Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Garner, Alan

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(1934-    ) UK writer. Like William Mayne he has a reputation, not wholly unearned, for difficulty, for both address the full range of human concerns, and any simplicity in their strategies for doing so is deceptive. AG published some adolescent stories – beginning with "The Obelisk" for Ulula in 1952 – but began his career proper with the Alderley Edge sequence: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley (1960; vt The Weirdstone: A Tale of Alderley 1961 US: rev 1963 UK) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963). These two novels, along with his third, Elidor (1965), are his most explicit fantasies; and his whole career can be viewed as a progression (or departure) from fantasy into works which treat the "mundane" world with mythic intensity, burrowing more and more deeply into the numinousness of that world. The Crosshatch structure of his fantasy work becomes, in his later tales, a pattern intricately tied to things of the Earth. As an author of original fiction, AG has fallen silent since about 1980, almost as though he himself had become so bound into the world that no new story could escape. At the same time that world does, clearly, for AG, constitute the kind of sacred drama propounded by Mircea Eliade, who has influenced his work; and his silence may not be a result of philosophy.

But the Alderley Edge books are unfettered by any premonitions of this fate. In the first, young Colin and Susan arrive for the summer at Alderley Edge, a region of Cheshire where AG has lived much of his life and where much of his subsequent nonfantasy work has been set. Inspired by a local legend, they search for and find the "Iron Gates" to an Underworld region where 140 Knights (see Sleeper Under the Hill) must be prevented from awakening prematurely. Echoes of Nordic Fantasy, Welsh-tinged Celtic Fantasy and the Arthurian cycle (see Arthur) in particular are omnipresent. There is also a sense – which comes to the fore in later novels – that Time is a Cycle, that all times either co-exist or that an eternal return confronts epochs and Doubles, Underliers and Avatars with one another, constantly.

In the first novel, Colin and Susan, under the management of the Merlin-like Wizard whose task it has been to act as Guardian over the sleepers, lose the eponymous Talisman to Grimnir, the wizard's dark double who, unable to master the talisman, takes it to a Witch – who also fails; from the wreckage of her spells the children recover the jewel, and the sleepers continue to sleep. In the second they are taxed far more severely; each undergoes Night Journeys that double one another, and their mutual Rite of Passage into adulthood carries them also into a condition of estrangement with the world. First Susan is possessed (see Possession) by a Brollachan, an evil spirit associated with sexual matters, and then Colin, in the process of exorcising her, permits the Wild Hunt access to the world. By the end – as though these invaders had been in fact Mythagoes representing their needs and natures – they cannot return to normality.

The eponymous Secondary World featured in AG's next novel, Elidor, is depicted with a clarity that deceives, and the numerous analogies with the Arthurian cycle are ultimately ironic. Four siblings wander into an abandoned church in a slum area of Manchester, drawn there by a Trickster fiddler, a Liminal Being whose initial function is to translate them across the Threshold into Elidor, and who is soon revealed to be Malebron, King of Elidor, a lame Fisher King ruling what proves to be a Waste Land. The three older children are caught in Bondage, like flies in amber, in a Time trap: they have been in Elidor for a huge span, and can only be freed by Roland (see Childe), the youngest of the siblings, who must enter into a Quest for the Dark Tower (a burial mound) which contains both them and the four treasures seemingly necessary to bring a Healing to the Land. The four children escape back to Manchester with the four treasures (a Grail, a spear, a Sword and a stone), which turn or appear to turn into mundane objects. But Elidor is not yet secure. Findhorn the Unicorn must sing: the scenes in which he appears in this world, succumbs to Roland's virgin sister, is mortally wounded by the enemies of Elidor, and sings his death, are deeply troubling. In the end, Elidor is saved; but the children have been used ruthlessly by Maleborn. Elidor is an astonishing book; its effect is both poisonous and healing.

