I am so honoured that HarperCollins recently sent me copies of the new, beautiful reissues of Alan Garner's classic children's books to review and share. Alan Garner is a national treasure. His most recent book 'Treacle Walker' was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and his children's books, published from the 1960s onwards, are prize-winning and shaped the imagination of readers of all ages. His books are strange, powerful, wild and sometimes avoid classification. They are like spells; special and enchanting. Over the summer, I will be taking a deep dive into his books and sharing what treasures I find. First up, Elidor...
I first encountered Alan Garner's books when I was in Year 6 in the mid 90s. The covers of his books looked terrifying, and with every other child reading the Goosebumps series, Garner's books looked like something more mature, darker, more fantastical and weird. At the time I was enjoying reading the fantasy of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and discovering the terror and beauty of Greek myths. Alan Garner offered another kind of mythic experience. Fortunately, my Year 6 teacher was hugely encouraging of our reading interests, and so one day she chose to read Garner's Elidor to the class for story-time. I was gripped. When she finished reading, my best friend and I role-played the story on the landing by my bedroom, jumping across the stairwell to pretend it was a crossing between worlds, while using common objects from the house as magical, secret Treasures. Not long later, while I re-read the book myself, the Elidor series appeared on TV and it only ignited my imagination further. These children were my age, propelled into a strange and disturbing adventure.
Elidor is different. It is a book I return to every so often and each time I discover something new. What marks out Garner's fiction first is its length. There have been recent debates on social media about how middle grade children's books today are too long; that librarians and booksellers are calling out for shorter, more compact books to recommend. Alan Garner's books have always been short, yet they are also huge in imaginative, mythic scope. His books are bigger than the sum of their parts. They are macrocosms in microcosmic form. In under 200 pages or so, he can expand our perceptions of time, memory, space and myth. If you have read his recent 'Treacle Walker', you will know what I mean.
And Elidor is no exception. Arguably, and Garner would probably admit this himself, Elidor was when he found his ability to conjure so much with so little; to drive the plot through sharp dialogue and just enough potent description to give you goose-flesh while filling in the gaps with your own imagination. Garner is not just a brilliant storyteller, he's an enchanter. His books cast you into a dream and when you awake, something has changed in you.
Elidor started as a radio play in 1962 before Alan Garner felt there was more to tell and so wrote the book, quicker than most of his others, to publish it in 1965. The influence of the radio play is felt in the book. Dialogue kicks the story off, with the Watson children discussing what to do in mid-20th century Manchester. Their 'modern' post-war world is one of ruins, bombed-out buildings and societal change. There are echoes of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland. If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe symbolically transformed the winter of Narnia into spring, then Elidor is about the hope of renewal, bringing light into darkness, from the rubble of the Second World War. Kicking a ball into an abandoned church, the Watson children are quickly plunged into Elidor. But, unlike in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Watson children do not spend long in this other world. Instead, Garner explores the weird and perilous ramifications of returning to the real world with powerful, magical Treasures in tow. Imagine if the children in Narnia had brought back a sword, or even Aslan himself, to post-war Britain, and you get the idea.
And this is something else that marks Alan Garner out from other writers. His books are often about how magic, the mythic can affect the real-world. In broad terms, his books are low-fantasy (rather than the high-fantasy of Tolkien or Lewis) and they verge on the magical-realist. This combination of the magical and the mundane is what makes Elidor so spine-tingling, horrific and magnetic in its imaginative power. Take this from Chapter 9:
'Roland's lips and mouth pricked with the metallic sweetness of the air... There was a strong smell of ozone in the space under the roof. The Treasures were as he had left them... The fine dust that lay over everything did not rise when he disturbed it. It was so charged with static electricity that it clung like fur...'
Garner here describes the effect the magical Treasures have on the environment. It's his compelling blend of magic and science which alarms the reader, and spooks. In this same scene, a threat begins to materialise. Garner is also a master of suspense, of building eerie tension:
'Roland opened his eyes and switched off the torch. In the darkness of the attic the yellow shadows were full size. The air was alive with tiny sparks, and they were the thickest round the outline of the shadows, like iron filings clustering about a magnet.'
Only Garner can conjure such imagery which defies the laws of physics and sends shudders through you. His writing is electric, but not messy. Later in the story, Rolan takes the Treasures to his new house and they cause further disturbances. The TV signal is disrupted, the washing machine goes on and on, and his father's shaver whirrs even when it's unplugged. These scenes are vivid and memorable, but they are also short and allow the reader to imagine more in-between.
Garner also transforms and combines myth and folklore in surprising and subtle ways. The Treasures themselves have their roots in Welsh mythology, the Mabinogion, and Irish mythology, Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann: the sword, the cauldron, the spear and the stone. The character of Roland has his roots in the English folktale 'The Childe Rowland', where Rowland kicks a ball over a church too with his sister disappearing. Rowland finds Merlin to ask for help and then fights an Elf-King with a magic sword. Garner draws on all these aspects, and more besides, for Elidor. Is the mysterious, limping figure of Malebron actually Merlin, or a version of the Fisher King in the Wasteland, who was known for his wound? Garner allows us to speculate and draw the links from our collective mythic-memory; archetypes chiming like the echo of some forgotten bell.
When I read Elidor this time, I discovered things I hadn't before. The children bury the Treasures under the rose bush in their garden, and earlier in the book Garner describes the castle in Elidor as such: 'the floor was strewn with dead roses.' In alchemy, the rose is a transformative symbol, and I hadn't noticed the subtle link Garner makes of the 'rose' across Elidor and our world. The way Garner describes the castle Roland first encounters in Elidor is also very much like Tintagel in Cornwall with the cliffs, gatehouse and drawbridge (another subtle Arthurian link?)
Elidor is bigger than the sum of its parts. It is around 205 pages long with spindly, strange illustrations by Charles Keeping (still the same from its 1965 publication) and conjures a dream of myth, magic, modernity and the mundane. The new reprints have brilliantly vivid covers by Chris Wormell, which should tempt new readers, young and old.
In revisiting Elidor, I am reminded of Alan Garner's power and his influence on my own imaginative life. He is not just a children's writer; he writes for every age and for every time. He's a secret druid, immersed in myth, coming up to offer us story treasures and a glimpse into the timeless.
My next deep-dive will be into Garner's 'The Owl Service'. If you want to learn more about Elidor, I have to recommend authors Sinead O'Hart's and Susan Cahill's Storyshaped podcast with its first episode also deep-diving into Elidor: https://shows.acast.com/storyshaped/episodes/a-deep-dive-into-alan-garners-elidor
Thanks for reading!