Alan Garner

views updated

Alan Garner



English novelist, editor, essayist, lecturer, and author of young adult novels, juvenile novels, picture books, fairy tales, and folklore.

The following entry presents an overview of Garner's career through 2001. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volume 20.


Considered among the most important British children's authors of the late twentieth century, Garner has been noted for his skillful evocation of folk traditions and the multiple layers of meaning contained in his texts. Winner of both the prestigious Caldecott and Guardian Awards for The Owl Service (1967), several of Garner's novels are considered classics within the fantasy genre. His early books, including The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963), and Elidor (1965), are reminiscent of the fantasy literature tradition popularized by J. R. R. Tolkien. With such later works as The Owl Service and his Stone Book Quartet series, however, Garner's interest in fantasy has become more closely enmeshed with the realistic English landscape of his childhood, and his efforts to preserve the folk tales and cultural heritage of his native England have been cited as exemplary by several reviewers. While Garner's more recent novels have been more oriented towards an adult audience, most of his children's books remain in print and a part of the landscape of English children's literature.


Garner was born on October 17, 1934, in his grandmother's home in Congleton, Cheshire, England. He is the descendent of a long line of skilled craftsmen from Alderley Edge, where he spent most of his childhood and near where he resides today. Alderley Edge earned its name from the six-hundred-foot ragged cliff that his family and neighbors had mined for generations for its rich deposits of copper and stone. The son of Colin and Marjorie Garner, he spent much of his youth crippled by a series of severe illnesses—diphtheria, meningitis, and pneumonia—which kept him confined at home. Nonetheless, Garner not only survived these painful bouts, but also became an excellent student and the first member of his family to earn a place in higher education. Upon his graduation from Manchester Grammar School, Garner left Cheshire for Magdalen College, Oxford, where he majored in English literature. Leaving Oxford before taking his degree, Garner returned to Cheshire, to a medieval timber-framed house situated about eight miles from Alderley. After a two year service in the Royal Artillery as a Second Lieutenant, Garner returned to the Alderley Edge area and began writing the first of many young adult novels that prominently featured Alderley Edge as their setting. His first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, has the subtitle “A Tale of Alderley,” and his later books borrowed variously from the terrain of Alderley, aspects of Garner's familial legacy, and events from his own life. He has been married twice, to Ann Cook in 1956 and Griselda Greaves in 1972, and is the father of five children, Ellen, Adam, Katherine, Joseph, and Elizabeth. Diagnosed with manic depression and bipolar disorder, Garner has struggled with his emotional health, though, despite such hardships, he has become one of England's most honored writers. Among his more prestigious awards are his Guardian Award and Carnegie Medal for The Owl Service, making him the first author to win both awards for a single work. Further, Garner's Stone Book Quartet series won the 1996 Phoenix Award, Elidor was included among the runners-up for the 1965 Carnegie Medal, and he was presented with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for “services to literature” in the New Year's Honours list in 2001.


Garner's works for children have been variously described as dark, haunting, angry, and vivid. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is primarily about its setting, the countryside around Alderley Edge. All the magical beings, including wizards, witches, trolls, dwarfs, “svarts,” elves, “stromkarls,” and a lady of the lake, are tied to the Edge, a forested bluff in the flat Cheshire landscape. The story is based on a local legend incorporating the sleeping king motif associated in England with King Arthur. The story describes the sale of a milk-white mare to a wizard who guards 140 sleeping knights in a cavern under Alderley Edge. When farmer Gowther Mossock tells the tale to two visiting children named Colin and Susan, they set out to find the Iron Gates that lead to the wizard. The children's game leads abruptly to an attack by a pack of grinning svarts and rescue by the wizard himself, who calls himself Cadellin. The novel's sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, involves Colin and Susan once again meeting Cadellin and setting forth to unlock ancient magic long ago bound by powerful wizards. In Elidor, four children, playing a game with a street map, wander into the slums, where a ragged fiddler unlocks a gateway into another world. In that world, Roland, the youngest child, finds himself alone in a forest as dead as the slum neighborhood; this new land, Elidor, is somehow analogous to our own. The fiddler reappears as a king named Malebron and sends Roland into a burial mound to rescue his siblings and to retrieve the lost treasures of Elidor. Those will help Malebron fight the blight on his land. Roland succeeds, and the children bring the treasures to Malebron, as foretold in an ancient Elidorian prophecy.

In Garner's later novels, such as The Owl Service and Red Shift (1973), the author foregoes linear storytelling and expresses time as almost a cyclical entity. For instance, Red Shift contains three separate stories linked by the same Neolithic votive axe. However, despite their examination of violence and male/female relationships, the stories are set within three dramatically different eras: the second century AD, the 1640s and the English Civil War, and the 1970s. In each, the axe serves as a totem, though to different effect. The history of the axe is violent; ancient soldier Macey wields it for violent means, until he is shown his abuse of power by a local tribal girl, and he buries it. Discovered by Thomas in 1640, it is witness to the siege of Bartomley—the same village attacked by Macey—although Thomas is safely guided through the turmoil by Madge, who takes him to her cottage on Mow Cop where the axe is hung as a charm. Contemporary couple Tom and Jan finds the axe, and Jan venerates it as a symbol of their relationship. When Tom discovers evidence of an affair by Jan, he sells the axe in revenge and is abandoned by Jan. In a coded appendix, the reader is led to believe that Tom intends to kill himself as a result.

The three stories are linked by more than just the axe: each couple interprets its import differently, offering wildly different results. Similarly, The Owl Service offers a recurring vision of events based upon the Welsh myth cycle of the Mabinogion. Borrowed from the fourth cycle of that legendary collection of stories, The Owl Service retells the story of Lleu llaw Gyffes, his wife, Blodeuwedd, and her lover Gronw. Their tragic tale, which ends in the transformation of Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment for her infidelity and the death of Gronw at the hands of Lleu, has been altered by Garner into a repeating cycle of tragedy in the Welsh valley in which it has been set. The book relates the story of Alison and Roger—two English children from London—and Gwyn, the Welsh son of the caretaker for the home in which they are spending the summer. The children are forced to relive the doomed love triangle begun by Blodeuwedd through the magics of an enchanted setting of plates with images that can be seen either as owls or flowers, much like Blodeuwedd, who had been created from flowers and forced into submission as an owl for her crimes.

Eschewing his typical fantastic settings, with his Stone Book series, Garner presents a “quartet” of interrelated stories depicting four generations of a working-class family in Cheshire, England, spanning the mid-nineteenth-century through the World War II era. Set in Victorian England, the first volume of the series, The Stone Book (1976), tells the story of a young girl who begins to learn the significance of history, cultural meaning, and time when her father takes her to a remote cave and tells her to “read” the ancient paintings on the wall. Granny Reardun (1977), the second volume of the series, treats the theme of family and history through another angle, depicting a boy who decides to abandon his grandfather's stone masonry trade in favor of apprenticeship to a blacksmith. The saga continues with the final stories of the quartet, The Aimer Gate (1978), in which the destructive impact of World War I is addressed, and Tom Fobble's Day (1977), a coming-of-age story in which a young boy acquires the courage and confidence to sled down one of the highest hills he can find. Following the Stone Book Quartet, Garner published several picture books and collections of folktales based on classical legends, including Alan Garner's Book of British Fairy Tales (1984), Jack and the Beanstalk (1985), A Bag of Moonshine (1986), Little Red Hen (1997), Grey Wolf, Prince Jack, and the Firebird (1998), and The Well of the Wind (1998), among others.


Despite Garner's highly favorable reputation with international critics, his canon of young adult novels has not achieved the same level of repute with juvenile audiences. Linnea Hendrickson has noted that, “[t]he number of words written about Garner is extremely high in proportion to the number of words he has written. And, as often happens in the world of children's books, while his books are marketed for children, they are mostly discussed by adults from adult perspectives.” However, while his works are not record-breaking best-sellers, the fact that most of Garner's more prominent books have remained in print over a quarter century since their initial release in both England and North America speaks to their popularity with certain segments of young readers. Donna R. White has contended that Garner's canon is replete with “multilayered, carefully crafted, psychologically truthful works,” offering special praise for The Owl Service, which she calls “a concise, polished, and profound piece of literature … a landmark in children's literature for young adults.” Similarly, Bronwyn Davies has suggested that The Moon of Gomrath “is a classic, I would suggest, because it is of lasting significance, not because it is an exemplar of the highest art or because it sets a standard.” Other critics have posited that the complexity and intellectual depth of Garner's novels occasionally make them inaccessible to the author's intended audience. Charles Butler has called Red Shift “a difficult text: unpredictable, experimental, demanding of its readers' intellectual and imaginative involvement.”


The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley (young adult novel) 1960; published in the United States as The Weirdstone: A Tale of Alderley, 1961

The Moon of Gomrath (young adult novel) 1963

Elidor [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (young adult novel) 1965

The Old Man of Mow [photographs by Roger Hill] (juvenile novel) 1966

The Owl Service (young adult novel) 1967

A Cavalcade of Goblins [editor; illustrations by Krystyna Turska] (fairy tales) 1969; published in the United Kingdom as The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins, 1969

Red Shift (young adult novel) 1973

The Breadhorse [illustrations by Albin Trowski] (picture book) 1975

The Guizer: A Book of Fools (folktales) 1975

The Stone Book [etchings by Michael Foreman] (juvenile novel) 1976

Granny Reardun [etchings by Michael Foreman] (juvenile novel) 1977

Tom Fobble's Day [etchings by Michael Foreman] (juvenile novel) 1977

The Aimer Gate [etchings by Michael Foreman] (juvenile novel) 1978

*Alan Garner's Fairy Tales of Gold. 4 vols. [illustrations by Michael Foreman] (fairy tales) 1979

The Lad of the Gad (folktales) 1980

The Stone Book Quartet [etchings by Michael Foreman] (juvenile novels) 1983

Alan Garner's Book of British Fairy Tales [illustrations by Derek Collard] (fairy tales) 1984

Jack and the Beanstalk (fairy tales) 1985; published in the United States with illustrations by Julek Heller, 1992

A Bag of Moonshine [illustrations by Patrick James Lynch] (folktales) 1986

Once upon a Time, Though It Wasn't in Your Time and It Wasn't in My Time, and It Wasn't in Anybody Else's Time … (folktales) 1993

Strandloper (novel) 1996

Little Red Hen [illustrations by Norman Messenger] (fairy tales) 1997

The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures (essays and lectures) 1997

Grey Wolf, Prince Jack, and the Firebird (picture book) 1998

The Well of the Wind [illustrations by Hervé Blondon] (picture book) 1998

Thursbitch (novel) 2003

*This work was originally published in four volumes in the United Kingdom in 1979, under the titles The Golden Brothers, The Girl of the Golden Gate, The Three Golden Heads of the Well, and The Princess and the Golden Mane. It was published as one volume in the United States in 1980.

Includes The Stone Book, Granny Reardun, Tom Fobble's Day, and The Aimer Gate.


Mavis Reimer (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Reimer, Mavis. “The Family as Mythic Reservoir in Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet.Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14, no. 3 (fall 1989): 132-35.

[In the following essay, Reimer studies the role that family history, familial dynamics, and the power of place histories play in the young adult novels of Garner's Stone Book Quartet.]

I don't think it can be finished…. I think this valley really is a kind of reservoir. The house, look, smack in the middle, with the mountains all round, shutting it in, guarding the house. I think the power is always there and always will be. It builds up and builds up until it has to be let loose—like filling and emptying a dam. And it works through people.
     (The Owl Service 98)

Gwyn in The Owl Service, explaining to Alison his theory about the strange events that have taken place at her cottage that summer, sees the whole of the Welsh valley as a reservoir for the powers of love and hate first generated “hundreds and hundreds of years” before them in a love triangle remembered in local legend. The notion that Gwyn articulates is a common one in the novels of Alan Garner: places that have been the sites of momentous events or objects that have been the catalysts for momentous events are imbued with power. Given the right conjunction of elements, the residual power, whether it is understood or not, is released into another time and, once released, will play out the pattern first imprinted on it. So in The Moon of Gomrath, when Susan unwittingly lights a fire of pinewood on the Beacon mound on the Eve of Gomrath, she unleashes the primitive magic of the Wild hunt on twentieth-century Alderley. In The Owl Service, Alison's paper reconstructions of owls from the flowers of the dinner plates she finds fixes herself, Gwyn, and Roger in the roles of the valley's star-crossed lovers. Birch wood, mountain, and sand quarry in Red Shift remain places of struggle, sanctuary, and sacrifice in times as distant from each other as the first, seventeenth, and twentieth centuries.

The power in itself is neither benevolent nor malevolent. The manifestations of power in the early novels, however, are more often experienced as malevolence than grace because the characters are, for the most part, ineffective either in stopping or channelling the power. It would seem that a knowledge of the paradigmatic pattern should allow access at will to the power of the paradigm. But, in all of Garner's novels, it is only the wizards—Cadellin of the first two books and Malebron of Elidor —who know enough to control to some extent the vehemence of the forces resident in their worlds. Huw of The Owl Service and Tom, Thomas, and Macey of Red Shift know in part, but their knowledge seems only to make them unusually vulnerable to domination by the irrational and mysterious energies of the universe. They are negatives of the wizards. Like the fool Garner describes elsewhere, they are “the shadow that shapes the light” (Guizer n.p.).

The central children of Garner's early novels are not among the empowered. For them, victory is surviving the danger and excitement of an adventure which they do not control, about which they have little understanding, and from which they apparently will gain nothing to bring back to their post-adventure lives. At the conclusion of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, for example, Cadellin tells Susan and Colin that their brief participation in the mythic world has not made them a part of that world and, as the sequel story begins, we see the children mourning the fact that “the woods for them should be empty of anything but loveliness” (Gomrath 15). In fact, the action in both of these novels is fueled by the need of the mythic world to take back talismans that Susan has been given. In both novels, the talismans Susan owns suggest that she is someone other than herself. The bracelet she wears in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, for example, has been given her by her mother who has received it from the family servant, Bess. Although Bess knows that the “Tear” is a family heirloom, she happily relinquishes it to her employer's daughter, whom she sees as “the same as a daughter to me.” Roland in Elidor protests the lack of connection between the world he lives in and the world on the other side of the window: the goal assigned to him—to bring back light to Elidor—has nothing to do with him and is not worth the trial he is asked to undergo. Malebron's answer to Roland's reluctance is rather vague to be convincing: “Our worlds are different, but they are linked in subtle ways, and the death of Elidor would not be without its echo in your world” (37). It is interesting to note that, in the radio play that was the basis for the novel, the children were allowed to keep the grail talismans (Philip 54). In revision, the climactic final scene has the children throwing spear, cauldron, sword, and stone back through the broken window that is the portal to Elidor. The items have always been inconveniences for the children in the Manchester working-class world they inhabit and, increasingly, dangerous as well.

In the novels that follow Elidor, the mythic world is no longer one that the children characters go to at all. Garner's exploration of the interrelationship of mythic, historic, and domestic worlds in both The Owl Service and Red Shift is far more complex and subtle. These two novels usually have been seen as fascinating intellectual exercises by readers, but nevertheless are given ambivalent reviews. Among the common complaints are the lack of resolution of the final scenes and the inclusion of these books on children's lists. I suspect that both of these complaints are reactions to the terror that edges the stories. It is a sense that may be exacerbated in these two novels, but the terror has always been there. In all the early stories, the claim of the mythic world on the children figures is an intrusion and a demonstration that, in some significant sense, the world is not their home.

In The Stone Book Quartet, however, Garner seems to have found a new way to think about his material. That Garner based his four short books published separately between 1976 and 1978 on the oral and written history of his own family is well-known. Neil Philip, in A Fine Anger, suggests more precisely that Garner, “whose feeling that his education had equipped him to appreciate his culture only by stripping him of it burns in the characters of Gwyn and Tom, has been able to both overcome and use this alienation in portraying and understanding his background” in the Quartet (132-33). Philip's introduction is a fascinating look at how linguistic, geographic, and historic facts have shaped Garner's use of his family sources. I too focus on Garner's use of the family, but on an idea of family as the source of power that floats behind the detailed accounts and specific actions of each of the four children in the books.

This idea of the family is never articulated by any of the characters. In fact, if it is understood by them at all, it is an idea that makes them inarticulate; it is the knowledge that “puts a quietness on you.” But the notion that the family is the generator and reservoir of power is the unspoken narrative assumption that makes the 1983 collection of the Quartet a single, new story for the reader. It is, in fact, the fifth story of this book. As in Garner's previous novels, the events of history and prehistory press on the lives of the central children. But Mary, Joseph, Robert, and William do not stumble upon other worlds as strangers, because of guilty possessions, unlucky accidents, or unpredictable conjunctions. These children are given heirlooms and taken places that potentially allow them access to all the meanings that have been found and made by family members over time.

Significantly, the stories of the Quartet represent the first time in Garner's work that children are seen in the context of family life. In each of the other novels, family life has been disrupted before the adventure occurs. Colin and Susan of Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath have been sent away to the home of a former servant in the countryside for six months while their parents live abroad. Elidor opens with the four Watson children trying to fill an afternoon while their parents pack in preparation for a move to a new house. The Owl Service is set in a newly-blended family, Alison's mother having recently married Roger's father. In Red Shift, Jan communicates with her professional and upwardly mobile parents only by telephone or answering machine. Tom's parents, while not upwardly mobile, do live in a caravan and speak at cross-purposes, both to Tom and to each other.

In the Quartet, the context is explicitly the family. The four children, however, are not seen within nuclear family units of parents and children. Mary is shown at home with Mother, Father, and Uncle William; Robert of the third story similarly lives with Mother, Father, and Uncle Charlie. Joseph of the second story is Mary's illegitimate oldest son and lives with his grandparents, not his mother. In the fourth story, William's mother is mentioned, although the story shows William only in relationship with his grandfather. The nuclear family unit is arguably as disrupted in these stories as in Garner's other novels. The difference is that the family here is not so much the complex of relationships surrounding one particular child, as a network of relatedness that extends over time, from the dim mists of prehistory through the upheavals of history to the presents of these children. Father's laconic response to Mary's wonder at the many footprints in the mud of the mythic cave suggests this connection better: “We've been going a while” (47), he says.

In thematic structure, the four stories are analogues of each other. Each narrative tells the story of a pivotal day in the life of a middle-year child. The children are all caught at the moment of their lives when, as Garner has said in another context about adolescence, “the potential universe is open to [their] comprehension” (“Inner Time” 137). It is a paradoxical moment, as the terms of Garner's comment suggest, the universe present in all its potentiality and the mind simultaneously reaching to take it in. These terms are central to the Quartet. In each of the four stories, the universe is opened to the child by the empowering action of a family member, but it is the child who must take the universe in, who must claim the power.

The language of the stories is concrete and the activities routine, but the grand scale of the action is suggested by the metaphors of the opening story. The task, for these children, is to create the world. In fact, there are two versions of creation in Mary's story. The first of these is Mary's climb to the top of the steeple her stonemason father has just finished making. The church spire symbolically is the axis mundi connecting earth and heaven, the world phallus aspiring to the sky. Mary herself associates the climb up the steeple with “being a lad” and describes the sensation of height as that of flying. The details of the description of the weathercock are explicitly sexual. The steeple cap is “a swelling to take the socket for the spike of the golden cockerel” (18) and the “slippery” and “bulging” weathercock has a tail “stiff and high.” The exhilarating ride on the cock is orgasmic:

Father twisted the spike with his hands against the wind, and the spike moved in its greased socket, shaking a bit, juddering, but firm…. “Faster! Faster!” she shouted. “I'm not frit!” She banged her heels on the golden sides, and the weathercock boomed.

Mary, “spinning the air,” sees the world to its horizons. All of the world seems to be organized around the churches that are “everywhere.” It is a world that has not been seen before. “Nobody's been that high,” Father tells her.

Metaphorically, it is a world created in that moment. When the weathercock begins to turn, Mary feels that it is waking. The cock, of course, is the bird that traditionally wakes the world. The weathercock on St. Philip's spire turns in the wind, wind a symbol of spirit. At the height of her ecstatic experience, Mary feels her hair filled by the wind. This is creation seen in the intellectual terms of the first Genesis account, as separation and as the beginning of time. Father alludes to this connection when he suggests to Mary that hers is the view the parsons hold.

The second epiphany is an inversion of the first, but it is again Father who guides Mary to the place that opens up for her another way of composing the world. It is noon when Mary climbs the steeple and dusk when she enters the mine. She associates the fossilized footprints she sees in the ceiling of the tunnel with St. Philip's cockerel, but Father corrects her: this bird is “bigger” and “upside down.” The mine itself is a place “preachers aren't partial to coming down” to.

If the steeple-top experience was ejaculatory, the experience in the cave is a birthing in reverse. Mary passes into the long and winding tunnel over the back of her father and moves down the passage connected umbilically to him by a silk thread. The place she enters is a uterine cavity filled with water. In the prehistoric cave, Mary participates in the one moment of myth, the birth and sacralization of the world.

The world she enters is mythically complete, but caught at the moment of incipient creation. The juxtaposition of mound and water within an enclosed space suggests the containment of all possible landscape, to use Mircea Eliade's terms, while the island rising out of the water suggests the coming-to-be of the world (153). The daubed bull, too, is a powerful type of the cosmological animal that is slain annually to create the world. This is creation seen as incorporation and as recurrent, cyclical process.

In “Achilles in Altjira,” Garner speaks of the “two valid yet mutually exclusive systems that we need if we are to comprehend reality” (5). The two contradictory versions of creation in the opening story of The Stone Book are metaphors of such “mutually exclusive systems.” In describing Mary's visits to church and cave, Garner has attempted both to suggest all of the potentiality of the universe and to contain all that can be seen or thought. Each of the boys in the three stories following Mary's also has an experience of height and the converse experience of depth, the two extremes suggesting the reaches of the universe opened to the child. Joseph in Granny Reardun has an experience of height in his view of St. Philip's spire through Grandfather's “stone arch around the world” (72) and an experience of depth in the smith's cellar. In Robert's story, the two experiences are conflated in his entry into his “secret cave in the air,” an entry possible only because a trapdoor has been “counterweighted by Father with sashcord and bricks” and thus opens “as if somebody was in the bay above, lifting” (122). William in Tom Fobble's Day, steps into the underground room of the smithy through a yard door that he can open with one finger, “because Grandad had made a lead counterweight and hung it by a sashcord, so that the door was balanced” (181). His experience of the exhilaration of height is suggested in the sledding episodes. These contrary movements across thresholds into heights and depths are repeatedly associated, as they are in Mary's story, with two different ways of knowing. Reaching a depth is a celebration of community, an intuitive knowledge, a preservation of the past. Scaling a height is an orientation to the future, an intellectual aspiration, a solitary pursuit.

Given such bifurcation and the nostalgia of Garner's previous novels, it would seem reasonable to predict that finding the reservoir of power will be a matter of the child's reaching the depth and seeing, as Mary does in the cave, that “she wasn't alone” (44) or learning, as Robert does in his “cave in the air,” that he is not “every one” (126). But solitude and the solitary pursuit are not set in opposition to the family in The Stone Book. Potency here certainly has to do with the preservation of family myth and tradition, but it is also something more. Solitary, intellectual, forward-looking pursuits are seen, not as betrayals of family, but as activities that may generate new meanings and understandings that will be contained by the reservoir of the family.

Joseph in Granny Reardun, for example, recognizes that Grandfather in working the stone of church and chapel has opened the world to him, but he feels too that he needs to make his own world. By choosing smithing, he does distinguish himself from his grandfather, but smithing is not only different from stone-cutting, it is the craft on which stonecutting depends. Joseph's solitary pursuit means a movement into the community of the smithy. He insists that this time is his time and that he must move forward, but his movement forward take him “aback of everything.”

That Joseph's craft is incorporated into the reservoir of family tradition and is one of the patterns of meaning for its future generations becomes obvious in the stories that follow his. For Joseph's grandson, William of the fourth story, the wonder of making is inextricably connected to anvil and crucible. His son Robert of the third story believes that Father's craft controls both wind and time in his village. His climb up the inside of the chapel tower allows him to see time “back to front.” Robert sees the world opened up to him by his father's craft, but finds another explanation for it. “That's not escapement. It's fine oil,” he says about his father's lesson on the mechanism of the clock (140). Like his father before him, it seems, he will move forward to get “aback” of things. (The continuation of Robert's story is not part of the Quartet, a gap that Philip finds “ominous” [139]. But oil does become an important image in the last story, a fact that seems to me to make it at least as likely that Robert did “settle to a craft” after all.)

At the conclusion of each story, the child is given a gift that suggests a balance, but not a resolution, of the two ways of knowing—aspiration and preservation, intellect and instinct, the solitary and the communal. In Mary's story, the paradox of the two “mutually exclusive systems” is insisted on in the conclusion. The stone book that Father gives her contains both the stories of church and cave. It is at once artefact and specimen: like the steeple, the book is “a made thing,” but it is also “a bit of stone” that holds the flowers of the flood. Joseph's story ends with the promise that he will have his papers of indenture, which will entitle him to “be learned the art, craft and mystery of the forge.” Robert finds the name that is at once his own and not his own at the summit of his secret cave. William, in his abandoned sledding at the end of his story, holds all the paradoxes. Seated on the superb sledge crafted for him by his grandfather from loom and forge, he carries in his pocket two gifts—the key, artefact of iron, and the clay pipe, artefact of stone. He has claimed for himself the horseshoes, emblematic of the union of male and female, and his oiled boots are stamped with the name he shares with another ancestor.

These are the first occasions in any of Garner's novels where children are entrusted with talismans of such import. The gifts suggest the confidence of the adult gift-givers in the durable power of the family. None of the gifts is arbitrarily given, as Susan's bracelet in Weirdstone is, and some are talismans claimed by the children themselves. And, perhaps most significantly, the talismans they are given are made objects, made sometimes of found objects and remade sometimes from other objects. This fact makes them quite different from the talismans of the earlier novels, all of which have their origins in the mythic world, none of which is stamped with a maker's mark.

Immediately after the quotation from The Owl Service with which I began this paper, Gwyn observes bitterly that people are like electric wires through which the power of the valley passes. As the title of my paper suggests, I see the power attributed to place in that novel given to family in the Quartet. The difference between the two is that the first is merely a closed system, the second is a closed system that expands through time. While there remains a sense in the Quartet of the incipient mystery of places and objects, the controlling metaphor is radically different. Power here does not flow along the lines of least resistance. It is, rather, the craftsman who imprints and reveals the patterns of things by “turning, tapping, knapping, shaping, twisting, rubbing and making” (49). And the power of the pattern is only available to those who, like Mary, take the time to read “all the stories of the world” in the stone book (51) or who, like Robert, hear the “long sound in the stone” that is “no sound unless [he hears] it, and [means] nothing unless he [gives] it meaning” (134). With the exception of Joseph in Granny Reardun, none of the children of the Quartet makes any momentous decisions. All take some tentative steps towards comprehending the potential universe. But the tentativeness of the conclusions of their stories is not read as failure by the reader of the Quartet. Within the space and span of the family, there is both world enough and time.

