The beginning place

The beginning place; Alan Garner and the deeps of time

“Everything Alan Garner has published has been published for children.  This simple fact has seriously distorted criticism of Garner’s work; …… My concern, therefore, will be with the words on the page and with the space between the words.  Only when the quality of the words is established does the nature of their audience become more than a matter for parochial concern. …… It seems best simply to leave the books to be enjoyed by those who enjoy them, adults or children, and to judge them on their purely literary qualities.” (Neil Philip, A fine anger; a critical introduction to the works of Alan Garner. London: Collins, 1981) 7-8

This study will partly diverge from Philip by considering the relationship of the works to themes of maturation and growth in young readers.

Philip begins his first chapter;

“Alan Garner has not simply produced a number of books but a coherent oeuvre, in which every book is a comment on and refinement of its predecessors.  The books cross-refer and intertwine, and the same themes, blighted love, isolation, confrontation with the Godhead, redemption, recur throughout.  In particular, the books are held together by myth, and by an abiding interest in the nature of the mythical.” (21)

And he later quotes Garner as saying;

“It is the same story every time only in different guises.” (150)

My own study will focus on: Elidor; The Owl Service and Red Shift, with only brief reference to: The Weirdstone of Brisangamen; The Moon of Gomrath and The Stone Book quartet.[1]

The first two novels do not concern themselves with growth and development within the child protagonists.  The children respond to situations, but do not grow because of them.  Neil Philip comments;

“The main criticisms to be voiced against these early books are self-evident.  Firstly Colin and Susan are little more than ciphers.  The flatness of the child characters, Garner tells us in ‘Coming to Terms’, was the result of a deliberate artistic policy:  ‘The children are my own mistake, but it was done deliberately.  I wanted them to be camera lenses through which we look and do not become involved because I wanted to look at the external primary colours of the fantasy.’  By the end of The moon of Gomrath Garner was aware of the failure of this idea; his growing dissatisfaction with his bland creations is illustrated by his first ending for that book, in which the Morrigan approaches Colin ‘& wrung the little bugger’s neck’”.  (Philip, 41-42)

By contrast The stone book quartet, although it is undeniably about identity and self-acceptance, cannot be said to expound those themes through the traditional devices of Fantasy.  There is still mysticism there, what Philip calls “…… a constant sense of something more, something greater, behind the events described, an alchemical transmutation of the dross of everyday into the gold of every day.” (141) Yet the books remain outside the genre.

This leaves the three “middle” books; Elidor; The Owl Service; Red Shift; and the last of these is itself a borderline case worthy of an author who is obsessed with boundaries.  These three seem to me to fulfil, to a lesser or greater extent, the criteria of Fantasy as it is used to explore the nature of identity and of wholeness of personality; maturation; the search for autonomy and integration.

Philip confirms this view;

“Garner is one of the most able of the writers who have sought in the last twenty years to explore the disjointed and troubled psychological and emotional landscape of the twentieth century through the symbolism of myth and folklore: myth is used as a diagnostic tool in the examination of contemporary ills.  Central to Garner’s writing is a concern with patterning, with repetitive cycles of experience, which he has explored by structuring his stories around myths and legends.  Although the use of mythology has become less overt in his later work, and the magical trappings of the earlier books, plundered willy-nilly from whatever source came to hand, have been discarded, myth is still the energy source which powers hi writing.  The patterns have simply become barer, and more essential, until in Red shift it is well-nigh impossible for the reader to discern beneath the complex narrative scheme the story of the ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ on which Garner assures us the book is based.” (21)

Reading Elidor, it is still possible to trace quite easily the mythical and legendary sources of the motifs employed; the wasteland and the maimed King are from the Grail legend, and the adventure which opens the book is based on the story of Childe Roland. Elidor fits into the genre perhaps best described as modern fairy-tale; a story employing many of the techniques of the traditional tale.  It comes near to the methods of High Fantasy, taking its characters into an otherworld at the beginning.  Most of the action, however, takes place in our world, specifically in Garner’s own childhood home.  Philip quotes Garner’s reasons for choosing Low Fantasy;

