Old Stone, Deep Time: Alan Garner from Weirdstone to Boneland

Alan Garner’s grandfather told him that, under Alderley Edge, a king lay in an enchanted sleep with one hundred and forty-nine knights, watched over by a wizard until the time came for them to wake and fight in the world’s last battle. Versions of this legend are common in European folklore — many hills have their mythical sleepers, sometimes identified as folk-heroes like King Arthur, Fionn mac Cumhaill or Frederick Barbarossa, and sometimes nameless, as in the Alderley story — but for the Garners the analogues were unknown and unimportant. Their legend was the remnant of an oral tradition passed down the generations that had lived on Alderley Edge, a sandstone escarpment near Macclesfield, since the sixteenth century. It buried itself deeply in Garner’s imagination, and emerged as the basis of his first novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). The process was painful. Garner has written about the ‘shocking alienation’ that he experienced as a first-generation grammar-school boy, coming from a line of skilled but virtually unlettered rural craftsmen, attending Manchester Grammar School, reading classics at Oxford and eventually finding himself a stranger to the oral culture in which he had grown up. The Alderley Legend could only become the source of his novel because for him it had ceased to be a living tradition: he has commented that, as he began to write, the legend ‘stood for all that I’d had to give up in order to understand what I’d had to give up’. Five decades later Garner was still puzzling over what had been lost, returning in his ninth novel Boneland to the myth of the Sleepers in the Hill.

Like many of Garner’s readers, I was around ten years old when I encountered Weirdstone and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath (1963), which means that the books belong to the stratum of early reading that itself feels a little like an oral tradition: a story that’s always been there, possessed before you could understand it. The novels are fantasy adventures in which two young modern-day siblings, Colin and Susan, visit Alderley Edge and discover that its myth is true. They befriend the wizard who guards the knights in the hill, and are soon racing against dark forces — the ‘morthbrood’, led by a witch called the Morrigan — to locate a magic jewel which has the power to wake the sleepers.

Re-read, Weirdstone and Gomrath turn out to be obsessive books, engrossed in their myth-making and the Cheshire landscape but barely interested in human motives. Colin and Susan are curious and intrepid as the plot requires, but they’re not so much characters as viewpoints from which we see the patterns of myth unfold, the Alderley legend opening into an elaborate reworking of Celtic and Scandinavian folklore. When Colin looks into the night sky, ‘it seemed as though the stars had formed new constellations, constellations that moved, had life, and took on the shape and spangled outline of nine young women on horseback, gigantic, filling the heavens’. In the final pages of Gomrath, Susan, who has been drawn more deeply into the magic than Colin, tries to follow these spectral horsewomen into the Pleiades, but human children can only go so far into the world of myth: the riders abandon Susan, while, as they vanish, Colin hears the sound of a horn ‘so beautiful that he never found rest again.’

Fifty years later, that phrase led to Boneland. The novel’s dust-jacket calls it ‘the concluding volume in the Weirdstone trilogy’, but the relationship with Garner’s first two books  is complicated; he has travelled a long way to get back to Alderley Edge. Publishers have presented his more recent novels as adult literary fiction rather than children’s fantasy, and certainly the work has grown increasingly austere and difficult, but there has been no fundamental change of direction. It’s just that the characters have grown older, the adolescents of The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973) becoming the adults of Strandloper (1996) and Thursbitch (2003), and that the supernatural fantasy of the early books has evolved into sparer, more naturalistic myth-making, where the numinous is revealed not through visitations from gods and goblins but through the mysterious action of the past on the present. Each successive novel has given the impression of an author refining technique, bringing new experience to fixed preoccupations, and mining the same vein ever more deeply: deep myth, deep time, deep place.

Boneland thus begins with Colin in the strange predicament of being a grown-up. He is now a distinguished middle-aged scientist, a professor of astronomy at Jodrell Bank, but he is in crisis. As well as being ‘an immature uncooperative hysterical depressive Asperger’s’, he experiences flashbacks, panic attacks and hallucinations, remembers nothing of his life before the age of thirteen and has an involuntary eidetic memory of everything since. He lives in a one-room cabin in an abandoned quarry on Alderley Edge and wanders the hill in his professorial robes, a secular wizard, never leaving the area. ‘I have to be able to see the Edge from wherever I am,’ he says, ‘in order to keep it. If something isn’t looked at it may go, or change, or never be.’

