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The Weirdstone of Brisingamen Paperback – 19 Nov 2010
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About the Author
Alan Garner was born and still lives in Cheshire, an area which has had a profound effect on his writing and provided the seed of many ideas worked out in his books.
His fourth book, ‘The Owl Service’ brought Alan Garner to everyone’s attention. It won two important literary prizes – The Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal – and was made into a serial by Granada Television. It has established itself as a classic and Alan Garner as a writer of great distinction.
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Given, the novel does have a strong sense of place and Garner displays deep knowledge of folklore and myths which sees magical creatures, wizards and witches woven seamlessly into the rural environs of an English village in Cheshire. The two children at the heart of the novel, Susan and Colin, are on a quest to restore the titular stone to its rightful place in the dwarf caves of Fundindelve, under the care of the wizard Cadellin, failing which great evil is prophesied to triumph over the good and the world would be in peril.
Well and good enough, except that for the most part of the book, the characters were in flight from svarts (some sort of goblin). There is a huge chunk where the children are stuck in the caves and they literally have to wiggle out of the impossibly claustrophobic confines of a never ending labyrinth, aided by a pair of noble dwarves Fenodyree and Durathror, their names (and characters) with strong mythological roots. While Garner must be praised for the very strong detail of their journey, it just went on and on. The latter part of the novel was more of the same but above ground, before the huge battle which was surprisingly uneventful, given the build up in their journey, though there was a startling revelation. There is a sequel and a third book that was only released in 2011, featuring an adult Colin many years after this book, but it may be some time before I would be tempted to pick up the story again. Perhaps I should revisit “The Owl Service” and see what it was that moved me that much more than this book.
Even for 1960, this expectation feels harsh, and adults throughout the story are not to be trusted. A local businessman turns out to be an evil warlock (and an inefficient one at that), while a woman who lives in one of the local manors is a shape-shifting witch.
There is a subtle comment on class in these depictions, much of it tied to environment. The elves, for example, have been driven from the land not by orcs but by toxic industry of the kind the warlock businessman is presumably engaged in. Even kindly farmer Gowther and his wife, Bess, who are the relatives Colin and Susan stay with, are unable to defend the children when they are caught up in a power grab orchestrated by lower-level entities like the terrifying wizard Grimnir against their master, the evil Nastrond.
The titular weirdstone is key to these machinations. In another example of adult ineffectiveness, the stone has been left with Susan by her mother, who has no idea of its power and relevance. Colin and Susan are left to stumble into a trap laid by a race of devious goblins called the svart-afar (the novel is full of inventive, resonant names like this) and only just manage to escape. The children are then pursued across a beautifully etched, but often threatening Cheshire landscape in a series of journeys that do not let up in intensity.
Fortunately, Colin and Susan have other helpers: the wizard Cadellin and two dwarves. Cadellin has guarded a sleeping army beneath the hill of Alderley in preparation for the final stand against Nastrond; an image that emphasises the timeless quality of the land and the mythical nature of the characters.
Indeed, a significant part of appeal of this novel is its detailed local geography. It is still evergreen all these years after it was written, as if the book is itself a mythical being. However, the scale is local rather than epic; when the bewildered but decent and resourceful Gowther joins the children and the dwarves, it is his knowledge of life in Macclesfield as much as any supernatural resource that guides them back to Cadellin.
The children themselves are no helpless victims either, with Susan as brave and resourceful as her older brother. There are some powerful sequences in the book, particularly a claustrophobic pursuit through a network of flooded potholes, that has the reader needing to pause for breath. Later fantasy stories for children, such as the Harry Potter series, further explored the resourcefulness engendered by abandonment via bravura sequences of dizzyingly inventive fantasy; ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ was there first.