“In an article written in 1968 Garner explained why he wrote about magic and the supernatural impinging on the real world rather than writing self-contained fantasies of the Tolkien type ‘If we are in Eldorado and we find a mandrake, then OK, so it’s a mandrake: in Eldorado anything goes.  But, by force of imagination, compel the reader to believe that there is a mandrake in a garden in Mayfield Road, Ulverston, Lancs, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possibly the reader will too.’” (25)

Garner believes that the force of the magical elements will be stronger if they affect events this world.  He is aware of the significance of place, of the need to belong, to find the right place, to fit into and to accept oneself.  Poignancy is heightened in Garner to a tragic pitch by his protagonists’ ultimate failure to win the battle for self-acceptance and self-control.  There is triumph at the end of Elidor, but it is qualified, mitigated by grief.

Philip does not find in Elidor any clear concern with “social maturity” (62) Yet I feel the book to be very much concerned with Roland and his search for identity, meaning and purpose in his life, and that this does involve some exploration on Garner’s part of the themes of responsibility and selflessness as indicators of emotional and social maturity and of personal validity.  There is even a crucial moment of commitment for Roland that stands with the taking of the Ring as a heartfelt dedication to a cause.  Roland agrees to go into the mound of Vandwy to recover the treasures of Elidor for Malebron; but he gets the courage for this from his sense of loyalty to others.  His brother and sister are trapped in the mound, and he feels he has no choice but to rescue them.  Hence any dedication to the cause of “Good” here is unconscious and bound up in the specific act of rescuing his loved ones.  It is only later than Roland begins to conceive of himself as in some way allied with Malebron in the battle between light and dark forces in Elidor.  Nevertheless a quest has been undertaken, and in very traditional terms; to go into the Magic place – the place of death, the dark tower, the underworld – and rescue the good that is trapped there.  In this quest, Roland is successful.  He rescues Helen from the equivalent of Elfland, just as his original in the ballad does. (‘Childe Roland’ in; Joseph Jacobs, English fairy tales. London: Bodley Head, 1968) 74-99 & 303-309.

But this is a beginning, not an end, to Roland’s story.  It is no part of tradition for the hero to be followed into his future life in the real world and for the reader to see him struggling with the consequences of his commitment. In a book written so lucidly as to be accessible to a very young readership, Garner gives us a protagonist who, on completion of his heroic quest, has hardly begun to come to terms with himself, with the negative and destructive side of his psyche, or with his place in the family that is the chief element in his social context.  The conflict between good and evil that is happening in Elidor comes back with Roland into the heart of the family; where it becomes obvious to the analytical reader at least, that the whole thing is an embodiment of what is going on within Roland.

Here Garner is making greater use of folktale technique than may be immediately obvious.  He takes us back to Le Guin’s assertion that Fantasy is about, that its actions take place in, the unconscious mind. (‘Fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night’ World, 21st November, 1976.)

On one level of interpretation, Elidor is Roland’s unconscious dimension.  Malebron, the maimed King who rules in this wasteland, is the dark side of Roland.  He has power, but is crippled.  He is ambivalent, the representative of the light or good force in Elidor, yet demanding and manipulative of the children, uncaring of their individual needs.  He is expressive of Roland’s own sense of not belonging, of being odd, of being undervalued.  (Note that Malebron tells him that here, in Elidor, he, the youngest and the weakest, is the strongest and most significant).  This is clear evidence that the land of Elidor and the figure of Malebron are externalisations, of the type used in folktale and Fantasy, of aspects of Roland. Garner then carries this externalisation over into our dimension.  Leaving behind the Otherworld and its King, he next embodies Roland’s disturbed state of mind in the peculiar happenings that take place around him because of the presence in our world of the treasures from Elidor.  The burial of the treasure in the garden signifies Roland’s attempts to repress his still unresolved feelings of self-doubt and resentment.  The misbehaviour of the electrical objects in the Watson household becomes, according to this reading, a kind of poltergeist manifestation of Roland’s strong repressed emotion.  Garner uses this theme again at the beginning of The Owl Service, and the literature of the subject suggests that such manifestations are indeed chiefly associated with young boys and adolescent – specifically menstruating – girls. (Benjamin B Wolman, Handbook of parapsychology New York: Van Nostrand Rheinhold, 1977) 385-387.

