‘All the stories of the world’ in The Stone Book Quartet
seems to be holding its place as buzz-word of the season. Discussed in BfK on a number of occasions it is proving a handy term for literary editors seeking to excuse grown-up people for reading (beyond any call of duty) books for children.
Now we have a Crossover Maximus.
The four little stories by Alan Garner that were gathered up to make The Stone Book Quartet have been reissued as a single volume in the ‘Perennial’ series of modern classics put out by the adult division of Messrs HarperCollins. What’s more, it comes tricked out with a P.S. of ‘Ideas, Interviews & Features’, also aimed at an adult public, who are enjoined to ‘read on’ with such books as Golding’s The Spire and Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. (The ‘Interview’ naughtily splices in verbatim chunks from Garner’s 1996 speech accepting the Phoenix Award for the Quartet as though it were part of the dialogue.* )
Ageing memory may fail me (often does)
but my own recollection is that the first volume of the ‘quartet’, The Stone Book itself, was commissioned and published in 1976 as a story ‘for younger readers’ with a ‘y’ logo on the jacket to prove it. At the time, it was thought to be an attempt to reclaim Garner for a child readership after the brouhaha over Red Shift and the three volumes that followed it preserved its approachable design – generous typesize and leading, full-page illustrations by Michael Foreman – although the logo disappeared.
The germ of a particular music
was present too from the beginning, eventually justifying a series title which might have been found pretentious. The four ‘movements’ of the quartet were published at separate times over a couple of years, with The Stone Book being succeeded in the narrative sequence by Granny Reardun (1977), The Aimer Gate (1978), and Tom Fobble’s Day (1977). (Deserting music for gunnery, Garner points out that the order of the publishing chronology: 1 4 2 3 is ‘an artillery ranging bracket’.) While any marking as to tempo or expression in the quartet may be seen as lying closer to Shostakovich than the classical masters, the musical elements are plain. Each of the stories has a common theme, telling the events of a single day in the lives of its characters, and these events – in three instances anyway – are marked as ‘epiphanies of joy’ among five generations of one Cheshire family (Garner’s own): first Robert the stonemason and his daughter Mary; then Joseph, Mary’s illegitimate son, who is hence brought up by his grandparents as a ‘granny reardun’ and is, in several ways, the hero of the work. He becomes a smith and is father to Robert II, the unfulfilled child in the third book, and grandfather to William who toboggans his way to the work’s coda eighty years or so after its beginning. (A now famous family photograph which includes Robert I, Mary, and Joseph is reproduced in the ‘Ideas’ section of the Perennial edition.)
This progression through the generations,
drifting from a major to a muted minor key, is reflected in the passage of seasons from summer to winter and the elemental final chords of each book: ‘flood… wind… sun… snow’. And criss-crossing from movement to movement there are the repetitions and variations of words, phrases, events, and songs themselves: the popular tunes, the hymns, the temperance ditties of the age and the place. Thematic coherence holds everything together. Bazzil-arsed Robert’s Macclesfield Dandy, buried in The Stone Book, turns up, literally, in Tom Fobble’s Day; the weathercock on St Philip’s steeple still glows golden.
Those first editions
were among the few modern children’s books whose illustrations originated as etchings, and these too form an integral part of the whole composition, now lost from the ‘Perennial’ edition. (They were half-lost in a paperback set of the four stories in 1979 when Foreman had to re-draw the images in pen and ink in order to cope with the books’ cheaper paper.) Thus, on the face of it, and as the Children’s Literature Association’s Phoenix Award suggests, there is no reason why the books of the Quartet should not have firmly established themselves as ‘children’s classics’, and their failure to do so, their now apparently wholesale transference to an adult readership, exemplifies one of the recurrent puzzles about the nature of children’s literature and its management by the adults who run the show.
Puzzles there are,
undeniably about the stories, which are prime examples of the author ‘showing not telling’, which has led to mistakes being made even by seasoned critics. (Can anyone work out who Joseph’s father might be? Or why Joseph seems permanently offended by Faddock Allman? Or what the heck these Cheshire workmen are talking about?) But those puzzles are consequent upon Garner’s belief in Story not simply as diversion or entertainment but as part of the central nervous system of the lived life. Yes: there has to be narrative impulsion – which abounds in these short tales – but, to borrow a motif from the Quartet, there has to be a vision aback of that. For such contemporary writers as Alan Garner and William Mayne that vision consists in part in a profound apprehension of the truth that resides in myth and folktale, but few of those who mediate stories to children have any sense of that truth or how it demands to be expressed. As Neil Philip (who wrote a brilliant study of Garner** ) remarks, applicably of William Mayne, ‘children do not read him because he is unreadable but because teachers teach them to read in a way which excludes him’*** .
Were that not the case,
who knows but perhaps Mercian Hymns and The Spire will cross over in their direction?
* The speech is printed in the collection of Garner’s essays and lectures, The Voice that Thunders, Harvill Press 1997.
** A Fine Anger; a critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner, Collins 1981
*** ‘Children’s Literature and the Oral Tradition’ in Further Approaches to Research in Children’s Literature, ed. Peter Hunt. Cardiff: University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology 1982 p.20
The cover illustration (using detail of girl by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, 1853-1941) is from the Harper Perennial edition, 0 00 720494 9, £7.99 pbk.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.