‘Let words be nice’ – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Treacle Walker’

[NB: this article assumes that you have read the book]

All writing, it might be said, works by synecdoche: the writer supplies the part and from it we infer the whole to fill the space the writer leaves. Alan Garner is a master of omission: what makes it onto the page is spare and lean and more effective for it; he often says less than we expect, yet we realise it is enough. In Treacle Walker what is left out is as important as what is put in: it is a book that plays with our assumptions, inviting us to make them yet forcing us to question them as the book goes on.

Take the opening line (which is also, incidentally, the last line, too): it is the cry of a rag-and-bone man. I am old enough to remember a rag-and-bone man with a flat horse-drawn cart, but that was over sixty years ago, before I started school. This suggestion that the story is set (apparently) some time in the middle of last century is confirmed by the passage of a steam engine, which for the boy Joe Coppock signals that it is mid-day, hence his nickname for the engine, Noony. Joe himself is like boys in the comics of my childhood, old-fashioned even then: he has a catapult (doubtless made from a Y-shaped stick) plays marbles and collects birds’ eggs and other things he chances on, which he keeps in his ‘museum’. He is in poor health and wears an eyepatch because he has a ‘lazy eye’.

When the rag-and-bone man’s cry is repeated, about half-way down the opening page, the line that follows is worth noting:

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe.

It is, I think, the sole instance of inner dialogue of any kind in the entire book; in a form that typically lends itself to introspection, the absence of any account of inner thoughts or feelings is remarkable. Apart from that one line, everything is outward. We see and hear only what is public: the things Joe sees and hears, what he and the others say. What we know of his feelings we infer from his speech and actions. We know nothing of his remembering, save that he once found a sheep’s shoulder blade in a molehill beside the railway.

The characters are few and they inhabit a sparse landscape simply named. There is a house, and visible from it a yard, several fields – Barn Croft, Pool Field, Big Meadow – and a track with a top and bottom gate and the railway line close by. Beyond these are trees, a bog and a heath. Apart from Joe the only other characters are the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, and Thin Amren, the man in (and out of) the bog. To these we must add an incidental oculist and three characters from Knockout, the comic Joe reads, since at some point they intrude on the story: Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit, Whizzy the wizard and his Brit-basher sidekick.

At the outset, from this little that Garner provides, we are confident in assuming a great deal: we can place the story (roughly) in time – somewhere from Garner’s own childhood (he was born in 1934) up to, say, the late fifties; we know that there must be a school (which Joe presumably does not attend because of his ill-health) and equally there must be some adults who look after Joe, parent(s), grandparent(s) or other relatives; and of course there must be neighbours and likely a town somewhere for the train to come from as well as all the normal human activity of everyday life, such as eating and drinking – but none of that is actually mentioned.

The growing bewilderment that the reader feels as the book proceeds – just what is going on here? – is shared by Joe, who expresses it in exclamations of scornful disbelief and angry puzzlement (mostly variants on ‘daft, I call it’ which is what one of the characters in Knockout says at the end of every episode). He can barely understand a word that Treacle Walker says and frequently demands that he ‘give over’ or ‘leave off’. His first close encounter with him leads to a memorable exchange:

’You smell!’ ‘Not I, Joseph Coppock,’ said the man. ‘You smell that I stink. Let words be nice.’

This falls strangely on the ear – to stink is hardly ‘nice’ – till we remember that ‘nice’ can also mean ‘done with great care and exactness; accurate’ (as in ‘a nice distinction’). Treacle Walker is not admonishing Joe to speak pleasantly but precisely, to give proper heed to the use of words (and it is an admonition to the reader, too: pay attention to what is being said, here: do not cloud it with assumptions).

And those assumptions that we made so confidently at the outset are steadily undermined as the book goes on, just as Joe’s understanding of his own situation is repeatedly challenged by Treacle Walker’s questions, which he is seldom able to answer. This is nowhere better seen than in the episode with the oculist in part V and what follows in part VIII when Joe is asked about it. Part V begins abruptly, without preamble or forewarning and is the only change of location in the whole tale:

‘Come in, Joe,’ the man said.

Joe went into the room and sat on the chair.
‘How are things?’
‘All right.’
‘Let’s have a shufti, then.’

Our initial puzzlement gives way to understanding: we know already that Joe has a ‘lazy eye’ and when the man starts giving Joe a range of tests that are evidently familiar to him (‘The usual drill. Keep your eye on the dot.’) we realise that this must be a regular visit to the oculist. The two are on easy terms with one another, even when the visit takes a rather strange turn (when Joe looks at the chart with his good eye he reads out what later turns out to be a Latin inscription)

‘Not funny, old son.’
‘What isn’t?’
‘It doesn’t help if you faff around.’
‘I’m not faffing.’