There is a good deal in Roland of the despised youngest son of three, who in fairy tales of the traditional kind would be fated to come out on top in a blaze of glorious self-justification. (Bruno Bettelheim, The uses of enchantment; the meaning and importance of fairy-tales Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978) 75-78.

Less optimistically, Garner shows how Roland’s desperate attempts to make himself important only bring trouble on himself and others.  It is even partly true that Elidor is saved in spite of, rather than because of, Roland’s efforts in the second part of the story.

Back in the real world, Roland becomes passionately enamoured of the idea of himself as the champion of Good, the ally of Malebron, dedicated to the salvation of Elidor.  He sees himself, as it were, as the hero of a children’s quest story, with a high destiny to fulfil.  This runs up against obdurate reality in the face of the other children’s cynicism about or fearful rejection of the otherworld experience.  This is part of a pattern in his life;

“’Come off it, Roland.  You’re always imagining things.’ That was a family joke.” (127)

It is on this family tradition that the others rely.  Nicholas falls back on the idea of mass hallucination, David on coincidence, as explanations of their experience.  Helen simply tries to avoid the subject.  This rouses Roland in two ways.  The best side of him is inspired by the thought that he is the only one loyal to Elidor and the only one who can protect his unheeding family.  He performs an act of self-giving love in order to break down the door between Elidor and his home, and so save his family from invasion and attack. (106) At this point he does achieve a high degree of self-awareness and accepts that the existence of this door is his responsibility, that he has a duty to unmake it.  Unfortunately, he is not mature enough to be aware of his own mixed motives or the dark impulses in himself.  He believes he clings to Elidor for Elidor’s sake; but partly he clings to it for reasons of self-validation, to make himself feel important.  And it is the urge to be important in his sibling’s eyes that leads him into an act of hubris parallel with Ged’s in releasing the Shadow.  Determined to make the other three see that he is right, he forces them to look at the partially manifested evil from Elidor.  And the four children are trapped into becoming the means by which the men can enter this world.

“‘I didn’t mean it,’ said Roland.  ‘I only wanted to show you – so you’d know.’ (127)

Roland has allowed out, into his relationships with the world and other people, something from the darkness of his inner self which is destructive and self-seeking.  Much of this story converges on the issue of Roland’s identity and nature and what he should become.  It is a story of the need for maturity, the struggle for self-realisation and acceptance, rather than of its achievement.  Even the other children are to some degree externalisations of Roland’s feelings, of other aspects of the completed self that he has not yet integrated:  David’s common-sense; Nicholas’ attempts to live without taking account of the inner dimensions of experience (“I thought if we dropped this Elidor business we’d be all right.”); Helen’s instinctual, loving response to Findhorn that causes him to sing, while Roland’s anguished cries only betray him to death; all these have to work together at the climax, in order to save Elidor.  Again this is the technique of folktale or Fantasy, the collaboration of four characters standing for the achievement of integration within the protagonist.  But that achievement is here portrayed as makeshift and temporary.

There has been much discussion of the ending of Elidor.  Philip describes it as “ambivalent” and speaks of “a strong sense of loss, of anti-climax, of wrongness.” (Philip, 47) Elidor is gloriously safe; but Findhorn the Unicorn – an aspect of Roland? – is horribly dead.  Does this mean, as Philip suggests, that Roland is irreparably damaged by his experience, a forerunner of the next two protagonists of Garner’s works, Gwynn and Tom?  Or might it be only that Garner has seen that no victory is without its price?  That if Roland has come to terms with his darker side, he has also paid for it as Frodo paid with his finger and his peace of mind?  Erich Neumann records the sense of loss that comes with every gain (The great mother; an analysis of the archetype 2nd Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972) 66-67) and on that basis it could be argued that this is a genuine instance of a Fantasy adventure embodying a growth experience.  No doubt it will continue to be argued the other way.  At any event, this is undoubtedly a book about the formation of the self-concept and about the changes and developments necessary in the individual if she or he is to cope adequately with relationships and events.  To that extent it puts to Roland the traditional question; “What are you like?” Garner’s presentation of a protagonist who cannot face up to this question is his original and personal use of the traditional framework.

