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

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

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.