Works Cited

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1959.

Garner, Alan. “Achilles in Altjira.” ChLAQ 8.4 (1983): 5-10.

———. Elidor. London: Collins-Fontana Lions, 1965.

———. The Guizer: A Book of Fools. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975.

———. “Inner Time.” Science Fiction at Large. Ed. Peter Nicholls. N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1976.

———. Red Shift. London: Collins-Fontana Lions, 1975 (1973).

———. The Moon of Gomrath. London: Collins-Fontana Lions, 1963.

———. The Owl Service. London: Collins-Fontana Lions, 1967.

———. The Stone Book Quartet. London: Collins, 1973.

———. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley. London: Collins-Lions, 1960.

Philip, Neil. A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner. N.Y.: Philomel Books, 1981.

Peter J. Foss (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Foss, Peter J. “The Undefined Boundary: Converging Worlds in the Early Novels of Alan Garner.” New Welsh Review 2, no. 4 (spring 1990): 30-5.

[In the following essay, Foss explores how the forces of power and mythology converge on Garner's child protagonists in his early young adult novels, recreating the children as “shamans.”]

     ‘human kind
Cannot bear very much reality’
     T. S. Eliot

In Alan Garner's masterly third novel, Elidor (1965), the maimed king Malebron explains how the four Mancunian children came through from their world into his world, the world of Elidor. It is a question of marginality in time and place, as also of the character, age and disposition of the human agent (in this case Roland), and of finding the right catalyst (in this case a note of music): ‘All things have their note, and will answer to it … The finding is chance. Wasteland and boundaries: places that are neither one thing nor the other, neither here nor there—these are the gates of Elidor.’ (E [Elidor ] 47)1

Marginality—in age, adolescence; in place, boundaries—is conducive to the convergence of disparate worlds, just as tribal territory and parishes (Alderley Edge in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Rudheath and Mow Cop in Red Shift ) met on marginal ground—fens, heaths, moors and mountains—and these too were traditionally the haunts of ‘fairy’ and witchcraft. ‘It is not easy to cross from your world into this,’ says Malebron to Roland, ‘but there are places where they touch’. (E 47) The area of slum-clearance off the Oldham Road in Manchester where the children search for Thursday Street at the beginning of the novel is the marginal region of wasteland and desolation which first precipitates Roland into the other world, and the ‘wasteland’ is where the children return at the end of the story in order to relinquish the Treasures.

But in a very real sense the margins are present throughout the book. The new cottage to which the Watsons move is neither suburban house nor country cottage (E 67), but one of those left-overs from a countryside encroached by suburbia. The porch opens immediately onto the pavement, a boundary between private and public, and the chief symbol of the link between the ‘here’ and the ‘there’. Nearby is Boundary Lane, where the stream which divides the parishes, in ‘a no-man's land between two built-up areas’, is the place where Findhorn breaks through from the other world. (E 129) Again, for the family, a line is drawn between their old life and their new home, as also in the final chapter, between the old and the new year.

What Elidor tells us is that the worlds, though separate, are simultaneous and parallel, but that rarely are the places where they touch encountered. It requires an ‘agent’ and an event. Roland as ‘agent’ qualifies because he is a type of the ‘guileless fool’. He becomes the medium through which the events happen. He turns the street map roller to summon Thursday Street (E 10); he urges his brothers and sister to follow his potentially fool-hardy adventure; the football he kicks through the church window is driven by a superhuman force. Everything he does is fired by uncharacteristic urgency and mission. He has ‘ideas’ and ‘imagination’; ‘You've some nerve,’ says Nicholas, ‘where's it come from all of a sudden?’ (E 61)

Uncharacteristic, because Roland is really an innocent, a ‘dreamer’. His innocence (qua naivety) intensifies the danger when he tries to prove to Nicholas that the shadows from the ‘other side’ exist in the garden, thus releasing ‘spear-edge and shield-rim’, the unidentified agents of destruction, into his own world. But Roland is also the ‘starved fool’ of the Lay discovered in Malebron's vellum book: ‘an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy’. (E 49) It is his instinctive courage by which he breaks into the mound of Vandwy, enabling him to stand ‘at the heart of the darkness’, like the Roland of Browning's poem passing through desert, forest and mountains to confront the dark tower (Browning's epigraph from King Lear is also Garner's epigraph to Elidor ).2

But what is it that makes Roland worthy in this destiny over the others? More than courage it is faith linked with imagination; not the imagination which simply pretends that things can be other (as some of the book's commentators would suggest), but the imaginative power to make connections which might ameliorate the effects of pain and fear. This is Roland's gift:

Make the door appear: think it: force it with your mind. The power you know fleetingly in your world is here as real as swords.
     (E 39)

Character matched by faith must be given an occasion. The occasion is the necessity for the two worlds to become momentarily linked so that good can triumph over evil, light brought to Elidor. Malebron has found the sound-vibration which can force him through to become the lone fiddler in the ruined church, to find Roland ‘running towards him across the broken land’. (E 50) He uses the same vibration—a note on his violin—to propel Roland through the door of the ruined church discovered on the ‘other side’ to be the castle of Findias in Elidor. Later in the novel, simultaneity is achieved through electrical ‘fixes’ occasioned by psychic vibrations sent by the evil forces in Elidor in order to locate the whereabouts of the four Treasures which the children brought away with them. These fixes cause electrical havoc in the Watsons' house. At the end of the novel the Treasures return to cleanse Elidor's blighted land by virtue of a vibration set up by the dying Song of Findhorn.

Elidor is a key work in Alan Garner's canon. It bridges the gap between the formulaic adventures of witchcraft and magic which constitute Garner's early children's fiction and the subtle—and perplexing—mythic and psychological dramas of The Owl Service and Red Shift. Its interlinking accretions of myth—Childe Rowland, unicorn legends, the grail quest, the Four Sacred Treasures of the Tuatha dé Danaan (spear, sword, stone and dish), Parzival the guileless fool lifting the plague from Montsalvat, Malebron/Amfortas/The Fisher King—display a complex development of mythic themes which grew out of Garner's struggle with emotional and psychological traumas in his own upbringing.3 In Elidor, this is treated with a degree of subtlety which never loses hold of the reality of either world: the world of Manchester slums, suburban domesticity, children growing up in the liberal '60s, and the world ‘on the other side’—not inert pretend but the raison d'être that gives everything meaning: ‘a clarification of reality, not an escape from it.’4

‘The worlds are different,’ says Malebron, ‘but they are linked in subtle ways, and the death of Elidor would not be without its echo in your world.’ These echoes were explored by adapting motifs from Celtic and Scandinavian mythology in Garner's first two novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963). The disparate worlds impinge on one another not via quasi-scientific phenomena as in Elidor but through conventional folkloric influences involving weather, the cycle of the seasons and tutelar deities. In these novels, the ‘mundane’ world is enslaved to antipathetic forces; for example, Selina Place, a sour harridan who lives in an ugly Victorian house, St Mary's Cliffe in Alderley, turns out to be an emanation of the Morrigan, chief witch of the morthbrood (WB [The Weirdstone of Brisingamen ] 68), the Triple Goddess in her hag aspect.5 These novels are concerned with the struggle waged to limit the influence for evil of the Morrigan in both their worlds.

Interestingly, the Mossocks—Bess and Gowther with whom Colin and Susan come to stay at the beginning of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen —are the only inhabitants of the ‘mundane’ world (apart from Colin and Susan) who, whilst not in fee to the other world, are linked with it in the adventure. This is explained by the history of the descent of the weirdstone itself—originally the Bridestone, a family heirloom passed down through generations of Bess's maternal ancestors (WB 28), to be given finally ‘into good hands’ (WB 68) through Susan's mother to Susan. In this world, the Bridestone, a blue-coloured crystal, is a powerful talisman, but in the other world it is Firefrost, the ‘weirdstone of Brisingamen’ which holds the power by which the knights of Alderley Edge remain in deep sleep under the hill (Brisingamen was the magic necklace of Freya, goddess of love and fertility in Scandinavian mythology.)

It is Susan, therefore, who acts as the main link between the worlds of the two books. Through her Garner develops the typos of the Triple Goddess in her ‘bride’ aspect (hence Bridestone). Because the stone itself must return to Fundindelve, to the wizard's keeping, Susan is to be deprived of the maternal heirloom and talisman that links her to place, ancestry, to spiritual growth. Hence, at the end of the first novel, Garner has to devise a means by which the talisman is replaced by another—the Mark of Fohla, a protective bracelet given to Susan by Angharad Goldenhand, the Goddess in her maternal aspect.

In The Weirdstone, the originating idea for the novel had been the legend of Alderley Edge—a king and his 140 knights sleeping in a cave under the hill, protected by a wizard. In The Moon of Gomrath, however, it is the psychological and spiritual growth of an individual which motivates the novel. Susan, who had been aged nine in The Weirdstone is now approaching puberty (age 12-13); her character is drawn stronger, she is more determined, on occasions stubborn, even obtuse. Because she is the link between the two worlds, she is in the power of forces she is not able on her own to control and barely able to understand. These forces are seen as metaphors for growth into adolescence and adulthood.

The ‘moon of Gomrath’ itself is not yet Susan's moon, but it is brought to Susan's aid. It is the full moon at the winter solstice, the year's quarter ‘when Time and Forever mingle’ (MG [The Moon of Gomrath ] 86), the moon of Angharad Goldenhand whose special protection of Susan is to begin her initiation into young womanhood. Throughout the book Susan's adventures are conducted by moonlight. Her ride to the quarry in Chapter 5 is by moonlight, when the Brollachan, a clovenhoofed evil, takes possession of her; and Colin's search for the plant that will heal her has to take place when the full moon shines on Shuttlingslow. The transformation of Errwood Hall is accomplished through the baleful influence of the moon under the direction of the Morrigan. Susan's vision of Celemon, with intimations of self-realisation and self-annihilation, is equivalent to the girl's first experience of menstruation.

The Moon of Gomrath is a multi-layered work, powerfully and poetically written. It displaces the ‘thoughts and spells’ of the High Magic of Cadellin Silverbrow in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by the Old Magic of moon-cycles and seasons, the powers of fire, water and stone and man's instinctive links with Nature. It is also a more violent book, for moon-magic (woman's magic) is also ‘blood magic’ (MG 86), and the sacrifices of blood are necessary: the slaying of trolls, the wounding of Albanac, menstrual flow—the first unfulfilled glimpse of the rites of passage to a higher power:

‘Leave her! She is but green in power! It is not yet!’ And the Hunter took his hand from Susan and slowly drew away … It was as though she were waking from a dream of a long yearning fulfilled to the cold morning of a world too empty to bear. More than life, she wanted to share the triumph that was all around her … But Susan was left as dross upon the hill … ‘It is not yet! It will be! But not yet!’ And the fire died in Susan, and she was alone on the moor … a smaller, solid figure that halted, forlorn, in the white wake of the ridding.
     (MG 152-3)

The formulation towards which Gomrath was heading is given profounder treatment in Garner's later novels. The ‘here’ and the ‘there’ are no longer to be seen as physical contradistinctions conveyed through folkloric tropes, but as a conflict and covergence of modes of reality in the psyche.

The two novels which show this are those where the youngsters of the early fantasies are adolescents on the verge of adulthood (ages 16-19)—The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973). ‘Adolescence,’ says Alan Garner, ‘is a kind of maturity from which people decline. There's this enormous surge of energy which immediately gets clobbered.’6 The energies poured into love, trust, jealousy and betrayal in both novels are born out of the dynamics of relationships which struggle in that limbo between childhood and adulthood, when ideas and feelings, though raw, have the potential to be pure. But the limbo-state cannot last because life, and relationships, are dynamic. In The Owl Service, this state is represented, geographically, by the upper reaches of a lonely valley bordering mountain and swamp,7 and socially, by the clash of classes and cultures where Welsh is perceived as retrenched and English as uncomfortable. In Red Shift one recognises the no-man's land of Rudheath, and the meeting of counties, dioceses and provinces where Tom stands dramatically astride jurisdictions at Mow Cop, the ‘netherstone of the world’: ‘But,’ he says, turning towards the folly tower, ‘it's worse in there. There … the boundary is undefined.’ (RS [Red Shift ] 90) By the end of the book, it is Tom's fate to recognise the ‘undefined boundary’ in himself, where constitution, upbringing and social conditioning conspire to produce the violent tensions of which Mow Cop is a symbol.

In both books it is the girls who release the energies that interact between the disparate worlds. Alison is obsessed with tracing the owl patterns from the dinner service found in the attic; by doing so she activates the forces of love, jealousy and betrayal which belong to the story of the rivalry between Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebyr in the celebrated legend of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion. In Red Shift, the maiden-figures in the three parallel stories—Jan, the Puritan spouse and the tribal girl—all act as triggers of forces which can destroy or control the power of their ‘lords’—the shaman-figures of the boys: Tom, Thomas and Macey.

The Blodeuwedd legend is appropriate to both novels, providing the link between the formula Garner established in The Moon of Gomrath and the resolutions attempted in the later works. Blodeuwedd represents the goddess as both nymph (flower maiden) and harridan (owl): beloved and betrayer, innocent and destroyer. The urgency of Huw Halfbacon's warnings in The Owl Service are directed towards preventing Alison's feelings from becoming corrupted by distorted love. ‘She wants to be flowers but you make her owls. Why do we destroy ourselves?’ (OS [The Owl Service ] 71) The surprising irony of the novel's ending is that it is Roger the incomer (the Gronw figure) who converts the owl-force into flowers by his unselfish comfort of Alison and his apology to Gwyn. In so doing, he breaks the spell of the valley (Huw's ‘By damn!’ says it all), and the cycle of betrayal and revenge is breached. (OS 173)

Red Shift is an altogether bleaker novel than The Owl Service. In it, Alan Garner's pursuit of initiation throws his protagonists into a world of slaughter and rape, the violent outcome of jealousy, betrayal and revenge. This bloodied world exists in three periods of time: the second century AD (Roman Britain), the 1640s (The Civil War), and the (equally violent) early 1970s. It exists in three separate but connected locations: Rudheath, Barthomley and Mow Cop. What links this trinity of loci is the book's talisman—a votive axe, a plain stone artefact venerated in different ways by the couples in each story. The axe travels from one place to another as a connecting current; first used violently by Macey at Rudheath, buried by him in the mound at Barthomley, unearthed by Thomas in the 17th century (as a ‘thunderstone’) and placed as a charm in the cottage he and Madge build on the Cop; and found there in the 20th century by Tom and Jan who carry it between them in their bicycle saddlebags as their own drama of love, jealousy and betrayal unfolds.

The force contained in the stone, like that locked in the ‘owl’ service, is interpreted as a mysterious electric charge or vibration energised by violent mental or emotional states. The axe head is at one and the same time a ‘violent’ and a ‘sacred’ object, and its violent aspect is compounded by its first use in the earliest of the stories (RS 20). These potentially dangerous energies (the ‘Old Magic’ of Gomrath ) exist as a kind of static electricity (as defined in Elidor (E 33)) but without a conductor. The conducting agency is the coming-together of a ‘shaman’ (the Tom-figure) and a cause. It is significant, for example, that the Tom-figures—Macey and Thomas—are both epileptics, and Tom himself, the 19-year old ‘A’-level student is, like Roland and Gwyn, ‘highly strung’—in his case to the extent of inarticulate rage.8

He meant to laugh, but the trembling reached his throat. He stood, his father's size, broken … ‘How dare they try—how dare they—how dare they try to—’ He pressed his open palms against the window gently, relentlessly, so that it broke without shattering, and glass collapsed only when he moved his hands … He held the fragments like crushed ice. Shallow, pale lines crazed his skin. He felt nothing.
     (RS 19-20)

The force thus released can produce the violence of Barthomley—the slaughter of the tribe, the rape of the villagers—and of Mow Cop—birthplace of the brutal Venables, scene of the death of Logan and his band (or indeed can exacerbate the conflicts and misunderstanding which canker filial and love relationships). Each generation faces the choice of how to channel this force, and in Red Shift the only chance for the violence to be redeemed is through the intercession of the maiden-figure who recognises the possessed god in her man. The tribal girl, the fu- ture ‘Ninth’ in her womb, helps Macey come to terms with his sinful abuse of the stone (in an act of remorse and atonement he buries it at the sacred mound); Madge Rowley's care and love for the simpleton, Thomas, brings him through the pillage of Barthomley to the safe haven of their home on the Cop; and Jan tries to balance out Tom's magnification of rage and despair through forgiveness, self-discovery and ‘distance’. The ‘red shift’ of the title is indeed the perspective distance provides, but this is always accompanied by the danger of stepping too far, where the ‘boundaries are undefined’, of becoming once again the ‘poor Tom’ who's always ‘a-cold’:

Catch up. Rub out. My mistakes. My clumsiness. Next time it'll be all right, every time, and it isn't. Next time will make up for him—and me. Never. Poached eggs. Galactic. Red shift. The further they go, the faster they leave. The sky's emptying. God, this wind's cold.
     (RS 152)

Red Shift represents the culmination of Alan Garner's early writing career, after which he went on to compile collections of folk stories and to write the Stone Book Quartet 9 for younger readers. This wholly adult novel—amusingly ‘for older readers’10—was the logical development of themes first mooted in his early children's fantasies. Originally through traditional folklore's conflict of worlds (on the moor, under the hill), then through the extension of the idea of quasiphysical phenomena interacting between parallel realities in Elidor, and finally via the cryptic, multi-layered dramas of recrimination and self-discovery, such as The Owl Service and Red Shift, Alan Garner has explored the ‘undefined boundary’ of adolescent experience. In so doing, he has produced a body of work of revelatory power and poetic intensity which, compelling enough as children's fiction, transcends the genre.


1. My quotations are taken from the first paperback editions of the novels, as follows:

   WB: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Collins, 1960; Armada Lions, 1971).

   MG: The Moon of Gomrath (Collins, 1963; Armada Lions, 1972).

   E: Elidor (Collins, 1965; Puffin, 1967).

   OS: The Owl Service (Collins, 1967; Peacock, 1969).

   RS: Red Shift (Collins, 1973; Lions, 1975).

The name ‘Elidor’ derives from the Medieval story ‘Elidor and the Golden Ball’ collected by Giraldus Cambrensis, published in K. M. Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck (London, 1959). Though Elidor was a personal name, Garner took it to refer to the place of the story (i.e. a land of light, from Helios). Alan Garner's choice of names for his legendary people and places are adapted from a variety of mythologies. None are invented, except ‘Fundindelve’, the name he gives for the cave of the sleeping knights under Alderley Edge. Cadellin, for instance, is one of the names by which Culhwch invokes Arthur's aid in the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen.

2. Quoted also at the end of Red Shift (153). Tom is another ‘Childe Rowland’ encountering the dark tower of Mow Cop—the child in Lear's ‘poor Tom’ as well as Roland the initiate. Tom is also ‘tomfooling’ with quotations: ‘all quote,’ as Jan says, whilst ‘other people have to go to hell to find words for you.’ But then the true initiate is inarticulate; he feels and knows (p. 126). See Garner's The Guizer: A Book of Fools (1975). (‘The Fool is … at once creator and destroyer, bringer of help and harm.’)

3. ‘Like many people with first generation education, I was alienated from my family.’ See Ronald Bryden, ‘The Man Who Created The Owl Service’, Observer Magazine 25 January 1970.

For the research that went into Elidor, see Alan Garner, ‘A Bit More Practice’, TLS 6 June 1968. (‘… physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology, the writings of Jung …’).

4. Alan Garner's definition of his use of ‘fantasy’; see Ronald Bryden, op. cit.

5. Morrigu, wife of the Celtic god Nudd, son of Dôn (the Irish earth-goddess Danu) was a ‘death-goddess’ who assumed the form of a raven. See also Robert Graves, The White Goddess (Faber, 1961), 143, 370. Garner quarried Graves for all his novels; see Note in The Moon of Gomrath, p. 155.

6. Ronald Bryden, op. cit., p. 33.

7. Garner set the story in Llanymawddwy, thinking this was the scene of the mythic events it recalls but the death of Gronw Pebyr took place in Ardudwy on the Cynfael river, and Llew Llaw Gyffes's Castle was long thought to have been Tomen y Mur above Ffestiniog. See G. Jones and T. Jones, trs., The Mabinogion (Dent 1949, 1974), pp. 68-75.

8. For epileptics as shamans, see A. Garner, ‘Inner Time’ in P. Nichols, ed., Science Fiction at Large (Gollancz, 1976); also discussed in Neil Philip, A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner (Collins, 1981) pp. 99, 164.

9. Alan Garner's later works are:

   1969 The Hamilton Book of Goblins (Hamish Hamilton)

   1975 The Guizer: A Book of Fools (Hamish Hamilton)

   1976 The Stone Book (The Stone Book Quartet)

   1977 Granny Reardun

   1977 Tom Fobble's Day

   1978 The Aimer Gate

   1980 Fairy Tales of Gold

   1980 Lad of the Gad (Folk Stories from the Gaelic)

   1984 (ed.) The Book of British Fairy Tales

   1986 A Bag of Moonshine

   (all published by Collins unless otherwise stated).

10. As Collins names it. Alan Garner disparages such categories. ‘I don't write for children, but entirely for myself’. See ‘A Bit More Practice’, TLS, op. cit.

Linnea Hendrickson (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Hendrickson, Linnea. “Paradox and Synthesis in Alan Garner's The Stone Book Quartet.” In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 57-60. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Hendrickson offers a critical examination of Garner's repeated use of dichotomies in The Stone Book Quartet.]

Like the onion that drops from Father's knife at a moment of realization in The Stone Book, and like the stone foundation that underlies these stories, Alan Garner's masterful achievement in The Stone Book Quartet is whole, complex, and multi-layered. His stories, linked by a theme of craftsmanship, are in themselves masterpieces of the writer's craft.

Even the outermost layers of the onion are rich in paradox. Ironically, Garner's books are among the most talked about but least read works of modern children's literature. He is one of the few contemporary children's authors to have an entire book devoted to his work, and his work has been the subject of dozens of articles and interviews, yet most of his books are not in print in the United States. The number of words written about Garner is extremely high in proportion to the number of words he has written. And, as often happens in the world of children's books, while his books are marketed for children, they are mostly discussed by adults from adult perspectives.

Garner's brilliant synthesis of the language of his native Cheshire with standard English is one of the highlights of The Stone Book Quartet. But this solution to the difficulties of conveying the distinctive language of a particular time or culture may dissuade some readers from attempting the books. The very first words of The Stone Book are: “A bottle of cold tea; bread and a half onion. That was Father's baggin.” I had never heard the word “baggin” before, but by the end of the Quartet I was beginning to think of my own lunch as “baggin.” Language as a social and class marker was one of the things that caused the young Alan Garner great pain, that create in him the sense of anger and alienation that the writing of The Stone Book has been seen by some critics to resolve.

Young Alan Garner was punished for speaking his native tongue at school, as generations of Native Americans and other speakers of foreign tongues have been. My own parents, though American-born, did not teach their children their native tongue because they wanted us to be “real” Americans. I suspect now that such cutting off of one's past has psychic costs.

Rooted in time, place, and language, The Stone Book Quartet is universal. In an interview with Aidan Chambers, Garner says, “I discover that only when I am being my most idiosyncratic and obsessively personal do I come anywhere near approaching the universal,” and he mentions readers in Japan, Finland, South Africa, and Australia who have identified with what he has written (Chambers 299).

Some critics have questioned whether Garner's books are for children at all. I suspect that many adults underestimate the ability of children to comprehend complex feelings and ideas, many of which are not specified, but only hinted at in The Stone Book.

My college students listened intently as I read The Stone Book to them. When asked if the story held their interest, they were emphatic that it did, but when I asked, “Would you read this to children?,” they all said, “No!” “Why not?” I asked. “It would be too different, too difficult.” Although they themselves did not understand every word, and yet enjoyed the story, they did not think children would do the same.

In fact, The Stone Book is written from a child's perspective. When Father and Uncle William argue, Mary slides underneath the table, fearful of what will happen but wanting, and needing, to know. She hears their angry words, but the movement of their feet under the table tells her and the reader even more, as does the violent rhythm of William's loom when he returns to his weaving.

Mary and the other children in The Stone Book Quartet are simultaneously powerless and powerful. The authority of the fathers and grandfathers over them is absolute. Yet the children contribute to the family's livelihood and are more responsible and more independent than most children today. And ultimately they are powerful, because the power of choice is theirs. Although their choices will be influenced by their fathers and grandfathers, they will depend, to an even greater extent, on the unique character of each child. It is through the children that values, knowledge, and craftsmanship, the cumulative experience of the ancestors will be continued and modified.

The Stone Book is not only full of paradoxes, it is also full of dichotomies: steeple and cave, upper class and lower class, male and female, mind and body, church and chapel, time and timelessness, past and present, stability and change, adult and child, building up and breaking down, work and play, talk and silence, book-learning and observation, intellect and intuition. It is also full of music, which, like Garner's craftsmanship, links and unifies; he makes music out of disparate and conflicting elements.

The most important of the dichotomies, intellect and intuition, perhaps encompasses all of the others. The world of The Stone Book is grounded in the physical, yet the physical objects suggest emotional and spiritual realities. Father tells Mary of the man who sank the useless mineshaft, who “‘could read books and put a letter together’” but lost his money “‘for all his reading. Now if he'd read rocks instead of books, it might have been a different story, you see’” (38).

The stone book that Father makes for Mary communicates more than words. “‘It's better than a book you can open’,” said Father. “‘A book has only one story.’” On the back of the book are flowers pressed in stone, fronds “like the silk in skeins, like the silk on the water under the hill” (50). The story ends as Father plays his ophicleide and William sings his favorite song,

“Oh the years of Man are the looms of God
Let down from the place in the sun;
Wherein we are weaving always
Till the mystic work is done!”

The last cry goes up from the summer fields, “‘Who-whoop! Who-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!’”

And Mary sits by the fire and reads her stone book, which has in it “all the stories of the world and the flowers of the flood” (60).

Alan Garner, too, has woven a story and created a book that has more than one story in it. By using both intuition and intellect, by combining the knowledge that comes from stone and the knowledge that comes from books, and by recognizing the link between his ancestors' craftsmanship as stoneworkers and smiths and his own craft as a writer, Garner has linked the world of the laborer, craftsman, and worker with the world of the scholar, the book-learned, the intellectual.

Seldom after I have read a book have I found so many connections with it everywhere I turn. Seldom have I read such a short book so many times and found so much more that is new in it with each reading.

In conclusion, one short story of my own may provide a sense of touching the stone or tasting the onion.

