Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Wierdstone of Brisingamen

2010, first published 1960 

Alan Garner’s The Wierdstone of Brisingamen (2010) opens with a farmer meeting a mysterious old man. He is introduced to knights who “lie in enchanted sleep until the day shall come - and it will come - when England shall be in direst peril and England’s mothers weep” (loc 69). World War II finished some fifteen years before this novel was first published in 1960. Is there some other horror awaiting the 20th century reader? This is part of a prologue and the main characters - Susan and Colin - are crossing their first threshold as they arrive by train in Wilmslow. Very soon after that, the first afternoon of their stay on the farm, they encounter a strange woman who attempts to abduct them (loc 200. Mystery deepens as Gowther, the farmer with whom they are staying, explains that he know the woman. She is Selina Place and has lived locally as long as he can remember (loc 239). A carrion crow comes into the scene and these early chapters have a feeling of menace about them. And then the children seem to be surrounded by strange figures (loc 20) who then pursue them.  They are rescued by the wizard (loc 352). Later we receive another dark message: “you have witnessed the writing of a dark chapter in the book of the world” (loc 802).
Stranger danger? Perhaps in fantasy books children can go away with strangers without coming to harm. Colin and Susan are taken to a cave by the wizard loc 266). The wizard, Cadellin, explains that the children have been attacked by the svart-alfar who “seldom venture above ground unless they have good cause (loc 383). Now the mines are even more dangerous: the svarts live there and now know of the children (loc 490) What do the want with Susan and Colin? They are not going to have an easy ride. But there is hope: “you will find friends as well as enemies in these woods” (loc 395). The place is in danger because the the most precious gem Firefrost is missing. Is it the Tear on Susan’s bracelet (loc 645)? Is that why they’re attracting so much attention? The Tear has been passed down from generation to generation through Bess’s family. Once the Tear is stolen, the danger is past. This means they will no longer see Cadellin. Of course, the danger returns and an exciting moment happens as they have to cross a mineshaft as they escape Selina Place: along its “gaping mouth was a narrow plank.  This was wet, and partly rotten, and no more than three inches rested on the lip of the shaft at either end (loc1233). Then they find they have to cross it twice.   
This realisation leads them into taking a short cut to see Cadellin, an act that brings them into immediate danger. Later there is some friction too between the children and Bess because the tear is lost.  Susan tells her what has happened but then she is even more offended because she thinks Susan has made up a story to disguise here carelessness.
There is tension throughout and the stakes are always high e.g. when Susan suddenly disappears from Colin’s side when they are lost in the cave(loc 1330). Svarts again. Not long after they see the full evil of the svarts (loc 1439). Susan almost falls form a ledge (loc 1524). They encounter a gigantic woman. “Troll-women; from rock are they formed, and to rock they return if the sun should find them above ground. But by night they are indestructible (loc 2393). There is violence and even death right until the end ((loc 2846).  
These scenes of high magic are interspersed with those of cosy domesticity: “Bess, who had been fussing and clucking round like a hen with chicks, brought them bowls of hot, salted bread and milk” (loc 509).This is the type of fantasy that invades our normal world, possibly the most exciting sort of  fantasy for the  young reader.We see this in detail when Gowther encounters Fenodyree the dwarf. Gowther says” Well I’ve got a bone or two to pick with thee; and I’d like to know what mischief you’ve been getting these children into!” (loc 907). The ordinary world and the fantasy world clash. Even “Owd Hodgkins” (loc 2136) has some significance especially as he is not as usual “to be found , with dozens like him, on the platform of Aldereley  Edge station, carrying his briefcase and tightly folded newspaper,” ((loc 2125). The adventurers make their way through territory that is at once familiar and unfamiliar.  They are off the beaten track but in a well-known area(loc 2147). Gowther has a banal conversation with an old school friend, Harry Wardle (loc 2193).  We are left feeling there is something more to Harry. Then Harry disappears! ((loc 2200). Later we find out his is an accomplice to Selina Place (loc2527).
There is at times a sense that man has done wrong. “When men turned form the sun and the earth, and corrupted the air with the smoke of furnaces, it was poison to the los alfar” (loc 2333). 
Could it all be symbolic? Garner is writing for a reader who is not yet able to understand symbols. Is this a case where the young reader takes the text at face value and understands the symbols later in life. The adult reading this novel may see it all as symbolic. Even within the text Fenodyree suggests that all that is happening is ordinary life, and they are experiencing a normal winter: “we need not fear the cold of fimbulwinter, even though the ice-giants themselves came south” (loc 2507). The biggest enemy int eh end seem to be their own psyches: “Fury and despair had done their worst; their minds were numb with shock (loc 2895).      
The book has a respectable spine. The text is blocked and it sues an adult default font.
Possibly the rich Tolkeinesque voice and shifting viewpoint may be difficult for the modern young reader.  There are also some quite difficult concepts for the target reader .   
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