“The Owl Service” says Philip definitely and unhelpfully, “is not a Fantasy, but a novel about human relationships, a tripartite examination of the destructive power of possessive love”. (Philip, 72) In fact the book seems to operate on both levels. On the realistic or surface level, there are novelistic techniques employed and on the mythic level the symbolic and externalising elements of Fantasy are present.  The levels are so skilfully blended as to be almost inextricable.  On every level, the book is a “… story of the damage people do each other, not only through evil in themselves, but through the unhappy combination of circumstances that throws otherwise harmless personalities together.” (Garner, ‘A bit more practice’ Times literary supplement children’s books June 6th, 1968) 577-578.

In this passage Garner is explaining that he perceived this to be the story of the Mabinogion tale, ‘Math son of Mathonwy’, that forms the mythic basis for the novel, when he first saw it. So The Owl Service is telling a contemporary story within the framework of the myth, in order to bring out at once the timeless relevance of the myth and the symbolic significance of the events of “ordinary” lives.  Timelessness, the sense in which the basic realities of human life remain unaltered by time and surface conditions, is one of Garner’s themes; Alison says to Gwyn;

‘“I don’t know where I am.  “Yesterday”, “today”, “tomorrow” – they don’t mean anything.  I feel they’re here at the same time: waiting.”’ (68)

To the sense of the insignificance of time, Garner adds his strong sense of the significance of place.  The Welsh valley of Llanymawddwy is a kind of reservoir for the trapped emotions of the original three protagonists, Lleu, Gronwy and Blodeuwedd.  Huw is fatalistically aware of it, telling Gwyn;

“Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronwy Pebyre.  They are the three who suffer every time, for in them the power of this valley is contained, and through them the power is loosed”. (72)

On the Fantasy level the myth is being used to express the tendency in human love for possessiveness and jealousy to cause damage to human personalities.  The possessive love of Arianrhod, mother of Lleu, forces him into the relationship with Blodeuwedd, which is a failure and leads to his death and later to that of his rival, Gronwy.  On the realistic level this is repeated in the brooding presence offstage of Margaret, the mother of Alison, whose dominance and need to control her daughter’s life and relationships trigger the resentments of class, education and sexual jealousy in Gwyn, the modern embodiment of Gronwy.  In one sense the novel could be conceived of as the story of one maturing consciousness and its relationship with mother-figure.  Carolyn Gillies sees the Triple Aspect Moon Goddess, the Great Mother, behind the triangulations in all Garner’s novels up to and including Red Shift. (Gillies 110-11) Neumann explains the various aspects of the Goddess as expressive of the ambivalence, within the psyche, of the Mother archetype, particularly of the oppositions of caring and possessiveness perceived in the same mother-figure by every immature individual. (Neumann, Chapter 3) Neil Philip notices Garner’s tendency to present a “… narrowing, limiting image of woman as either earth mother or world bitch …” (Philip, 154)   It is against the image of the mother than the growing individual first begins to conceive of its own identity, of its existence as a separate self.  (Bruno Bettelheim, The empty fortress; infantile autism and the growth of the self (New York: The free press, 1972) 37.

And Ravenna Helson, quoted by Philip, refers to The owl service in these terms;

“The characters represent different forces within the personality, and a compelling sense of the interrelation of these forces permeates the story”. ‘Through the pages of children’s books’ Psychology Today 7 (November 1973) 107-117.