June 1966: I am twenty-two years old, about to board a plane in Escanaba, Michigan, to fly to Indianapolis, where I will begin my training as a VISTA volunteer at an inner-city settlement house. I have never been on a commercial plane before. I have no idea what it will be like to be a VISTA volunteer. I have never lived in a city. I have never known people of other races. On one day's notice, my old-fashioned relatives from all around the Upper Peninsula have gathered on the windy airfield, as though for a wedding or a funeral. Embarrassed, I endure their good-bye hugs and kisses, their advice and best wishes. I try to be nonchalant, but just before I climb aboard the plane, my ninety-one-year-old grandmother grasps my hands, and says only for me to hear, “Remember, your ancestors, including your Gram, were pioneers, who left their homes and came across the ocean.”

I know what young William felt. “The line did hold. Through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill and all that he owned, he sledged sledged sledged for the black and glittering night and the sky flying on fire and the expectation of snow” (224).

Work Cited

Chambers, Aidan. “An Interview with Alan Garner.” The Signal Approach to Children's Books. Ed. Nancy Chambers. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1980.

Anne F. Roberts (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Roberts, Anne F. “Awareness of Place: Landscape in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.” In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 61-6. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Roberts theorizes about the influence of both landscape and Garner's home life in Alderley Edge on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.]

Most of us must come to terms with who we are in relation to our families and places of origin, and this is particularly true of those who write for children. Many seem obsessed with going back to their ancestral beginnings and home places. Alan Garner is one of these; he still lives in his ancestral place. In a startling essay, Garner speaks of his early life:

I was born, have lived, and still work on the Pennine shelf of East Cheshire. It is an area that encompasses most of the landscapes to be found in Britain. Within twelve miles I can move through fen, dairy and arable farms, to sheep runs and bleak mountains. And in this particular place I find a university that enables me to write…. Everywhere is special in some way. It wasn't imperative that I should be born in Cheshire; but it was imperative that I should know my place. And that can be achieved only by inheriting one's childhood landscape and by growing in it to maturity. It is a subtle matter of owning and of being owned.
     (Garner 559)

Landscape is crucial to Garner's life and work. In his stories, the landscape plays a central part, driving plot and taking on complex characteristics that inform the setting. For Garner, geography, home, and people are tied in with myth and lore. Themes of menacing danger, magic, and evil permeate his books. Why does Garner dwell on these dark elemental forces? What can be seen in his early works as the embryonic seeds of later works? How do The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath anticipate Elidor, The Owl Service, Red Shift, and The Stone Book ?

Garner's interest in landscape can be seen against the background of his childhood in the Pennines:

The physical immobility of my family was the lifeline. My family is so rooted that it ignores social classification by others. On one square mile of Cheshire hillside, Alderley Edge, the Garners are. We know our place. And this sense of fusion with a land rescued me…. The education that had made me a stranger to my own people, yet had shown me no acceptable alternative, did increase my understanding of the hill. The awareness of place that was my birthright was increased by the opening of my mind to the physical sciences and to the metaphors of stability and change that were given by the hill. Until I came to terms with the paradox, I was denied, and I myself denied the people. But those people had their analogue in the land and toward that root I began to move the stem of the intellect grown hydroponically in the academic hothouse. The process has taken twenty-seven years so far, and my writing is the result.
     (Philip 10)

The Pennine Chain is an extensive system of hills, broken up into numerous ranges by valleys cutting back into them in every direction. These hills provided borders, extremes, and places of particular sharpness for Garner as a child, and later to his books. The village of Alderley Edge is an old industrial town, not far from the city of Manchester. For Garner it is a self-contained place, which bounded the “physical, emotional and spiritual limits of his childhood” (Harrison 123).

Another landscape that underlies Garner's stories is the imagined one of anguish and darkness with subterranean forces. There are biographical reasons for this landscape. Garner's mother had a strange and intense relationship with her only child, as Garner describes it. As a young child, Garner was seriously ill: diphtheria, meningitis, and pneumonia brought him close to death several times. He thinks his mother would let him come perilously close to dying and then rise to the occasion and save him through her miraculous care as a nurse. In most other ways, Garner found her rather inept. During these times of severe illness, Garner would gaze intensely at the ceiling of his room. The “landscape of his room's ceiling” would merge with the Pennine landscape, allowing him to imagine marvelous scenes and escape into a mental landscape of road-forest-cloud-hill. The burdens of being isolated and lying in bed all alone, seriously ill, were compounded by growing up in a country at war. And then there was his “vision” of a female figure who came to him when his life was really threatened.

She was my death, and I knew it…. I remember the more general isolation of a house threatened, bombed, blacked out. When I was bedfast, the rhythms of day and night were not imposed on me. Rather than sleep, I catnapped, or was in a coma. Reality was the room.
     (Philip 11)

These two landscapes, the real and the imagined, burned themselves into Garner's being. The real landscape that he saw every day was Alderley Edge, “an eroded fault-scarp, six hundred feet high, of the Keuper and Bunter Triassic sandstones … a cliff covered with trees” (Garner 561). When Garner wasn't in bed staring at his mental landscape, he was out in the scarred landscape of Alderley Edge. The cliff had been mined for copper and quarried for stone for centuries by his own ancestors. It was a dangerous place: “to be born to the Edge is to respect it” (Garner 562). Garner's searing experiences as a child left a mark on him and on his writing, and the two landscapes, the imagined one and the real one, were to be major influences in his books. He is aware of this: “I am a writer. For me it is enough that as a child I saw, and came to know, my place” (Garner 563).

Another ordeal, tearing him from his family and his village, was his education, first at Manchester Grammar and then at Oxford University. His intellectual growth left him emotionally disconnected from his origins. While Garner was intensely competitive and wanted to succeed academically, he did not respond to the empty scholarship he often witnessed at the university. In a fit of pique and anger against what he felt were meaningless academics, he left the university and returned home to write his first two children's books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. He had to find himself; he had to come to terms and make sense of the scholarly knowledge he gained from grammar school and the university; he had to connect this with the emotional life he lived in his village, his place. These two books, with their landscapes, show a power and ebullience undoubtedly reflecting the passion with which he took up his pen trying to reconcile his intellectual life with his emotional one.

In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Garner creates an imaginary universe derived from the real one of his experience; the fantasy of his story is a clear projection of his childhood. Alderley Edge is introduced early in the book:

They had just rounded a corner: before them, rising abruptly out of the field a mile away, was a long-backed hill. It was high, and somber, and black. On the extreme right-hand flank, outlined against the sky, were the towers and spires of large houses showing above the trees, which covered much of the hill like a blanket. “Yon's the Edge,” said Gowther. “Six hundred feet high and three miles long. You'll have some grand times theer, I con tell you. Folks think as how Cheshire's flat as a pancake, and so it is for the most part, but not wheer we live!”

Alderley Edge is magnificent and majestic, but also dangerous; and Gowther tells the two children, Colin and Susan, to beware of its perils:

You go and enjoy yourselves. But when you're up th' Edge see as you dunner venture down ony caves you might find, and keep an eye open for holes in the ground. Yon place is riddled with tunnels and shafts from the owd coppermines. If you went down theer and got lost that's be the end of you, for even if you missed falling down a hold yo'd wander about in the dark until you upped and died.

The cave of Fundindelve, in which the wizard lives, is a magical one. This landscape, with its babbling water and pool, is safe and enclosed. The children work in a most positive fashion in this place to help Cadellin unlock the mysteries and restore the weirdstone to release the sleeping knights, their horses, and the treasure. The landscape is calm and helps Colin and Susan on their way:

The children walked among fir and pine, oak, ash, and silver birch, along tracks through dense bracken, and across sleek hummocks of grass. There was no end to the peace and beauty.

But the landscape can mirror the dark forces that are at work as well:

After a while they left hedges behind, the land became broken and uneven, but they did not falter. Wide trenches opened under them, one after another, dangerously deep; and ghostly, broken walls, gaping like the ruins of an ancient citadel, lowered on either side. It was as though they were riding out of their own time back to a barbaric age.

Landscape in The Moon of Gomrath, the sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, is often terrible. “The Edge had suddenly become, not quite malevolent, but alien, unsafe” (9). The dark elemental forces that are residing underneath the surface threaten to break out into the landscape itself:

It was bleak on Mottram road under the Edge, the wooded hill of Alderley. Trees roared high in the darkness. If any people had cause to be out in the night, they kept their heads deep in their collars, and their faces screwed blindly against the Pennine wind. And it was as well they did, for among the trees something was happening that was not meant for human eyes.

There are seemingly quiet and peaceful man-made spaces within the Edge, but underneath the calm and serene surfaces, something dangerous and sinister lies:

It was dusk: branches stood against the sky, and twilight ran in the grass, and gathered black in the chasms and the tunnel eyes of the old mines which scarred the woodland with their spoil of sand and rock. There was the sound of wind, though the trees did not move…. They were walking along the sides of a quarry. It had not been worked for many years, and its floor was covered with grass, so that only its bare walls made it different from the other valleys of the Edge. But their sheerness gave the place a primitive atmosphere, a seclusion that was both brooding and peaceful…. The hollows of the valley were in darkness, and a patch of the darkness was moving in, blacker than the rest. It flowed across the grass, shapeless, flat, changing in size, and up the cliff face.

Alan Garner has said of his two early books that they are “a kind of scream about landscape. The only thing that is good in them is a sense of landscape” (Garner 561). The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are less well known than his later books, but they offer valuable insights into the creative imagination of an author on whom the Phoenix award is now being conferred. As with all major writers, there is a link between life and art. One way to find that link in Garner's work is in his first two books.

Works Cited

Garner, Alan. “The Edge of the Ceiling,” The Horn Book Magazine 60 (September/October 1984): 559-65.

Philip, Neil. A Fine Anger. London: Collins, 1981.



Bronwyn Davies (essay date November 1999)

SOURCE: Davies, Bronwyn. Review of The Moon of Gomrath, by Alan Garner. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 297-300.

[In the following essay, Davies contends that Garner's The Moon of Gomrath contains three layers of text that demonstrate differing levels of adolescent power and male-female dynamics.]

This book [The Moon of Gomrath ] might be regarded as a classic, because it was first published in 1963 and has been republished in 1998. But it is a classic, I would suggest, because it is of lasting interest and significance, not because it is an exemplar of the highest art or because it sets a standard. This is not to say that the book isn't interesting. It is. It has great potential to draw readers in and to become a basis for lively and significant classroom discussions.

The novel can be read as having at least three layers of text. The value or interest of the text for students would depend upon which of these layers is being attended to. I will discuss each of these layers, drawing out some of the detail which might serve as a useful basis for classroom discussion. Ideally, students could come to see the ways in which the surface layer of the text can carry other meanings, meanings that are not necessarily noticed when reading the text for entertainment and pleasure (though they may still have an effect upon the reader).

Layer 1

This is an adventure story about two young adolescents, a brother and sister called Colin and Susan. Susan and Colin, in the novel to which this is a se- quel (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen ), have met up with and had adventures with the wizard Cadellin. At the beginning of The Moon of Gomrath, they are frustrated that they have not been able to contact Cadellin again. Things rapidly go wrong for Susan. She is placed under a spell and it is only through the extreme cleverness and determination of Colin, who is assisted by the wizard and some dwarves, that she is saved. As their adventures continue, Colin is captured, and this time it is through Susan's extraordinary bravery and determination, with the assistance of a mysterious Lady of the Lake and elves and dwarves, that Colin is saved. In this layer, the balance between the sexes seems good as both children share the honors for bravery, intelligence, and determination.

Despite their love of adventure and their bravery, and the interesting characters they encounter, I found myself surprised when Cadellin, the Lady of the Lake, and the dwarves take a special interest in Susan and Colin. They remind me a little of Enid Blyton's characters in their correct, polite forms of “Englishness,” which may be due to the fact that the book was written and first published in the early 1960s. But actually there is less to like about them than the Enid Blyton characters. Susan and Colin's main characteristic is that they generally fail to take advice from the old couple they live with, or from the wizard, or from the dwarves. They seem certain that their own logic and their own will are worth far more than anyone else's. Is this what makes them attractive to young people?

For example, in discussing what should be done when Colin has been captured, Susan is assertive in her conversational strategies. She introduces her suggestions with “Look,” positioning herself as one with important opinions who is willing to put them forward forcefully, without invitation. At the same time, she does not hesitate to try to push Cadellin to do what he does not want to do on the grounds that she does not have any magic and that he is therefore obliged to use his. The text of the children's conversation, just by itself, would make for an interesting exploration of the way we read characters from style of speech. Susan and Colin's willfulness creates serious trouble in the world of the elves and dwarves, and brings death to many of them, but this does not seem to worry Colin and Susan, as long as they are getting their own way.

Layer 2

Running parallel to the adventures of Susan and Colin, and intersecting with them, is another layer of text. In this text the ordinary world of humans is not very relevant, except that human actions are causing harm to the health of the elves. The good elves and dwarves represent rationality, and their story is that they are worried about the return of prerational forces to the earth. The prerational forces have a simpler, more powerful magic than the elven magic (which is based on rationality), and the elves are powerless to fight this older magic. They wish to see it gone from the earth, or at least contained. In this layer of the text all the powerful and interesting characters are men. The world of elves and dwarves and magicians seems either sexless or all male. The only exception is the utterly evil shape changer Morrigan. She is to be greatly feared. Her power comes from the moon and from the bands of male creatures who fight on her behalf. For no apparent reason she kidnaps Colin, and many brave elves and dwarves lose their lives in a fight to get him back. Morrigan remains unharmed, presumably free to appear in another novel, since she too was a major player in the novel before this one.

Morrigan does not ever appear as a character the reader can begin to comprehend. The other female character in this novel, the Lady of the Lake, has powerful magic that she gives to Susan. Although she is understood to be good, she appears only briefly, and Cadellin is wary of the powers of the amulet and the horn she has given to Susan, saying they contain prerational powers that may do Susan harm.

In this layer the most important male characters seem to be predominantly good—though there is one bad dwarf, dressed in black, who works with Morrigan. The rest of the male characters are subhuman and are supporters of Morrigan. They are also all adult. Occasionally in the novel the “good” characters interact with awareness and insight that contrast interestingly with Susan and Colin's utter shallowness. The apparent balance between the sexes that is achieved in the first layer of the text is abandoned in this second layer. Women are irrelevant here, except as they are amorphous or fleeting forces for good or evil.

There is another interesting dynamic to be explored in this second layer—that is the dynamic set up by creating humans who are much less aware than the magic ancient tribes of elves and dwarves who have much more powerful knowledge. At the same time the story places good and rationality on one pole together, with the prerational aligned with evil at the other pole. Given that humans (especially male adult humans) are identified with rationality, perhaps the construction of the story suggests that they are gener- ally not rational enough. Prerational knowledge is presented as relevant and acknowledged as powerful. But it is also presented as frightening and aligned with evil. When Colin asks if the Old Magic is Black Magic, Cadellin explains,

No Colin, the Old Magic is not evil. But it has a will of its own. It may work to your need, but not to your command. And again, there are memories about the Old Magic that wake when it moves. They too, are not evil of themselves, but they are fickle, and wrong for these times.
     (p. 78)

And this is where the children become relevant. They are not afraid of these old ways of knowing, and they get themselves into serious trouble by not being afraid of them. Perhaps the moral of the story is to celebrate (male) rationality, and the rather unpleasant nature of the children is necessary for the development of this theme, to show what happens when you don't listen to advice from those who are rational and good, and who understand what is right for the times. And this takes me on to the third layer.

Layer 3

In this third layer, there is no bending towards a balance of the sexes. The author draws on ideas of times past when men were understood to be rational and in control, and women were dangerous and in need of controlling. At the beginning of the novel, Susan's waywardness leads her into a situation where she falls into a coma as a result of riding with the daughters of the moon. The shape changer, the Brollochan, in the guise of a black horse, has seduced her into riding into dark and dangerous places. Susan lives in a deathlike coma, just like Sleeping Beauty (the ultimate symbol of female passivity, and perhaps the proof that women are disobedient and need to be controlled). Colin does not kiss Susan awake, but he finds an ancient plant, using great intelligence and strength to do so. He places the plant between her lips, and as she comes to and tries to expel it the good dwarf Uthcar steps in, hits her on the back, and forces her to swallow it.

Again and again, Susan is drawn to act by the forces of the Old Magic. She lights a fire that awakens dangerous forces sleeping in the ground. Colin tries to stop her, but he fails. The fighting and bloodshed in this book is entirely brought about by Susan's actions. She is, however, able to think through how to use some of the magic she has been given by the Lady of the Lake to partially save the situation. Hers is dangerous knowledge. Colin's knowledge is quite different. It comes from reading and from his quick wit and intelligence. He is male, and not connected to the Old Magic.

In this third layer of text, females are aligned with the nonrational, ancient forces that are “wrong for these times.” Men get caught up in battle and death as a result of these uncontrollable forces. Everything that feminist literary analysis has discovered about the deep level of symbolism in western myths that aligns women with darkness and emotion, irrationality and wrong, and aligns men with lightness and intelligence, rationality and right, is present in this text. Young readers may assume they are reading a modern text about modern people, where equality of the sexes is presented fairly, but in this third layer nothing in particular has changed since prefeminist days. The author might want to argue that he is only presenting the way the old knowledge works, but I would suggest that this novel presents a particularly modern and sexist interpretation of times past.

These three layers of text would make for fascinating discussion and analysis with young adolescents. I believe they could find a great deal of pleasure in teasing out the different layers and seeing what effect it has on them as readers to read at more than one level, and to be aware of the power and the pleasure of the text at more than one level. Texts that repeat the familiar patterns of culture are very pleasurable to read. Texts that evoke ancient ways of knowing also have an excitement and a pleasure that is hard to resist. But I am very concerned about young people reading novels like The Moon of Gomrath without a chance to analyse the power and pull of such a text, or its dangers.


Sarah Beach (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Beach, Sarah. “Breaking the Pattern: Alan Garner's The Owl Service and the Mabinogion.Mythlore 20, no. 1 (winter 1994): 10-14.

[In the following essay, Beach studies Garner's use of the Welsh myth of The Mabinogion as the source material for The Owl Service.]

Alan Garner's The Owl Service is a tale of three young people molded over one of the mythic stories of The Mabinogion. In the quotations he chooses for the novel's headpiece, Garner points to his interest in the story he is about to tell. He uses two poetical quotations, one referring to owls and the other to flowers, and a third quotation from a 1965 radio program, a crucial quotation for his story: “Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”1

The story from the Mabinogion that Garner has chosen to work with is that of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, his birth and growth and the making of his bride. It is a story driven by the parental figures and the destinies they lay out. To follow the dynamics of Garner's story, a recapitulation of the Mabinogion tale would be helpful.

Gwydion, a renowned figure in the Welsh mythos, precipitates the beginning of the tale by suggesting his sister for the position of footholder to Math, the ruler of the land. This duty must be performed by a virgin and Math tests the lady Aranrhod by magic. The result is that she “dropped” a boy child and a second “small something.”2 Gwydion snatches up the something and hides it away in a chest at the foot of his bed. Soon it is revealed to be a marvelous boy child, who grows quickly. Gwydion nurtures his sister's son with a strong parental warmth. But the child has no name and it is his mother's place to bestow it. Aranrhod had fled when the babies had been “dropped” and had nothing to do with them since. When Gwydion brings the boy to her for naming, she is angered at being reminded of her humiliation and so refuses to name the child.

‘This boy is a son of thine,’ said he. ‘Alas, man! What came over thee to put me to shame, and to pursue my shame, and keep it as long as this?’ ‘Unless thou suffer a greater shame than that I should rear a boy as fine as this, a small thing thy shame will be.’ ‘What is thy son's name?’ asked she. ‘Faith,’ he said, ‘there is as yet no name to him.’ ‘Well’ said she, ‘I will swear on him a destiny, that he shall not get a name till he get it from me.’
     (M [Mabinogion], 64)

By his wiles Gwydion tricks her into naming the boy—Lleu Llaw Gyffes. She reasserts her parental authority by vowing Lleu will never bear arms unless she gives them, intending to never do so. Gwydion again tricks her on that issue. Thereupon she pronounces her final curse, the vow that precipitates the later tragedy: “‘And I will swear a destiny on him,’ said she, ‘that he shall never have a wife of the race that is now on this earth.’” (M, 68)

To circumvent this last curse, the fiercely paternal Gwydion (with Math's assistance) creates a bride for Lleu out of flowers.

And then they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they called forth the very fairest and best endowed maiden that mortal ever saw … and named her Blodeuedd.
     (M, 68)

Blodeuedd plays her role dutifully until she meets Gronw Bebyr and falls in love with him. The lovers contrive Lleu's death, but rather than die he is changed into a “foul fowl.”3 Gwydion, relentless in his parental role, finds the wounded Lleu and returns him to human form. Then father and son (for so they behave) hunt down the lovers. Blodeuedd flees, and when caught, Gwydion mercilessly turns her into an owl. Gronw ends up agreeing to re-enact Lleu's murder, if he is allowed to put a huge stone between himself and the spear's blow. Lleu allows this, and yet when he throws his spear from the ridge to the stream, the spear pierces the rock and kills Gronw. Lleu then goes on to rule his land well, but one would hardly end it “happily ever after,” given that his mother's curse remains in effect.

It is upon this grim tale that Garner builds his story. He very quickly links his characters with the mythic figures. The youngsters are cast into the roles of the romantic triangle, without their having any idea of the pattern they are about to embody.

Alison, the young daughter of the house (in a valley in Wales, but owned by English gentry), has heard scratchings in the attic over her bedroom. To accommodate her, Gwyn opens the attic space and finds no animals—only “a kind of scent … yes; it's meadowsweet.” (OS [The Owl Service ], 4) However, more than scent lingers in the space under the roof:

In the darkest comer of the loft a plank lay over the joists, and on it was a whole dinner service: squat towers of plates, a mound of dishes, and all covered with grime, straw, droppings and blackened pieces of birds nests.
     (OS, 4)

This is the Owl Service of the book's title. The plates are decorated with a pattern that can be put together two ways, owls or flowers. Alison becomes fascinated with it, and makes owls of the pattern. The scent of meadowsweet—one of the flowers from which Blodeuedd was made—in the attic and the droppings and birds nests signal the positioning of Alison for the role of Blodeuedd in the mythic reenactment that is about to take place in the valley.

Roger, Alison's step brother (newly acquired) is likewise quickly linked to his mythic role. When first encountered in the story, he is swimming in the river. He climbs out by a huge rock and “sprawled backwards into the foam of meadowsweet that grew thickly…. He gathered the stems in his arms.” (OS, 6) A moment later a strange event occurs.

Something flew by him, a blink of dark on the leaves. It was heavy, and fast, and struck hard. He felt the vibration through the rock; and he heard a scream.
     (OS, 6)

He cuts his hand on the meadowsweet, and then discovers a round smooth hole that goes clean through the rock. Like Gronw, he had taken the “meadowsweet” in his arms.

Gwyn's role is not made as explicit initially. When he first picks up one of the plates for Alison, he lurches. Later Roger and he work out that this happened at the same moment Roger had his odd experience. This parallels the mythic moment when Lleu threw his spear at Gronw. The rest of his identification with Lleu is accomplished by implication: his shrewish, unsupportive mother; his being Welsh and knowing the valley in contrast to Alison's and Roger's Englishness.

The issue at stake for the young people, and for the results of the mythic enactment, is that of identity. Since Garner is writing a fantasy, mythic power of a sort is connected with identity. Part of the way through his story, Garner puts the explanation of the power in Gwyn's mouth:

Just suppose, a long time back, hundreds and hundreds of years, someone, somehow, did a thing in this valley. Suppose he found a way to control some power, or force, and used it to make a woman out of flowers. And suppose it went wrong—got out of hand—I don't know. It got out of hand because it wasn't neutral anymore. There was a brain behind it. Do you follow? Neutral like a battery, I mean. You can use it to explode a bomb or to fry an egg: it depends on you.
     (OS, 110)

Once it is put that way, Alison sees at least part of Gwyn's point and agrees to it. She responds by pointing out the effect of the power on the valley.

Look at this sick valley, Gwyn. Tumbledown buildings: rough land. I saw two dead sheep on the way up the track. Even poor old Clive can't catch a tiddler.
     (OS, 111)4

However, Alison thinks that the simple release of the valley's power should be sufficient to correct things. In supposing that, she misinterprets Gwyn's analogy of power: power released is only power, and more likely in events to be destructive than constructive.

The people of the valley are aware of this fact. Huw, the resident halfwit (or so he seems) warns Gwyn shortly after the plates are discovered: “Mind how you are looking at her.” (OS, 8) Later, Gwyn and Roger make an excursion to the village store, where two local women are talking about the effect of the valley's power and the consequence of its identity.

“I've been expecting it, Mrs. Lewis-Jones, I've been expecting it. There was never a summer like it this week, and then Gareth Pugh's black sow ran wild on the mountain and they can't bring her down. Grandad used to say the beasts always know first.” … “To think we shall see it in our time, Mrs. Richards!”

“Is it certain?”

“It is. Mister Huw came to tell us last night. He was going to all the farms. He says she is coming, and it's owls.” …

“We must bear it,” said Mrs. Richards. “There's no escaping, is there? Aberystwyth isn't far enough.”
     (OS, 39)

Huw's warning to Gwyn indicates that it is the perceptions of the myth-players that determines the shape of the power, determines whether it will be owls or flowers.

The significance of the two choices is shown in the poetical quotations from Garner's headpiece. He presents the negative choice of owls with this quotation from R. S. Thomas:

The owls are restless.
People have died here,
Good men for bad reasons,
Better forgotten.

The more positive choice of flowers is reflected in these lines from a traditional song:

I will build my love a tower
By the clear crystal fountain,
And on it I will build
All the flowers of the mountain.

The choice of embodying the power of Blodeuedd (for such is the force that fills the valley) as either owls or as flowers has drastic consequences for the valley. If owls, “good men” die “for bad reasons", but if flowers are chosen, the valley will be fruitful with “all the flowers of the mountain.”

For this young generation, the key to unlocking the power of Blodeuedd lies in the plates that had been hidden in the attic, and to a lesser degree in a painting that had been hidden under pebble-dash walling. In the painting of Blodeuedd, she is shown surrounded by flowers, by clover heads. But they are not simply flowers. When the young people examine it more closely, they find “the heads were formed of curved white petals bunched together, each painted separately, fine and sharp. But the petals were not petals: they were claws.” (OS, 34-35) Roger protests, “You can't have flowers made of claws.” But Gwyn responds by reminding Roger of the pattern on the dinner service and Alison's choice: “You can have owls made of flowers, can't you?” (OS, 35). At a later point in the story, Huw tries to explain to Gwyn why the painting and the Owl Service were made. He says (though Gwyn has his doubts about the complete truth, given the age of the painting and Huw's tenuous hold on reality) that his grandfather made the plates, and his uncle the painting.

You see, grandfather and uncle were great men, and they thought they could tame her. They thought they could end the sorrow of this valley. But they made her owls, and she went hunting. They rid themselves at last by locking her in plate and wall—and then they sought a quiet grave.
     (OS, 78)

With Huw's indication that the tricornered conflict of Lleu, Blodeuedd and Gronw has been enacted down through the ages, the effect of parental possessiveness is brought into focus—both in the mythic pattern and in the “real” life of the young people.

