Alan Garner: The magical master of British literature

With his latest novel, Treacle Walker, Alan Garner has become the oldest writer to be nominated for The Booker Prize. His strange and wonderful books have delighted generations and would make him a worthy winner, writes Laura Venning.

This year Alan Garner became the oldest author ever to be shortlisted for The Booker Prize for his small but mighty novel Treacle Walker. The Booker is awarded on 17 October, which also happens to be Garner’s 88th birthday, a coincidence that itself feels a little magical. Treacle Walker, a dreamlike fable of a convalescent boy named Joseph, a rag-and-bone man and a bog-dwelling spirit is at once a characteristically cryptic tale of a child threatened by dark forces, a meditation on time and mortality and a vivid example of folk horror. “If the rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs and dens of the land of Britain had a voice, it would sound like Alan Garner telling a story.” Philip Pullman said of Garner, calling him “indisputably the great originator, the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien.”

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Fusing myth and modernity in tales of magic and the power of nature, Garner’s stories are more unwieldy and harder to categorise than others within British literature. Treacle Walker is enjoying the prestige of classification as literary fiction, but venture into any bookshop looking for a copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Owl Service (1967) or Red Shift (1973) and you’re just as likely to find it amongst the children’s books as in the adult science fiction or fantasy sections. However, as Tim Worthington, a writer and broadcaster who recorded the commentary for the rerelease of The Owl Service TV adaptation tells BBC Culture: “Alan Garner’s approach is very different to that of the children’s writers he’s often bracketed with.” Eschewing the traditional “hero’s journey” structure employed by the likes of CS Lewis and Tolkien, Garner’s novels subvert the rules of fantasy, offering very little in terms of expository “world-building”. Instead, magic “always comes creeping uninvited into ordinary people’s lives, with a timeless sense,” says Worthington.

Fusing myth and modernity in tales of magic and the power of nature, Garner's stories are harder to categorise than others (Credit: Harper Collins)

Fusing myth and modernity in tales of magic and the power of nature, Garner’s stories are harder to categorise than others (Credit: Harper Collins)

Living so close to the enormous telescope and observatory at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, Garner naturally has an interest in physics and astronomy, and a desire to defy conventional time and space is evident in all of Garner’s work. In his first children’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, siblings Colin and Susan are drawn into a mythic battle between good and evil, in Elidor (1965) children in a bombed-out Manchester find a portal to another world, and in The Owl Service three teenagers are doomed to reenact a medieval Welsh legend of infidelity, transformation and bloodshed. Red Shift goes so far as to encompass three stories in three different time periods that all bleed into each other: the 1970s, the English Civil War and Roman Britain.

Erica Wagner, literary critic and editor of First Light, a celebratory anthology of essays on Garner, finds his experimental use of time a crucial element of Garner’s appeal. “The epigraph of Treacle Walker by the physicist Carlo Rovelli: ‘Time is ignorance’. It could be applied to so many of Alan Garner’s books, which demonstrate that chronological time is only one way of perceiving our world, and not always the most useful one” Wagner tells BBC Culture. Treacle Walker takes place in an ambiguous time in the mid 20th Century, and the characters’ only certain marker of time is a train that passes the house daily. Cracks form between past and present as young Joseph Coppock is visited by ancient presences, and becomes enveloped in a parallel mirror-world where he is literally faced with himself. There is no linear time here: past, present and future move in a circle with no clear resolution.

And yet as abstract as it is at times, Treacle Walker also simultaneously feels rooted in the real landscape and its real history. The rag-and-bone man named Treacle Walker is based on a real person, a wandering tramp who sported the nickname and claimed to have the ability to cure all things except jealousy. Thin Amren is a creature who emerges from the marshes, and is clearly a reference to real archaeological discoveries of “bog bodies”, corpses mummified by peat over thousands of years. Joe is in possession of a number of magical objects all imbued with a sense of history, from a stone with a horse carving, to a comic that comes to life, featuring Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit. Garner’s use of language is intensely atmospheric, and he is a skilled conjurer of visions, sounds and textures that are to be felt rather than merely read, and are often deeply unsettling.

