Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Alan Garner, caught in the middle

I've been pondering Alan Garner ever since Farah Mendlesohn told me at MLA that he didn't fit into my media schema (namely, that the Oxford School seeks to reproduce medieval media environments). The work she cited was The Stone Book Quartet, a late work that I still haven't managed to lay my hands on, although I already have some theories about it (surprise, they're related to Philip Pullman).

But the works I've read by Alan Garner are The Owl Service and Elidor, both from the 60s, and the first thing to say about those particular works (of course!) is that they do fit right into my schema; the book is the land and the land is the book. Yes, the paper copy of the Mabinogion rips apart and flutters into the breeze, but that's because the children are living it. What is this but the sign-as-emanation-of-reality?

But what really stands out to me about Alan Garner's work is that the cuddly, discursive narrative voice and the loving world-building that one is used to encountering in Oxford School works is simply not there. The style of these books is telegraphic and abrupt; when Roland keeps insisting that the fate of Elidor is the most important thing there is, we're nearly on the side of Nick, who rejects Elidor, even though we know we're not supposed to be. We know almost nothing about Elidor; unlike in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which we are made to see that Lucy has indisputably stumbled on a wonderland, the style of Garner's writing insists on the fragmentary, uncertain way in which Roland perceives Elidor, and even suggests that Elidor can be seen in no other way.

     "He knelt, his head on his
     forearm, looking at the quartz:
     white: cold: hard: clean.
     ----But a stain was growing
     over it: his shadow, blacker
     and blacker. The light was
     changing." (36)

When the children go to Elidor, it's shrouded in darkness, and it's really in no way clear what's supposed to be interesting or nice about it, or why anyone should want to save a nasty place like that. Most things are left unexplained -- for instance, we never understand who the enemy is, only that they must be stopped. In The Owl Service, the problem is that there is no enemy -- only multiple rounds of human failing (that must be stopped!). Motivations and meanings -- why is Elidor dark? who made it so? who is Malebron? why should the Song of Findhorn save Elidor? -- are subsumed by structures of organization: Elidor is dark, so whoever made it so must be defeated, etc. Character, too, is subsumed by roles; "Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came," as the epigraph puts it; who cares why?

The epigraph is, to me, emblematic of Garner's positioning within the Oxford School, because I think that, like Philip Pullman after him, he really is looking to counter the medievalized episteme of the 1950s Oxford School with a modernity that favors the book of nature over the books of men -- for this reason, he quotes King Lear, but elides both the source of the reference, the medieval Chanson de Roland, and its nineteenth century descendant, the Robert Browning poem (even though the protagonist's name is spelled "Roland" and not "Rowland" as quoted in the epigraph). If Garner wants to insist on an embodied and non-symbolic relationship to the land, chronicling Roland's direct if imperfect perception of Elidor rather than a reconstructed, synthetic vision thereof, the logic of the narrative is nonetheless imported from medieval romance.

These are interesting and atypical books.


thursbitch said...


skg046 said...

As prior comment says.... (hmm.)

Also, v. interesting post--I hadn't thought of Owl Service or Weirdstone as children's books. Their feature-set is compatible with children's lit and they feature young people, but they don't have some of the directedness I'm used to seeing. (I can't articulate this well.) Even Elidor felt less decisively kid-aimed than, say, Diane Duane's A Wizard Abroad, which also employs the Four Treasures. It's been awhile since I read these, though.

I found Strandloper difficult but can recommend Thursbitch unreservedly. The latter is probably the better foil for Owl Service re: your comments here, anyway, since Strandloper goes to Australia. I think the recently reprinted Red Shift might complicate things usefully, too; it does feel like a book for teens, to me, but ambitious little teen!skg would've found it hard going.

If you do read more Garner at all :) there's also a book of essays, The Voice That Thunders. Doe has it, or did.

skg046 said...

Oh--and Stone Book, at least, can be had via ILL. *looks innocent*

Natalia said...

Hah! Obviously I shouldn't blog about Garner while thinking about Lewis.

I agree; these books don't have the feel of children's lit; they're paratactic and abrupt. But I did read The Owl Service as a child (but missed all the class conflict!), and BPL's juvenile section was my source for these two recently.

thursbitch said...

I suggest you spend time here: