Described by Philip Pullman as ‘the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien’, Alan Garner has enraptured generations of readers with novels like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, The Owl Service, Red Shift and The Stone Book Quartet. He turned 80 last year and in celebration many of the writers, artists, archaeologists and historians he has inspired are contributing pieces to a special anthology called First Light. Its editor, Erica Wagner introduces the project.
I was eight years old. It was the summer of 1976, that sweltering English summer, and I was driving with my parents through the Cheshire countryside. Nothing so unusual about that, you might think, but for the fact that we were by no means locals, but had come to Cheshire from an ocean away – New York City, where we lived, where I grew up. But my mother was a passionate Anglophile, avid for ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and with a stack of memoirs by ex-RAF pilots by her bed. My father was compliant; and so here we were, on an English adventure. I don’t know where we were driving from; I don’t know where we were driving to. I do know – I remember vividly – that suddenly, right by the side of the narrow lane on which my dad was driving, there loomed the great dish of the Lovell Telescope.
I didn’t know it was the Lovell Telescope. I know my dad nearly ran off the road – and he was a very good driver. Here in this ancient landscape (when I look back, I’m sure I could feel its antiquity in those high hedges and twisting roads) was the future. The future and the past right next to each other, co-existing – how was that possible? We drove around for a little while until we found the entrance to Jodrell Bank Observatory; in those days the visitor centre was pretty rackety, hardly a visitor centre at all, but it didn’t matter. You were in the shadow of the Lovell’s great dish, a giant ear set to listen to the universe, to map the stars which tell us so much about ourselves.
I had absolutely no idea that a little over a mile away lived a writer whose work I would not discover until over 20 years later. Growing up in the United States I didn’t read the works of Alan Garner, but books by E B White, Madeleine L’Engle, Beverly Cleary; American writers in an American childhood. But when I did discover Alan’s work as an adult, I found that his connection to the ancient universe was no less strong than that of the Lovell Telescope and all the work that goes on at Jodrell Bank. Here is a photograph of Alan Garner, walking up the track of the house which has been his home for many decades – as many decades as the telescope has been in the next field. On the site of Alan’s home in Blackden there is evidence of human habitation going back 10,000 years. On one side of the image is the house, with its medieval timber beams; on the other side of the image, the telescope.
The connection is more than coincidence. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service, Elidor, Strandloper, Thursbitch, Boneland … These are books that enable readers, young and old alike, to slip into the other worlds that exist alongside our own if we only know to look: a book is a kind of telescope, too. So, here am I, all these years later, assembling a collection of essays in praise of Alan Garner’s work. Alan turned 80 last year; it seemed a good enough excuse for a celebration for a writer whose influence extends far beyond the world of fantasy, or of children’s books. (I’d rather write: ‘books published for children’ as that seems more accurate to me; all of our writers, and all of Alan’s readers, have found in his work nourishment to keep them going all along the road of life.) When we were about to launch the book on the Unbound crowdfunding website – because this is a book which won’t exist without Alan’s devoted readers jumping aboard and supporting our endeavour by subscribing to it – we were missing one crucial element: a title. Yes, Margaret Atwood would send us a piece. Sure, we had Philip Pullman writing for us, and Neil Gaiman, and Stephen Fry, and David Almond – and many, many more great names as you’ll see on the site. But what we didn’t have was a title – until Alan himself suggested First Light as a ‘neat nod’ to Jodrell Bank.
For just last March, Alan inaugurated a new series of public lectures at Jodrell: the Garner Lectures, which will explore the connections between science and culture. ‘At Jodrell Bank, the boundary between science and culture barely exists. In fact, it’s hard to find someone who works here who recognises the two as separate areas.’ Those are the words of Dr Teresa Anderson, Director of the Discovery Centre at Jodrell. She is one of our contributors too; and it’s in no small part thanks to her efforts that the shabby visitors’ centre I visited decades ago has vanished to make room for a brilliant place of public engagement.
In his lecture (which you can read in its entirety in The New Statesman) Alan Garner told a story about meeting the late Sir Bernard Lovell, who constructed the telescope. He felt a connection, Alan said, between his work and Lovell’s; he brought to Lovell’s desk a hand-axe. ‘Half a million years ago, thereabouts, a hominin forerunner took the pebble and struck flakes from it with another rock, shaping it to sit in the hand, with one edge and a point sharpened to cut meat.’ Lovell, as much a cultured and spiritual man as he was a scientist, understood what Alan was getting at. ‘The hand axe was the step we made towards the telescope,’ Alan said in the Wolfson Auditorium of the observatory’s Star Pavilion. ‘Without the axe, Jodrell would not be here. Both are functional, both works of art.’
What makes Alan’s work extraordinary is its ability to break through many boundaries – not just those that apparently exist between science and culture. There are boundaries too, we’re told, between history and fiction, between the oral and the written, between books that adults read and books that children read. There are books we like to think of as fantasy and books noble enough to be called literature. But these boundaries dissolve when a reader comes to consider Alan’s work. ‘A book, properly written, is an invitation to the reader to enter: to join with the writer in a creative act: the act of reading. A novel, it has been said, is a mechanism for generating interpretations. If interpretation is limited to what the writer ‘meant’, the creative opportunity has been missed. Each reading should be a unique meeting, leading to a new interpretation.’ That’s Alan in an essay called Hard Cases from his remarkable collection, The Voice that Thunders; it’s a piece that, with both humour and sensitivity, despairs of an educational system that would set literature on a single track of meaning – while recognising the gift that real education can be.
I’m still awaiting most of the pieces which First Light’s wonderful, eclectic crew of contributors will file. We’ve got novelists, archaeologists, historians, storytellers, poets: what they will have in common is – of course – their love for Alan Garner’s work. But I’m betting there’ll be something else too: a sense of horizons broadened, divisions bridged, no matter what discipline each of our writers works in. I will never forget an email exchange I had with Alan, not long after we first met, just before the turn of the century. I asked him something about his creative process, and he replied in no uncertain terms. ‘I don’t INVENT,’ he wrote to me, ‘I FIND.’ His was a kind of discovery I had never encountered before; but it changed how I saw the world, and that change has stayed with me ever since. ‘The old man lifted his staff and lightly touched the rock, and it split with the noise of thunder,’ runs a line in the legend of Alderley, set out by Alan as a prologue to The Weirdstone. The farmer from Mobberley sees wonders of which he could never have dreamt before the wizard revealed them; Alan’s readers learned, from the very first pages of his very first book, what they could expect from him, and over more than half a century now they have not been disappointed.
It’s an honour and a joy to be editing a book which will sing the praises of Alan Garner – we’ll make a chorale which, I hope, will do him justice. But it won’t just be my book, or a book by the authors who are writing for me – your name can be in it too, and for as little as a tenner! First Light will shine: thanks to Alan, to our authors – and thanks to you.
You can contribute to First Light via Unbound
Erica Wagner is an author and critic, former literary editor of The Times.
Alan Garner’s books are published by HarperCollins
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, 978-0-00735-521-1, £6.99
The Moon of Gomrath, 978-0-00712-787-0, £6.99
Elidor, 978-0-00727-478-9, £6.99
The Owl Service, 978-0-00712-789-4, £6.99
Red Shift, 978-0-00712-786-3, £6.99
The Stone Book Quartet, 978-0-00720-494-6, £11.99