However, when Joe later shows Treacle Walker the paper on which the oculist made him write down what he saw with his good eye, Walker’s line of questioning is strange and Joe’s answers stranger still:

‘Did you write this, Joseph Coppock?’
‘I was having my eyes tested –’
‘When they were being tested. And the man said –’
‘What man?’
‘The man in the room.’

‘Which room?’

‘Where I was having my eyes tested!’
‘Where was the room?’ said Treacle Walker.
‘It was – there,’ said Joe.
‘Who was the man?’

‘The man testing my eyes! Give over!’

‘I am but asking the question,’ said Treacle Walker. ‘Who was the man?’
‘He was – I dunno.’

Joe’s inability to furnish any specific detail (and his mounting irritation at it) is painfully reminiscent of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or a similar dementia: his answers are plausible, yet lack substance. As readers, we feel that Joe ought to remember: he and the man clearly knew one another from the way they talked; he was evidently the oculist, and the room was his consulting room, where Joe must have been before. But we have never actually been told who the man was, where the room was, or how Joe got there; and Joe does not seem to know either. We begin to wonder at the validity of our inferences.

As it happens, the episodes between the meeting with the oculist and the interrogation above have already given the reader ample cause to question the frame of reference we assumed at the start. Joe goes out in pursuit of the cuckoo, experiences what seems to be a time-slip, then ends up in conversation with a man who rises out of the bog and introduces himself as Thin Amren (he already knows Joe’s name). In the next part, set back in the house, Stonehenge Kit emerges from the pages of Knockout and passes through the room, shortly pursued by Whizzy and his sidekick; betweentimes, Joe has climbed into the comic frame from which Kit emerged into a shaft which seems to echo the chimney of the house (later identified by Treacle Walker as ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘the way between… the earth, the heavens and the sapient stars’). All this has been effected with the aid of his good eye, now beglamoured with the ointment from the jar that Treacle Walker traded for Joe’s old pajamas and Joe accidentally smeared on his eyelid. Viewed with his other eye, all seems as usual.

What happens to us as we read is similar to what Joe experiences: our vision alters; our everyday assumptions about where and when we are fall away, and we find ourselves in a stark, mythic landscape where what you see is all there is. We already have a sense, early on, that Treacle Walker is no ordinary rag-and-bone man (if indeed there ever was a such a thing). His style of speech recalls another figure of children’s literature, Cole Hawlings, the Punch-and-Judy man from John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (and indeed the chest of treasures from which Joe picks his humble pot could well be termed a box of delights). Cole is a magician and a time-traveller; we begin to wonder if Treacle Walker might not be cast in a similar mould (he also recalls the packman John Turner in Garner’s Thursbitch and echoes the shaman-like figures that occur in Strandloper and Boneland).

Of course, the folkloric, mythic tale has been there from the start, albeit submerged at first (like Thin Amren in his bog) by our conventional assumptions about a story involving a (relatively) modern schoolboy who lives in a world of steam locomotives and comics. Its general form is that the hero (Joe) is selected by passing an initiation test (choosing the pot) for which he is rewarded with magical gifts (the donkey stone and glamourie or second sight) to aid him in the task that he is set, which is to put the world to rights from its disrupted state: ‘what’s in is out and what’s out is in’ – which applies equally to the comic characters, Whizzy and Brit Basher, who have escaped the pages of Knockout into Joe’s world and to Thin Amren, who has wakened from his dreaming in the bog and got up.

What precipitates this disruption is unclear. The first portent that all is not well comes after Joe has invited the rag-and-bone man in and asks him his name (names are potent in traditional tales)

‘can you not talk sense? What’s your name?’

Outside, the iron ring handle of the door banged on the wood three slow times, sounding through the house.

[Joe looks out the window]

‘there’s nobody there,’ he said.
‘Then no body wishes to come in,’ said the man.

Bang. Bang, Bang.

(note the nice distinction between Joe’s ‘nobody’ and the man’s ‘no body’)

We sense Joe’s rising panic as the ominous knocks are repeated a second time: ‘what must I do?’ he asks and on the third repetition he opens the door and what spills in, out of the Spring day, is night, vividly portrayed as ‘a sheet of darkness, flapping from wall to wall.’ The sheet becomes more animate with each verb: dropped, ruckled, fell, humped, shrieked, reared. Notably, it does not go up the chimney, but escapes out under the eaves as ‘on the floor snow melted to tears.’

This incursion of night is plainly a harbinger of something and also serves as a portentous overture, like a thunderclap, before the rag-and-bone man reveals his name; whether it might be more again is an idea that comes with rereading.

