Boneland – Alan Garner

BonelandIt was in 1960 that The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was first published, with its sequel The Moon of Gomrath following in 1963. The first told the tale of siblings Colin and Susan’s encountered with the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow as he sought the titular stone without which he would not be able to safeguard the sleeping warriors and their white horses who lay within the caves of Fundindelve until the time foretold when they would awaken and defend the realm against the coming evil. In Gomrath, older magic still came to prominence, the ancient evil of the Brollachan and the uncontrollable Wild Hunt, who in the final scenes rode off into the sky, taking Susan with them.

I first found the Weirdstone on the shelf of my primary school library when it was probably about twenty years old and I was not yet a teenager; it is now over fifty years old, yet on a recent rereading in preparation for the release of the long awaited conclusion of the trilogy I found that while the words hadn’t changed, the writer, the reader and the world had, a change reflected in Boneland, which is not in any way intended for the same audience who enjoyed the first two novels.

Told in two simultaneous narratives which follow thematic paths yet never cross, the novel is written as continuous prose, unbroken by chapter divisions, but then, why should it be? Life is not divided into neat chapters, and Colin’s life is far from neat. A genius loner, he has excelled at every one of the multiple disciplines he has applied himself to save human interaction. The older Colin is fearful, monitoring both the sky and the land around him. “If something isn’t looked at it may go, or change, or never be.” In particular, he is afraid of crows and witches.

It is an expected shock that Colin, a boy during that recent reread, has aged so suddenly, now engaged in deep space research at Jodrell Bank, the image of the upturned radio dish against the skyline reflecting the shape of the Holy Grail, one of the few direct Arthurian references in this novel; it was always implied that Cadellin was Merlin, his sleeping charges the Knights of the Round Table, but never spoken aloud.

As the trilogy has progressed, events have become more oblique, less described than implied and felt, and so open to interpretation by the reader, and this is most apparent in Boneland, where the ambiguity between perceived reality and outright fantasy is blurred for the entire narrative, with the implication that much of this book, and possibly the previous two novels, were symptoms of Colin’s mental illness, that the world he created was a retreat preferable to the reality of his childhood.

This may seem unkind, even cruel to those who have followed the story since childhood, perhaps even a comment on the fondness many hold for Weirdstone in particular, but life is nothing if not full of disappointment, something anyone old enough to have grown up with the books already knows, though a child more recently introduced to the magic powers beneath Alderley Edge will find no comfort in this conclusion. Yet even that interpretation is skewed by the possibility that it is the forces of darkness that wish to lead Colin astray.

Colin is fascinating, seeing stories in the stars preserved across the world and across time, stories that predate civilisation that need to be told, as is Meg Massey, the wonderfully blunt and human doctor who inherits Colin, caring for him and never doubting him for a moment, his genius or his troubles.

The quest for knowledge and understanding, even hope, permeates the book; Colin needs to know his past as much as he needs to know the stars, yet he is as trapped as the second unnamed narrator, only able to see as far as the globe of light that illuminates the cave he is in as he described the land of the dead, the woman and the child given to crows to eat the flesh, make nest of the hair.

It is untrue to say there is no magic in this book, for there is, in Garner’s flowing prose, repetition and alliteration, like a children’s book, phrases from song and memory, the succession of images, the dreamlike ambiguity with which the narrative progresses, unsure even at times who we follow, Colin, or something older, even perhaps the reader’s own hope. While this is not the conclusion that some may have hoped for, it is the book that Garner has created, a proud and significant work that has taken half a century to find its voice, and so deserves according respect.

Boneland is now available from Fourth Estate

 

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