Susan has vanished both from the world and from Colin’s memory. Without knowing why, he wastes his research budget pointing the Jodrell Bank radio telescopes into the Pleiades. As a twenty-first-century Western professional, Colin is not in a position to believe that magical knights are asleep under a hill in Cheshire, or that, when he was thirteen, his sister succeeded in riding into the night sky to join the goddesses in the stars — but he hears Susan’s voice through the parabolic whisper-dishes in the observatory’s Discovery Centre, and a shadowy little girl plays hide-and-seek with him in the quarry. He’s forgotten his childhood, but his childhood has not forgotten about him.

In the struggle for Colin’s sanity, Susan’s opponent is Meg, a charismatic psychiatrist who rides a motorbike and deploys a jaunty therapeutic persona, saying things like ‘I’ll take a high five on that’, ‘no need to capslock’ and ‘stop being such a wazzock’. She’s rational about Colin’s problems, but not too rational. She knows that the Susan-ghost tormenting him is a symptom of his illness, but also that the ghost’s demands must be taken seriously. Colin suspects that Meg is the Morrigan in disguise, but Meg, unfazed, observes that all her patients accuse her of being a witch sooner or later. If she is a witch, this is not a bad smokescreen, but the question is what ‘witch’ means in the world that Colin now inhabits. Meg isn’t going to lure him into her house and eat him up, but she may do worse, with her technique of calmly pushing him deeper into his private horror: ‘I want you to go to what scares you most’.

Meanwhile, in the same landscape but a different time, another storyline braids with Colin’s. The Watcher is a Stone Age hominid, perhaps homo erectus or heidelbergensis, living an isolated life in interglacial Cheshire. At the beginning of his story, he emerges from his cave to discover that his woman and child have been killed by a falling slab of ice:

The colours and webs faded and he saw the world. The ice had dropped from the two cliffs flat in the gap. He braced himself against each side of stone, and moved over the fall.

He found them lying together. He tried to touch her and the child through the ice. He saw his echo, but they had no echo. Though the eyes met, they did not speak. They were not him. Where the crag had shed, spirit faces looked down from the scar, rough, knuckled, green; and grass hung over the ledges.

He passed where the cleft opened more than a spear length. The sky was blue, icicles shone; the sun played, but could not reach the floor. He went along, up, around, and left Ludcruck hole by the arch to the hill.

He met the footsteps, woman and child, and walked against them, back above the river, cobbles banging in the melt of summer flood, until a fold of land shut off the sound and he came to the lodge. He opened the hide and went in.

He lay for one day. He lay for two days. He lay for three days.

This is a radically unfamiliar consciousness, and Garner is circumspect about approaching it. As the Watcher confronts the corpses of his family, we share his perceptions, but we can’t tell what they mean to him; we can only discover this indirectly, as we watch him go about the work that follows.

The Watcher knows that his role in the universe is to imagine it into existence, carving images of animals into the walls of his sacred cave so that their spirits can come into the world. (He calls the cave ‘Ludcruck’; one day it will be Ludchurch, the Green Chapel of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.) The mind of a Mesolithic shaman is evoked through declarative sentences in which the physical environment and the spirit-world are a single process of cause and effect: ‘Each year he sang and danced in Ludcruck and cut between the worlds to make the beasts free and bring their spirits from behind the rock so that they could spread across the land. And in winter he watched the Bull climb the wall of the sky cave and the Stone Spirit riding to send out eagles to feed the stars… every year the sun turned, because of the dance.’ After committing the woman and child to an air-burial, the Watcher contemplates the heart of his cosmos, an ancient sacred stone (‘The Stone was the womb of things. Nothing before it was made’), and realises that he must call another woman into being, because everything will end without her ‘to make the child for me to teach to dance and sing and dream to free the beasts within the rock to fill the world’. After a quest for the necessary stone blades, the ritual is accomplished. Time passes, he grows old and sick as he waits, and at last he sees smoke rising on the hill — but he has misunderstood his spirits, because instead of a woman he confronts strange, new creatures. They make fire and carry spears, like he does, but they have frightening flat faces that he can’t tell apart. They are homo sapiens.