It is the next part that seems more obviously to set the mythic tale in motion: when Joe borrows Treacle Walker’s bone flute (‘I made it from a man that sang… it is the way for him to sing now’) and has a go, he produces a cuckoo’s call that is answered from across the valley. This elicits a curious response from Treacle Walker,

‘Unfound bones sing louder. Draw a pail of water.’

We wonder at the first part (whose bones are unfound?) but are distracted by the second and what follows: Joe is commanded to ‘stone the step’ with the donkey stone, in order to ‘keep the house’, evidently an apotropaic measure to ward off evil incursions – in traditional tales, supernatural creatures can only cross the threshold if they are invited; it is notable that Treacle Walker always seeks Joe’s permission to do so.

Perhaps prompted by the cuckoo’s call, Treacle Walker falls into a melancholic reverie, reciting a curious verse:

‘Iram, biram, brendon, bo,
Where did all the children go?
They went to the east. They went to the west.
They went where the cuckoo has its nest.’ *

Joe wants a cuckoo’s egg for his collection, but as he is unaware of their peculiar laying habits (a fact that amuses Thin Amren greatly later in the tale) the ominous note struck by that last line would pass him by.

The coming (or summoning) of the cuckoo builds the climax of the book: each time Joe hears it, it is nearer. When (on page 99) its call is first set down directly, it is repeated seven times, and we are at once reminded of that other guise in which cuckoos appear, sounding the time in a cuckoo clock. In the final confrontation, on p144, the cuckoo calls eleven times – the eleventh hour – then further down the page, just before Joe acts, it calls thirteen times – not only an unlucky number, but a signal that the times are out of joint; chaos is come (and perhaps, who knows, there is also a nod to Orwell: It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen).

As our assumptions are stripped away, we begin to wonder (with Joe) what his situation actually is; the clearest clue comes in his secound encounter with Thin Amren. Joe asks how long he has been in the bog; Thin Amren says ‘From then till now. And you?’

‘What about me?’
‘How long have you been up in the fine chimney house?’
‘Always. I live there.’
‘And how is “always”?’
‘It’s – always,’ said Joe.

This recalls the earlier interrogation about the oculist: Joe seems unable to answer a straightforward question; while his first response is just what a child might say, his inability to quantify it is striking: he must, after all, know what age he is; it is one of the things that children make particular note of.

Thin Amren recasts the question in a different form by asking Joe to consider an eddy in the water, or ‘whirligig’ as he calls it:

‘He doesn’t move. But water, she goes by. Then what’s whirligig?’
‘I dunno. It just – is,’ said Joe.
‘Then what is brook?’ said Thin Amren.
‘It’s the brook.’
‘And brook was here yesterday,’ said Thin Amren. ‘and she’ll be here tomorrow. Whirligig stays. Though he’s not the same water. Then what is yesterday? What today? What tomorrow? Whirligig, what is he? What is brook?’
‘Oh, dry up,’ said Joe.
‘That’s the last thing I’ll be doing,’ said Thin Amren. ‘I asked a question. Whirligig neither asks nor cares.’

The last remark suggests an identification that is later made explicit, that Whirligig is Joe from Thin Amren’s point of view ( or sub specie aeternitatis, if you prefer). We have just been given an elegant statement of the problem of identity: how is it that I suppose myself to be the same person that was born sixty odd years ago and has undergone all manner of experiences in between? There is (I think it is accurate to say) actually nothing of me that persists for all that time: cells are perpetually renewed. Am I not, then, as David Hume puts it,

’nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’

– in a word, a whirligig?

But it is in the next exchange that we receive some confirmation of what we may already have begun to suspect. Joe asks Thin Amren if he knows Treacle Walker, to which he responds,

‘Me know that pickthank psychopomp?’

Now, a ‘pickthank’ is an ingratiating flatterer, but a psychopomp (which Joes rationalises as ‘cycle-pump’ just as he makes ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘ask us Monday’) is one who guides the souls of the (newly) dead from one world to the next (it is also one of the titles given to Hermes, messenger of the gods). The inference to be drawn is that Joe has died, either before the story starts, or else early on. On the one hand, there is that singular moment of inner thought I noted on the first page,

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe

Which I associate with a line from WB Yeats’s The Cold Heaven:

when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over

(‘Quick’ of course can mean ‘alive, living’ as in ‘the quick and the dead’). This could point either way: Joe certainly undergoes a sustained period of confusion which only clears when he asks (on the penultimate page) ‘Treacle Walker, am I dead?’ but we might also take it to be the starting point of an altered mode of existence. Treacle Walker’s response to Joe’s question is

‘I will not say you are dead. Rather, in this world you have changed your life, and are got into another place.’

