaning ‘Crane Bag’) and plays a tune “with wings, trampling things, tightened strings, boggarts and bogles and brags on their feet; the man in the oak, sickness and fever…” When Joe tries to play it, it produces a note like a cuckoo’s call.

Joe asks Walker where he’s from. He tells Joe that he comes from “the Country of the Summer Stars,” although he concedes that “Here on this Middle-Yard is good moundland enough.” What he means by this becomes clear a little later, when Joe follows what he thinks are the tracks of the rag and bone cart, which lead him to a grassy hillock. Sitting on it in moonlight, he hears the bone pipe playing under the mound beneath him.

Everything eventually comes to a dramatic climax involving Thin Amren and a giant, fearsome Cuckoo. At the conclusion, Joe takes over Walker’s role as the mysterious rag and bone man.

The book is dense with references to faerylore and myth which are not expanded upon in the text. Regular readers will be very familiar with the green faery ointment which can bestow the second sight on humans, thereby dispelling faery glamour. Highly evocative is that music that can stir bogles to dancing. Some may recall that the cuckoo has faery connections that we no longer fully understand. As for Walker’s home under a mound– you will know too how often faeries live in hollow hills. His mention of the ‘Middle Yard’ derives from Middle English ‘middle geard‘ and means, simply, Middle Earth, this world in which we live now. Walker meanwhile, echoes Taliesin in the Song of Taliesin: “my original country is the region of the summer stars.” The links between the stars and the tylwyth teg are another allusive aspect of British faerylore.

Treacle Walker is a very short book- only 150 pages long- and features only a handful of characters. Its plot and structure are therefore nowhere near as complex as other books by Garner I’ve discussed, but I’m sure it will repay multiple reads.

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