The stories of Colin and the Watcher, divided by time but linked by place, must be separated by several hundred thousand years, by far the longest reach of time Garner has attempted to span in a novel. It’s as if his earlier fiction has been building muscle for the attempt. The three young couples of Red Shift, living in Cheshire during the Roman occupation, the English Civil War and the 1970s respectively, are linked by a Bronze Age votive axe-head which passes through each of their hands in turn; the grouped novellas of The Stone Book Quartet (1983) tell the stories of four generations of Garner’s own family from the time of his great-great-grandfather Robert, a master stonecutter. When Robert’s daughter regrets not going to school and learning to read, he leads her down a mine-shaft on Alderley Edge and shows her a secret cavern, known only to the Garners, in which there is a cave-painting of a bull on the wall and footprints in the clay floor: ‘They were the footprints of people, bare and shod. There were boots and shoes and clogs, heels, toes, shallow ones and deep ones, clear and sharp as if made altogether, trampling each other, hundreds pressed in the clay where only a dozen could stand. Mary was in a crowd that could never have been, thronging, as real as she was. Her feet made prints no fresher than theirs.’ She understands that countless generations of her family have visited this place, and that she is the inheritor of a tradition deeper than anything she could gain from reading books.

The votive axe-head, the stonecutter’s cave, the Watcher’s sacred Stone, the Weirdstone of Brisingamen: none of Garner’s novels is without a significant piece of rock, because stones, lasting longer than people, give access to deep time. In Thursbitch, a memorial stone in a Pennine valley marks the place where an eighteenth-century packman died in a snowstorm, and when Sal, a twenty-first century geologist with a neurodegenerative disease, discovers the stone, two lives and deaths become entangled. The gulf of centuries disappears because the place endures. To distinguish between ‘time’ and ‘place’ at all may be a mistake: looking across the valley, Sal says to her companion, ‘You call it a view. But it’s a song. Such a dance. … Everything’s moving. When here was under the water, it was south of the Equator. And ever since, all of it’s been travelling at about eleven point two five kilometres every million years. It’s still doing it. Here is just where it happens to have got to now. That’s the song. Pangaea. Gondwanaland. The song and the dance.’ The urge to dissolve the illusion of linear time may be mystical, but it’s a scientist’s urge too. In one of Boneland’s dialogues on science and myth, Colin the astrophysicist lectures Meg on the subjectivity of time, claiming that we’ve only ‘opted for the advancing linear flow, “The Arrow of Time”, because it’s the most efficient for our needs, and so the easiest to handle, perhaps for Darwinian reasons.’

The Arrow of Time performs the distinctive Garner loop when Colin comes into possession of the Watcher’s Stone. He recognises it as a man-made artefact, a ‘Lower Palaeolithic Abbevillian hand axe’, and his delight in the prehistoric stone tool is intense. He is thrilled at the idea that he may share DNA with its maker, and at the glimpse it offers of deep time: ‘five ice ages and half a million years old!’ As well as a scientific find, it is a form of human contact. ‘Good grief, it’s alive’, says Meg, as he shows her how it fits the hand. ‘It sits one way, and one way only, and right.’ ‘If you look long enough it feels as if you’re staring into it, not at it; into’, says Colin, faintly echoing the ecstatic visions of the Watcher, who can sink into the Stone and dive through infinities of stars.

In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the weirdstone itself is a magical trinket in the manner of Tolkein’s Ring, a portentously-described MacGuffin: ‘the most powerful magicians of the age began to weave a spell,’ the wizard explains, ‘magic that would stay the sleeping warriors from growing old or weak, and that no evil could ever break. The heart of the magic was sealed with Firefrost, the weirdstone of Brisingamen…’ This sort of language would be unthinkable in Boneland, where the Watcher’s Stone can have none of the weirdstone’s purely plot-driven importance. Colin no longer lives in a world where finding an enchanted treasure will set everything right, but nevertheless as he stares into the Stone his memory begins to give up its secrets. Mysteriously, although it’s just a ‘big black pebble’, it turns out to be what Colin needs to heal himself.

Through his adult life Colin has known that the Sleepers under the Hill are real, but also that they can’t be real, and the fracture in his knowledge has deranged him. Like the young Alan Garner turning the Legend of Alderley into The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Colin is the modern, rational inheritor of Western culture, haunted by a lost way of looking at the world; perhaps this helps to explain the urgency of Boneland, its sense of the supreme importance of proving that a stone truly can be called magical when that stone is a Palaeolithic hand-axe. To mend Colin’s relationship with the world, Boneland must demonstrate that the question ‘are the Sleepers real?’ makes no difference, not by spongily deciding that ‘mythology and science have equal validity’, but by arguing them into a resolution. The healing process is both shamanic and psychotherapeutic. Nothing in Weirdstone is repudiated, but everything is transformed. The mythic Sleeper under Alderley Edge is changed into the Stone Age sleeper who lived once, whose DNA we share, and who now dreams the world.