On the other hand, the momentous thrice-repeated summons (‘no body wishes to come in’) that panics Joe into opening the door and letting in ‘a hurlothrumbo of winter… a lomperhomock of night. Nothing more’ might also be a candidate for the moment of dissolution, at once momentous and insignificant – not that it really matters. In one interview, Garner observes that Treacle Walker and Joe are in some sense alternative versions of himself: Walker is the classics don he might have become, had he stayed on at Oxford, while Joe is the boy he might have been had he never gone to Manchester Grammar School – and one way that might have happened is if he had died beforehand, which Garner almost did from childhood illnesses, on three separate occasions.

Joe’s progress is marked by small but significant actions on his part which reveal his true character (and worth) in contrast to the sharp-tongued intolerance (bred of fear and confusion) that he displays for much of the time. At the outset, he chooses humbly and fairly, feeling that the little pot is as much as he is entitled to claim from among the glittering treasures (‘they’re worth loads, this lot… more than jamas or bones.’). Then he is courteous: when the rag-and-bone man complains of the heat, Joe invites him in where it is cooler, so welcoming the stranger, one of the primal acts of human decency. Later, it is when Joe asks for help, mired in the bog, that Thin Amren comes. He shows courage and resourcefulness in tackling the task he is set, to vanquish Whizzy, and in the greater one of returning Thin Amren to the bog. He takes responsibility for his actions in summoning the cuckoo and causing the disruption which he has resolved: ‘No. It was me. I did it.’ Finally, he is unselfish, compassionate and generous: after Treacle Walker has answered his question ‘am I dead?’ Joe asks him

‘What is it you want for you? What is it you want most? For you. Not some wazzock else.’

to which Walker responds,

‘never has a soul asked that of me.’

This is a book that rewards rereading: there is so much in its 15000 words that more is to be had from it every time. It is multilayered in its meanings and is not ‘about’ any one thing; it deals with the riddles of time, human existence and death, the relation of past and present, the mysteries of religion and storytelling. It is, above all, life-affirming: the jealousy that is the one thing Treacle Walker cannot cure is felt by Thin Amren, who loves the Whirligig, the fleeting brilliance of life that Joe embodies, and is envious that he cannot have it (compare what the shade of Achilles tells Odysseus when he visits the underworld: ‘I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.’) He is jealous that Treacle Walker shares his company while he cannot. In one sense, just as all the characters are aspects of Garner (if Joe is the boy he might have been and Walker the don, then Thin Amren is surely the writer he has become, who dreams worlds into existence) they are also aspects of each other: Joe has been the man ritually sacrificed by the tribe and immersed in the bog, giving his life that all life might continue (perhaps he is also ‘the man that sang in the marrow bone’) and in the end, he becomes Treacle Walker, by releasing him from his duty and taking it on himself, so that the book ends as it began with the rag-and-bone man’s cry.


* much of the delight of reading and rereading this book is to seek out the sources of the obscurer parts, a task made much easier by the internet. This rhyme, for instance, turns out to have been composed by Garner himself more than fifty tears ago as part of a tale he rewrote in The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins.

Why Colin can’t remember – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’


Cave paintings, Lascaux, France (image courtesy of Prof saxx, via Wikimedia Commons)

Boneland must be one of the strangest sequels ever written. It is not Alan Garner’s best book, but for the questions it poses, it is of great interest to all of us who write for children.

It purports to complete the trilogy begun fifty years ago with his earliest books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The first made a powerful impression on me, perhaps because I heard it on the wireless before I read it (and I was startled to discover, on rereading it, that it was the source of a key part of the climactic scene in my own first book, The Secret of the Alchemist – a borrowing of which I was entirely unconscious). Yet the second made so little impact that only when I took it out of the library last year, in preparation for reading Boneland, did I realise I had read it before.

The strangeness of Boneland as a sequel stems from its lack of sequence: of the two characters who feature centrally in the other books, one – Susan – is conspicuous by her absence, while the other – her brother Colin – is effectively a different character: as the result of a traumatic experience in adolescence, he has undergone a personality change, becoming an autistic polymath who is now, in adult life, a professor of astronomy.

He has also lost all memory of the events of those first two books. In other words, to all intents and purposes, he has no connection with the earlier books at all (and even things that seem like links – the fact that Colin and Susan are twins, that she addresses him as ‘Col’, that their parents are killed in an aircrash, that Susan disappears – none of these actually features in the earlier books).

At first sight this seems almost perverse, as if Boneland were less a sequel, more a repudiation of that earlier work – and in a way, it is; but the question to ask is, could it have been otherwise?

