The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Alan Garner, 1960

When Garner wrote the third part of the trilogy, Boneland, in 2012, I knew that I would want to revisit the original stories again before reading it. But with a to-be-read pile of books a mile high, it’s taken me another four years to finally get around to it. And so while on my summer holiday, I revisited The Weirdstone of Brisingamen once again. My memories of it were quite hazy, but I did recall a breathless escapade steeped in old English folklore, set against a backdrop of dark landscapes and forbidden caves.

As an adult I was expecting to be disappointed — after all, Weirdstone is really written for kids — but I found that it was as beautifully written as I remembered, if not as compelling as I recalled.

The story is what we’d now categorise as a typical fantasy adventure. Siblings Colin and Susan become caught up in the affairs of an ancient wizard, Cadellin, who has long protected a hidden cave of sleeping knights. They have rested there for hundreds of years, awaiting the day when they are called to protect the lands once more. Susan unwittingly awakens the dark forces who covet control of our waking world, and the adventure that follows sees her and her brother face increasing danger as they try to return a powerful artefact to Cadellin the wizard.

As a child I remember being utterly absorbed in this wild adventure. What I assumed was Garner’s invented folklore left me wide-eyed and hungry for more. I had read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but had not yet read The Lord of the Rings, and so was unaware that the folklore in Weirdstone had similar roots to Tolkien’s master work.

As an adult, I now know that much of Garner’s invention was a re-appropriation of the creatures and myths from Old English, Irish, Welsh and Scandinavian folklore. In particular, the stories handed down to Garner through his family speak of an ancient wizard and his knights held deep under the ground of Alderley Edge in Cheshire, Garner’s homeland. These local folk tales imbue Garner’s stories with a real sense of place. This focus on landscape as a major character reminds me of how Thomas Hardy made Wessex a similar focal point in his work. Garner’s Alderley and the surrounding countryside come alive with both beauty and menace and it’s this aspect of Weirdstone that thrilled me again this time.

Such focus on landscape leaves disappointment regarding the main characters of the story. Susan and Colin are under-developed, and as dual protagonists they leave a lot to be desired. In fact, all of the supporting cast lack depth, and although they are still memorable in their own way, they all feel one dimensional. Several years after writing Weirdstone, Garner admitted that the characterisation was poor and on this I must agree.

The pacing of the novel is rather peculiar. The first part of the book is action packed, setting up the tension with little explanation. Things just are, for in this folklore, that is the way they have always been. And it works well: I was once again quickly drawn into the story as I had been as a child. But later we find Susan and Colin in the caves of the copper mines under The Edge, trying to escape with the help of two dwarves, Durathror and Fenodyree. This takes up almost the entire middle third of the book and while there is some real peril in these pages, there’s little dialogue and I found it dragged for far too long. It’s clear that the intention is to heighten the panic of being lost underground pursued by unseen enemies, but I just kept thinking This needs a tighter edit.

The last act is better, focusing on our band of heroes as they try to complete their quest and avoid capture by the dark forces sent to ensnare them. This is a long act, but the variety of adventure kept me engaged to the rather abrupt finale — which I had completely forgotten about. The unexpected end feels a little strange by the standards of modern fantasy. It now feels like Garner didn’t finish the story properly, but perhaps I’m simply not used to this style of writing any more?

Reading Weirdstone again after three decades was a strange experience. On the one hand I recognise the marvellous fiction that Garner created, imbued with real folklore that enchanted me as a child. But as an adult with a critical view, I can see that this is a flawed book that would benefit from a shorter second act and more rounded characters.

Nevertheless there is still rare magic in the way Garner writes and it’s still a classic adventure. Forget Harry Potter, Garner’s world is far more interesting and believable and should be required reading for any lover of myths and magic — children and adults alike.

Action, Adventure, Fantasy