In the mythic story, Gwydion's actions as a parent are evident in his relationship with Lleu: he nurtures the infant, provides for the child, and works to circumvent the destiny curses of the boy's mother. However, he stands in a parental position to Blodeuedd as well. He has created her (as close to birthing as a man might get), and proves to be very definite about her destiny: she is to be Lleu's wife, period. His ruthless judgement of her when she fails that destiny is the harshest of parental punishments. He changes the nature of her identity, with a sort of “that is the end of that” finality. Garner's book, of course, contends that that is not the end “of that.” Gwydion's merciless condemnation of Blodeuedd to the form and nature of an owl shows him to be as possessive of her destiny as he is of Lleu's. No attempts at forgiveness or reconciliation are made.

With his interest in the effects of parental actions, Garner extends the effect of Gwydion's choice down through the ages. Because real mythic power is involved and not simply “the sins of the father,” he shows how badly a merciless choice can effect following generations. We have already mentioned the effect on the valley. Alison calls it a “sick valley” and it is so: generations of Blodeuedd's power in the form of a ruthless hunting owl have hurt the land and the people. And the pattern will not go away: it will only lie in wait for the next generation to try and re-shape it.

Gerner slowly unfolds the relation of what happened to the previous generation in their attempt at handling the myth. Huw, the handy-man for the property, is first shown “raking the gravel on the drive in front of the house.” (OS, 7) Though in a high traffic area such an activity does serve a purpose, in this situation it is an addled occupation eminently suited to the surname he is given in this description: “Halfbacon.” Roger, with a facetiousness that holds more truth than he knows, says, “That man's gaga…. He's so far gone he's coming back.” (OS, 8) For “coming back” he is, though not in the role he went out on.

In a moment of clear conversation, Huw says “Lleu, Blodeuedd and Gronw Pebyr. 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.” (OS, 77) He relates this crucial bit of information moments after saying to Gwyn:

We are not free…. We have tried too many times to be free. No lord is free. My grandfather tried, my uncle tried, and I have tried to end it, but it has no end.
     (OS, 77)

Tried to end what? we ask. Huw had actually answered that earlier. The trying had made his grandfather mad: “He saw the lady made of flowers, but he was not strong enough to keep her, and she changed into—he would never say what happened.” (OS, 76) Given all that Garner has placed in the story, it is not difficult to guess what happened: she became owls and Huw's grandfather went mad from the force of the valley's power in that form. In conveying all this information to Gwyn (the Lleu of the younger generation), Huw enacts the role of Gwydion, trying to assist his protege.

Huw, in his moments of clarity, is driven to help the youngsters shape the power more favorably because he knows the cost from experience.

“She is here, the lady, and you have made her owls: she will go hunting. But don't let her destroy. She will be the worse for my fault, and my uncle's fault and my grandfather's fault, who tried to stop what can't be stopped.”
     (OS, 150)

He then reveals to Gwyn that the previous generation failed to face the mythic pattern, and identifies the players: “Me, your mother, him.” (OS, 151) The “him” was Mr. Bertram, a cousin of Alison's father, through whom she inherited the house in the valley. Huw, Nancy (Gwyn's mother) and Bertram had played out the parts of Lleu, Blodeuedd and Gronw with disastrous results. Huw had courted Nancy, but she and Bertram had fallen in love and Bertram had had the intention of wedding her. Bertram had a motorcycle he liked to ride, and the jealous Huw had removed the brake linings. In a sudden change of his usual behavior, Bertram rode his bike up the valley's pass and had a fatal accident. (OS, 152) After relating this to Gwyn, Huw then reveals the last consequence: that he is Gwyn's father.

Gwyn shook his head. “She never told me, Huw. She never. And she did that to you? She did that?”

“It was my ending,” said Huw.

Indeed it was. Like Lleu in the bird's form after Gronw's blow, Huw became in a way “bird-brained.” Though it seems that slowly, as his role changes from the wounded (and unredeemed Lleu) of the previous generation to the Gwydion of this, he regains a coherence of mind, it is only a partial recovery. The wounds of the past are real and have done serious damage to the valley and to the person.

Nancy, however, seems to ignore the past in all but the most superficial ways. The damage done to her by her being made into Blodeuedd of the Owls has resulted in her becoming the Aranrhod of this generation. Though in her pride she has sent Gwyn to grammar school that his chances in the world might be bettered, she also constantly threatens her son with the loss of the opportunities thus gained.

As the power becomes more active in the valley, Nancy becomes more and more hostile to everyone. She is angered any time Gwyn pauses to speak with Huw, and this anger reaches a peak pitch as the shaping of the valley's power reaches a crucial point. In the middle of a rainstorm she determines to leave the valley and return to Aberystwyth. Gwyn, having just learned that he is Huw's son, refuses to go.

“What's that, boy?”

“My Dad ran away,” said Gwyn. “I shan't. I don't want to end up like him—or you.”

Nancy brought her arm around and caught Gwyn at the side of the head. The blow knocked him off the chair.
     (OS, 161)

This violence of Nancy's carries the force of both the hunting owls of Blodeuedd and the anger of Aranrhod at the reminder of her shame in being a parent. In addition to this physical violence, she has the power to inflict a great emotional wound on her son, to yank him out of school and set him to work in a shop: a fate that devastates him when she finally says that it will come to pass.

He managed to close the door of the flat behind him and to walk down the stairs. He was at the bottom of the stairs. He sat on the bottom step, his head in his hands, and there was nothing else he could do. Through the distance inside him he heard footsteps far away, and voices, and rustling, and through his wet fingers he saw two pairs of shoes stop in front of him, then move around him, and he felt the wood creak, and he was alone again and no one had said his name.
     (OS, 124)

Like Aranrhod, Nancy has tried to make her son's destiny a nothingness. She has set an emptiness in his heart that leaves him emotionally cold at a time when positive feeling will be needed. She succeeds in crippling him.

Each of the young people are brought to face the matter of parental expectation. Gwyn is caught between his desire to continue his education and Nancy's expectations. “I've got plans,” he tells Alison (OS, 103), though at the probable age of 15 or 16 how effective they are is debatable. But since the question is on his mind regarding his own fate, he asks Alison about hers and Roger's futures.

“What are you wanting to do when you leave school, Alison?”

“Mummy wants me to go abroad for a year.”

“But what do you want to do?”

“I've not thought. I expect I'll go abroad.”

“Then what? Sit at home and arrange flowers for Mummy?”


“And Roger?”

“He'll join Clive in his business, I expect.”

“Real fireballs, aren't you?”
     (OS, 102)

Because Gwyn has raised the question for her, Alison later poses it to Roger—who also has resigned himself to the parental expectation, although his actual love is for photography. Because of their inexperience, the youngsters have no idea how to escape the harsh pressure of their parents' expectations. And under the driving pressure of the valley's mythic power they are on the verge of being emotionally and spiritually destroyed. Unless they, unlike the generations before them, find a way to make Blodeuedd of flowers, the hunting owls of power and parentally determined destiny will shred them.

The pattern of owls is subverted, however, in the way Garner has set up the situation. In a way, he stacks in their favor things which could help them succeed where others have failed. Firstly, for this trio, the conflict between them is not a matter of sex and love. The young people are seemingly of a young enough age that sex is not the first thing on their minds. Secondly, rather than have this generation's Blodeuedd and Gronw be lovers, they are new step-siblings. And although romance has been known to spring up between step-siblings, Roger and Alison in actuality do behave toward each other as brother and sister. Thirdly, between Gwyn and Alison lies a genuine and comfortable friendship that could with time mature into a real love (a possibility which Alison's mother has perceived and acted to prevent). In addition to this original positive arrangement of the trio, Garner casts the imposed conflict on them in terms of class conflict: Alison and Roger of the upper class and Gwyn of a working class. In class-conscious Britain that indeed can be a hindrance, but the remote Welsh setting softens the edges of that blade. Indeed, Garner uses it only as a tool of the owl power to drive the young people apart. And finally, Garner from the beginning gives Roger, the outsider to the valley, the insight to see around the facade of centuries of owls.

Roger's insight, and (in the end) emotional courage, become crucial in the breaking of the owl pattern. His first reaction to seeing the design on the Owl Service is completely neutral: “An abstract design in green round the edge, touched up with a bit of rough gilding.” (OS, 18) Even when Alison insists that it is an owl, Roger's response tends toward the positive interpretation: “I suppose it is, if you want it to be. Three leafy heads with this kind of abstract flowery business in between each one. Yes: I suppose so.” (OS, 10)

Because Roger is already minded to look at the pattern as flowers, it is somewhat easier to provide the comfort to Alison that Huw says is needed when the power fully comes upon her. Ideally, it should be the Lleu figure who comforts Blodeuedd, who bestows forgiveness. But Gwyn, wounded by his mother and by the power-driven malicious comments of Alison and Roger, is not capable of giving that comfort. Stern, he says to Huw, “I've stayed to help you and the valley, not this lot…. These two are nothing.” (OS, 173) It is Roger, anxious to do anything to help his new, suffering sister, who sees the way to bring the needed comfort to Alison. For he recognizes that Gwyn also needs to be released from the pattern. The wounded Lleu must be acknowledged: Gronw must confess his sin against Lleu and must stand and accept the spear's blow. For Roger, that means letting Gwyn ridicule the mother that had abandoned Roger and his father.

The blue of the eyes froze, and in a slow voice Gwyn said, “Get lost—Mummy's boy.”

The walls were shedding their texture and taking another in the pouncing feathers. Gwyn spoke again, but Roger could scarcely hear across the darkness. “Yes. Yes, Gwyn.” The back of his head and all his spine were hollow. There was bile in his throat. He could do nothing to answer the words. He could only shore his mind against them, because if he did not he would be spilled by the bitter dark.

“And how is the Birmingham Belle? Still ringing?”

“Yes, Gwyn.”
     (OS, 175)

“The Birmingham Belle” is a nickname applied to Roger's frivolous, amorous mother, and it is a hurtful one for Roger to hear. But Roger stands his ground and discovers this result: “in the calm of the pain's clearing he found no anger.” (OS, 175)

By passing through his pain without fleeing it, and without clutching onto anger, Roger can perceive Huw and Gwyn and Alison with mercy. He sees the wounds in Gwyn and Huw and is moved to say “You poor devils.” Huw, anxious, babbles: “He hurts too much she wants to be flowers and you make her owls and she is at hunting.” In his new clarity of vision, this revelation strikes Roger as being amazingly simple: “Is that it? Is that all it is? As easy as that?” (OS, 175) He turns to the struggling, suffering Alison who is being shrouded in magic feathers and marked by claw scratches, and he speaks encouragingly to her.

You've got it back to front, you silly gubbins. She's not owls. She's flowers. Flowers. Flowers, Ali…. You're not birds. You're flowers. You've never been anything else. Not owls. Flowers.
     (OS, 175)

His continued insistence, in a gentle voice and with laughter, changes the shape of the power, easing Alison. Garner ends the book with this joyful release:

And the room was full of petals from skylight and rafters, and all about them a fragrance, and petals, flowers falling, broom, meadowsweet, falling, flowers of the oak.
     (OS, 176)

Garner's story is of the breaking of a pattern. In Roger's actions Garner indicates that the courage to endure suffering and the willingness to have mercy and forgiveness are crucial to ending a cycle of emotional abuse and anger. His presentation may verge a little on the simplistic, for we do not see the consequences of the change from owls to flowers. We do not see the restoration of the friendships between Roger and Gwyn and Alison. We do not see the young people standing up to their parents' determination of their futures. We can only speculate that because they do achieve the shaping of Blodeuedd of the Flowers they will now have the capacity to reshape their own lives. But Garner indicates that a difference can be made in dealing with deterministic patterns if we “mind how we are looking at her” and respond positively to the occasions—and powers—that come our way.


1. Garner, Alan; The Owl Service; Ballantine Books, New York, 1981, p. i. Hereafter cited as OS.

2. The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones, and Thomas Jones; Dent, London, 1975, p. 63. Hereafter cited as M.

3. Actually, into an eagle that is like a living corpse, with decaying flesh dropping off him when he moves.

4. Clive is Alison's step-father, who has been attempting to catch fish in the valley's river.

C. W. Sullivan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Sullivan, C. W. “One More Time: The Conclusion of Alan Garner's The Owl Service.Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 9, no. 1 (1998): 46-54.

[In the following essay, Sullivan reviews potential reasons for Garner's conclusion to The Owl Service, specifically, why Garner credits Roger with the solution to breaking the Mabinogion cycle rather than the seemingly more natural candidate of Gwyn.]

The conclusion of Alan Garner's award-winning novel The Owl Service has occasioned more debate than any other aspect of the book. While critics generally agree in their analyses of the upper-class/lower-class conflict, the parent/child conflict, and the English/Welsh conflict, they are by no means in agreement about the novel's ending. On one hand, there is the problem of whether or not the “right” person turns out to have the solution to the conflicts, and on the other, there is the question about what that solution means for the events which have been cycling down through the generations in this remote Welsh valley.

In the final section of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, on which Garner's novel is based, Lleu's wife, Blodeuedd, has an affair with a neighboring noble, Gronw Bebyr, and they plot Lleu's death. They think themselves successful when Lleu flies off, wounded, in the shape of an eagle; but Gwydion, both his uncle and his father, finds him, restores him to health, and aids him in taking revenge. Lleu says Gronw with a spear as Gronw had tried to slay Lleu, and Gwydion, who with his uncle Math's help had made Blodeuedd out of flowers to be Lleu's wife, turns Blodeuedd into an owl. Lleu then rules successfully, but alone.2

The rivalry in Garner's book takes place among contemporary adolescents. Alison and her step-brother Roger are upper-class English teenagers staying, with their newly-married parents, in Wales at a cottage which Alison has inherited from her uncle, Bertram, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. Gwyn, a Welsh teenager whose mother is doing the cooking and cleaning there, and Alison begin to establish a relationship. Roger, who resents Gwyn's attention to Alison, his lower-class status, and his Welshness, sabotages the relationship. Underlying that conflict is another. The ancient powers of the Mabinogi characters are still in the valley and are still cycling down through the generations; Gwyn is Lleu, Roger is Gronw, and Alison is Blodeuedd. According to Garner's text, the power which destroyed Lleu, Blodeuedd, and Gronw will manifest itself in Alison; and while there is the possibility that the power could arise as a gentle and perhaps productive force (symbolized by the flowers from which Blodeuedd was created), the reader quickly discovers that it seems to be manifesting itself as a destructive, predatory force (symbolized by the owl into which Blodeuedd was transformed). In the end, however, it is Roger who refocuses Alison so that the power comes not as owls but as flowers. This time, although most readers' sympathies have been with Gwyn, the Lleu counterpart, throughout the book, Roger, the Gronw counterpart, prevails.

Critics have struggled with this ending since the novel first appeared. David Rees sees the ending as “right intellectually” but not emotionally and, therefore, “confused and not a strength” (63); Rees is responding, in part, to Aiden Chambers' comment that the ending is “the book's great strength” and that “only Roger … could possibly lay the poltergeist which disturbs them all” (83). Michael Lockwood, examining the various language patterns found in the book, asserts, “Linguistically, the outcome is inevitable; Roger at least is not afraid to speak out as himself, and to swallow his pride to do so” (91). Neil Philip regards the ending as “prepared for, it is organic, and it is the linchpin of the book” (72). Andrew Taylor notes that the ending has been found “unsatisfactory” by many critics because “Roger, the spoilt and arrogant young man,” is the one who provides the solution, a solution which is the appropriate one for the novel because, in Taylor's opinion, Garner “wishes you to be surprised by the conclusion because it ensures that you will reconsider your accumulated responses carefully” (95 and 96). Garner, himself, seemed to be of little help when he said that either boy could have saved Alison in the end (Philip 71), but Garner's answer may in fact be the key.

The debate surrounding the ending of The Owl Service, vaguely addresses its “satisfactoriness,” when it should perhaps center on the “meaning” of Roger's triumph and whether or not the cycle has been concluded (as Chambers' comment about “laying the poltergeist” implies) because Alison is flowers this time and not owls. Addressing those two points might resolve the debate, and I would like to look at the second part, the possibility that the cycle has been concluded, because I feel that an answer there will make it easier to arrive at a resolution to the first part of the debate, the “meaning” of Roger's triumph.

There is nothing in the body of the novel itself to suggest that the cycle might have been concluded; in fact, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest just the opposite. All of the valley's residents, for example, know about the cycle and seem to know how it might, or should, or could, work out. At one point early in the novel, Gwyn and Roger enter a shop, and Gwyn overhears some local women discussing the situation.

“To think we shall see it in our time, Mrs. Richards!”

“Is it certain?”

“It is. Mister Huw came to tell us last night. He was going to all the farms. He says she's coming, and it's owls.”

“The poor things,” said Mrs. Richards, and she looked sideways at Roger and Gwyn.

Later, as Nancy tries to leave the valley and return to Aberystwyth, the locals comment that she is “headstrong,” has always tried to have “her own way,” and should “go [back] home” rather than try to leave (163 and 165); they are referring to the rivalry between Huw and Bertram for Nancy's affections that structured the events of the previous generation as well as the Gwyn-Alison-Roger conflict that is happening now.

This continuing cycle of events is something that is clearly known among the valley residents, but the comment that “she's coming, and it's owls” suggests, at the very least, that it has not always been owls. If she always came as owls, there would be no need for the specific comment about how the power is beginning to manifest itself this time. Moreover, and in spite of one small ambiguity, Huw is much clearer about the dual possibility. At one point, he does say, “Always it is owls, always we are destroyed” (173), but before that he had said, “She wants to be flowers … but you make her owls” (twice, 76 and 77) and “you have made her owls” (150). Moreover, immediately after saying that it is always owls, he says, “She is coming, and will use what she finds, and you have only hate in you” (174) and “she wants to be flowers and you make her owls” (175). There is the evidence of direct commentary in the text, then, that the power could have appeared before as flowers in some generations and as owls in others. And even if it has been owls in all the previous cycles, the possibility for flowers was also always there.

There is, moreover, indirect evidence in the text that the power in the valley could be released as either flowers or owls. Although the previous releases of power hinted at or partially described in the novel tell of violence and death, that may not always have been the case. Bertram, the previous cycle's Gronw figure, died in a motorcycle accident because Huw, then the Lleu figure, wanted to scare Bertram who

never had that old bike outside the grounds … [and] rode to make me jump when I was working on the drive, and he had my Nancy, and I thought I'd show him what it is to land in the rhododendrons, so I took out the [brake] blocks.

Had Bertram kept the bike in the yard and crashed only into the rhododendrons, the outcome might have been different. In addition, the reader is told of only a few of the past cycles; there is a possibility, therefore, that the power did not always come as owls.

Other indirect evidence lies in the juxtapositioning of owl and flower imagery throughout the novel in such a way that either interpretation is possible. Early in the novel, Alison traces a pattern from some old dinner plates found in the attic onto pieces of paper; when folded, the pieces of paper take the shape of owls. Later the paper owls disappear, and the power is released into the valley. Each of the plates from which Alison initially releases the power has a pattern which she sees as an owl but which Roger at first sees as an “abstract design in green around the edge, touched up with a bit of rough gilding” but only later grudgingly admits, under Alison's urging, might be a “stylized, floral owl” (10). When the painting on the wall of the billiard room is revealed, there are heads of clover whose petals may not be petals at all, but claws, and when Roger objects to “flowers made of claws,” Gwyn replies, referring to the plates, “Why not? You can have owls made of flowers, can't you?” (34-35). The differing interpretations of these images suggest that one's perception is a determining factor and reinforce the implication of Huw's comments that, while she seems to be coming as owls this time, as she has some times before, it also could have been, and perhaps still could be, flowers.

If both possibilities exist, as the text seems to insist, the reason for this duality may ultimately lie within Alison herself, or more correctly, within Alison as the ancient Celtic fertility power that she represents. Various commentators have noted that the ancient goddess long associated with fertility must also be associated with death. Pamela Berger comments, “Let it be understood from the start that we are not dealing with one goddess; we are discussing diverse realizations of a single magico-religious idea” (1), and although she focuses on the fertility aspects of the goddess, Berger admits that as “a multifaceted goddess she not only controlled the changing seasons [i.e., fertility] but was sovereign over the underworld as well” (5). Discussing the shrines to the Great Mother at Çatal Hüyük, David Leeming and Jake Page assert:

This was a being who nourished even as she took her offspring back into herself. Death and life, blood-letting and procreation, light and dark—all the opposites of existence—were intricately entwined and united in the Great Mother as they had been since paleolithic times.

And in her examination of the goddesses of early Greece, Charlene Spretnak argues that the Great Goddess “was all forces, active and passive, creative and destructive, fierce and gentle” (20). In addition to the scholars already noted, Merlin Stone, Anne Barstow, Eric Neumann, Robert Graves, Marija Gimbutas, Christine Downing, and a host of others have examined the evidence of goddess worship and come to essentially the same conclusions: she is the oldest deity worshipped and contains within herself all of the seeming opposites. This most ancient of deities, this goddess was, obviously, both owls and flowers.

More specifically, as a Blodeuedd-counterpart, Alison, like Blodeuedd, is or may represent a fictionalized aspect of the Celtic goddess; in fact, both Alison and Blodeuedd appear in pieces of fiction which look back to older, more mythological prose narratives no longer available to us. Proinsias Mac Cana says of the Four Branches, in which Blodeuedd appears, that the author “is not a mythographer conscientiously recording the traditions of the gods for their own sake, but a gifted writer shaping the … remains of a mythology to his own literary ends” (54). Gwyn Jones, in his introduction to the 1974 edition of The Mabinogion, comments that the “stories of Pwyll and Rhiannon and Lleu Llaw Gyffes … [present] us not with myth but with the reminiscence of myth” (xxxv). Rachel Bromwich believes the Four Branches to be a compilation of tales from various parts of Wales, the actors of which, in some cases, “were in fact the ancient deities of the Celts” (104). Mac Cana adds that “Rhiannon, Aranrhod, and Blodeuwedd [sic] are in different ways … literary reflexes of the Celtic goddess in some of her many aspects” (57) and, later, that “Blodeuwedd [sic] is the Celtic goddess in her role as femme fatale” (59).

In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Blodeuedd is created from flowers—broom and meadowsweet—to be the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes whose mother, Aranrhod, laid a final curse on him that “he shall never have a wife of the race that is now on this earth” (Jones and Jones 68). The creation of Blodeuedd is a focal point in the power struggle between Gwydion and Aranrhod that is one of the main themes of the Fourth Branch; in fact, each of the Four Branches is about the struggle for and use of power, and each Branch features at least one powerful woman—Rhi- annon in the First and Third Branches, Branwen in the Second Branch, and Aranrhod (and, to a lesser extent, Blodeuedd) in the Fourth Branch.3

Blodeuedd's creation from flowers and her designation as wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes are the obvious indicators of the fertility aspect of the Celtic goddess which she represents in the Fourth Branch, and Mac Cana's suggestion that she is a femme fatale is perhaps more informative than he might have intended. Blodeuedd, the last representative of female power in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, because of her part in the attempted slaying of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the revenge slaying of Gronw Bebyr, and the sundering of her marriage to Lleu, is, indeed, a femme fatale—a deadly woman. Gwydion, her creator, is also her destroyer, changing her into an owl and saying, “thou art never to show thy face in the light of day, and that there be enmity between thee and all birds, … and that thou shalt not lose they name, but that thou forever be called Blodeuwedd,” the word for “owl” even today (Jones and Jones 74). This is the source of the power, flowers and owls, the life and death aspects of the fertility goddess, rising in Garner's Alison.

In Garner's telling of the story, the current cycle, no one dies; Roger is able to convince Alison that she should be flowers and not owls, and “the room was full of petals from skylight and rafters, all about them a fragrance, and petals, flowers falling, broom, meadowsweet, falling, flowers of the oak” (176). Neil Philip says that this “is the only strong ending possible which would resolve the book's tensions rather than obliterate them: for Gwyn to forgive them would sentimentalize the book, denying the importance of what has gone before; for Roger to be destroyed, like Gronw, would offer the reader no hope” (71-72). And Andrew Taylor adds, “By rejecting the expected conclusion—admittedly one he has suggested to us all along—Garner has provided the ultimate validation of the story as continuingly relevant, as a proper vehicle for a serious study of emotion and passion” (100). Philip finds the book's tensions resolved, but Taylor sees it as “continuingly relevant"; however, neither states categorically that the cycle is terminated (Philip's implication) or that the cycle will continue (Taylor, freely interpreted).

It is important to note that Alison has manifested one aspect of Blodeuedd's power, flowers, as opposed to the other, owls; there is no indication that the power itself or any aspect of it has been negated. Roger can “save” Alison (and perhaps all three of them) because he can awaken her flower aspect (ironically, just as Gronw awakens the love in a woman, Blodeuedd, who had only known a pre-arranged marriage); Gwyn loses Alison as Lleu lost Blodeuedd. Garner is on record as having said that either boy could have saved her, but it is appropriate that a novel that opens with a teenage girl experiencing an onset of her menstrual cycle, the sign of her fertility, should conclude with her fully accepting the “flower” aspect of her potential.

If my interpretation is correct and Alison can be seen as a manifestation of the Great Goddess (several times removed), then the cycle is not over for all time, no poltergeist has been laid to rest, and Roger's victory is an incidental one (i.e., a victory for this incident). A cycle is very different from a circle, the latter making exactly the same pattern over and over, but the former making subsequent patterns similar (but not identical) to the initial or original one. The Gwyn-Alison-Roger cycle was different from the Huw-Nancy-Bertram cycle, and both were different from the Lleu-Blodeuedd-Gronw cycle. The basic formula does recur in all three, but with variations in each. When conditions are right again—perhaps, but not necessarily, in the next generation—the cycle will continue. Garner has found a suitable solution for this manifestation of the ancient power—in this time and among these characters (and perhaps for the readers as well [Sullivan 32]); what will happen another time will depend, as Huw Halfbacon says, on the power's “[using] what she finds” (Jones and Jones 174).


1. Sections of this paper were part of a lecture at the University of Wales, Cardiff, November 1996, and a paper at the 18th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 1997.

2. See Gwyn Jones' and Thomas Jones' translation, The Mabinogion, for the complete Fourth Branch story.

3. See especially Roberta Valente, “Gwydion and Aranrhod: Crossing the Borders of Gender in Math,” 331-345, and C. W. Sullivan III, “Inheritance and Lordship in Math,” 347-366, reprinted in The Mabinogi: A Book of Essays, C. W. Sullivan III, Editor, New York: Garland, 1996, for discussions of the themes of power in the Fourth Branch.


Barstow, Anne. “The Prehistoric Goddess.” The Book of the Goddess, Past and Present. Ed. Carl Olson. New York: Crossroad, 1983. 7-15.

Berger, Pamela. The Goddess Obscured: Transformations of the Grain Proctectoress from Goddess to Saint. Boston: Beacon, 1995.

Bromwich, Rachel. “The Character of Early Welsh Tradition.” Studies in Early British History. Ed. H. Munro Chadwick. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1954. 83-136.

Chambers, Aiden. Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children. 1977. New York: Harper, 1985.

Downing, Christine. The Goddess. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

Garner, Alan. The Owl Service. 1967. New York: Ballantine, 1981.

Gimbutas, Marija. Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. 1974. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. 1948. New York: Farrar, 1978.

Jones, Gwyn, and Thomas Jones, eds. and trans. 1949. The Mabinogion. London: Dent, 1974.

Leeming, David, and Jake Page. Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine. New York: Oxford, 1994.

Lockwood, Michael. “‘A Sense of the Spoken’: Language in The Owl Service.Children's Literature in Education 23.2 (1992): 83-92.

Mac Cana, Proinsias. The Mabinogi. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1977.

Eric Neumann. The Great Mother. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.

Philip, Neil. A Fine Anger. New York: Philomel, 1981.

Rees, David. The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults. Boston: Horn Book, 1980.

Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece. 1978. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

Stone, Merlin. When God was a Woman. New York: Harcourt, 1978.

Sullivan, C. W. III. Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1989.

Taylor, Andrew. “Polishing Up the Pattern: The Ending of The Owl Service.Children's Literature in Education 23.2 (1992): 93-100.

Donna R. White (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: White, Donna R. “Alan Garner's The Owl Service.” In A Century of Welsh Myth in Children's Literature, pp. 73-95. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, White examines how Celtic myth, in particular, the Mabinogi chronicles, influenced the creation of The Owl Service.]

In the thirty-four years following the publication of Kenneth Morris's Book of the Three Dragons, authors of children's books made little use of the Mabinogi. Other than several school readers, which were textbooks rather than literature, there is little evidence that children's writers were aware of the Welsh legends. However, these years did see the publication of Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones's Everyman translation for adults (1949) and Gwyn Jones's retelling for children in Welsh Legends and Folk-Tales (1955), as well as several lesser collections. In creative fiction, on the other hand, the Mabinogi lay forgotten for three decades until Lloyd Alexander and Alan Garner rediscovered it simultaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Alexander was the first to publish the results of his discovery: The Book of Three, volume one of the Chronicles of Prydain, appeared in America in 1964, The Black Cauldron in 1965, and The Castle of Llyr in 1966. Alan Garner's The Owl Service came out in Britain in 1967, the same year that saw publication in America of Alexander's Taran Wanderer, volume four of the Chronicles of Prydain.

During an interview with the Garners, Griselda Garner, who is closely involved in her husband's work, stated that he was the first of many children's writers to draw upon the Mabinogi, or indeed, upon Welsh traditional material in general.1 Since three of Alexander's volumes had already appeared, this statement is inaccurate; however, only The Black Cauldron was available in Britain before 1967, and it does not seem to have made much of an impact on that country.2 Moreover, Garner had been researching his material since 1963, so Griselda Garner's claim may certainly hold true for Britain.

That two outstanding creative artists should rediscover the Mabinogi at virtually the same time was no accident. Garner and Alexander were both resonating to the music of Robert Graves, a much admired English-Irish poet and novelist who had become obsessed with Welsh myth. Graves's The White Goddess, first published in 1948, was subtitled A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth and purported to reconstruct an ancient druidic tree alphabet cum sacred calendar, which had been encoded in old Welsh poetry. Although The White Goddess devotes many pages to deciphering the druidic secrets, its main thesis is that all poetry ultimately derives from worship of an ancient moon goddess—a triple goddess consisting of a maiden, an adult woman, and an old hag. According to Graves, this matriarchal religion predates all religions that worship male deities. Poetic myth concerns itself with the ritual seasonal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth through the figures of the white goddess and the two male rivals for her affection, whom Graves calls the God of the Waxing Year and the God of the Waning Year. In her triple aspect, the goddess is both bride and mother, inspiration and doom. For Graves, this is the basis of all true poetry.

Graves had been reading the Mabinogion when he experienced his startling epiphany regarding the hidden druidic lore. Not surprisingly, then, The White Goddess culls most of its material from Welsh sources. Lady Charlotte Guest's scholarly footnotes leave a clear footprint on the book, but other Welsh sources and scholarly commentary leave their mark as well. Graves had read everything available on early Welsh literature. The Welsh material fit Graves's thesis well, because the ancient Celts worshipped various triple goddesses, some of whom are often identified with characters in the Mabinogi—Branwen, Rhiannon, Aranrhod, Blodeuwedd. Graves also drew upon his extensive knowledge of Greek and Egyptian myth to show how all ancient mythologies hearken back to the worship of the triple goddess. (The theosophists would have loved this book.)

Despite his scholarly intent for The White Goddess, Graves was gravely disappointed when the book was loudly ignored by Celtic scholars, whose underlying and unspoken assessment was that the poet was some kind of fruitcake. Other writers, however, especially other poets, found the work both challenging and inspirational. It demanded an intuitive understanding rather than a rational, logical approach; readers whose thought processes ran in a straight line were perplexed and uncomprehending. As long-time admirers of Graves's poetry and fiction, Garner and Alexander persevered with The White Goddess and were rewarded with inspiration. Garner even wrote to Graves in Majorca and received a friendly reply.

Graves's celebration of the white goddess predates the recent feminist interest in uncovering a history of matriarchal religion and reestablishing a consciousness of a mother goddess. However, the poet's feelings towards his goddess muse were sharply ambivalent—fear, hate, love, admiration all intermingled. It is not surprising that his passionate outpourings in The White Goddess should so strongly influence Garner, whose own experience of female power had left him with a similar ambivalence towards women, especially towards mother figures. In Garner's books mothers were transformed into powerful mythological forces, and every female character shared at least one aspect of the triple goddess. Nowhere is the figure of the triple goddess more clearly delineated than in Garner's fourth novel, The Owl Service.

The Owl Service is a reworking of part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi: the tragedy of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers. By winning both the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal, The Owl Service drew attention to the Mabinogi as a rich source of material for writers and paved the way for award-winning books by Susan Cooper, Nancy Bond, and Jenny Nimmo, all of them indebted to Welsh traditional materials and to Alan Garner for leading the way.

Alan Garner is not an easy act to follow. Jenny Nimmo, for one, is grateful that she did not read The Owl Service before she wrote The Snow Spider, the first book in her Welsh trilogy.3 Like many other children's writers, she has great respect for Garner's talents and achievements. His novels are multilayered, carefully crafted, psychologically truthful works. He himself compares them to onions: “An onion can be peeled down through its layers, but it is always, at every layer, an onion, whole in itself. I try to write onions” (“A Bit More Practice” 577).

Garner puts a great deal of work into each “onion.” First he invests several years in intensive research, then he puts the research aside and writes the book intuitively, allowing his instinct and intellect to balance each other in an extended act of creative craftsmanship. By his own reckoning, he spent four years researching The Owl Service : detailed scholarly research combined with very practical participation in modern Welsh culture and language. Yet the finished product shows no sign of his extensive background work; it is a concise, polished, and profound piece of literature—layers of psychological realism presented in the guise of fantasy.

Garner's previous novels had also been fantasies—a remarkable achievement for a man who claims to have no imagination whatsoever. The first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), are standard representatives of the fantasy genre, although the latter shows signs of the emotional and psychological depth to come, despite its false ending.4 The true breakthrough, however, came with Elidor (1965), in which Garner first made use of the electromagnetic imagery that would play such an important part in The Owl Service and Red Shift. Elidor is a discomforting book; the usual dualistic poles of Good versus Evil, White versus Black, merge inexorably into shades of gray, and the land of Elidor emerges as a psychic parasite of our own world rather than as a magical and virtuous otherworld. According to Garner, he was deep into his research for The Owl Service when the idea for Elidor appeared and insisted on being written, first as a radio play, and then extended into novel form.

In A Fine Anger, a critical monograph on Garner, Neil Philip stresses the “intensely autobiographical” nature of Garner's works (9) and states that “every book is a comment on and refinement of its predecessors” (21). Since all of Garner's books are steps in his own maturation, therefore, Elidor must have been a necessary bridge between the two earlier books and the powerful novels to follow. In fact, the two poles that make up the dichotomy in Garner's own life and maintain the creative tension in his work were approaching each other book by book until they came into direct and destructive contact in The Owl Service and Red Shift and later found peace and resolution in The Stone Book Quartet.

In a paper delivered at the international conference of the Soviet Writers' Union in November 1989, Garner speaks of his difficulties in reconciling his elite intellectual training and his folk roots:

To become a whole, mature human being, I had to integrate my divided self. I am making the story too simple. But, unless you are English, and aware of the subtle cruelties of the English class system, you will not understand the complexity of my distress. It was an anger, a sense of outrage, at once personal, social, political, philosophical and linguistic.
     (“Beyond the Tenth Kingdom” 2)

The Owl Service, then, represents the height of Alan Garner's own conflict between his working-class heritage and his elite academic training, between his intuitive nonrational self and his intellect—a conflict seeking resolution but not yet resolved. It is not surprising, therefore, that the same conflicts appear in the book. In fact, Garner was drawn to the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd because it was a parable of those same conflicts. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement soon after the publication of the book, he said of the legend that “it struck me as being such a modern story of the damage people do to each other, not through evil in themselves, but through the unhappy combination of circumstance that throws otherwise harmless personalities together” (“A Bit More Practice” 577). Not coincidentally, the story of Blodeuwedd figures prominently in The White Goddess.

Garner had found occasion to use the Mabinogi as a source long before he wrote The Owl Service. All of his earlier works draw heavily on myth and legend for characters, plot, and theme. No particular mythology is favored over another: Garner mixes elements from Norse, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English, and Greek myth, as well as drawing from folklore and traditional ballad. The Four Branches are a minor source in the first two books, although the other tales in the Mabinogion provide a number of names. For example, the wizard Cadellin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath gets his name from the early Arthurian tale “Culhwch and Olwen.” The footnotes in Lady Charlotte Guest's three-volume translation of the Mabinogion are also a rich source of names and stories: the sword Dyrnwyn, for instance, and the horse Melynlas, both of which were also borrowed by Lloyd Alexander. However, almost all the Welsh elements in Garner's first three books can be found more readily in Robert Graves's The White Goddess, which greatly influenced Garner's poetic imagination.

One element that may be drawn from the Mabinogi is the description of the Morrigan's hounds in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. In the First Branch of the Mabinogi, Pwyll encounters the hounds of Annwn, which are white with red ears and glow with luminescence. The Morrigan's dogs are even more unearthly, as the first appearance of one of them indicates:

It was very like a bull-terrier; except that it stood four feet high at the shoulder, and its ears, unlike the rest of the white body, were covered in coarse red hair. But what set it apart from all others was the fact that, from pointed ears to curling lip, its head and muzzle were blank. There were no eyes.
     (Weirdstone 93)

There seems to be no unified purpose in Garner's use of the Welsh material in the early novels. Writing about The Moon of Gomrath, Neil Philip remarks,

The original context of these words, phrases and incidents, beyond their Celtic nature and magical significance, is of little importance to their function in Garner's book. They serve, like the names and the spells, to give authenticity to feeling and mood rather than any specific purpose.

Whereas Garner's first three novels used only random borrowings from the Mabinogi, The Owl Service is constructed almost entirely of bricks from that source, specifically from the tale of Blodeuwedd. Blodeuwedd is the woman made of flowers who is turned into an owl for betraying her husband, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. In The Owl Service Garner uses this tale to examine the relationships of three contemporary adolescents. Even a cursory reading makes it clear that the book is indebted to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi for its story line, but what is not so obvious is that Garner has borrowed much more from his Welsh source than its plot: he has adopted its structure, its geography, its characters, and its themes, as well as many images and concepts.5

The Owl Service is the story of three adolescents who are spending the summer holiday in an isolated Welsh valley: Alison; her stepbrother, Roger; and Gwyn, the housekeeper's son. Alison and Roger are upper-class English teenagers, while Gwyn is looked down upon as a Welsh bastard. When Alison and Gwyn find a floral-patterned dinner service in the loft above her room, Alison feels compelled to trace the pattern from the plates to make paper owls. Strange things begin to happen: the pattern disappears from the plates, there are odd noises in the loft, and an unexplained pressure starts to build up in the valley. The three teenagers learn from Huw Halfbacon, the half-mad handyman, that in this very valley Gwydion and Math created a woman made of flowers and that this act and the resulting tragedy released an uncontrolled power in the valley that demands a ritual reenactment of the myth in every generation. Because previous generations had attempted unsuccessfully to channel this power into the dinner service and a life-sized portrait of Blodeuwedd, the current generation must deal with the full destructive force that has built up over the years. As the tensions mount, Alison, Gwyn, and Roger find themselves forced to act out the passions of Blodeuwedd, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and Gronw Bebyr.

The plot of The Owl Service is actually tripartite. Besides the story of the mythological characters and that of the modern adolescents, the story of the previous generation slowly comes to light. Huw Halfbacon played the part of Lleu in that enactment, while Gwyn's mother Nancy was Blodeuwedd. Alison's distant cousin Bertram was killed in his role as Gronw.

Garner has borrowed the concept of a tripartite plot from the Mabinogi. Each branch of the Mabinogi contains three interlocked tales. In the Fourth Branch, one strand of the story concerns Gwydion's complicity in the death of Pryderi and the rape of Goewin and his resulting punishment. The second strand is about Lleu's boyhood and Gwydion's attempts to trick Lleu's mother, Aranrhod, into giving the boy a name and arms. The third tale is that of Blodeuwedd. Jeffrey Gantz sees in these tales cycles of lust and betrayal in which each event leads to a chain of other events ("Thematic Structure” 252). The three triangles of The Owl Service can be seen as similar cycles or perhaps as a continuation of the chain of events that began in the Fourth Branch.

Another structural device that Garner borrows from his Welsh source is the practice of weaving the three strands of story into an intricate interlace. Just as Celtic art is known for its interlace design, so too does much of its narrative literature weave strands of story together. J. K. Bollard points out that the Mabinogi has a definite and distinct interlace structure: “The events of one episode are made clear by comparison with other similar but different episodes” (69-70). This sounds much like Carolyn Gillies's comment about The Owl Service 's “complex structure that can finally be reduced to a series of interlocking triangles, rather like a mathematical puzzle” (107).

In The Owl Service Garner maintains his contemporary story as the main strand, but the other two stories weave in and out almost as if they are conjured up by events in the present. At the exact moment that Gwyn lays hands on the dinner service and experiences a moment of severe disorientation, Roger has a startling experience by the river: “Something flew by him, a blink of dark on the leaves. It was heavy, and fast, and struck hard. He felt the vibration through the rock, and he heard a scream” (11). What Roger has experienced is the impact of Lleu's spear and Gronw Bebyr's death cry, although Roger does not realize it at the time.

Sometimes all three strands appear at once, as when Gwyn waits in the dark for Alison:

His concentration was broken once, when he was alarmed by the quick drumming of hoofs, but the next moment he grinned as a motorcycle swept along the road. Its headlamp spun shadows in his face.

Gwyn does not realize that he has just heard Lleu Llaw Gyffes galloping home (or possibly Gronw Bebyr riding out to hunt) and seen Bertram riding the vintage motorcycle on which he was killed. Throughout the novel Bertram's presence is indicated by the sound of the motorcycle and the smell of petrol, and Lleu is represented by hoofbeats and the smell of goat. Blodeuwedd herself appears as a wall painting that has been plastered over, a reflection in the fish pond, a shape in the night, the flowers from which she was created, and always as owls.

This kind of structural borrowing may be a practice already familiar to Garner. Writing about the earlier novels, Neil Philip says, “I suspect that in both The Weirdstone and its sequel Garner was seeking to emulate the structural effects he found in the Celtic stories which also supplied him with a language and a frame of reference” (24). Triple groupings have powerful connotations in Western cultures. Our folktales contain such groupings: the king has three sons, the hero must accomplish three tasks or answer three questions, ritual phrases are repeated three times. Western Christianity celebrates the Holy Trinity. Even in modern times we continue to think in threes, so that pilots make three-point landings and ministers write three-point sermons. The tripartite structure Garner borrowed from the Four Branches reverberates with echoes from these other triple groupings.

On another level, Garner's style may also have been influenced by his source. Like Kenneth Morris, Garner uses the kind of short dramatic scenes Bedwyr Lewis Jones finds in the Mabinogi ("Gladly Would We Have a Tale” 26). Garner depends even more on dialogue than does his source; up to two-thirds of The Owl Service is dialogue as opposed to the fifty percent Jones sees in the Four Branches. However, Garner's style is more likely due to his television training than to his source; at any rate, he attributes the style to his work in television (“Coming to Terms” 23), although there may have been an intuitive recognition of the stylistic similarities. Some critics feel that the dialogue is a major weakness in the book, accusing it of being cliché-ridden. Eleanor Cameron, for instance, refers to “this TV type of dialogue” and claims “it is the staccato beat of the dialogue which may give the effect of choppiness rather than the progression of the action” (432). However, rather than creating choppiness, the dialogue increases the pace of the story and the buildup of tension; it is an effective narrative device in a novel such as this.

The Welsh valley in which Garner sets his story is Llanymawddwy, an actual place he knew intimately through his own visits and long discussions with the local inhabitants. All of the places Garner uses in his fiction are real places in every detail, down to the names of the streets and houses and local landmarks. Critics and reviewers continually remark upon his sense of place. Garner feels that geographical reality is extremely important in fiction, particularly in fantasy:

For example, 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, Lancashire, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possibly the reader will, too.
     (“Real Mandrakes” 591)

From comments Garner has made in interviews, scholars have mistakenly concluded that he believed Llanymawddwy to be the actual site of the events in the Fourth Branch, even though scholarship has located the sites elsewhere. Welsh scholars have been pointing out Garner's presumed error for years, most recently Peter J. Foss in an article for The New Welsh Review (Spring 1990). Garner is fully cognizant of Welsh geography; he is well aware of the locations pinpointed by scholars as the sites of the events recounted in the Mabinogi. However, Garner needs natural and man-made objects on which to construct his novels—a need that may be a strength or a weakness—and the house he uses in The Owl Service exists in Llanymawddwy. As he explains his choice of setting, “I went to this house by accident—seeming accident—and the house was artistically correct. And I thought, it's more important to get it artistically right than historically right. So I made that decision.”

Garner's choice of Llanymawddwy is also a visceral one; for him the valley is almost an archetype. His stance is philosophical: all time is one time and all places are one place. What is more, the inhabitants have folk memories of the legend of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and have localized many of the events in place names. Garner also points out that the tales existed long before they were written down in the form we now have them; whoever recorded the stories may well have localized the events himself.

For Garner, it is enough that the tragedy could have occurred in Llanymawddwy. From Dafydd Rees, the man on whom Huw Halfbacon is modeled, Garner learned the local tales and the related names of topical features in the landscape. This inside information is woven into Garner's story and adds texture, depth, and verisimilitude. The Owl Service also captures the brooding, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Welsh valleys, surrounded on all sides by encroaching mountains and above by lowering clouds. Roads are narrow and winding and often bordered on both sides by tall hedges. It is easy to feel trapped in a Welsh valley. Garner expresses this atmosphere brilliantly; in fact, he has a better sense of Welsh place than writers who are native to Wales.

Besides borrowing plot, structure, and setting from the Mabinogi, Garner also borrows characters. Blodeuwedd, Lleu, and Gronw Bebyr do not only appear as ghostly presences, but in many ways they are Alison, Gwyn, and Roger. Nancy, Gwyn's mother, has been Blodeuwedd in the past; now she has become Aranrhod, Lleu's mother. Aranrhod is never mentioned by name, but the relationship between Gwyn and Nancy makes the identification clear. As Gwyn tells Alison, “She hates my guts” (91). Critics familiar with Garner's source have also pointed out the connection (e.g., Philip 67). Likewise Huw is no longer Lleu, but Gwydion. Huw explains his nickname of Halfbacon to Roger by telling how he tricked a man out of some pigs by conjuring up twelve horses and twelve hounds; this, of course, is how Gwydion tricked Pryderi. As Neil Philip points out in A Fine Anger, Halfbacon is also one of Gwydion's nicknames (67). Huw also turns out to be Gwyn's father, as Gwydion is Lleu's; and Huw tracks Gwyn down when he runs away from Alison's betrayal, finding him in an oak tree where he has been chased by a black sow, just as Gwydion found the transformed Lleu in a tree with a sow at its foot. Since Huw is the hereditary lord of the valley, Gwyn is the heir apparent, descended from Gwydion and Lleu and destined to become Lleu as were his forebears before him.

Garner draws the parallels in painstaking detail. Just as Gwydion transforms Blodeuwedd into an owl, so Huw transforms Alison by giving her Gwyn's gift of a slate pendant. Huw, like Gwydion, has the help of local farmers in tracking down his missing son. When Huw reaches the tree in which Gwyn has taken refuge, he is humming “a kind of song” (130); this is the equivalent of the three englyns (a type of short Welsh poem) Gwydion sings to coax the eagle/Lleu out of his tree. Garner does not go so far as to transform Gwyn into an eagle (although he indulges in a subtle pun by having Gwyn “spread-eagled” on a cliff), but he represents the transformation linguistically, as he explained in an interview:

In the Mabinogion there is the period when Lleu is killed and turned into an eagle. If you match that with the text of The Owl Service, the name of “Gwyn” is never mentioned: it is always “he,” until the very moment when Huw makes him confront his destiny by reaching into the mountain and pulling out the talismans again. And after page on page on page of “he,” it's “‘Mister Huw, I'm sorry,’ said Gwyn.” And then the eagle is Lleu again…. From the point of being “killed” by Roger's verbal cruelty to accepting his destiny, he is not referred to by the narrator as “Gwyn,” but as “he.”

Blodeuwedd is the pivotal character in The Owl Service, whether as ghostly presence, as Nancy, or as Alison. Her actions determine the course of future events, not by controlling them but by setting loose uncontrollable passions. When Alison looks at the pattern on the dinner service, she sees owls, not flowers, and that calls forth the old tragedy. As Huw says, “Always it is owls, always we are destroyed. Why must she see owls and not flowers?” (153). Proinsias MacCana points out that Blodeuwedd is also the pivotal character in the Fourth Branch: “It is she more than any other character who imparts to the fourth branch the dramatic colour and force which raises it above the more balanced and more unified narrative of Manawydan” (59). Before Alison starts making paper owls, Roger and Gwyn are very friendly with each other; afterwards they are increasingly set against each other through their shared concern for Alison as well as by the cultural and social distinctions that are aggravated by the intense emotions loosed among them.

Where Garner departs from his original source is in his depiction of Gronw, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say in his interpretation of Gronw's actions. In the Mabinogi, Gronw steals Lleu's wife, attempts to murder Lleu, blames his actions on Blodeuwedd, and tries to avoid the consequences of his actions—first by asking for a volunteer to take his place and then by getting Lleu's permission to stand behind a stone while Lleu throws his spear. In The Owl Service, Huw tells Roger that Lleu was much to blame. Roger's reply foreshadows the ending of the book: “That bloke Gronw was the only one with any real guts: at the end” (53). Roger is Gronw, of course, and it is by his sacrificing his pain and anger that tragedy is averted. Carolyn Gillies interprets this ending as Garner's disagreement with the conclusion of the Fourth Branch. As she says, “according to the morals of the time Lleu should have taken blood money for the killing and not have exacted revenge” (114). Proof that Roger has broken the tragic cycle of the myth (if only temporarily) is that for once Gronw does not die.6

The main use Garner makes of the Mabinogi is thematic. He chooses to use myths in his work partly because he finds their themes to be universal. As he wrote in an article for the New Statesman, “traditional motifs are powerful ingredients in a modern story” (“Real Mandrakes” 591). Perhaps Neil Philip explains this best:

Though Garner's use of myth has altered considerably during his career it has always been used to sharpen our perception of emotional, intellectual or spiritual potentials which are either crushed or ignored in a materialistic, vicarious society.

The Owl Service abounds with themes borrowed from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi—themes that draw parallels between the original tale and the story of three contemporary adolescents.

One such theme is regeneration, though it would be more accurate to say that Garner borrows this theme from his scholarly sources rather than from the Mabinogi itself. One popular theory about the Mabinogi's origins is that it was at one time a mythological cycle, but the texts that have survived contain no internal evidence to support this theory. Nevertheless, Celtic scholars believe the Four Branches to be the detritus of a Welsh mythology, weakened through euhemerization and contact with Christianity. In Math vab Mathonwy, W. J. Gruffydd has gone so far as to reconstruct what he believes to be the original Welsh myths behind the Fourth Branch.7 Gruffydd finds the story of Blodeuwedd “an intrusion” (258). Since Gruffydd wants the reconstituted myth to be the story of the birth, life, and death of Pryderi, the events which follow Pryderi's death in the Fourth Branch (the entire story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes) are incidental and unimportant. Most scholars, however, accept Blodeuwedd's presence with equanimity and interpret the tale as a regeneration myth. It is a part of what Robert Graves claims to be the theme of all Celtic poets—the ancient story of the God of the Waxing Year, the God of the Waning Year, and the Threefold Goddess. Gantz sees this regeneration motif as the unifying theme that holds the Four Branches together (Gantz, Mabinogion 15). Scholars who study ancient Celtic beliefs suggest that regeneration involves much more than a seasonal myth; it is also connected to the direct relationship between the potency of a king and the fertility of the land, sometimes requiring a blood sacrifice to heal an ailing land. Some commentators tie the Mabinogi to the tale of the wounded Fisher King, whose once verdant country has become a wasteland because of his injury.

Both aspects of regeneration—the seasonal and the sacrificial—appear in The Owl Service. Although Garner never specifies any date in the book, there are many references to the season, a particularly hot summer. Late winter or early spring might seem to be a more appropriate season for a reenactment of a regeneration myth, but this is the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, whom scholars speculate was the Welsh personification of the Irish god Lug, in whose honor Lugnasad was celebrated on the first of August. Garner has chosen the name Gwyn because it is the autumn name of Lleu (Philip 70). Garner has also selected the season carefully. He had been working with Celtic mythology for almost a decade and knew the significance of Lugnasad. What better time to act out a ritual involving Lleu? That it is a ritual is clear from the talk of the villagers and from Huw's statements: “Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebyr [sic]. They are the three who suffer every time” (71).

Garner mentions the fertility of the land more specifically. There are indications throughout the book that the valley is ailing. Alison senses instinctively that there is a connection between the land and the myth:

Look at this sick valley, Gwyn. Tumbledown buildings: rough land. I saw two dead sheep on the way up the track. Even poor old Clive can't catch a tiddler. Maybe once the power's loose things'll be better, until the next time.

Gwyn's responsibility for the valley—his place as the king in the ritual marriage or sacrifice—is stated by Huw, who tells Gwyn repeatedly, “A lord must look to his people.”

Incest is another theme Garner incorporates, although this is such a controversial one that he deals with it more through suggestion than by direct statement. The notion of incest comes from his source, the Everyman's Library edition of the Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Unlike other translators (e.g., Lady Charlotte Guest and Jeffrey Gantz), who tidy up the relationship between Gwydion and Lleu, the Joneses retain the ambiguous references to Lleu as both son and nephew of Gwydion (Mabinogion 64, 65, 72). According to Gruffydd, in the latter part of the Fourth Branch it is clear that Gwydion is Lleu's father, a relationship that is assumed in seventeenth-century tradition (198-99). Since Lleu's mother, Aranrhod, is Gwydion's sister, the incest is obvious.

Garner weaves in this theme so skillfully that it is almost invisible. In an interview for Children's Literature in Education he made the following comments about the incest:

It is there but you almost have to have a degree in Old Welsh in order to see it, but it provides part of the nervous energy of The Owl Service. You are not meant to see it, but if you go there, it is there.
     (“Coming to Terms” 27)

It is there in Alison's comment, “The Wizard was his father, or uncle: I'm not sure” (45), and in Gwyn's remark that Huw is “a descendant of Gwydion, or of Lleu Llaw Gyffes: it comes to the same thing” (99). Although Garner says nothing to indicate that Huw and Nancy are more to each other than former lovers, he equates Nancy with Aranrhod and Huw with Gwydion in such a way that a reader who has studied the Everyman translation may carry the identification further.8 Neil Philip finds the evidence convincing: “It seems likely that we are meant to regard Huw and Nancy as brother and sister, and Gwyn as an incestuous as well as illegitimate child, like Lleu before him” (67).

Garner himself suggests another possible instance of incest: the reason why Alison's mother forbids Alison to have anything to do with Gwyn is a suspicion that Bertram may have fathered both teenagers (“Coming to Terms” 27). This suggestion is not clear in the text. Until Huw tells him differently, Gwyn does believe that Bertram was his father, but there is no real indication that Bertram was anything but Alison's distant cousin. The only mention of a possible relationship between Bertram and Alison's mother is Alison's comment, “I've noticed whenever he's mentioned Mummy goes all tragic” (101). Her mother's refusal to talk about Bertram's death may also be suggestive.9

Closely connected to the theme of incest is that of the mother-son relationship. In the Mabinogi, say Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, “Aranrhod's hostility to her son is rationalized to shame at his illegitimate birth and incestuous begetting” (Mabinogion xvii). Whether the same thing is true of Nancy and Gwyn is open to question. A mutual hostility is definitely present and sometimes takes a nasty turn, as when Gwyn puts the remains of a dead mouse in Nancy's purse. Like Lleu, Gwyn is illegitimate, and it may have been shame that led Nancy to leave the valley before Gwyn's birth. The hostility and hatred in the relationship are more developed in The Owl Service than in the Mabinogi; in the latter Aranrhod's feelings are very clear, but there is no indication of Lleu's feelings towards his mother. Gwyn responds to Nancy's viciousness in kind. Gwyn and Lleu are both forced into dependence on their mothers: Gwyn is helpless to determine his own education and lifestyle, and Lleu must depend on Aranrhod to supply his name and arms. Like Lleu, Gwyn is sometimes nameless: Nancy and Huw never call him anything but “boy.” In Nancy's case, she is acting out her role as Aranrhod by refusing to give Gwyn a name; Garner is not sure why Huw also refuses to use Gwyn's name. Gwyn's “arms” are his grammar school education, which will equip him for better things in life; Nancy's threat to remove him from school is a serious threat to his future. Mother-son relationships have significance for the mythic reenactment as well, in that Roger's vulnerable point is his pain over his mother's abandonment of her family. Just as Lleu hurls a spear at Gronw, Gwyn hurls taunts about Roger's mother.10

Another theme borrowed from the Mabinogi concerns the choices people make. J. K. Bollard claims that “issues of human choice occur repeatedly throughout The Four Branches as the predominant overriding theme” (70). Blodeuwedd, Gronw Bebyr, and Lleu Llaw Gyffes are all faced with important choices. Bollard's idea differs from Gantz's notion that regeneration is the predominant theme. Garner does not seem to be concerned with establishing one theme as dominant, however; a multilayered work like The Owl Service needs many interlocking themes.

Individual choice is something all of Garner's characters must face. The fact that Alison chooses to see owls instead of flowers on the dinner service (a choice Garner attributes to dysmenorrhoea) determines the events that follow. Although Garner has always been an elliptical writer, his failure to identify menstrual cramps as the source of Alison's irritability may also have been due to taboos that remained in place in children's literature until the 1970s. I must admit that I derive great enjoyment from the thought that one teenaged girl's bad period almost decimates an entire Welsh valley—finally someone is giving stomach cramps the respect and importance all sufferers know are due them. At the end of the book Gwyn is faced with the choice of forgiving Alison's betrayal or responding in kind; his decision to hold onto his pain seems to guarantee the destruction of all three main characters. In Garner's vision, though, choice can redeem as well as damn. When Gwyn re- fuses to comfort Alison and hits back at Roger, Roger sacrifices his own pain and anger, in effect choosing flowers instead of owls; this choice turns aside the destructive power Alison had let loose.

Besides themes, characters, geography, structure, and plot, Garner also draws much of his imagery from his Welsh source. Garner is skillful at evoking the original myth through sensory images. In The Owl Service he employs four of the senses: sight, hearing, touch, and smell. His main image is the owl, and like most of his images, it is a highly charged symbol. In many cultures the owl is associated with death, and Garner draws on that association throughout the novel. In the Welsh legends the owl represents Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers, who is punished for her adultery by being transformed into an owl. Robert Graves sees great significance in this transformation, identifying the Welsh owl as

the same owl that occurs on the coins of Athens as the symbol of Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom, the same owl that gave its name to Adam's first wife Lilith and as Annis the Blue Hag sucks the blood of children in primitive British folklore.

The owl thus combines both negative and positive associations in one central image. Garner is fond of paradox, so he makes full use of this image.

In The Owl Service the owl appears in the form of Alison's paper owls, scratching sounds from the loft, the feather Alison picks up on a walk, a fluttering in the dark, marks in the dust, and a stuffed owl in the stable. As the story reaches its climax, Roger hears the noise of owls hunting and sees Blodeuwedd taking complete possession of Alison:

Roger brushed the feathers away from Alison. They circled and clung: circled and clung: the owl dance he had found in the dust. They were moving on the ceiling and the walls, and he began to see the patterns that had followed Huw in the rain: eyes and wings and sharpness: winged eyes, yellow, and blackness curved: all in the rafters and the wall and the feathers everywhere. There had never been so many feathers. He brushed them from Alison's cheek. She cried out, and he saw three lines scored from brow to neck, and on her hands, and no break in the skin.

Also of significance to Garner's patterned sense of symmetry is that the stuffed owl Roger finds in the stable is an eagle owl, the perfect artistic balance to Lleu's transformation into an eagle. It is surely no coincidence that the eagle owl was killed and stuffed by Bertram—a parallel to Lleu's “death” at the hand of Gronw.

Garner also makes use of the flowers associated with Blodeuwedd—the oak, broom, and meadowsweet of which she was made. The odor of the meadowsweet in particular pervades the book. Gwyn smells meadowsweet when he finds the dinner service in the loft. At the same moment Roger is lying in meadowsweet by the riverbank when he feels the vibration of Lleu's spear, and afterwards Roger looks at his hands: “The meadowsweet had cut him, lining his palm with red beads. The flowers stank of goat” (12). The smell of goat recalls the goat on which Lleu half stood when Gronw wounded him with the spear. Considering Garner's thorough grounding in classical literature, he must also be drawing upon other mythological associations of the goat.

The dinner service from which Alison traces her paper owls is a particularly useful device for drawing together both aspects of Blodeuwedd—flowers and owls. No doubt this is why the title refers to it. This dinner service actually exists; it was owned by Garner's mother-in-law, and his wife, Griselda, was the person who discovered that tracing the flowers could transform the pattern into a three-dimensional paper owl. This serendipitous discovery helped inspire the novel. One of the plates from the original owl service now hangs in the Garners' kitchen, one of the many literary totems that have stimulated Garner's creative energy.

The Stone of Gronw is another powerful image in the book. Roger discovers it after his unsettling experience with the meadowsweet, and he is fascinated by the hole through the rock. He calls it a “crafty precision job,” which is an indirect reference to Lleu's nickname of Skillful Hand. Roger spends a lot of time taking photographs through the hole—photos in which inexplicable images of horsemen and motorcycles appear.

Garner has constructed another motif that is peripheral to his source: water imagery recurs throughout the novel, as river, rain, and flood. Lleu Llaw Gyffes could only be killed on the riverbank while he stood with one foot on a goat and the other on the edge of a tub. Garner locates the Stone of Gronw (the site of Lleu's death as well as Gronw's) on the bank of the river where Roger swims every day. Blodeuwedd's reflection appears in the fish tank near the house.11 In the last fourth of The Owl Service the weather turns very wet, finally becoming a torrential downpour. Garner's most striking image is of Nancy heading for the mountain pass in the pouring rain, abandoning her son and the valley and everything in it:

She turned, but did not stop. She walked backwards up the road, shouting, and the rain washed the air clear of her words and dissolved her haunted face, broke the dark line of her into webs that left no stain, and Gwyn watched for a while the unmarked place where she had been, then climbed over the gate.

The image of Nancy walking backwards in the rain brings to mind the image of Blodeuwedd's maidens fleeing towards the mountains in fear of Gwydion, so frightened that they walked backwards and fell in the lake and drowned.

Everything discussed thus far involves some kind of direct borrowing from the Mabinogi, but Garner has also made use of his source in more indirect ways. The Owl Service invokes what Gantz calls “the misty Celtic past of has been and never was” (Gantz, Mabinogion 10). In legendary Wales, all time is coexistent; as Barbara Kiefer puts it, the past and the present are one and the same (96). Garner makes effective use of this notion of coexistent time.12 When Alison tries to express her fears to Gwyn, she explains them in terms of time:

Nothing's safe any more. 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.

Elsewhere Garner writes of Gwyn playing with time, “splitting a second into minutes, and then into hours—or taking an hour and compressing it to an instant” (59). As in the Welsh mind-set, time is neither fixed nor linear in The Owl Service. While this amorphous concept of time is not delineated in the Mabinogi, it can easily be interpolated from the events in the tales. Since Garner has long been fascinated by the nature of time, the suggestion of a different perception of time would be enough to stimulate his thought.

Another indirect way Garner uses his source is to allow himself to be influenced by secondary interpretations of the tale, particularly that of Robert Graves, who interprets the story of Blodeuwedd in a mythological context. Graves's influence can be traced in all of Garner's novels. It appears in two major concepts in The Owl Service : the idea of twinning and the concept of the triple goddess.

Graves proposes that Lleu always appears with a twin. He has a twin at birth—Dylan Eil Ton—who immediately swims out to sea and is heard of no more. Graves suggests that Gwydion stands in as a twin when he and Lleu visit Aranrhod and that Gronw Bebyr later becomes Lleu's twin (261). This idea of a light twin and a dark twin works well with Jungian psychology. The archetype of the Shadow, which represents the primitive, unformed, repressed, and creative side of a person, is much like a dark twin to the self. Like Dr. Jekyll, Lleu is somehow incomplete and weak without his Mr. Hyde.

Garner is clearly intrigued by this notion of twinning, which exemplifies so well his conviction that paradox is central to literature. He was experimenting with the idea as early as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, in which the villain Grimnir turns out to be the wizard Cadellin's identical twin brother. Moreover, Grimnir's real name is Govannon. Since Gofannon is one of the Sons of Don in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Garner may intend Cadellin to be Gwydion (Philip 36). By the time he wrote The Owl Service, Garner had learned a much more sophisticated application of the notion of twinning: he encourages his readers to confuse Roger's and Gwyn's roles in the myth and the persons of Gronw and Lleu:

They are opposite sides of each other, in other words Gronw is Lleu and Lleu is Gronw…. But if you follow the text closely, in fact Gwyn equals Lleu, Gronw equals Roger. If you see it the other way round that is fine, because that is how the myth works.
     (“Coming to Terms” 28-29)

One critic, writing of her reactions to The Owl Service, complains, “When I first read the book, I couldn't tell which of the boys was meant to be which of the figures in the myth” (Berman 20). This confusion of roles is an effect Garner has carefully constructed. In the Nancy/Huw/Bertram triangle, Bertram is supposedly Gronw: he is the hunter, the outsider who disrupts a steady relationship, the murder victim. Yet Bertram is the one who is clever with his hands, indicating a connection with Lleu Llaw Gyffes, whose name means “the fair-haired one with the skillful hand.” The roles are even more confusing in the contemporary triangle; Gwyn is the one who keeps seeing and hearing Bertram's motorbike, yet Roger is the one who smells of petrol. Roger, an ama- teur photographer, is also skillful with his hands, though he is supposedly identified with Gronw Bebyr. Gwyn is ostensibly the Lleu figure, but he is the one Alison keeps with her in the woods all night—a clear parallel to Blodeuwedd's refusal to let Gronw depart. And it is Alison's relationship with Gwyn that earns parental disapproval, just as Blodeuwedd's adultery with Gronw Bebyr brought down Gwydion's wrath.

Garner's application of Graves's ideas about the triple goddess are more far-reaching. In effect, every single female character in all of Garner's novels is meant to represent some aspect of the triple goddess: the beautiful young woman associated with the new moon, the mature earth goddess of the full moon, or the vengeful hag of the waning moon. This mythological use of the female has been misinterpreted by some reviewers as a failure on Garner's part to overcome stereotypes (e.g., Cameron). Rather than being stereotypes, however, the female characters in Garner's works are symbols of matriarchal power, which can be used for good or ill.

Triple goddesses are well known in Celtic mythology. According to the eminent Welsh scholar Rachel Bromwich, “A marked predilection for triple groupings is discernible among the Celtic peoples from the time of their earliest records” (lxiii). The Welsh triads with which Bromwich is concerned are to Graves evidence of triple goddesses going back almost to the dawn of time. Graves believes that a triple goddess was the first being ever worshipped in prehistoric Britain, which is why Britain is “a Mother Country not a Father Land” (337). He sees in the story of Blodeuwedd a certain amount of patriarchal interference in a myth that originally concerned the White Goddess, who “had been an Owl thousands of years before Gwydion was born” (259). Graves finds further evidence to support his theories in earlier events in Lleu's life:

The clearest sign that in Arianrhod [sic] we have the old matriarchal Triple Goddess, or White Goddess, lies in her giving her son Llew [sic] Llaw a name and a set of arms. In patriarchal society it is always the father who gives both. Llew Llaw has no father at all, in the Romance, and must remain anonymous until his mother is tricked into making a man of him.

In The Owl Service Garner plays with the concept of the triple goddess in several ways. He constructs one triad of Blodeuwedd, Alison, and Nancy. Garner is not prone to giving descriptions of the characters in his novels, but he specifically describes Alison and Blodeuwedd in terms of Graves's physical description of the White Goddess: blue eyes and blonde hair. This triad represents Graves's moon goddess, with Alison as the new moon aspect, Blodeuwedd the full moon, and Nancy the waning moon.

Garner forms another triple goddess of the three mothers of the main characters, although Nancy is the only mother actually present in the book. Mothers are powerful (and often oppressive) figures in many of Garner's works—goddesses to be hated and feared and worshipped. Graves would equate this triad of mothers with Cerridwen, whom at times he represents as a mother goddess and at other times as goddess of the underworld. Nancy appears in this triad in her role as Aranrhod, who has been identified as one aspect of Cerridwen (Graves 76). To Garner, all three mothers represent the cruellest incarnation of the triple goddess. Roger's mother has abandoned her family; Nancy treats her son as a hated possession. Margaret, Alison's mother, is the most intriguing aspect of this goddess. She never actually appears in The Owl Service ; she remains offstage throughout the book, but her presence is strongly felt.13 Her family will go to any length to avoid upsetting her or to placate her if they fail. Garner calls her a “powerful fulcrum … this mythological thing” (“Coming to Terms” 29).

Alison and Clive, Roger's father, are completely under Margaret's thumb; Roger himself resents her but generally knuckles under. The only character Margaret has no power over is Gwyn, who does not understand the power she holds over the others:

What can she do? Hang you in chains in the family dungeon? Lock you in a turret? Your name Rapunzel or something, is it? What can she do, girl? Shoot you?

Margaret's unseen presence haunts the book much as Blodeuwedd's does and with similar effect. All three mothers wield the power to inflict incurable psychic wounds.

Garner's borrowings from the Mabinogi and from Graves add complexity and depth to the story of three troubled adolescents. In The Owl Service Garner uses the tale of Blodeuwedd to examine a series of modern tensions: the generation gap, social classes, the collision of Welsh and English cultures, intellect versus intuition, and the passionate struggle between man and woman. To Garner myth is the ultimate re- ality, a powerful tool that works beneath the surface. In “The Death of Myth” he calls it “distilled and violent truth” (606).

The Owl Service is a landmark in children's literature; perhaps it would be more accurate to say a landmark in literature for young adults. As a genre, literature for postpubescent readers did not officially exist until S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders appeared in 1967, the same year as The Owl Service. If Hinton is the mother of young adult literature in America, Garner has a claim to being the father of adolescent literature in Britain. However, since there was yet no large body of books addressed to teen readers, The Owl Service was greeted as a children's book and won awards in that category. Garner's readers were not Celtic scholars; the fact that the book works well for readers who are completely ignorant of the Mabinogi and The White Goddess proves Garner's skill as a mythmaker.

A quarter of a century after its publication The Owl Service continues to exert a strong influence in children's fantasy, particularly among British writers. In the Spring 1990 issue of The New Welsh Review—an issue devoted to Anglo-Welsh children's literature—six articles discuss or mention Alan Garner. This is a remarkable amount of attention to give to a man who is not an Anglo-Welsh writer and who wrote only one book dealing with Wales. The fact that The Owl Service has remained in print for thirty years is proof of its continued popularity.

The novel is also a success by Garner's own artistic standards. Literature, he says, is “words that provoke interpretation; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act” (“Beyond the Tenth Kingdom” 4). The Owl Service is still provoking interpretation among critics and readers; this particular onion may never reveal all of its layers.


1. Griselda Garner made her comment casually during my visit to the Garners on 16 October 1990. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes from either of the Garners are taken from an interview conducted during that visit.

2. The first three volumes of the Chronicles of Prydain were published in London by Heinemann in 1966, 1967, and 1968 respectively, but did not remain in print for long. In 1974 Collins brought out Armada Lions paperback editions of the first two books, which were joined by the third book in 1978 and the final two volumes in 1980. The fourth and fifth volumes did not appear in hardback editions until 1986.

3. Quotes from Jenny Nimmo are taken from a personal interview conducted on 8 November 1990.

4. During our 1990 interview, Garner said that The Moon of Gomrath would shortly be republished with his original ending restored. He altered the book at the request of his editor and left it unchanged until her recent retirement.

5. Interestingly, the tale of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd is the only passage Robert Graves quotes in its entirety in The White Goddess, using Lady Charlotte Guest's translation as his source. Graves builds much of his poetic argument on this passage. Although Garner credits the Mabinogi itself with stimulating his imagination, I suspect Graves's emphasis on this particular section may have been a stronger influence than Garner remembers.

6. Critics often assume that Roger has broken the power of the myth completely and, in effect, ended a curse on the valley (e.g., Foss, Gillies), but there is no such indication in the book. Garner intends the myth to continue. Although Roger has chosen flowers rather than owls, his choice is merely for his generation; the future must look to itself.

7. Gruffydd published his book in 1928, but his basic theory had been current for some time—at least since 1914, when John Young Evans published Pryderi fab Pwyll (see Chapter Two).

8. Ruth Berman is critical of the elliptical use Garner has made of the Everyman edition: “The problem is partly that it is necessary to have read the myth to know what is going on. The book gives enough information to piece it out, but the information is scattered too widely to be combined by a reader who does not already know the pattern” (20). Charles Sullivan agrees with Berman (Welsh Celtic Myth 25), but Philip puts up a spirited defense (70).

9. I suspect that Garner's comments about Alison's possible relationship to Bertram may be an instance of pulling the interviewer's leg—an activity in which the author by his own admission occasionally indulges. Neil Philip shares my doubts (67).

10. This is another point with which Ruth Berman takes issue. She feels that Garner confuses and trivializes the myth in his modern reenactment: “But Alison's innocence, compared to Blodeuwedd's guilt, is a confusing distortion of the myth; and although friendship may be compared symbolically with sexual love, it is confusing to have several generations' worth of betrayed love and murder suddenly, in this generation, producing mere betrayed secrets and namecalling” (20). Eleanor Cameron agrees with Berman (433), but Sullivan (Welsh Celtic Myth 27-28) and Philip (68) believe that the adolescent characters are the ideal vehicle for carrying the myth because adolescence is a time of intense emotion as well as a border country in itself.

11. The fish pond may be borrowed from Graves. One of the most obscure chapters in The White Goddess begins with an unfinished poem about nuns and a fish pond and continues with an imaginary conversation between a Greek and a Roman about Vestal Virgins and sacred fishes. Alison is a type of Vestal Virgin, as well as being an incarnation of the Triple Goddess.

12. Garner believes that the Celtic sense of time is much more complicated than simple coexistence of past, present, and future. For an introduction to his theories about time, see Neil Philip, A Fine Anger. Red Shift exemplifies Garner's most complete application of his theories to date. His latest novel, Strandloper (1996) also plays with notions of time.

13. At least one critic disagrees strongly with Garner's decision to keep Margaret offstage. David Rees, who is highly critical of Garner's novels, thinks that Margaret's absence leaves too large a hole in the book (287).

RED SHIFT (1973)

Charles Butler (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Butler, Charles. “Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of ‘Tam Lin.’” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 74-83.

[In the following essay, Butler explores the thematic relationship between Garner's Red Shift and the myth of “Tam Lin.”]

In his 1975 lecture, “Inner Time,” the British writer Alan Garner suggested that each of his books could be seen as an “expression” of a different myth.1Elidor (1965), for example, was an expression of the myth contained in the ballad of “Childe Roland and Burd Ellen.” For The Owl Service (1967) the myth was that of Lleu, Blodeuedd, and Gronw, from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. As for Red Shift (1973), then his most recent novel, the myth was “another ballad, the story of Tamlain and Burd Janet and the Queen of Elfland” (111). The first two of these identifications will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the books in question, but the third is more unexpected. Few people seem to have discerned the presence of “Tam Lin” in Red Shift independently.2 Indeed, Neil Philip, certainly Garner's most important critic, has written that he finds Garner's statement “hard to accept” (Fine Anger 104). However, Garner is, famously, a man who does not use words lightly, and it is surprising that, in the twenty-six years since he made it, his assertion has not received greater attention. Not only has Red Shift itself been widely studied, but a number of critics have written on the use of “Tam Lin” in other recent children's books. However, the connection between Red Shift and “Tam Lin” has been largely overlooked.3 In this article I will consider the ways in which Red Shift can be seen as an “expression” of “Tam Lin,” and what this tells us about Garner's conception of his novel's nature and origin. In doing so I will contrast the novel with a number of other books based on or inspired by this same ballad, particularly the British writer Catherine Storr's 1971 novel Thursday.

The ballad of “Tam Lin” exists in numerous versions. There are nine in Francis Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads alone, and that is certainly not an exhaustive collection.4 Many of the differences between versions are quite significant, but the narrative can be broadly summarized thus: a young woman called Janet (in some versions Margaret) goes to Carterhaugh (or Kertonha, Chaster's Wood, Chester Wood, etc.) against the injunction of her parents, who fear she will lose her virginity to Tam Lin, a fairy youth who haunts the place. There she plucks a flower and summons Tam Lin himself. He challenges her presence, but she replies defiantly that Carterhaugh is her own property and that she has as much right as he to be there. On her return home, it becomes apparent that she is pregnant. Her family (variously her mother, sister, brother, or a family retainer) is shocked. She asserts that Tam Lin is the child's father and returns to Carterhaugh, either to find Tam Lin or else (in some versions) to find an herb to cause an abortion. Tam Lin appears and explains that he is not a fairy at all but a young man of human blood who was stolen away by the Fairy Queen when he was a boy. Although his life with the fairies is pleasant, every seven years on Halloween the fairies must pay a “tithe to hell,” and this year he is likely to be the victim. If Janet wishes to save him (and therefore give her baby a father), she must execute a complex procedure that involves pulling Tam Lin from his horse as he rides past with the fairy troop, holding fast to him while he undergoes a series of frightening transformations, and finally covering his naked body with her green mantle. She achieves all this and thus wins Tam Lin from the Fairy Queen, who is bitter at her loss.

As the folklorist Katherine Briggs observes, “Tam Lin” brings together a remarkable number of motifs associated with fairy lore, making it “perhaps the most important supernatural ballad” (449). Although (as is common in ballads) characterization is minimal and several of the narrative episodes obscure, there are enough hints to expand upon and, indeed, difficulties to resolve to give it the potential for a much fuller treatment. Even so, “Tam Lin” is unusual in having been adapted so many times, and particularly for a teenage readership. As well as versions for younger children by Jane Yolen and Susan Cooper, the ballad has been expanded to novel-length by at least five writers other than Garner. Storr's Thursday is set in contemporary London. Other Tam Lin novels include Dahlov Ipcar's Queen of Spells (1973), set in nineteenth-century America; Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard (1974), which places the story in Derbyshire on the eve of Elizabeth I's accession; Diana Wynne Jones's complex Fire and Hemlock (1985), again set in contemporary England; and Pamela Dean's Tam Lin (1991), which gives the ballad an American campus setting (based on Carleton College, Minnesota).

Why should this ballad exert so strong an appeal for modern children's writers, particularly those writing for young adults? Part of the answer doubtless lies in the subject matter, which involves such “contemporary” issues as pregnancy outside marriage, abortion, and intergenerational conflict. In the ban on visits to Carterhaugh with which the ballad begins, it is easy to recognize any number of warnings to daughters not to get involved with “the wrong sort of boy":

O I forbid you, maidens a',
That wear gowd on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.
     (Child 39A St.1)

As things turn out, Janet's rebelliousness is gratifyingly vindicated by events and her own courage, as the critic Martha Hixon notes (186), while the presence of a strong female protagonist gives the story an appeal to writers trying to reverse the stereotype of fairy-tale heroines being little more than decorative rescue-fodder (Jones, “Heroic Ideal” 135; Hixon 193-94). In Jones' Fire and Hemlock, for example, the heroine of the original ballad is described as “a splendid girl called Janet, who was forever hitching her skirt up and racing off to battle against the odds” (354). It is surely not a coincidence that all the writers mentioned above are female, for “Tam Lin” can easily be seen as a proto-feminist text. While Janet does not question the patriarchal basis of a society in which property is in the gift of “daddy” (Child 39A St.7) and a baby needs a father in order to have a “name” (Child 39A St.14), she is jealous of her own sexual and financial autonomy and impatient of any demand that she sit passively at home waiting for her destiny to be determined by others.