Let us suppose that Colin survives into adulthood with his memory intact: here is someone who has personally encountered wizards, witches and warlocks, elves, dwarves and goblins, sleeping Arthurian knights and house-high troll-women, all in the Cheshire countryside; at the very least, he would have become a professor of comparative folklore rather than astronomy – it is impossible to believe that such events would not have shaped the rest of his life.

But the truth of the matter is that it simply will not do: elves and goblins belong in storybooks; there is no way to reconcile Colin’s childhood encounters with the reality of his adult life that would be believable. The only thing is to have him conveniently forget it all.

So am I conceding what some critics have long asserted, that fantasy is childish stuff, of no interest to adults, and of doubtful value to children, who would be better served by books about the ‘real world’ ?

By no means.

Fantasy, as it happens, does succeed best with children of a certain age, but for reasons that are the opposite of those put forward by its detractors: far from being an escape from the real world, it is for them an image of it.

Consider that the child entering adolescence stands on the verge of a mysterious world that he must soon enter, a world of which he knows little, governed by powerful hidden forces, a place where anything might happen: it is a prospect both daunting and exciting, in equal measure. Mapped, that world would resemble the products of mediaeval cartographers – a tiny area (home, school) that is familiar, surrounded by huge blank spaces furnished by the imagination, where be dragons.


Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 (image from Wikimedia Commons: public domain)

In other words, fantasy literature is a metaphorical embodiment of the fears and hopes we all experience on the verge of adulthood, when, though we long for freedom and independence, we are still the responsibility of other people – our parents, or those who stand in their stead. We seek reassurance that we can enter that world alone and survive on our own resources, and the emotional experience of doing that is what fantasy adventures allow us to try out.

Garner’s problems with Boneland do not arise from the fact that the earlier books are fantasy, but from his failure to keep the worlds in them separate. Colin and Susan’s encounters take place where they live; they do not go to the monsters – the monsters come to them. And because Colin, as an adult, continues to inhabit the same landscape, the question of what happened to all those fabulous creatures becomes an awkward one.

In his later story, Elidor – a fine work that manages to evoke an epic world without being of epic length – Garner ensures that there is a portal (in the liminal space of an abandoned church in the process of being demolished) so that the children in that tale pass into another world for their magical encounters; even the magical objects they bring back with them are transformed, in the mundane world, into mundane things.

But Colin, if he could remember, would know that the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Susan’s Tear – is under Alderley Edge, in Fundindelve, where the knights and their stallions lie asleep; he would know that Angharad Golden-hand’s floating island is somewhere on Redesmere – and it is unlikely that he would be more interested in distant galaxies, with that on his doorstep.


The View from Sormy Point, Alderley Edge (image courtesy of Randomgurn via Wikimedia Commons)

However, there is a second reason for Colin’s inability to remember, which has to do with Garner himself, and how he has come to view the business of storytelling. It is interesting that he rejects the label of ‘children’s writer’ – “I certainly have never written for children” – though it is hard to argue that his first two books are not primarily aimed at a young audience.

What he is, first and foremost, is a writer rooted in a particular landscape – what Orkney was to George Mackay Brown, the Cheshire countryside in the vicinity of Alderley Edge is to him. However, in those first two books the spirit of place is heavily overlaid with a rather motley heap of borrowings from Arthurian, Norse and Celtic myth.

In his later writing, he dispenses with this: increasingly, it is the landscape itself, its history and prehistory, that furnishes the element of wonder that legendary borrowings supplied before. The prehistoric bull-painting in the cavern that features in The Stone Book establishes a theme that runs through all his later work. That is the other reason why Garner has Colin forget his earlier adventures: that way of telling stories no longer works for him.

Boneland, in fact, has much more in common with Garner’s more recent works, Thursbitch and Strandloper. A key figure in all three is the Shaman, who mediates between the tribe and the forces beyond – forces that imbue the landscape, with which the tribe must come to terms if it is to survive, controlling (or at least harnessing) them by enmeshing them in a web of ritual and story.

In Boneland, the Shaman (who is also an aspect of Colin himself) is the last survivor of an extinguished human species, probably Neanderthals; in Strandloper, it is an 18th century Cheshire labourer who is transported for sedition and becomes an Aboriginal medicine man; in Thursbitch, it is a Cheshire packman, who keeps alive the ancient Mithraic bull-cult among the country folk residing in a remote valley.

The implication is that the storyteller stands in a direct line of descent from the shaman of old, and the ideas and images on which he draws are an inheritance we all share from our earliest beginnings, but which in modern times we are doing our best to deny and forget.

