As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been keeping my main focus on my dissertation lately (I don’t think it’s going too badly, and I’m enjoying it, so that’s all good news), and that’s had an interesting effect on a lot of my other activities. Knitting, spinning, sewing: seriously geared down, of course, though never entirely abandoned. (You wouldn’t like to meet me if I’d completely abandoned my knitting– I get grouchy, and not the funny Oscar-type grouch, either.) Here, I post as inspiration strikes rather than on my former schedule. And what’s interesting is that “as inspiration strikes” in this case isn’t from any of the beautiful new publications I’ve seen, and that’s not for lack of beautiful new publications, I promise you.
The thing is that when I’m in “academic reading” mode, I find it very hard to read anything else except by specific rules: a) I only read for relaxation on Shabbat afternoons, b) I can only read very low-stress books or graphic novels. I used to think I was broken, but then I met other people with the same experience. Perhaps it’s a function of contrasts: my husband, a scientist, reads Proust for fun; I, a student of literature, read Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. For me, it’s the equivalent of comfort food, but in book form. All of that is to explain why I’m posting a review of a classic of children’s literature instead of reviewing any of the new lovely picture books I’ve got around this house.
The story of Elidor, by Alan Garner, has fascinated me ever since I first read it, back when I was in my early teens, I think. The story might be rather familiar in some respects. A family of four children go into Manchester to escape the packing frenzy as their family is about to move houses. The youngest of them, Roland, finds a map, and, on it, finds a street called Thursday Street. Intrigued by the odd name, they go over to see the street. Then, one at a time, they’re spirited away by a mysterious figure named Malebron to the magical, besieged land of Elidor. Once there, they gain, and are entrusted with, four Treasures which hold the light of Elidor. Pursued by the powers of darkness in Elidor, however, they have to escape back to their own world and keep the Treasures safe until it’s possible to return them to Elidor.
Now, a lot of that sounds like standard fare for fantasy buffs: children whisked away to a magical land under siege by powers of darkness? C. S. Lewis, Guy Gavriel Kay, and many, many others have written some variant of that story. But Alan Garner is entirely different, entirely original, and it’s taken me years to put my finger on what makes Elidor, and many of his other novels (The Moon of Gomrath springs to mind) so different. Alan Garner pushes both the magical elements and the everyday elements to their logical extremes, and the results are beautiful.
In Elidor, for example, there’s a magical prophecy which predicts the four children coming to Elidor and rescuing the Treasures, there’s a circle of standing stones which nearly drives Roland out of his mind, and there’s the figure of Malebron (whoever he might be) who at one point communicates with Roland through a planchette. What I’m saying is that Alan Garner really pushes and expands the range and complexity of what magical, otherworldly forces can do in children’s literature.
But that’s not the surprising thing. It’s a distinctive feature of his work, for sure, but what really differentiates him from other authors of fantasy for children is the extent to which the magical adventures impinge on the children’s day-to-day lives. For a simple example, when the children return from Elidor, they’re filthy. They’re not allowed on the train in that condition, and have to smuggle themselves home, where their parents are furious with them for making extra trouble when they’re busy moving houses and so on. Actions in Elidor have consequences in Manchester, in other words. Even Cat Valente, in her Fairyland series, keeps the parents out of it until the very end of the third book in her series– it’s simply understood that parents get in the way of adventures, so they have to be tidied aside, one way or another, in most children’s fantasy novels. Alan Garner doesn’t tidy anything aside; he embraces the complexity.
Thus, when Roland uses his memory of the family’s new house to help him open the doorway to a mound in Elidor, that has repercussions later as evil figures from Elidor try to reverse that magic and get into his world through his house. Naturally, logically, his parents notice the shaking at the door, although they know nothing of Elidor. The heated pursuit which ends the novel begins with the soldiers from Elidor overturning a cupboard full of china in the children’s very house.
While it’s true that the parents aren’t around for the pursuit and never directly encounter Elidor, it’s also true that things get messy between magical Elidor and the rigid logic of the children’s world. In fact, they’re so messy that the three older children themselves (never Roland) try to logic themselves out of Elidor: they determine that they must have been through a mass hallucination. This fits perfectly into their day-to-day world, which doesn’t admit Treasures or menacing standing stones, but it isn’t true. Roland never wavers in facing, with equal logic, the truth: I was there, I saw it, I know it must be true.
What does this all add up to? Alan Garner creates a world encompassing both the “real” world and “magical” Elidor, and its rules are relentlessly logical. If you bring magic into the “real” world, then, yes, there will be consequences. It will try to follow you. You may end up with a unicorn prancing around the streets of Manchester escaping two evil soldiers from another world. (Yeah, that happens.) And your parents might just begin to suspect that something is going on…
The key point here is that Alan Garner’s Elidor shows him to be a master at crafting both new worlds and our own world. So why don’t you take a little break, put up your feet, and let him introduce a bit of magic into your day-to-day life?