Storr's Thursday, probably the first attempt by a children's writer to make substantial use of the Tam Lin story, already exemplifies many of these concerns. Thursday combines the Tam Lin legend with two other folk traditions. The first is the widespread story of the musician hired to entertain at a fairy feast who, on waking the next morning, discovers that the magnificent hall where he has been playing is no more than an earthen mound. The other is the idea that mortals may be stolen by fairies and replaced with a “stock,” enchanted so as to appear and behave like the abducted person but actually devoid of sense or feeling, a belief once used to explain occurrences of stroke or paralysis (Briggs 385-86).

In Thursday the main character, Bee, emerges from a bout of glandular fever (mononucleosis) to learn that her boyfriend, Thursday Townsend, has been missing for two weeks. Thursday comes from an emotionally-deprived home that contrasts sharply with the loving warmth of Bee's own: his father is absent, his stepmother Molly criminally neglectful, and the authorities believe that he may have run away. Still weak from her illness, Bee starts to search for him, especially in the place that has become their private domain: a small patch of waste ground abandoned since the Second World War. Eventually she discovers Thursday working on a building site, but when she accosts him, he is unresponsive, answering her in monosyllables, withdrawn to a pathological degree. The authorities discover his whereabouts, and he is taken to a psychiatric hospital.

The narrative seems, so far, to be a distressingly familiar one of emotional and family dysfunction, and Storr (a psychiatrist as well as a children's writer) re- lates it with conviction and authenticity. However, another interpretation is put on the same events by old Mrs. Smith, whose Welsh country breeding has given her a deep understanding of fairy lore. Knowing of Thursday's skill as a musician, she suggests that fairies may have abducted him for their own entertainment and that the being who has been taken to hospital is a mere image of the real boy, a stock (160). Reluctantly, Bee comes to believe Mrs. Smith's version of events and to believe too that the salvation of Thursday lies in her own hands. The instructions given her by Mrs. Smith make the connection with “Tam Lin” explicit:

You've got to hold him the night through till the bird brings in the morning. You've to hold him against them and their tricks and their temptings. You've to hold him against his own wish and longing, for with the lad like he is, all he'll know will be that it's his heart's desire to go back to the forgetting and the singing and the dancing.

The complete and heroic commitment demanded here of Bee, the requirement of unconditional love, is equally applicable whether one sees Thursday's condition as one of enchantment or of psychiatric damage caused by a loveless upbringing. It is quite possible to read the magical story as an extended metaphor for the psychological reality, “another way of saying the same thing,” as Bee's mother puts it (84). However, Storr refuses to demote the magical story to this ancillary status. The medical and the magical are left as equally valid ways of explaining what has happened to Thursday. Mundane and supernatural interpretations of the action do not so much compete as march with one another, and the text resists any attempt to give either decisive priority. Storr has written elsewhere that, whereas “adults like a clear indication of whether this is meant to be truth or not,” children “don't make this distinction between fact and imagination. They can move without trouble from one to the other, recognizing the value of both” ("Things that go Bump” 150). The climax of Thursday, when Bee finally declares her love for Thursday and holds him through the night, is carefully phrased in the interrogative mood, through the filter of Bee's own confused recollections:

Had she felt, as she held him in her arms, taut and stiff and trembling, the piercing pain of his resistance to her love, had he writhed and changed and tried to escape her? … Had the mound in the corner of the bomb site opened up, had there been music, first the little fluting music of little people, the trampling of hundreds of tiny feet, the outcry of cheated fantasy, the rumbling of an earth that opened to receive back into its depths the spirits who were contained within it?

Bee concludes relativistically that “everything is only as real as it seems, and that how it seems to you at this one particular moment is all that you can judge it by, and that this is how you have to live” (244).

The question of “how you have to live,” of course, goes far beyond the rescue of Thursday Townsend. Thursday's wider concern is with Bee's gradual attainment of adult understanding and independence. Bee constantly speculates about the experiences, motivations, and opinions of her friends and family, particularly her mother and her sister-in-law Jean, who is expecting her first child. In these older women she sees potential models for her own future life, while in the present they provide her with membership of an intimate, female community: “she felt warmed and welcomed and loving, and glad that she'd been born a girl” (48). As a girl, however, she too is the object of speculation, especially as to her sexual behavior. Searching the building site for Thursday, she anticipates the censorious comments of the Oxford Street shoppers watching from the road: “Look! A girl! Wonder what she's doing, down there? After one of the men, most likely. What, a young girl like that? Girls nowadays aren't like they used to be. Running after boys all the time, that's what they do. Look! A bird! Whose bird? Ask me another. Anyone's bird, if you ask me” (118).

To put her love for Thursday before her fears of disapproval and rejection—even by her mother—proves the hardest test Bee must undergo. On returning home after their night together Bee (like the ballad heroine) finds her family angry and suspicious about her conduct. Rather than justify herself, however, Bee keeps the most private part of the truth from her parents—and, incidentally, from the reader, who is never definitively told whether Bee and Thursday have consummated their relationship.

Bee almost told her [mother] everything. She wanted to be forgiven, comforted, warmed by her mother's love, safe. But she saw suddenly that if she did this she would step back into childhood again. She would give up the right to make her own decisions and, what was even more important, her own mistakes. She felt guilty and frightened, but she knew somewhere deep inside that she must keep a part of herself separate, secret, dark, unobserved, even from her mother.

The ballad heroine's feisty retort to similar suspicions is here recast as a silent assertion of spiritual and emotional independence, as well as of sexual autonomy.5 The private meeting place Bee shared with Thursday has been outgrown, and she has staked a claim to another space, this time one internal to herself. In Storr's version of “Tam Lin” it is this private space, rather than Carterhaugh, that is Janet's real inheritance.

Storr's Tam Lin novel retains from the ballad the central narrative role played by the female protagonist. However, Storr does not fully exploit the subversive social potential of the ballad, choosing rather to see Bee's exploit as a rite of passage into adulthood. The last lines of the book show Bee contentedly assuming the domestic role exemplified by her own mother, with the implication that her heroic rescue of Thursday foreshadows a lifetime of less spectacular service: “She said, ‘I'll make you a cup of tea,’ and saw Thursday sit at the crowded table, waiting for her to bring him the cup, as he'd sit and wait for her, for years that were still to come” (224). Thursday is not a self-consciously feminist text. Nevertheless, it defines the Tam Lin story more clearly than ever as one dealing with specifically female problems and experience. In this respect, the example of Thursday is one that almost all later Tam Lin authors have followed, despite their books' great variety of style and setting.

The significant exception is Red Shift.

* * *

As far as I am aware, Alan Garner is the only male author to make use of the ballad of “Tam Lin” in a modern novel. Significantly, he is also the only author to make the experience of Tam Lin, rather than of his rescuer, primary. The change of sex occasions a radical reorientation of perspective. While the aspects of the ballad that particularly appealed to the other authors—the strong female protagonist, the stigma and consequences of pre-marital sex, the need for courage and constancy—do indeed make their appearance, they are not as central, nor do they work in quite the same way. Pertinent comparisons can be made between Thursday and Red Shift (and also between Red Shift and later Tam Lin novels), but I do not think there is a question here of direct influence;6 nor do the very different plot and style of Red Shift, with its interwoven narratives of love and violence set in the same area at three widely-separated periods of history (the Roman occupation, the English Civil War, and the 1970's) invite such speculation. In thinking about Red Shift, we should be prepared to suspend our existing assumptions about the meaning and symbolism of the ballad.

The three narratives in Red Shift are all stories of love under threat. The contemporary narrative tells of a young couple, Tom and Jan, whose relationship is faced with a number of obstacles: the opposition and suspicion of Tom's parents; physical distance (Jan has moved to London, Tom lives in his parents' mobile home at Rudheath in Cheshire); and poverty, which makes travel difficult. Their snatched meetings in Crewe, Barthomley, and on Mow Cop (a nearby hill) have an intensity that erodes Tom's already-delicate mental balance, and this is undermined further when he discovers that Jan had a brief affair with an older man the previous summer. In revenge he sells the neolithic votive axe that he and Jan have discovered in a ruined cottage on Mow Cop and that for Jan has become a totemic symbol of their love. The narrative finishes with Jan calling an end to their relationship, and the endpapers of the book contain a coded message (to be cracked by the assiduous reader) in which Tom appears, although obliquely, to be declaring his intention of committing suicide.

This contemporary narrative is cross-cut with two others, segments of which appear throughout the book in stark, and often significant, juxtaposition. The Civil War narrative takes place over the course of one midwinter day in the village of Barthomley. The villagers, led by the Rector's son John Fowler, are busy building defences against the approaching Royalist troops. In the course of this work a young man, Thomas Rowley, discovers a “thunderstone” (actually the votive axe) in an earth bank, and gives it to his wife Margery for safekeeping. The church where the villagers have taken refuge is later stormed when Thomas (who is epileptic) has a seizure and accidentally fires his musket from the church tower. When the village men refuse to give John Fowler up, they, and then Fowler, are killed, while the women are raped by the troops. Amongst the most brutal of the soldiers is Margery's former sweetheart Thomas Venables: but having raped (and perhaps impregnated) Margery, he then saves Thomas Rowley's life and leads the couple to the relative safety of Rudheath, whence he advises them to make their way to Mow Cop.

The third narrative tells of a group of Roman soldiers (a remnant of the destroyed Ninth Legion) stranded deep within British territory in second-century Cheshire. Having massacred the inhabitants of a local village (again the unfortunate Barthomley), they rape and kidnap a young Celtic priestess before decamping to Mow Cop for the winter. The priestess, who believes herself to be an incarnation of the Corn Goddess she serves, is befriended by the naive Macey, the one member of the group who has not harmed her. Macey is subject to fits (sometimes brought on by the votive axe he carries) during which he “flips” and becomes a killer of preternatural strength, and it is this ability that has made him valuable to his companions, Logan, Face, and Magoo (32). On Mow Cop the soldiers appear to be safe, for it is regarded as a sanctuary by the local tribe. Eventually, however, the girl (now heavily pregnant) kills them by poisoning their bread, a punishment for their sacrilege both in raping her and in trespassing on holy ground. Only Macey is spared, and he and the girl are permitted to leave Mow Cop together.

Even from this short account it is clear that Red Shift is a complex, allusive and multi-layered novel. Are we, however, justified in thinking of it as a Tam Lin novel? Citing Thursday as a model, Philip is inclined to doubt it:

I must admit that I find the connection between “Tam Lin” and Red Shift tenuous; without being told to do so, I doubt if many people would make it. Certainly we do not find in Red Shift a straightforward use of “Tam Lin” to provide a symbolism of psychological withdrawal and the need to be loved “for better or for worse” in anything like the same sense that we do in Catherine Storr's Thursday.
     (Fine Anger 105)

It is true that Red Shift does not express “Tam Lin” in the way that Storr's book does, even though the texts share several features, especially a concern with mental disturbance. It is probably true, too, that few people have made the connection between book and ballad independently. (I certainly did not.) But this does not in itself diminish the importance of the ballad to the novel, for the ballad is not being offered as an interpretive key that readers need in order to have an adequate experience of the book. Unlike later Tam Lin novels, Red Shift does not refer explicitly to the ballad of “Tam Lin.”7 Rather, in identifying the myths expressed through his work, Garner offers “Tam Lin” as part of an account of his own experience as an author, of how the book came into being. It is a distinction he has made in a more recent lecture: “each novel has at its heart a myth, which should not be recognized by the reader, but provides the aetiology for the book” (“Voice” [“The Voice in the Shadow” ] 156). Even here, however, it is easy to be reductive and think of “Tam Lin” as simply a jumping-off point that receded in importance and visibility as Garner became more concerned with other things. Yet this can hardly be Garner's meaning when he says in “Inner Time” : “the feeling is less that I choose a myth than that the myth chooses me; less that I write than that I am written” (111). On the contrary, I believe that “Tam Lin” suffuses Red Shift in the most profound way. If the resemblance between the two texts is not always apparent, this is not because the relationship between them is a slight one, but because Garner has so thoroughly assimilated the myth expressed in the ballad of “Tam Lin” that relatively little of his material has remained unchanged in the process. Garner's combination of intellectual subtlety and imaginative integrity means that in this novel we will seek in vain for Philip's “straightforward use of ‘Tam Lin,’” but reading it should in some way resemble the experience of reading “Tam Lin” in that both are driven by the same mythic energy.

Before exploring these questions further, I would like to note such direct correspondences as there are between the two texts, for they do exist. The rape and consequent pregnancy of the female protagonists provide one obvious and important example.8 Another is the use of names from the ballad. Of the three women whose stories are told in Red Shift, one—the Corn Goddess of the second century A.D.—is left nameless, but Margery from the Civil War period and Jan from the contemporary story are clearly associated through their names with the heroine of “Tam Lin.” Equally, the men Macey/Thomas/Tom are implicitly equated with Tam himself. ("Hello, this is Tom talking to Tam,” puns Tom, addressing an acronymically-nicknamed telephone answering machine [180].) Although Tom is not given a surname, the fact that he lives by a lake ("llyn” in Welsh, “lin” in some English place names)9 makes him a plausible candidate for Tam o' the Linn.10 Other correspondences between ballad and novel are less overt but are perhaps more suggestive of Garner's preoccupations and working technique. Here I wish to consider his handling of three of the ballad's central motifs: Tam Lin's possession by the fairies; the idea of the “tithe to hell"; and the act of “holding,” which is an important feature of Janet's rescue.

In the ballad, Tam Lin has been kidnapped by the Queen of Fairies. Does anything in Red Shift correspond to this act of supernatural possession? Neil Philip speculates that Tom is to be seen as being in thrall to the “inhibiting possessiveness” of “his small-minded mother” (Fine Anger 104). In that sense their relationship—and hence Tom's plight—would echo that of Gwyn and Nancy in The Owl Service. As plausible as this is, if one thinks of Red Shift in terms of the themes established by the earlier book, it seems to me that the novel locates the idea of possession more naturally in the mental disturbances to which the three main male characters are subject: Macey's berserker rages, Thomas' epilepsy, Tom's possibly suicidal emotional instability.11 Epilepsy was, of course, traditionally thought of as a kind of possession, the most famous instance being that related in Mark 9:18-27; and in Red Shift the protagonists' fits are repeatedly described in the language of supernatural visitation ("That man sees God” [54]; “When did the god come to you?” [70]), and even shamanistic spirit travel.12 Not only that, but they also involve images of capture and imprisonment. Witness Thomas Rowley:

“Tell me about the face.”

“It's scared. It scares me. He's caught. He sees he's caught. I know him, but I can't tell where. Happen it's through being badly. I think I've seen him that many times. But I know all about him. Is it me?”

And Macey:

“What do you see?”

“Frightened. Scared.”

“Is it close? Do you see close?”

“I don't know. He's scared, caught, yes, both.”

Garner's treatment of time is significant here, especially the suggestion that the possession attending the altered states of Tom, Macey, and Thomas obliterates the centuries that separate them. As Macey exclaims in his ecstasy: “The distance is gone from between us!” (36). The three men become, in effect, a single supra-historical personality, all of whose experiences are contemporaneous. This is one implication of Garner's technique of juxtaposition: Macey flips at the “same” moment Tom sticks his hands through the window of the caravan, although the events are separated by almost two millennia (23-24). Garner's “Inner Time” lecture draws out this idea in the context of a discussion of his own experience of mental breakdown, in which a number of apparently unrelated incidents from his early childhood, teenage, and adult years combined to work as aspects of a single traumatic collapse. For the inner time of one's lived emotional reality, Garner notes, the public time of calendars and clocks has no meaning:

All events seem to be present simultaneously: only our immediate needs give an apparent perspective. We can check the validity of this argument by calling to mind any two intensely remembered experiences. They will be emotionally contemporaneous, even though we know that the calendar separates them by years.

This sense of the irrelevance—even the non-existence—of linear time corresponds with one of the most frequent motifs associated with fairy abduction. The fiddler at the fairy feast plays for what seems to him a single night, only to discover on his return to the human world that years have passed.13 Storr uses this belief in discussing Thursday's condition, in which unawareness of the time kept by the public world may be read as a symptom either of fairy enchantment or of profound psychological disturbance.14

“You've come a long way,” she said.

“It seemed like a minute or two. I didn't know it took so long,” he said.


“There wasn't any.”

Beyond the present reality of fairy possession, the Tam Lin of the ballad also faces the threat of being made a “tithe to hell.” The obligation on the fairy realm to pay a periodic tribute to hell may derive from the belief that fairies were fallen angels (Briggs 319-20), although both Elizabeth Marie Pope and Diana Wynne Jones, for example, cast it rather in Frazerian terms as an attempt to renew the vigor of an ailing community by means of periodic human sacrifice. In Red Shift the notion of a tithe to hell, with its echoes of the Roman military punishment of decimation, seems to lie behind the sacrifice of Logan, Magoo, and Face—"the Ninth"—to the goddess whose priestess and sanctuary they have violated; while as an agricultural levy due to the church, the tithe paid by the seventeenth-century villagers of Barthomley on the altar of John Fowler's rivalry with his Rector father is bloodier still.15 In both cases, as in the ballad, Macey/Thomas evades death, although here there is no suggestion that others have died specifically in their place. However, the question of how the tithe will be paid if Tam Lin escapes is one that hovers at the edge of the ballad story, and in at least one version is raised explicitly by the thwarted fairy queen:

Up bespack the Queen of Fairies,
And she spak wi a loud yell:
"Aye at every seven years' end
We pay the kane to hell.
And the koors they hae gane round about,
And I fear it will be mysel.”
     (Child 39H St.15)

The importance of this for Red Shift lies in Garner's longstanding concern with myths of substitution. In an interview he has gone so far as to claim that the act of “exchanging roles” is central to the whole Matter of Britain, citing Gawain and the Green Knight and the story of Lleu and Gronw (both key texts for him) as examples (Thompson). One way of viewing Tam Lin is thus as a hero who contrives to let someone else suffer the punishment originally intended for him.16 In this respect Red Shift 's most obvious analogue to Tam Lin is John Fowler who, in refusing to identify himself to the Royalist army officer, sends most of the village to hell on his behalf, despite his father's remonstrance: “A martyr for Christ is his own man. Why make others answer for you?” (171). The point is reiterated by Thomas Venables, who reveals John's callousness as a longstanding trait: “He shoved me into nettles once. To see. Always someone else. Never him” (172). All this in turn feeds into Jan's final exchange with Tom, when to the background of Tom's Shakespearian warnings to “take heed o' the foul fiend” she accuses him of spiritual and emotional parasitism: “You can't put two words of your own together! Always someone else's feeling! Other people have to go to hell to find words for you! You're fire-proof!” (185). In this way Red Shift makes the question of infernal substitution explicit. In Tom's case, however, such shifts prove insufficient to prevent his own descent into the hell of mental disintegration.

The feature of the ballad most regularly emphasized by the twentieth-century Tam Lin writers is the heroic act of “holding on,” by which Janet finally achieves her rescue despite Tam Lin's monstrous changes. Typically, this becomes a metaphor for faith, constancy, and emotional courage. This conceit is perhaps particularly powerful for adolescent readers, for whom everything—family and social relationships, self-image, sexual desire—is already in disturbing flux. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” as Tom repeatedly points out, and this Shakespearean tag might serve as an epigraph to several of the modern versions of “Tam Lin” (Red Shift 10, 181). The act of holding is frequent in Red Shift, too, where it almost always functions as an attempt at rescue from fear or isolation rather than as a sign of desire.17 Here for example is Macey, burying the stone axe in the place where, 1500 years later, it will be found by Thomas Rowley:

He kissed the cool stone, and wrapped it tightly, and put the weight into the earth, and filled the hole, and covered it.

There was movement near him on the mound. She was watching. She sat on the mule, and had been watching him.

He lifted her down.

“Hold me,” he said.

“That's why I'm here.”

By holding on, physically and emotionally, the Corn Goddess and Margery do save Macey and Thomas, and the pattern of “Tam Lin” is thereby underwritten. This is perhaps as close as Red Shift comes to presenting the Tam Lin legend in the same terms as those of other twentieth-century authors. In the novel's contemporary narrative, however, the action is ultimately ineffectual:

Jan wanted no more than to hold him. His words vented. Meaning meant nothing. She wanted him to let the hurt go. He could talk for ever, but not stop holding her. Each second made him less dangerous. And she's not even listening. Why can't I use simple words? They don't stay simple long enough to be spoken.

Significantly, this is one of the few paragraphs begun from Jan's point of view. We see her holding on, resolving to ride out Tom's rage. She holds him to show that her love goes beyond words, is unconditional. But this time salvation is not achieved. Halfway through the paragraph we switch abruptly into Tom's consciousness and realize that Jan's intention has not been recognized. Beyond words is just where Tom cannot go. The fact that Jan is holding him is less important than that “she's not even listening.”

Critics have recognized that the conclusion of the contemporary narrative within Red Shift offers a more pessimistic vision than its Roman or Civil War counterparts.18 Far from being the heiress of Carterhaugh, this modern Janet is the daughter of parents whose careers (apparently as psychiatrists) have led them to an almost nomadic way of life: “We've never stayed long anywhere…. Dad has to buy and sell quickly” (12-13). While in “Tam Lin,” Janet's rescue is complete when she covers Tam in her green mantle, in Red Shift Jan's green coat and dress are symbolic of her life without Tom, and on her visits to him she leaves them behind at the station bookstall (133-34). The sexual relationship she eventually has with Tom is a sterile one, which ends in failure. Whether because of flaws in the individual characters and situation of Jan and Tom or because of a wider historical movement toward spiritual dissolution, finally Jan has no choice but to let go: “It would like to go now, please. It feels sick. It's had enough. It has a train to catch” (184).

* * *

We have seen that there are numerous points at which the plot and themes of Red Shift can be related to “Tam Lin,” in terms either of parallelism or of pointed contrast. This kind of exercise can only take us so far, however. Perhaps a more profound way of using “Tam Lin"—a ballad, after all, about a man whose appearance is subject to frightening changes—is to think of its impact on the novel's own shifting, tripartite structure. The “shift” of Red Shift works in multiple ways, as has long been recognized.19 It refers to an astronomical phenomenon, to clothing (Margery's red petticoat, a vicar's cassock), and to the loss of virginity. It also refers to the novel's fluctuations between different time periods, between narrative strands (it is written in shifts), and between “normal” and heightened—often bloody—mental states. For its part, the ballad of “Tam Lin” is not only about a man who changes shape but also has no settled shape itself. The character of Tam in particular (and consequently the nature of his relationship with Janet/Margaret) seems subject to wide variation. In different versions of the ballad, or at different points even in the same version, Tam Lin can be a lover, a seducer, a rapist, a supplicant, a manipulator, a “stately groom,” a concerned father, a hero—or something like a villain. There are equally striking contrasts between Tom, Thomas Rowley, and Macey, to say nothing of the other characters in whom their shared identity is sporadically manifest: Thomas Venables, who shares Tom's name, his Rudheath home, and his underlying sexual brutality; John Fowler, who sees himself as an aspect of Thomas Rowley ("You and I meet in Thomas” [54]); and the Romano-Celtic Face, who (like Tom and like his own namesake in Jonson's The Alchemist) is able to adopt many different languages and identities but who no longer has one of his own. Notably, too, this is a book in which several of the major characters—Tom and Jan, Macey, and the Corn Goddess—talk of themselves in the third person.20 The theme of substitution mentioned earlier can here be understood as part of the novel's wider preoccupation with the instability—the shiftingness—of personality itself.

In this context, what does it mean to say that Red Shift is an “expression” of the Tam Lin myth? Emphatically it does not mean that Garner has simply taken the ballad of “Tam Lin” and reset it in various historical periods. This would be to accord the ballad a status that belongs to linear, but not to mythic, time: that of an original to be imitated. When a historical event, such as a Civil War battle, is re-enacted by modern-day enthusiasts, the historical battle does indeed function as an original against which the adequacy of the reconstruction can in principle be measured. With a myth, things are different. Change and repetition are written into its very nature: “the myth chooses the form for its clearest expression at any given moment” (“Inner Time” 110). No individual expression of it—even the first—can be called the original of the others in the sense of being a model for imitation.21 Thus, Garner carefully avoids the word “retelling” to describe his dealings with myth: “retellings” are stuffed trophies on the wall, whereas I have to bring them back alive” (“Inner Time” 111). The narratives of Red Shift show the same myth being—not retold—but made manifest in three different epochs, in terms appropriate to each. If the contemporary narrative constitutes a disillusioned expression of the Tam Lin myth, the Roman narrative suggests an intriguing anthropological reading of the ballad itself. By casting Janet as a Corn Goddess and by setting the story in winter, Garner provides a means of understanding the Tam Lin story as a fertility myth. In the light of Red Shift, the ballad heroine's pregnancy and the greenness of the cloak with which she covers Tam can be seen as symbols of new growth and Tam Lin himself as the subject of a springtime redemption like that of Persephone or Osiris, or even (to make a more clearly appropriate comparison) John Barleycorn. Such a reading is of course highly speculative, but it shows that the influence running between expressions of a myth need not be all in one direction: Red Shift can inform “Tam Lin” as much as “Tam Lin” can inform Red Shift.

The novel gives us three expressions of the Tam Lin myth; but we should not forget that their combination in a single text, Red Shift itself, constitutes a fourth expression, one in which the themes of change, of uncertainty, of identity are given new and complex forms. An illustration of this principle is provided in the scene at the center of the book in which John Fowler argues with Thomas Rowley on the church tower. This scene is written three times, implicitly from the perspectives of John, Thomas, and Margery (88-93, 110-13, 121-22). They are all clearly the “same” scene, but in each case the tone, the characters' intentions, and even the words spoken, vary significantly. Is John reassuring and comforting Thomas, or is he cruelly taunting him? With its careful avoidance of an omniscient narrative voice, Red Shift refuses to give any of the three versions primacy. The same applies to the book's larger narratives. They vary just as three performances of a play might vary—or three versions of a ballad. Garner has long been a champion of oral storytelling.22 I think that part of his commitment to the spoken word (and part of his ambivalence about the written) lies in a belief that only within oral culture do stories have the power to adapt, to grow, to change—to display, in fact, their fundamental affinity with other living forms. In Red Shift Garner attempts to give his most self-consciously literary performance this same quality of creative mutability.

We have come a long way from Storr's use of “Tam Lin” as a parallel for a story of mental breakdown and cure. As a matter of fact, Red Shift shares many of Thursday's concerns: with the need for faith, love, and courage, with the fallibility of perception, and with mental instability itself. By making Jan's parents psychiatrists, Garner even sets up a potential opposition—not unlike Storr's—between clinical and spiritual diagnoses of the book's events. However, Garner's is a very different kind of text, partly because in Red Shift the mythic force of “Tam Lin” is expressed structurally as well as thematically and partly because his shift of focus from Janet to Tam Lin himself means that he is less obviously engaged than Storr (and other Tam Lin writers) with the nature of female experience.