The world of the fantasy story resonates with the child on the verge of adolescence because she recognises it as an image of her own situation, something the adult is unable to do, because the very process of ‘growing up’ and entering ‘the real world’ is actually about acquiring a whole set of elaborate constructs to protect us from reality (which, as Eliot wisely remarked, humankind cannot bear very much).

We have work, we have mortgages, we have ‘lifestyles’ (a fine pretence, that we are actually able to shape and style our lives as we please, as if the unexpected was not at any moment liable to come down on us like a giant hammer) and – in the developed world at least, and in those countries where the social fabric still holds together and order is not breaking down – we collude in the communal self-deception that we have everything under control, that it’s all sorted, pretty much.

What Garner reminds us, as writers, is that our task is to open a crack in the walls of that complacency, and let in the light of wonder.


(This piece, here very slightly edited, originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of  An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, (ABBA) – the online presence of the SAS – The Scattered Authors Society)


‘Is there light in Gorias?’ – reflections on metaphor and truth


‘Metaphor: a figure of speech by which a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious person is called a tiger‘

Chambers Dictionary

Saddling metaphor with a definition like that (which is typical, even down to the threadbare example) is akin to giving it a criminal record – wherever it goes, it will never be trusted: what this definition says is that metaphor is essentially dishonest, at best an exaggeration, at worst a downright lie.

The crucial fault of this definition is that it prejudges the issue: the writer has already decided that a ferocious person is not and cannot be a tiger – he wants to insist on a world where tigers and people are separate and distinct, where that distinction between one thing and another is crucial, a matter of logic: A = A; B = B; therefore A does not and cannot ever equal B.

What metaphor points to is a world where tigers and people can overlap and merge, a world where resemblance and connection is more important than distinction and separation, where A and B can be the same. In other words – and this is a point of fundamental importance – metaphor indicates that logic does not furnish a complete or adequate description of the world.

(This might be likened to people who live in a city and have no understanding of country ways, or people who mistake their own land and culture for the entire world and think that ‘we don’t do that’ means ‘that isn’t done.’)

2006ah4175_tipus_tigerWhat is needed is a new definition, one that is not intrinsically hostile – I would suggest

‘Metaphor: a linguistic device which invites us to consider one thing in terms of another, to clarify or deepen our understanding; one of the key instruments of thought.’
(and for ‘simile’ I would simply say ‘a variety of metaphor’ because there is no importance in the difference between them)

What this definition makes clear is that metaphor is not only an honest enterprise, but an aid and a benefit to thought, something that improves our understanding; but it does more than that – by a slight shift in perspective, this definition does away with a world of mischief.

It prevents the grave error of supposing that the terms ‘symbolic’ and ‘metaphorical’ are opposed to ‘literal’, to their detriment – in other words, that only what is literal is true, and anything else is not – it is mere symbol, just metaphor. My definition does away with the fear that by describing something as ‘metaphorical’ or ‘symbolic’ we are denying that it is true – as such, it should be of great service to theologians.

There is such a thing as literal truth, but like logic, it deals with only one aspect of the world, and quite a small part of it. To have literal truth you must first have letters. By that, I mean that you must have the notion of language existing independently of speech. Speech is particular: the words spoken are mine, yours, someone’s. It is only when we make the great leap of giving speech permanent form through letters that the notion of language as something independent of individual speakers arises, and from that, the concept of literal truth.

Literal truth is not a property of the world, but of words – and strictly speaking, of written words, though in any literate society the spoken language is informed and mediated by its written form. Thus a written account, or a spoken account that can be transcribed (consider why we use court reporters to transcribe all that is said in a court of law) can be literally true, if there is a correspondence between what it says and what happened. If there is a disparity between the account and the event, then the account is judged to be false or untrue.

It should be clear from this that only a limited range of things can be true in this way – descriptions of events that set out to give an accurate account of what happened, such as we might find from a witness in a courtroom, or a reporter at the scene, or a description of an experiment in chemistry. (Other accounts – such as the report of a football match – may consist of a mixture of material, only some of which can be literally true – the score, the time of the goals, the names of the scorers, the teams – while the rest is judgement and opinion. One man’s gripping contest might be another man’s dour tussle; the fact that one team enjoyed seventy percent possession does not contradict the assertion that the other team dominated the game and played the better football – the fact about percentage possession may be literally true, but that the other team dominated the game is a matter of judgement)

Where such descriptions are untrue, some might be false while others might be inaccurate or mistaken – falsehood implies deliberate intent on the part of the reporter, who knows the true state of affairs but chooses to give an inaccurate account for some reason; on the other hand, a careless, inobservant or inexperienced reporter might simply be inaccurate – he failed to see all that was happening, or misinterpreted it; there was no intention to deceive.

