All Over The Map (jemck) wrote in writefantastic,
All Over The Map
jemck
writefantastic

Alan Garner at the Cheltenham Literary Festival

I firmly believe that the best way to learn about writing is to hear writers talk. You never know what you’re going to learn but you will always come away with something. If they’re writers whose books made a huge impact on you at an early age, so much the better. So when a pal suggested we go to hear Alan Garner a few weeks ago, I agreed instantly. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is one of those books I cherish. Though he wasn’t talking about that, not directly, but about The Stone Book Quartet, now out in paperback. The talk was extremely discursive so I shan’t attempt to cover a tenth of it here. If you ever get a chance to hear him, I urge you to go.

He introduced the hour as a meander through time and space, notably a great deal of time in a very small space, notably the part of Cheshire around Alderley Edge where he and his family have lived for generations. There’s a local phrase, specifically referring back to his grandfather; ‘that was new when Joe Garner was a lad’. Historical photos exist, like the one of the nineteenth-century Temperance Band, where Alan Garner knows he’s related to fifteen out of the twenty four members. (Incidentally, I did like the detail that the Temperance Band would play solemnly in chapel on Sundays – and then be “The Fizzers” for the rest of the week, going around the farms and playing for beer money.) The family line traces back to a William Garner de Hough who died in 1592 and doubtless goes back beyond that.

When Alan Garner’s own child was born prematurely, quite by chance he met a cousin who worked at the hospital at the time, who gave him an old family photograph. The Stone Book Quartet grew out of Alan Garner’s determination that the people in that picture must not die by being forgotten. He explained how this story ultimately arrived in his imagination like something precipitating out of a supersaturated solution. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better way of putting that moment when half-developed ideas, seemingly unrelated thoughts and things a writer didn’t even realise he or she knew, come together.

More eerily, when his father read the book, the old man asked how Alan had known about certain family secrets and even family skeletons. Alan hadn’t, as far as he was aware. Incidents his father cited were where he’d been using his novelist’s imagination, like giving of a great-uncle dying in the trenches of World War One a few last thoughts of home. Only one of the lad’s companions had come to visit the family and that turned out to be what they’d been talking about, in the instant before the bullet killed him.

Alan talked of childhood visits to his grandfather; of the way silence was as much a part of conversations as words, and how he absorbed knowledge of local family, history and legend by osmosis. How for him, family became something between linear time and a time beyond history, a universality. As he grew older, he realised that local stories attributed to a stone-cutting great-great grandfather couldn’t possibly be quite true. Later, he learned that this is a feature of folk-myth, where significant local features and stories are successively tied to real figures on the upper limit of local living memory. So to question the truth of such a story is to completely miss the point.

Which brings us to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the myth that lies as the heart of that book. It’s that old legend, told in so many places, of sleepers under a hill, in this case knights in armour with their horses, waiting for England’s hour of greatest need. Only they are one horse short and on a fateful night a farmer coming home from market is offered untold wealth by a wizard, as payment for his milk-white mare.

As he grew older, Alan Garner began to wonder about anomalies in the Cheshire version, notably the very specific route always given to the entrance to the hidden cave. Which makes very little sense for anyone local trying to get there quickly from the road. Years later, he discovered that the route traces ancient parish boundaries that are in turn tied to older earthworks and megaliths. Recent archaeology has confirmed Alan Garner’s belief that this local legend reaches back to prehistory. These places have been identified as significant elements of the Bronze Age mines of Alderley Edge, reckoned to be the earliest in Europe.

Then there’s the milk-white mare. He’d always wondered how whoever had organised this elaborate set-up made the obvious logistical cock-up of being one horse short. And why a mare? He’d learned that mares were simply not taken into battle. Then he read Giraldus Cambrensis’ story of pagan kingship ceremonies where the claimant engaged in ritual sex with a white mare which would then be sacrificed. The boiled meat would be served to the king and his chosen companions and he would bathe in the broth. Again, archaeology has turned up rock art in Scandinavia indicating just such a ritual. So just as Alan Garner’s DNA has come down through his family line, so the stories he heard from his forebears have carried timeless fragments through oral tradition.

So I’ve had my belief strengthened that the boundaries between myth, history and fantasy are largely illusory. As someone who’s moved around a great deal and thus has no sense of roots anywhere, I’ve gained unlooked-for insight into what it means to have such long-established ties to a place that is both timeless and yet always changing. I can already see how this, and much else that Alan Garner said, is going to enrich my vision as a writer.
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