A haunted country

Garner was born in 1934 in Cheshire into a working-class family with a strong storytelling tradition. He grew up in Alderley Edge, a Cheshire village at the base of a steep escarpment, or slope, of red sandstone and often known as The Edge. Now one of Britain’s wealthiest villages, Alderley Edge is also a place steeped in legend. As a child, Garner was fascinated by the local tale of a wizard and an army of knights sleeping in a cavern beneath the Edge, which would awaken to defend England in its time of need. The story became deeply embedded in Garner’s psyche, and would influence not only his first children’s novel, but his entire writing career. His childhood was also punctuated by periods of illness and instances of near-death from diphtheria, meningitis and pneumonia. It’s telling that Treacle Walker is about an ill child, and The Owl Service opens with teenage Alison in her sick bed, gazing at the ceiling, beginning to be enchanted by the powerful forces hidden within the walls.

Garner grew up in Alderley Edge, a Cheshire village at the base of a steep escarpment of red sandstone, often known as The Edge (Credit: Alamy)

Garner grew up in Alderley Edge, a Cheshire village at the base of a steep escarpment of red sandstone, often known as The Edge (Credit: Alamy)

“She wants to be flowers but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.” Alan Garner’s most beloved and enduring novel is The Owl Service. In a complex, haunting story of burgeoning sexuality, violence and folk tales retold, three teenagers are thrown together in a remote manor house in Wales, in the shadow of a mountain. Alison and Roger are new step-siblings adjusting to the marriage of Alison’s mother and Roger’s father, and Gwyn is the son of their housekeeper. The story begins with Alison hearing a scratching sound in the ceiling above her bed, the sound of “something trying to get out.” Gwyn breaks open the sealed attic and discovers a set of plates with a design of flowers and owls. Alison soon becomes obsessed with tracing the design of the plates and crafting paper owls, as if a powerful force is taking hold of her.

Garner was inspired by Victorian dinner plates owned by his mother-in-law which featured a floral design that, looked at the right way, could also be interpreted as a ring of owls’ heads. He was reminded of the legend of Blodeuwedd, the enchanted woman from The Mabinogion, a collection of 12-13th-Century stories written in Middle Welsh. Blodeuwedd is created from flowers by a wizard in order to be the wife of hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes, but she falls in love with another man who then tries to murder Lleu. The wizard then transforms Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment for her infidelity, and thus owls are shunned by all other birds. In The Owl Service, the central trio of Alison, Roger and Gwyn are either cursed to repeat the story of the myth after discovering the plates, or their already predetermined fate somehow draws the legend of Blodeuwedd to them.

When writing The Owl Service, Garner was inspired by the legend of Blodeuwedd from The Mabinogion, a collection of 12-13th-Century stories written in Middle Welsh (Credit: Alamy)

When writing The Owl Service, Garner was inspired by the legend of Blodeuwedd from The Mabinogion, a collection of 12-13th-Century stories written in Middle Welsh (Credit: Alamy)

The novel captured the imagination of author Edward Parnell, whose autobiographical journey around places associated with British folklore, Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country, was published in 2019. “For me, it was first of all the setting: this claustrophobic Welsh valley, seemingly almost cut off from the rest of the world – when I visited the actual place Garner based it on, it felt a little like coming home because he’d rendered the real so wonderfully on the page,” Parnell tells BBC Culture. He was also drawn to Garner’s portrayal of adolescence, “and add in the seamless way he ties in folklore and the stories from the Mabinogion with this sense that you can’t really escape your past or the confines of your present, then for me it seems pretty close to perfection.”

After winning the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian award for children’s fiction, The Owl Service was soon adapted by Garner himself into an eight-part series by Granada Television (part of ITV), which was the network’s first major series to be shot entirely on film, in colour and on location. With its strong central performances, striking cinematography and production design it has lost none of its power. Its avant-garde animated title sequence – featuring a gentle harp interrupted by a roaring motorbike exhaust and the sound of talons tearing paper – sets the surreal tone, and images such as a flash of Alison’s face tattooed with the floral plate design are arresting and unnerving. The series also exacerbates the simmering jealousies, class tension and sensuality of the novel – these are teenagers grappling with emotions too adult for them to yet comprehend.