The Owl Service (1967), AG's last novel which can be unequivocally deemed a fantasy, is a central text of the field. The action is contemporary, and takes place mainly in this world, in the Welsh valley where the story of Llew Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebyr, from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, is reckoned to have taken place. In that story, because his son Llew Llaw cannot have a human wife, the Wizard Gwydion has created Blodeuwedd for him out of meadowsweet, broom and the flowers of the oak. But she has no love for the husband inflicted upon her, and becomes enamoured of Gronw, who kills Llew Llaw, who suffers Metamorphosis into a bird. His father then arranges for him to kill Gronw in the same manner that Gronw killed him, and punishes Blodeuwedd by changing her into an owl. The violent energies created by this tragedy have warped the valley into a Waste Land, and periodically require discharging. In the contemporary story these energies enter three children at the edge of young adulthood. Alison and her stepbrother Peter are English; Gwyn is Welsh. The children discover the eponymous plates, which bear the design of a dismembered owl made out of flowers. A portrait of a woman made out of flowers (see Foliate Head; Perception) appears on an inner wall of the Welsh house where the action is centred. Both plates and painting represent earlier generations' attempt to "lock" Blodeuwedd into Bondage, so that she cannot continue to rage as an owl through the community in an eternal return of her tragedy. In the end, the haunting is purged through forgiveness, and she is allowed to be flowers. AG adapted the tale for tv in 1969.

In Red Shift (1973), AG moved away from anything like straightforward fantasy, though the three interlocked tales making up the book – each carrying similar and similarly named characters through similar anguish in the same Alderley region in three different epochs (Roman Britain, the Interregnum, and now) – impinge upon one another in ways which can readily be understood as fantastic. The three male protagonists are, in a sense, Doubles of one another; and Macey, the Roman version of Cromwellian Thomas and contemporary Tom, suffers visions of the future. Plot elements from the three periods constantly intersplice in a fashion not remotely amenable to a mimetic reading; they can be understood as a rendering of J W Dunne's vision of Time as an accessible network comprising past, present, and future. AG's tv version of the novel was shown in 1978.

The Stone QuartetThe Stone Book (1976 chap), Tom Fobble's Day (1977 chap), Granny Reardon (1977 chap) and The Aimer Gate (1978 chap), all four assembled as The Stone Quartet (omni 1983), and all illustrated by Michael Foreman – is not fantasy, though its concerns and sense of place make it of interest to readers of the earlier works. Since its composition, AG has restricted himself to a series of collections of Twice-Told tales extracted from various Folklores and other sources. These collections are difficult to describe – they could as easily be designated anthologies – because they variously contain straight reprints of other material, modified reprints, and almost totally new recraftings. Here listed as collections, they include: The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins (coll 1972; vt A Cavalcade of Goblins 1969 US; vt A Book of Goblins 1972 UK); The Guizer: A Book of Fools (coll 1975); The Girl of the Golden Gate (1979 chap), The Golden Brothers (1979 chap), The Princess and the Golden Mane (1979 chap) and The Three Golden Heads of the Well (1979 chap), all four assembled as Alan Garner's Fairy Tales of Gold (omni 1980; rev vt Fairytales of Gold 1989), all illustrated by Foreman; The Lad of the Gad (coll 1980); Alan Garner's Book of British Fairy Tales (coll 1984); A Bag of Moonshine (coll 1986).

There is a feeling that AG has not so much departed the field of fantasy as ended a quest in search of his own identity and his own place. In 1996 there are no rumours of his return. [JC]

other works: Holly from the Bongs: A Nativity Play (1966 chap) and Holly from the Bongs: A Nativity Opera Text (1974 chap), differing texts; The Old Man of Mow (graph 1967) photo-illus Roger Hill; Potter Thompson (1975 chap), libretto; The Breadhorse (graph 1975) illus Albin Trowski, for younger children.

further reading: A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction (1981) by Neil Philip.

A further relevant title is Strandloper (1996), an associational novel published while this book was in proof. Various necessary (and obvious) amendments were made to the proof version of this entry, but these failed to be instated.

Alan Garner


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.