Philip is sceptical about this, but Gillies quotes Garner as saying that in the original myth “…Gronw is Lleu and Lleu is Gronw…” (Gillies, 114)  So on the realistic level, the story is one of three teenagers who are each in difficult relationships with their respective mothers; but on the mythic level, represented by the Mabinogion theme and is intrusion into modern life, it is one of the male personality struggling to emerge into a state of autonomy and integration but thwarted by its inability to cope with the feminine – at once the feminine side of itself and the external relationship with women that has been conditioned and distorted by the relationship with the actual mother and the resultant archetype of the female within the individual.  Just as in Elidor, the mythic framework is expressive of what is going on in the unconscious.  It is not possible to fix on one of the young protagonists as a centre, such as Roland provided, and say that the other characters or situations are externalisations of the inner state of that one character.  There is no whole character from which the others can be projected.  The male protagonist is wholly externalised in Gwyn and Roger, and to a lesser extent in Huw and Clive.  The need is for integration; control; acceptance and awareness of the powers within the self – the valley – and how they may be channelled for good rather than for destructiveness.  The young male’s own capacity for love may be either a giving or a taking force.  Until someone is willing to give, the pattern cannot be broken. Huw voices the fear that it never will, that the spirit of Blodeuwedd will be compelled always to manifest itself in the destructive owl embodiment rather than in the gentleness of flowers.

“‘She is coming, and will use what she finds, and you have only hate in you.’ Said Huw.  ‘Always and always and always.’” (154)


Although the release of hatred does at least purge the valley of its sickness, until next time, it cannot prevent the repetition of the tragedy, whereby each time one of the males involved is killed.  It cannot finally heal the valley – the inner self.  Blodeuwedd “wants to be flowers”; the female principle tends towards beneficence, towards caring; but she needs a self-giving response to meet her efforts.  Roger provides it and breaks the pattern.  Where his original, Lleu, hid behind a stone to try to avoid the spear of Gronwy – the symbol of the suffering consequent upon Lleu’s own actions – Roger stands humbly before the taunting of Gwyn, accepting by implication his own guilt and his awareness of the consequences of his own destructive attitude towards Gwynn.  He breaks out of what has been a state of extreme self-absorption to reach out to Alison and save her from destructiveness; the owl manifestations give way to flowers.

Gwynn, however, is left, hurt and desolate, as Findhorn the unicorn was left bleeding to death as the negative side of Roland’s achievement in self-development.  In Garner, the cost of growth is always tremendous pain, damage that can never truly be healed.  Something dies for the good of something else, so that something else in the psyche can live.  The image is perhaps more of overcoming and striving to leave behind what is too immature to be of service to the new self, than one of integration of all the elements of the self.  Here one thinks of Gillies’ reference to the death of the surrogate King, or dark twin. (Gillies, 114) It is as if the dark side must suffer and die as a punishment, an expiation of guilt.  Nevertheless, even Garner’s tragically painful image of triumph won at great cost, still sounds a note of victory; Roger’s self-conquest is allowed to result in the moving beauty of the end of The Owl Service;

“And the room was full of petals from skylight and rafter, and all about them a fragrance, and petals, flowers falling, broom, meadowsweet, falling, flowers of the oak.” (156)

Patterns in human behaviour can be broken through, and true individual awareness may come.  Roger, impelled by love for Alison, is moved to accept responsibility and duty towards others.  He has begun to grow up; he has achieved his quest.

Of Red Shift, Neil Philip says;

“The book’s basic premise is that the most important, and the most difficult task in life is the establishment of loving contact between two people, the breaking down of barriers….This private, internal struggle…” (Philip, 88)

This renders the Fantasy level of the book more important than it might appear at first glance.  Firstly, the theme of the struggle of the young male for identity, against the backdrop of the tension between himself and his mother, is carried over into this book from The owl service and is very aptly expressed in the ‘Tam Lin’ theme of the beloved young man enthralled by the Queen of Elfland. (‘Tam Lin’ in; Helen Gardner, The new Oxford book of English verse: 1250-1950 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) 356-361. The jealous “queen o’ Fairies” is one embodiment of the possessive mother, as is Tom’s mother on the realistic level of the story.