‘Facts are chiels that winna ding an downa be disputit’ as Burns wrote; but the point I want to make here is that the realm of the factual is only a small part of our experience – opinion, thought and feeling cover a great deal more, and in that realm ‘truth’ has a different meaning that should not be confused with the correspondence between words and facts that is the definition of ‘literal truth’. There we speak of things ‘ringing true’ and apprehend truth as a quality found in a painting, a story, a piece of music, a poem; and having found it, we do not persuade others of its truth by argument, we simply point and ask ‘do you get it?’.

Verification is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far: there is no process for verifying the truth of King Lear or a Beethoven quartet. These are things that are understood in a different way; ‘truth’ means something else here. That is what makes disputes between science and religion so arid and pointless.

(in writing that, and casting about for a suitable analogy, I was reminded of Alan Garner’s story ‘Elidor’ which supplies the title to this piece – in it, the sacred objects that the children bring back with them – cauldron, sacred stone and spear – assume the mundane appearance of a broken teacup, a bit of rock and an iron railing. Concepts of great importance in one realm lose their significance when transported to the other)

The Cartography of Childhood 2: a recanting

‘Blog in haste, repent at leisure.’ (old proverb, probably attributed to Albert Einstein/Dr Seuss/Abraham Lincoln)

When I said ‘the fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ I felt I had pinned down an idea that I have been moving towards for some time – years, in fact, though it has been in the forefront of my mind again these past two months. (Since reading Alan Garner’s Boneland, as it happens, a subject I shall deal with separately) However, now I come to explain it, I find it is not quite what I meant to say (a familiar feeling, I may add).

The gist of it was going to be this: a child’s world is like a mediaeval map, with a small known portion surrounded by vast spaces filled in from the imagination; hence, for children, the resonance of literature that is similarly structured, involving people they can identify with crossing from the security of their known world into a mysterious Beyond at once exciting and daunting.

The problem arises when we consider the nature of that Beyond – what the writer chooses to put in it, and why that, too, resonates with children. My original thought was this: what the writer generally puts into it is (first and foremost) something marvellous – it is a world of powerful and dangerous beings with remarkable powers, who are generally engaged in some sort of struggle, for a high and noble purpose, against an implacable (and wicked) foe. (Cf. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Elidor, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, and of course Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (though not, I think, The Hobbit, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere – for all its more overtly childish clothing, The Hobbit strikes me as being in many ways an adult book))

Now we come to the crucial point: the reason why such a vision of high and noble strife resonates with children, I was going to say, is because that is their expectation of what grown-up life must be like – something big and important, something grand, in a word. And I wanted that to be a rebuke to all those adults who would pile in at once, saying ‘but adult life isn’t like that! it is mean and petty and squalid and ignoble and dull, for the most part.’

And it was at this point that I realised that what I had said originally was not accurate: I had spoken of the ‘child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ when what I should have said (I think) is that the fantasy element in children’s literature offers them a vision of life – or, indeed, Life.

Here is where I think I was going wrong: the child’s expectation of the grown-up world is a fantasy formed from privation – the standard adult formula for thwarting children’s desires is ‘when you’re grown-up, you can do what you like, but for now you have to do what you’re told’ – so that the world of the grown-up is imagined as one where you don’t have to do what anyone tells you: you can wear your pyjamas all day, eat ice-cream for breakfast and never go to bed. (And I have to say that for many of us, this model remains alive in adulthood – look how we spend our leisure time).

On the other hand, a child’s expectation of Life is something quite different. For a start, the very word ‘expectation’ is wrong, and its wrongness goes to the heart of what we are talking about here. Life is, precisely, what you experience at every moment: living is what you do, what you cannot help doing; it is not a matter of expectation, of waiting for it to happen, it is now. Children, generally speaking – especially young children – are very good at living, just as birds and beasts are: it is a matter of instinct, not reflection; in that respect, they are better at it than most adults. The problems arise when it comes to living in a particular world, by which I mean not the one actual world that we all share but rather the myriad constructs that we have made to inhabit, which often overlap and have labels such as ‘the Western World’ ‘the modern world’ ‘European civilisation’ ‘the British way of life’ ‘middle-class-life’ ‘working-class-life’ ‘Scotland’ and so on. These are the worlds for which one must learn rules, conventions of behaviour, ways of speaking and thinking. (For instance, here in Scotland, with the impending independence referendum, we can expect much ink to be spilled on the subject of ‘what it means to be Scottish.’)