As the writer Kim Newman points out in his essay accompanying a new Blu-ray restoration: “It’s unthinkable that something as complex, ambiguous, difficult and strange as The Owl Service could be broadcast on British television in a prime-time slot these days – let alone on ITV1 as a children’s programme.” Indeed, with its heady mix of mythical beauty and terror, The Owl Service has now been canonised as a “folk horror” classic as well as a memorable children’s programme, most recently by the 2021 documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which dissects the genre. Ritual sacrifices, demons of the past reawakening and the unspoiled countryside hiding dark secrets are all signifiers of folk horror.

A folk horror renaissance

The term “folk horror” is a relatively recent one; while it was used by journalist Rod Cooper in 1970 in his review of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, it was popularised by Mark Gatiss in his 2010 BBC Four series, A History of Horror. Much like Garner’s writing, folk horror is rather difficult to characterise. As Roger Luckhurst writes in his 2021 book, Gothic, “[folk horror] has proven to have very flexible boundaries, incorporating music and half-remembered children’s television shows as easily as films and horror novels.” The key texts are usually considered to be the “unholy trinity” of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973), all made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, while they encompass the most well-known early examples of the genre, The Owl Service predates all three. While Garner himself resists any labelling of his writing, its unnerving rural weirdness, reverence for nature, disdain for rigid class structure and sense of the past haunting the present arguably place it at the centre of the folk horror tradition.

Dr Lindsay Hallam, Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of East London, tells BBC Culture that the unholy trinity came “at a time of generational conflict, when the younger generation rebelled against the established Christian norms of their parents, and became interested in more ancient traditions and their connection to nature, as seen in the hippie movement and the emergence of Wicca.” Folk horror has certainly enjoyed a gradual, unexpected resurgence with films like A Field in England (2013), The Witch (2015) and Midsommar (2019). Just as folk horror emerged in the late 1960s during the counterculture movement when alternative ways of living were being sought, perhaps we might see a parallel with the past decade with the ongoing impact of austerity, the rise of populism, the worsening climate crisis and further economic instability.

Folk horror has certainly enjoyed a recent resurgence with films like A Field in England (2013), The Witch (2015) and Midsommar (2019) (Credit: Alamy)

Folk horror has certainly enjoyed a recent resurgence with films like A Field in England (2013), The Witch (2015) and Midsommar (2019) (Credit: Alamy)

“A similar generational divide exists today,” says Hallam, “seen in the different attitudes toward climate change and the rise of environmental activism in the young, who also seek a closer bond with the land.” Perhaps this partly accounts for its revival; a desire to escape tumultuous times and seek out our more ancient roots, yet with an acknowledgement that the countryside can also be a place of darkness and danger. Edward Parnell is also unsurprised by the folk horror revival. “In the chaotic present that we’re living in – filled with so many terrifying and mostly depressing uncertainties – I can see the appeal of works that acknowledge those same fears, or offer some kind of alternative way of making sense of them.”

There is perhaps no better time, then, for Alan Garner and Treacle Walker to be awarded the Booker Prize, but a win shouldn’t merely be considered a reflection of the curious renewed popularity of folk horror, or indeed for a prize simply owed to Garner for his decades of work. The Booker Prize judges described Treacle Walker as “a tiny book [that] compresses all [Garner’s] themes – time, childhood, language, science and landscape entangled – into a single, calmly plaintive cry.” It’s a transporting, stimulating novel, imbued with strange magic with the power to both fascinate and move its readers, provoking thought and feeling in equal measure. “Treacle Walker is fabulous. I mean that in a literal sense: a fable, a wonder-tale, one of the best of its kind,” says Erica Wagner. “A boy, all on his own, discovers his own powers and is shown other worlds. These are the stories human beings love, and no wonder, because they show us ourselves, and they give us hope.”