The portrayal of women in Garner's text has proved controversial.23 The female protagonists of Red Shift are all stronger and more resilient than their male partners, both more capable in the world and more intuitively aware of the sacred nature of objects and places. To a large extent they have already attained the spiritual balance the men find so elusive. However, they tend to be represented less as initiators of action (a function Janet so signally exemplifies in the ballad) than as practitioners of more traditionally female virtues: patience, endurance, selflessness, and the provision of physical and emotional succor. It might seem, in fact, that Garner's concentration on “tormented male consciousness” occasions a subtle reassertion of conventional gender roles by transforming active rescue into nurse-like ministration (Watson 77).

This conclusion would be hasty, however, especially as regards the contemporary narrative. As noted above, the story of Jan and Tom is the only one of the book's three narratives to lack the ballad's happy resolution. Jan's failure to “save” Tom is usually understood as Garner's bleak comment on the spiritual sterility of modern times, and as far as Tom's own condition is concerned, that is probably right.24 Jan's story can be read more positively, however. She is a young woman with her own ambitions and a proper sense of her existence as a person beyond Tom's clawing emotional needs. Moreover, in refusing to tolerate Tom's parasitic and increasingly violent behavior indefinitely ("There's a limit to debasement” [180]), she shows a self-respect that is surely wholly healthy. Jan's incipient feminism helps her survive, even though it is one aspect of the very modernity that has made life intolerable to Tom. Her rejection also breaks the pattern of possessive dependence Tom has learned from his own mother (who, apart from Jan, Margery and the Corn Goddess, is the only female character in the book). Ironically, Red Shift 's tragic reversal of the outcome of the Tam Lin myth may also be its most striking feminist gesture.

Red Shift is a difficult text: unpredictable, experimental, demanding of its readers' intellectual and imaginative involvement. On its first appearance, reviewers, booksellers, and librarians found that its stylistic innovation (as well as its subject matter) made it difficult to classify. Philip's frustration with his attempts to make the book “conform” to the ballad is equally understandable (Fine Anger 104). Like Tam Lin himself, Red Shift changes shape, is hard to hold, and ventriloquizes many other texts and voices.

But that is exactly what makes the identification apt.


1. I follow Garner in using the word “myth” to describe ballad tales such as those of “Childe Roland” and “Tam Lin.” The usage both reflects the idea that these ballads involve sacred and/or ritual material and makes it easier to distinguish between the “myth” itself and its various instantiations (of which the traditional ballad is only one).

2. I adopt this spelling from Francis Child and the Oxford Book of Ballads in preference to Garner's own “Tamlain.”

3. Red Shift is discussed by (amongst others) Townsend (88-91), Philip (86-105), McVitty, Gillies (115-16), Watson (81-87), Nikolajeva (Children's Literature 177-80), and Ang (157-62). Discussions of the use of “Tam Lin” in modern children's fiction are to be found in Sullivan, Hixon (183-204), Jones ("Heroic Ideal"), and Perry. Townsend (90) and Ang (160-61) do mention “Tam Lin” in connection with Red Shift, but only in passing and (in Ang's case) to cite Philip's earlier comments. I am grateful to David Rudd for alerting me to the relevant passage in Ang.

4. For access to the full range of variants collected by Child, I am indebted to the website, created and maintained by Abigail Kitaguchi.

5. Child 39A St.12 is typical:

If that I gae wi child, father,
Mysel maun bear the blame,
There's neer a laird about your ha,
Shall get the bairn's name.

6. Apart from other considerations, the idea for Red Shift seems to have been well developed by 1967, four years before Storr's book was published (Philip, Fine Anger 86).

7. Pope, Jones, and Dean all quote from the ballad, and both Ipcar and Dean include it in its entirety as an appendix.

8. That is, Janet, Margery, and the Corn Goddess. Although Tam Lin's relationship with Janet is more often described as seduction than rape, certain versions of the ballad leave little room for doubt. See, for example, Child 39G St.7:

He's taen her by the milk-white hand,
And by the grass-green sleeve,
And laid her low on gude green wood,
At her he spierd nae leave.

9. See for example the etymology given for Lindow—the Black Lake—by Garner himself: “Llyn-dhu, Lindow: it could be: it had to be” (Weirdstone 80).

10. As he is called in the comic verses cited by Walter de la Mare in his notes to Come Hither (Vol. 1, 386-87). Tam's name thus parallels that of Lancelot du Lac, who was also taken as a child and raised by a fairy. Tom's early misquotation from Tennyson's Morte D'Arthur ("On one side lay the M6, and on one lay a great water, and the site was full” [Red Shift 10]) suggests that here we do indeed have a slightly-soiled version of that same lake which yielded Excalibur.

11. This distinction is perhaps less relevant if one regards the infantilizing possessiveness of Tom's mother (and, for that matter, his father) as being responsible for his mental state. But in that case we should acknowledge that an equivalent role is played in the earlier narratives by Logan and John Fowler, as noted by Watson (83). Both deliberately provoke fits in Macey and Thomas, and both encourage an emotional dependence from which their victims must be rescued by the Corn Goddess and Margery. In Garner's text, at least, the malicious Queen of Fairies does not have to be a woman.

12. See Philip, “Garner and Shamanism” 105. It is also worth recalling another, more demotic, phrase to describe madness: Thomas, Tom, and Macey are all, in their different ways, “away with the fairies.”

13. This notion is used in a relatively straightforward way in Ipcar's Queen of Spells, in which Tom Linn's promise to return to Janet in seven days actually prefaces a delay of seven years because, as he explains, “my time is not your time” (20). In Cooper's Tam Lin, similarly, Margaret spends a day with Tam Lin only to find on her return home that she has been away for a week.

14. Experience of “time distortion or time lapses” is one of the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenic illnesses such as multiple personality disorder (Prins 18).

15. An oblique connection is also made to the contemporary narrative through Tom's use of a tithe map to trace to the path from Crewe to Barthomley (87-88).

16. This reading of the myth is especially important to the conclusion of Fire and Hemlock, where the question of ritual exchange has already been raised through strategic references to the chapter on “Temporary Kings” in The Golden Bough. See Fire and Hemlock (216, 233, 245); also The Golden Bough (283-89).

17. On a cursory count there are some seventeen occasions on which Tom/Thomas/Macey is said to be held—on one of which Margery even wraps Thomas in a blanket (176)—not including the many times when Tom asks indirectly for physical comfort by pleading “Tom's a-cold.”

18. For example Townsend (90), Watson (82-85), Nikolajeva (Children's Literature 180), and Ang (157-62).

19. See Philip, Fine Anger 91.

20. For examples see: Macey (71), Tom (80), the Corn Goddess (104), Jan (184).

21. I have found Gadamer's notion of a Fest useful here: see Weinsheimer 113-14. For a more general account of the distinction between linear and mythic time, see Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear 4-6.

22. See Garner, “Voice in the Shadow,” and Davenport 21.

23. Philip's view in A Fine Anger (154-56) is that Garner shows women as “essentially passive, instinctual, uncerebral, acted on rather than acting” (155, see also 90). For a response to Philip's argument, see Watson (85-86).

24. See note 18 above.

Works Cited

Ang, Susan. The Widening World of Children's Literature. London: Macmillan, 2000.

Briggs, Katherine. A Dictionary of Fairies. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

Child, Francis James. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Ed. Helen Child Sargent and George Lyman Kittredge. London: Houghton Mifflin, 1904.

Cooper, Susan. Tam Lin. Illus. Warwick Hutton. New York: McElderry, 1991.

Davenport, Julia. “Alan Garner.” Carousel 12 (Summer 1999): 20-21.

Dean, Pamela. Tam Lin. The Fairy Tale Series. New York: Tor, 1991.

de la Mare, Walter. Come Hither. 1923. Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1973.

Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 1890. (Abridged ed., 1922). London: Macmillan, 1980.

Garner, Alan. Elidor. 1965. London: Collins, 1981.

———. “Inner Time.” 1975. The Voice That Thunders 106-25.

———. The Owl Service. 1967. London: Fontana, 1973.

———. Red Shift. 1973. London: HarperCollins, 1975.

———. “The Voice in the Shadow.” 1995. The Voice That Thunders 146-77.

———. The Voice That Thunders. London: Harvill, 1997.

———. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. 1960. London: Collins, 1981.

Gillies, Carolyn. “Possession and Structure in the Novels of Alan Garner.” Children's Literature in Education 18 (1975): 107-17.

Hixon, Martha. “Awakenings and Transformations: Re-visioning the Tales of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘The Frog Prince,’ and ‘Tam Lin.’” Diss. University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1997.

Ipcar, Dahlov. Queen of Spells. 1973. New York: Laurel-Dell, 1975.

Jones, Diana Wynne. Fire and Hemlock. 1985. London: HarperCollins, 2000.

———. “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey.” The Lion and the Unicorn 13 (1989): 129-40.

Kitaguchi, Abigail. “The Tam Lin Pages.” Accessed 1 Dec. 2000.

McVitty, Walter. “Response to Red Shift.” Young and Matthews 133-38.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Children's Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996.

———. From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children's Literature. Lanham, MD: Children's Literature Association and Scarecrow, 2000.

Perry, Evelyn M. “The Ever-Vigilant Hero: Revaluing the Tale of Tam Lin.” Children's Folklore Review 19.2 (1997): 31-49.

Philip, Neil. A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner. London: Collins, 1981.

———. “Garner and Shamanism.” Young and Matthews, 99-107.

Pope, Elizabeth Marie. The Perilous Gard. 1974. Illus. Richard Cuffari. New York: Puffin, 1992.

Prins, Herschel. Bizarre Behaviours: Boundaries of Psychiatric Disorder. London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1990.

Storr, Catherine. “Things that go bump in the Night.” 1971. Rpt. in Suitable for Children?: Controversies in Children's Literature. Ed. and introd. Nicholas Tucker. London: Sussex UP, 1976. 143-52.

———. Thursday. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

Sullivan, C. W. III. “Traditional Ballads and Modern Children's Fantasy: Some Comments on Structure and Intent.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11 (1986): 145-47.

Thompson, Raymond. “Interview with Alan Garner” [12th April 1989]. Accessed 15 Dec. 2000.

Townsend, John Rowe. A Sounding of Storytellers: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children. Harmondsworth: Kestrel, 1979.

Watson, Victor. “In Defence of Jan: Love and Betrayal in The Owl Service and Red Shift.Signal 41 (1983): 77-87.

Weinsheimer, Joel C. Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Yolen, Jane. Tam Lin. 1990. Illus. Charles Mikolaycak. New York: Voyager, 1998.

Young, Grahaeme Barrasford, and John Matthews, eds. Labrys 7. Frome, U.K.: Hunting Raven, 1981.


Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Aimer Gate, by Alan Garner, illustrations by Michael Foreman. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Disabled, pp. 206-07. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1984.

The Aimer Gate, the third title in the Stone Book Quartet, focuses on young Robert, a descendant of the family of stonemasons introduced in the first work. Among the lad's responsibilities is providing transportation in a homemade wagon for Faddock Allman, a legless veteran of the Boer Wars. Allman “dresses” rocks from the fields, which are brought to him since he cannot gather them. His work, although of low status, is nonetheless useful.

Robert discovers a place high in the clock steeple where his great grandfather had chiseled both his name and mason's mark with care. The boy is awed to find the man's standards of excellence were not compromised by the inaccessibility of the stone or the unlikelihood that his hallmark would ever be revealed. The youth, despite feeling as though he had communicated directly with his ancestor, tells his father he must break with family tradition and seek employment as a smith. Much to Robert's surprise, the man endorses his son's decision.

Robert's Uncle Charlie, a British soldier now serving in World War I, is home on leave to help with the harvest. The men in the community are fascinated with Charlie's rifle, which he polishes obsessively. Captivated by what he thinks is the romance of military life, his nephew suggests soldiering might be a proper trade for him as well. But his uncle disparages the medals the boy so admires: “Your father calls them bits stuck on the outside of one chap for sticking bits on the inside of another.” Allman's tragic injury and Charlie's oblique allusion to the possibility of dying in battle successfully contradict the glamorous image the boy had at first envisioned.

* * *

Analysis: Faddock Allman depends on young Robert for his mobility and on the tolerance of others for his social position. The veteran's talk is full of references to fighting, and he still wears the helmet from his army days. Although Allman lives alone, the community willingly provides transportation, and on occasion he is invited to eat and drink with the other men. When the men play at soldiering, he participates in this tomfoolery as well. He is treated with contempt by Robert's father, who, when he finds the man eating outside his house, closes the window to shut out his conversation. Attempting to save face, the ex-soldier comments: “I'd best be going … now as Master's having his dinner.” Charlie intrudes, reminding his brother: “being as how it hadn't used to matter so much when Faddock Allman was shot to beggary by them Boers.”

As with other titles in this series, Garner hints at far more than he says. The several names of the various characters, the extensive use of words and expressions indigenous to rural Cheshire, England, but unfamiliar to contemporary American children, combined with the tight, compressed, intellectually demanding style will make this book inaccessible to many young readers.


Paul Binding (review date 24 May 1996)

SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Pagan Places.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 404 (24 May 1996): 38-9.

[In the following review, Binding offers a positive assessment of Garner's novel Strandloper, suggesting that the work acts as the evolutionary culmination of his earlier juvenile works.]

Both British children's literature and the 60s would be unimaginable without the contribution of Alan Garner. His first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath —which he published when he was under 30 and subsequently disowned—were conventional enough in structure and in their child protagonists. But they were rooted to an unusual degree in a specific place with a complex past: Garner's own Alderley Edge in Cheshire. They vividly rendered the creatures and forces of its Celtic and Scandinavian folklore.

Even so, the originality of Garner's third book, Elidor, could not have been predicted. Here a sick and barren other world—recalling that of Browning's Childe Roland and Eliot's Waste Land—invades a derelict downtown quarter and a suburban home in contemporary Manchester. It exposes the sickness and barrenness of the life engulfing four ordinary children, though also pointing towards redemption.

The children's book in Britain was never quite the same again. Garner had demonstrated that it could contain serious social criticism without sacrificing the genre's tale-telling gusto. Myth and adventure by no means meant turning away from the demands of modern life.

Garner followed this achievement with two much-discussed novels for teenage readers: The Owl Service and Red Shift. Both show great sensitivity to adolescent sexuality and to the suffering it can entail, assisted by the use of myth and by a view of the past as a palimpsest. (Red Shift contrasts its modern love-story with accounts of Romans in Britain and the Civil War.)

Adults asked whether these books really belonged on a children's list. The matter was sophisticated, but the manner also, with its pared, elliptical dialogue. Garner tended to dismiss such arguments, though some saw in his four stories for younger children (known as The Stone Book Quartet ) a new acceptance of his chosen medium.

This evocation of generations of a Cheshire family of craftsmen has the verbal economy and richness of lyric poetry. As Garner produced no full-length book for a decade and a half, the quartet came to be seen as the summation of work that united the two main strands of the 1960s: democratic inclusiveness, with its attention to libraries and children's reading, and the fascination with magic, the irrational, the antimechanical. In Garner, Richard Hoggart, Ted Hughes, and J R R Tolkien seem to join hands.

For the past 12 years, Garner has worked on the “adult” novel Strandloper. It makes us realise how right he was to attack those seeking to pigeonhole him. Related to his earlier books in its setting and style, this is also a venture of great imaginative and intellectual boldness.

Strandloper derives from Garner's immersion in the history and lore of his native Cheshire. In the 1790s, young William Buckley is chosen by his community to be its “Shick-Shack": a kind of Green Man who, bedecked with oak boughs, is “churched” in a strange village version of the Communion service, both pagan and descended from Celtic Christianity. The ceremony's female figure is William's sweetheart Esther ("Het"). But the local landowner, Lord Stanley, not only disapproves of the rite but feels that it subverts his authority. William is arrested, tried and condemned to transportation to New Holland (Australia).

On the convict ship, shackled to a hammock, “Shick-Shack” becomes “Crank Cuffin", who tries to alleviate the misery around him by storytelling. He vows that he will not submit to life in a penal colony but will escape and return. He manages to get away soon after arrival and wanders in a burning, unknown territory.

Eventually he is captured by an indigenous tribe. Here the most extraordinary part of this historically based story begins. For William's next identity is that of Murrangurk, the resurrected healer of the People. He lives it for almost 30 years, while observation of rituals elevates him to the threshold of the cosmic mysteries.

After three decades he encounters British settlers; his earlier identity and language awkwardly come back, bringing a tragic conflict of loyalties. He tries to broker a peace between his people by birth and his people by adoption, yet leaves Australia aware of the terrible deprivations in store for the latter. But his heart, if it is grieving at what he foresees, is also full of hopes of reunion with his own countryside and his former love.

I know of little in recent fiction more moving than the final section of this novel, named for the busy roaming plover of Australia. The England to which William has returned has undergone the transformation of the Industrial Revolution. Where his farmhouse home was, a schoolroom stands; in place of the atavistic, singing games of childhood are the puritanical rote exercises of Gradgrind in Hard Times. William's own putative son, Will, is a textile-weaver.

We have entered the world known to the hardworking artisans of The Stone Book Quartet ; its degenerate form produced the suffocating aridity of Elidor and Tom's torments in Red Shift. William's response is to take himself to the church. In Shick-Shack style, he defies it, bringing to his greening rituals the magic he learned in Australia.

Garner presents his characters and situations principally through dialogue, highly stylised yet rawly vernacular. Though a story of an individual's remarkable life, Strandloper 's essential concern is with humankind's need for a home and with the traumas of severance.

Garner's ambitious subject is matched by astounding mastery of technique. I have read Strandloper twice, and feel sure that subsequent readings will enhance that sense of enlargement—of imaginative and spiritual horizons—it has already given me.


Hazel Rochman (essay date 1 November 1997)

SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Little Red Hen, by Alan Garner, illustrated by Norman Messenger. Booklist 94, no. 5 (1 November 1997): 476.

Ages 3-7—In bright square books with big type, two great authors of children's books retell favorite folktales with simplicity and verve [in Alan Garner's The Little Red Hen and Rosemary Wells's Jack and the Beanstalk]. Garner's storytelling keeps the rhythmic repetition ("Not I,” said the cat) and the satisfying reversal; though the climax, when a stone is thrown down the chimney to smash a glass bowl and rout the fox, may be a bit complicated for the youngest listeners. Wells gets Jack up that beanstalk and confronting the giant pretty fast, and then she adds a gentle strain to the usual blustering tale: Jack hears haunting harp songs of love and loneliness; the musician is his father held captive by the giant, and Jack frees his father and brings him home. The scary pictures show only bits of the giant, especially his huge sandaled foot and his head with wide-open mouth and red tongue; unfortunately, the pictures of the angelic harp are just not as compelling. Messenger's clear, detailed pictures are not up to the powerful words, but they do express the excitement and the coziness of both stories.

Judith Constantinides (review date December 1997)

SOURCE: Constantinides, Judith. Review of The Little Red Hen, by Alan Garner, illustrated by Norman Messenger. School Library Journal 43, no. 12 (December 1997): 88-9.

PreS-Gr. 1—[The Little Red Hen is a] good rendition of a traditional tale. Unlike Paul Galdone's classic retelling (Houghton, 1979), this version of the story doesn't end with the little red hen's victory over the cat and the rat; instead, it continues on with her adventure with the fox. The text is simple, the layout is pleasing, and the illustrations are softly colored and amusing. The book has large enough print for beginning readers, although it would also be a good choice to read aloud: “‘Here's a big brown fox,’ said the little red hen, ‘with a wide white sack.’” Garner tells the story well, providing an excellent choice for picture-book collections.


Nicci Gerrard (review date 1 August 1997)

SOURCE: Gerrard, Nicci. Review of The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures, by Alan Garner. New Statesman 10, no. 464 (1 August 1997): 45-6.

[In the following review, Binding evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Garner's collection of essays and lectures The Voice That Thunders.]

When Alan Garner says, in [The Voice That Thunders, ] this collection of autobiographical essays and philosophical musings, that he “knows his place", it is not a statement of modesty. He is not a modest man; he has an emphatic and euphoric sense of self-belief and literary worth. Rather, he is making an exact statement of geography.

His “place” is Alderley Edge, Cheshire; he lives there, as he always has, in a medieval medicine house, a few miles from the giant, lidless eye of Jodrell Bank telescope. Almost all his books—his children's tales and his recent adult novel—are set on Alderly Edge and are full of its dark beauties and its ancient myths (he insists in this book that the Edge is “unsafe at all times, physically and emotionally dangerous").

I once visited him at his home and he said (as we walked on grass) that we never just walked on grass—he kept stooping down and scrabbling for stones and little fragments of history. He doesn't want to go further afield: his compass is narrow and deep; he lives in a world in which the present tense is as a thin layer of ice over dark and drowning waters.

His voice is intense, without irony, prophetic. In his various fictions, this is Garner's great, doomy power; in his essays, it is disconcerting, almost embarrassing, yet admirable. How can someone be so serious all the time?

Alan Garner wrote his first book for children (although he protests over and again in these essays that they were not written for children but for everyone) more than 40 years ago, when he was 22. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen —the story of a quest by two children into a mythic past of knights, elves, dwarves and dark forces—was an instant success, a cult, almost. It was followed by Elidor, The Owl Service, The Stone Quartet, Red Shift, [and] Strandloper.

His children's books have been rightly and greatly beloved; one of the essays here includes letters from child fans, giving their own lit-crits of Garner's magic tales and begging him to write more. He admits the influences of the great Arthurian and Celtic and Indian myths; you can also feel J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings at work. But whereas other writers of great children's books—Tolkien, C S Lewis, Lewis Carroll, E Nesbit—combine magic with consoling domesticity, the thrill of danger with relief of safety, Garner is out in the cold winds all the time. The atmosphere of his writing is creepy, haunting, spine-tingling. It has given my children bad dreams. And here, in an essay called “Fierce Fires and Shramming Cold” , we can see why.

Garner is a manic depressive, who has lived most of his life without being diagnosed. He describes the descent into despair that, over and over, he suffers, quoting fellow-sufferer Gerard Manley Hopkins ("mind has mountains; cliffs of fall, / frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne'er hung there"). He conjures up an image from Eisenstein's film, Alexander Nevsky, in which Nevsky dupes the Teutonic knights on to a frozen lake, the ice breaks and their faceless armour takes them under. Their cloaks float on the water and then are sucked down; their hands clutch at the ice floes, which flip over and seal them in. So “I slide beneath the ice".

Rereading Garner's novels after reading this, I am struck by how the cold terror of his novels imitates the terror he has lived through. Manic depression—its great pendulum swing from elation to horror—electrifies his writing. And in a way all the other obsessions that come to light in these essays both lead back to and are explained by his mental torture, which for most of his life he has tried to conquer and subjugate by will: the finicky mathematical calculations by which he infers, from a sliver of ancient pottery, the shape of the whole thing; the pedantic interest in vowel shifts and tiny pieces of grammatical machinery; the absolute commitment he feels to one small plot of land, which by exploring and understanding he can make less threatening; the time it takes him to write a book (Strandloper took, he calculates, 4,326 days to write, or 14.1 words a day, or 0.5857 words an hour).

One of the lessons Garner's grandfather taught him, he writes, is: “if the other fellow can do it, let him.” No other fellow could have written his books and, as this new collection makes clear, no other fellow would have wanted the life that made Alan Garner the strange and inspired writer he is. He writes of his 64 years: “I would not wish them on anyone, nor on myself again.”

But he ends on an upbeat note, relegating all past pain and success to an apprenticeship. “Now I can begin. Indeed, I already have.”


Stephanie Zvirin (review date August 1998)

SOURCE: Zvirin, Stephanie. Review of The Well of the Wind, by Alan Garner, illustrated by Hervé Blondon. Booklist 94, no. 22 (August 1998): 2006.

Gr. 4-7—Garner's tale [The Well of the Wind ] may call up images of familiar children's stories and fairy tales, but it has a freshness all its own. The multilayered story is pure fantasy, and the language, lyrical and quiet, is replete with imagery that blossoms outward from the plot. “Whether far or near, I can't say, but once there was a poor man living in a kingdom by the sea.” The man rescues two children, a boy and a girl, floating on the sea in a crystal box. After he dies, an evil witch tries to harm the children, eventually enticing the boy to visit the Well of the Wind with promises of finding a “white bird of perfect feather.” When the boy doesn't return to his waiting sister, she goes in search of him, and the story becomes hers. The suspense is riveting as she struggles against fantastic odds to free her brother from the sorceress' power. Language and creative-writing teachers will have a heyday with the imagery, the feminist underpinnings, and the wonderful use of fantasy conventions, but the story is also one that independent readers will like, replete with suspense, ingenious touches, and connections to ponder. The accompanying art is impressive. Blondon's dramatic and highly stylized paintings differ greatly from the usual fairy tale artwork, giving the book a much older, more contemporary feel. His flowing lines, slashes of light and dark, and great blocks of hazy, heated color intriguingly reflect the contradiction between the dreaminess and the tension of the story.

Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 14 September 1998)

SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of The Well of the Wind, by Alan Garner, illustrated by Hervé Blondon. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 37 (14 September 1998): 68-9.

In this haunting, enigmatic tale [The Well of the Wind ], a pair of abandoned children unwittingly embark on a quest. A benevolent fisherman discovers a brother and sister floating in a crystal box and takes them into his home, then dies. Next a witch attempts to endanger the siblings by sending the boy on magical missions in which death seems certain: to the springs of silver, to the acorns of gold and to the Well of the Wind. Each time, the boy is saved from peril by warnings from “a thin man in the woods"—until the last, when the child disappears and the girl's search for him leads them both back to their parents. Sunburnt orange and smoky blue pastels, at times reminiscent of Cezanne's Cubist works, link the children's surroundings: the roof of the house to the cliffs and sand, and the sea to the sky above them. French illustrator Blondon uses flat planes and geometric shadows to create a topsy-turvy world that seems hushed and violent, soothing and affronting at the same time. His velvety-textured colors look dense enough to taste. Although the meaning of Garner's (Owl Service ) tale may not be immediate to some readers, it shares enough with classic fairy tales (including a happy ending) to content novice readers and takes enough turns to stimulate aficionados. A thought-provoking fantasy full of enchantment.



Bagnall, Norma. “An American Hero in Welsh Fantasy: The Mabinogion, Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander.” New Welsh Review 11, no. 4 (spring 1990): 25-9.

Examines Alexander and Garner's usage of The Mabinogion in their works for children.

Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of The Stone Book, by Alan Garner. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Disabled, pp. 207-08. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1984.

Calls The Stone Book a “flawless, exquisite” book.

Evans, Emrys. “Children's Novels and Welsh Mythology: Multiple Voices in Susan Cooper and Alan Garner.” In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 92-100. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Studies the narrative devices used in the children's works of Susan Cooper and Alan Garner.

Godek, Sarah. “The Great Tunes of the Hough: Music and Song in Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet.Children's Literature in Education 35, no. 1 (March 2004): 69-75.

Studies the symbolic and catalyzing effect of music in Garner's The Stone Book Quartet.

Additional coverage of Garner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 18; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 5; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 20; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, 178; Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Essay, Vol. 178; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 15, 64, 134; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 17; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 161, 261; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 18, 69; Something about the Author—Essays, Vol. 108; and Supernatural Fiction Writers.