BOOK REVIEW: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – 50th anniversary edition by Alan Garner

It never fails to amaze me how some scenes from a book stay with you. The one thing that has always remained in my head, from when I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen all those many years ago, is the episode where Colin and Susan, along with Fenodyree and Durathror the dwarfs, are compelled to escape their enemies through the twisting and flooded subterranean tunnels and the narrow, claustrophobic crawlspaces leading from the West Mine to Earldelving, under the hills of Cheshire. With just ‘mere’ words, Alan Garner brought home to me the full terror of being squeezed tightly between the crushing weight of millions of tons of rock above and trillions more beneath. However, in truth I can’t credit this children’s classic (this year celebrating its 50thanniversary) from instilling in me a fear of enclosed spaces or discouraged me from taking up potholing as a pursuit, but it certainly didn’t help either. (I have a healthy dislike of both, in point of fact)

Even now, three and a half decades on, that particular chapter (Chapter 14, The Earldelving) still has the power to send ice-cold shivers of fear through me. It isn’t any wonder, then, that this book, first published in 1960, has continued to be in print from that time to this. Neither is it any wonder to see why it has become such a classic of children’s literature, beloved of both young and old alike.

Colin and Susan are sent to stay with Gowther and Bess Mossock in Highmost Redmanhey (near Alderley Edge) by their parents, who have moved abroad for six months as part of the children’s father’s job. Hardly have they settled in when they’re drawn into the action and suddenly they’re being hunted by creatures of myth and local legend, who are all interested in an heirloom that Susan’s mother passed on to her. The wizard Cadellin Silverbrow, another figure emerging out of the folklore of the Edge and the guardian of Fundindelve (the refuge of fabled knights beneath the hills), is also interested, but for entirely different, and considerably less malign, reasons. From the moment the true nature of Susan’s heirloom is revealed, the fate of not only the children and the Edge, but of the world itself, hangs delicately in the balance.

There’s no doubting why it’s become an enduring classic, although I venture that it’s had to live under the shadow of Tolkien’s better known Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, even so. Certainly the latter two set the tone and also laid down the template for future fantasy literature, and here Garner successfully utilises both tone and template to bring us a rollicking adventure, peopled with unforgettable characters, like the aforementioned Durathror (the dwarven warrior with courage many times his size), Gowther and Bess (the plain-speaking, no-nonsense farmer and his wife, whose family have lived in the Edge for generations), the darkly brooding figures of Grimnir, the Morrigan and Nastrond (the erstwhile adversaries), and the hulking troll-wives the Mara. Interestingly, however, I found the children’s characters (and Cadellin’s as well, to a certain extent) to be fairly bland and unremarkable, presumably because this helps the readership at which the book is aimed strongly identify with them, maybe.

The real star of this book, however, is the landscape in which it is set. The places mentioned are all real locations, as far as I am aware. Garner himself (who provides an introduction to the story in the limited hardback edition – not reviewed here) still lives in Alderley Edge, and that familiarity with his home comes across strongly throughout the book. It’s a living, breathing and constantly-worked landscape, home to, and farmed for, countless generations, and, as described so poetically here, possesses a solid, ages-old familiarity about it. However, beneath the surface (both metaphorically and literally) lie noisome cankers and grimly unwholesome presences, whose only joy is to bring darkness and death to the world of light above. The underworld places are dark and oppressive, inhabited by things that would do us harm; the wide open spaces are too exposed, and ever under the watchful eye of creatures with malice on their minds. It is into this dangerous world that the children are plunged, and we are pulled headlong with them.

On top of that, it’s a cracker of a story, too – the pace, especially in the last two thirds, is often frantically heart-stopping and breathless. Unconsciously, you always find yourselves willing the party on ( Susan, Colin, Fenodyree, Durathror and Gowther), willing them to achieve their goal of the summit of the hill of Shuttlingslow. Their battles with both otherworldly creatures and eldritch weather are keenly felt and envisioned, and there were many times when my heart-rate quickened considerably, not knowing whether they were heading into danger or safety. The hook is there from the very beginning, and it reels us in inexorably and with assured certainty.

Just like Philip Pullman’s magisterial His Dark Materials trilogy, or the runaway success of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has a primal power contained within it, a power that appeals to and resonates with some ancient part of us. Plus, there’s an utter timelessness that envelops it, despite the fact it was written fifty years ago and is ostensibly set in a world and time long gone now. However, for all the supposed sophistication of the 21st century, there still dwells within us an ancestral memory of the times when the world around us was full of unknown and inexplicable terrors. In later years those terrors were personified in the plethora of gods and monsters we invented to explain why things were as we saw them. Garner describes a world that is at once wholly outside our experience and yet we can still indentify intuitively with it, and it has the power to terrify us. And, more to the point, this book has been doing that for half a century – this reviewer sincerely hopes it’ll continue to do so for another fifty years.

This review originally appeared on Bookgeeks.

—()—

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: September 2nd 2010

ISBN:  978-0-00-735521-1

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One Response to “BOOK REVIEW: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – 50th anniversary edition by Alan Garner”

  1. This book together with The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor were extremely influential on me from an early age. So much so, that as soon as I was a grown-up and had a car I insisted on driving to the area where the books were set to see the places for myself.

    I am pleased to say that the atmosphere was just as described and it didn’t burst my fantasy bubble at all – which goes to show what a great writer Alan Garner is. I was watching out for the Morrigan all the time I was there and I’ve never been able to look a crow in the eye since ;P

    Great review Simon

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