Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Alan Garner’s novels live on

Success in making accurate judgement and discerning the consequences of history’s unfolding only works from the present, looking back with the perspective allowed for in the glance of Hegel’s Owl of Minerva.


Sean Sheehan


No one could have foreseen that the banking crisis of 2008 and consequent regimes of austerity would result in Trump and Brexit.

Sometimes, even looking back does not tell us what we’d like to know. An eyewitness to the public execution of King Charles in 1649 wrote how ‘I remember well, there was such a groan by the thousands then present’. What cannot be known is whether the groan was a collective sigh of relief or of grief.

Still, my wager is that, on a micro cultural level, the fiction of  J. K. Rowling will sink into the sands of forgotten time while other works of fantasy for young readers will be seen as vital and long-lived testimony to what makes some writers so much  more vital and potent than others. And one of these authors, agree the contributors to “First light”, will be Alan Garner.

Neel Mukherjee recalls reading Garner’s “The Stone Book quartet” as a child of twelve growing up in Calcutta and finding the language baffling but he returned to them a decade later: “They are written with passion and pride and love …and in the reader they generate something approaching euphoria.”

Philip Pullman pays homage to Garner because of what he learned from him about the craft of storytelling. He wonders too, because it contrasts so much with his own itinerant upbringing, about Garner living all his life in one small region of Britain and sharing its landscape. Pullman feels himself to be ‘a perpetual stranger’ by comparison.

For another writer, John Burnside, his reading of Garner’s “The Owl service” was a special moment in his life. He responded to the theme of class in the novel and warmed to the way it combines realism with the irrational, making the pagan world ‘something emotionally, psychologically and spiritually immediate’.

These are only snippets from the contributors to “First light” and Eric Wagner deserves congratulation for an anthology that should help create more fans of Alan Garner’s novels.

An interested reader could start with “Where shall we run to?: A memoir”, Garner’s memories of his early childhood in the Cheshire village of Alderley Edge.

At school he was seen as ‘a sissy and a mardy-arse’ but his peers were of less interest to him than seeing the gypsies his family bought bundles of wood from or his mother lighting the fire or washing the porch of his home.

His memories are affectionate ones but never spoiled by sentimentality; he suffered ill health and almost died from meningitis. When he says of his childhood that ‘I would not wish it on anyone, nor on me again’, he states a fact as he experienced it, not inviting pity from readers.

“First light”, edited by Eric Wagner, is published by Unbound.

“Where shall we run to?: A memoir”, by Alan Garner, is published by 4th Estate.

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