So now I feel the need to change my metaphor: it is not maps and map-making I want, it is the image of the book as a doorway (and its covers as doors, which they much resemble). Books are doors that open into other worlds, parallel universes, if you like. These worlds are imaginary, not just in the sense that they are ‘made up’ as opposed to ‘real’, but in the sense that they are products of the human imagination, which is always (whether it is conscious of it or not) engaging with the same material, namely Life itself.

[I have been careful to avoid saying ‘engaging with the same problem’ or referring to ‘the meaning of life’ because that is to take the viewpoint of the philosopher rather than the artist – though it is interesting to recall what one of the greatest philosophers has said on the matter:

‘The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

(Is this not the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)’

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.521)]

I use the term ‘artist’ in its broadest sense, to include the painter, the musician, the writer, the poet – all who engage in that kind of activity which is neither a means to an end nor even an end in itself, because it cannot be analysed in those terms – it is at once the highest form of human activity (because it is the most characteristically human) and the most pointless (in the best sense, as it is not subordinated to any aim or goal, it is not even its own justification because it does not seek to justify itself).

( Another philosopher, Benedetto Croce, said that ‘art is intuition’ – and if we take intuition to mean, as the Chambers dictionary defines it, ‘the power of the mind by which it immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis’ then I think that is not wide of the mark, though to be sure ‘the truth of things’ is still a phrase to trouble the mind.)

So (draws deep breath, returns to the original path) what the fantasy element of children’s literature offers is not, as I said before, ‘an embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ but rather a vision of Life couched in terms that the child can understand and engage with – it is, on the one hand, saying ‘think of it like this’ and on the other, stripping away the top layer to reveal the working mechanism underneath.

But this is a subject to which I will return.

The Cartography of Childhood

The first house I remember clearly is the second I lived in, from when I was not yet three till shortly before my seventh birthday. It occupied the upper right-hand quarter of a council house that stood at one end of a pair of keyhole-shaped cul-de-sacs that faced one another across a main street. To the right, this street ran past the local shops and on into town; it led to the school where my brothers went and my father was headmaster (my sister was already away at university) and to the church where we went to mass. To the left it ran on some way till it was blocked by a church that I knew was ‘not ours’.

We never had occasion to go that way and I can still recall the sense of looking into foreign territory that came over me when I pedalled my red tricycle as far as the left-hand corner (the express limit of my going – I fell off there once and skinned my knee; a lady came to my assistance). There was no line to mark it, no border post, but I knew that what lay beyond was another place, beyond the limits of my known world. Anything might happen there.

I imagine many children have felt something similar. Our world when we are small is a very limited space, but intensely experienced. Even the home itself, our centre of operations, is not wholly known – there are places where we are not allowed without permission; doors that are closed against us; places – like the space underneath the bed- that acquire, at certain hours of day, a threatening aspect.

Our childhood world is like that of the mediaeval cartographers: so little of it is actually known, so much peopled from our private imaginings. We are constantly engaged in trying to map our world, sometimes from what we are told, as often from what we have worked out ourselves, often with hilarious results. (If you want to test this, try completing the sentence ‘I used to think that…’ I, for instance, used to think that moustaches were an extension of nostril-hair, a notion my drawings faithfully reflected, till a kindly brother set me right.)

Now, where similar structures exist, so does the potential for metaphor. (By structures I mean parts in a particular relation or arrangement) It should be no surprise to find that a great many children’s stories reflect the image of the child’s world that I have given above, with its small known territory bordering on a strange, unknown world that intrigues and daunts us equally. And the substance of these stories is what happens when that border is crossed, which as children we long and fear to do. (Because although that wider world is unknown to us, we know some who go there – it is the realm of those mysterious and powerful beings, Grown-ups.)

Thus Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood venture into the Big Dark Wood; Mole in the Wind in the Willows abandons Rat’s cosy fireside to investigate the Wild Wood; Bilbo leaves the safe confines of the Shire in search of dragon’s gold; the children in Elidor pass through the ruined church to another world beyond; Colin and Susan find another world under Alderley Edge, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; Will Stanton is initiated into the realm of the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising.

Fantasy literature is often misunderstood, generally by earnest people who have forgotten what it is like to be a child. We need to remind ourselves that the reality of a child’s world is that the greater part of it is unknown and mysterious, a place where anything might happen; and we need to remind ourselves also that a child’s expectations of what life is all about are not as jaded as ours may have become. We need to see that the general qualities of fantasy reflect exactly the child’s expectations of life, of the grown-up world where (as they are repeatedly told) ‘you’ll be able to do what you like’ – both are wonderful, amazing, terrifying, filled with marvels and magic, limitless in their possibilities. The fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world.

(However, on reflection, I do not think this is quite right – for more, see here)