Secondly, the love-theme is itself important; Bettelheim explains the significance of the marriage with which so many traditional fairy-tales end;

“All the stories considered so far convey that if one wishes to gain selfhood, achieve integrity, and secure one’s identity, difficult developments must be undergone: hardships suffered, dangers met, victories won.  Only in this way can one become master of one’s fate and win one’s kingdom.  What happens to the heroes and heroines in fairy tales can be likened – and has been compared – to initiation rites which the novice enters naïve and unformed, and which dismiss him at their end on a higher level of existence undreamed of at the start of this sacred voyage through which he gains his reward or salvation.  Having truly become himself, the hero or heroine has become worthy of being loved.

But meritorious as such self-development is, and while it may have our soul, it is still not enough for happiness.  For this, one must go beyond one’s isolation and form a bond with the other.  On however high a plane his life may proceed, the I without the Thou lives a lonely existence.  The happy endings to fairy-tales, in which the hero is united to his life’s partner, tell this much.  But they do not tell what the individual must do to transcend his isolation after he has won his selfhood. …… Merely being oneself is not enough ……  One becomes a complete human being who has achieved all his potentialities only if, in addition to being oneself, one is at the same time able and happy to be oneself with another.  To achieve this state involves the deepest layers of our personality.  Like any transmutation which touches our innermost being, it has dangers which must be met with courage and presents problems which must be mastered.  The message of these fairy stories is that we must give up childish attitudes and achieve mature ones if we wish to establish that intimate bond with the other …” Bettelheim, The uses of enchantment, 278-279.


I have quoted this at length specifically because of what it has to say about Tom and Jan in Red Shift.  The lover trapped in Elfland, needing to be rescued by his beloved is the over-protected boy with the dominant mother.  This time the protagonist is asked to prove his maturity by his attitude to his beloved; and the modern time-strand of the story, he fails, crippled by self-pity and anger, punishing Jan for what the mother has done to him.  Macey and Thomas, in the earlier time-levels, have a greater respect for the feminine and for their loved ones.  This is signified by both of them handling the votive axe with the respect demanded by the woman, while Tom disposes of it without any idea that he will hurt Jan by doing so.  Also, Macey refrains from sexually abusing the Maiden, and so survives where his comrades die; while Thomas overcomes resentment of his namesake’s rape of Margery to such an extent that he is even able to welcome the idea that she may be pregnant with Venables’ child.  Tom can only see Jan’s brief affair with another man as an offence against himself.  Loyalty to their women rescues the two earlier men; self-absorption leaves Tom trapped in his enchanted state, a sort of bipolar condition which stands for enchantment in Elfland as do Macey’s rages and Tomas’s fits.  Tom blames Jan for telling her parents about this; but it could be argued that like Blodeuwedd, “She wants to be flowers”; it is Tom’s bitterness that makes him see her as owls.

It is worth mentioning one dimension that Bettelheim does not cover; namely that the union between a male and a female character in a folk tale may on one level stand for the reconciliation with the opposite principle within the individual; anima in the male and animus in the female.  However, successful integration on this level and successful relationships are inextricably bound up, and both strands of meaning must be present in any folk-tale or Fantasy which, like Red Shift, is concerned to explore this aspect of maturation.

In Red Shift the traditional techniques of Fantasy are still present and still operating powerfully on some levels of the text.  Here are Philip’s concluding remarks on Garner.

“He is concerned with the traversal of boundaries within the self, with the refinement of consciousness.  Through the manipulation of history, of the myths which are man’s [sic] spiritual history and of the metaphysics of time and space he enlarges our understanding of the human condition …… Essentially, he seeks in his work to reconcile ‘the natural forces in the world and the hidden forces in ourselves.’” (Philip, 156)


[1] This study dates from 1984 and originally formed part of my thesis – it is here shortened and edited.  See HERE