Garner in 2011
17 October 1934
Congleton, Cheshire, England
|Genres||Children's fantasy, low fantasy, folklore|
|Notable award(s)||Carnegie Medal
Alan Garner OBE (born 17 October 1934) is an English novelist best known for his children's fantasy novels and his retellings of traditional British folk tales. His work is firmly rooted in the landscape, history and folklore of his native county of Cheshire, North West England, being set in the region and making use of the native Cheshire dialect.
Born into a working-class family in Congleton, Garner grew up around the nearby town of Alderley Edge, and spent much of his youth in the wooded area known locally as 'The Edge', where he gained an early interest in the folklore of the region. Studying at Manchester Grammar School and then briefly at Oxford University, in 1957 he moved to the nearby village of Blackden, where he bought and renovated an Early Modern building known as Toad Hall. His first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, was published in 1960. A children's fantasy novel set on the Edge, it incorporated elements of local folklore in its plot and characters. Garner completed a sequel, The Moon of Gomrath (1963), but left the third book of the trilogy he had envisioned. Instead he produced a string of further fantasy novels, Elidor (1965), The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973).
Turning away from fantasy as a genre, Garner produced The Stone Book Quartet (1979), a series of four short novellas detailing a day in the life of four generations of his family. He also published a series of British folk tales which he had rewritten in a series of books entitled Alan Garner's Fairy Tales of Gold (1979), Alan Garner's Book of British Fairy Tales (1984) and A Bag of Moonshine (1986). In his subsequent novels, Strandloper (1996) and Thursbitch (2003), he continued writing tales revolving around Cheshire, although without the fantasy elements which had characterised his earlier work. In 2012, he finally published a third book in the Weirdstone trilogy, Boneland.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Literary style
- 3 Recognition and legacy
- 4 Television and radio adaptations
- 5 Works
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 Sources
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Early life: 1934–1956
Garner was born in the front room of his grandmother's house in Congleton, Cheshire, on 17 October 1934. He grew up nearby in Alderley Edge, a well-to-do rural Cheshire village that had effectively become a suburb of Manchester. Growing up in a "a rural working-class family", Garner's ancestors had been connected to Alderley Edge since at least the 16th century, with Alan tracing his lineage back to the death of William Garner in 1592. The Garner family had passed on "a genuine oral tradition", teaching their children folk tales about The Edge, which included a description of a king and his army of knights that slept under it, guarded by a wizard. In the mid-19th century, Alan's great-great grandfather Robert had carved the face of a bearded wizard onto the rock of a cliff next to a well, known locally at that time as the Wizard's Well. Living in this rural environment, Robert Garner and his other relatives had all been craftsmen, with each successive generation trying to "improve on, or do something different from, the previous generation."
Alan's grandfather, Joseph Garner, "could read, but didn't and so was virtually unlettered". Instead, he taught his grandson the folk tales he knew about The Edge; Alan later remarked that as a result he was "aware of [the Edge's] magic" as a child, when he and his friends often played there. The story of the king and the wizard living under the hill played an important part in the young Alan's life, becoming, he explained, "deeply embedded in my psyche", and heavily influencing his later novels.
Garner faced several life-threatening childhood illnesses. He went to a local village school, where he found that despite being praised for his intelligence, he was punished for speaking in his native Cheshire dialect: when he was six his primary school teacher washed out his mouth with soapy water. However, he was able to attend Manchester Grammar School, as the fees were means-tested and therefore free to his family, before beginning to study Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford. Garner was the first member of his family to receive anything more than a basic education, although he noted that this removed him from his "cultural background" and led to something of a schism with other members of his family, who "could not cope with me, and I could not cope with" them. Looking back, he remarked, "I soon learnt that it was not a good idea to come home excited over regular verbs".
In the summer holidays of 1956, he began to write, drafting the first chapter of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. His parents persuaded him to return to Oxford for his second year, but during that Michaelmas term (in the autumn) the novel "just lay there, dead", as did the Homer of his academic studies. His tutor, Colin Hardie, told him he could leave to "discover whether you have an original mind"; failing that, he could return to complete his degree and study others. Thus Garner spent only four of the usual nine terms at Oxford.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath: 1957–1964
In 1957, Garner purchased Toad Hall, a Late Mediaeval building in Blackden, seven miles away from Alderley Edge. In the late 19th century the Hall had been divided into two agricultural labourers' cottages, but Garner obtained both for a total of £670, and proceeded to convert it back into a single home.
It was at Toad Hall that Garner set about writing his first novel, which would be titled The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley. Set in Alderley Edge, it revolved around two children, Susan and Colin, who are sent to live in the area with their mother's old nurse maid, Bess, and her husband, Gowther Mossock. Setting about to explore the Edge, they discover a race of malevolent creatures, the svart alfar, who dwell in the Edge's abandoned mines and who seem intent on capturing them, until they are rescued by the wizard Cadellin who reveals that the forces of darkness are amassing at the Edge in search of the titular "weirdstone of Brisingamen". Whilst engaged in writing in his spare time, Garner attempted to gain employment as a teacher, but soon gave that up, believing that "I couldn't write and teach; the energies were too similar", and so began working as a general labourer for four years, remaining unemployed for much of that time.
Garner sent his debut novel to the publishing company Collins, where it was picked up by the company's head, Sir William Collins, who was on the look out for new fantasy novels following on from the recent commercial and critical success of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954–55). Garner, who went on to become a personal friend of Collins, would later relate that "Billy Collins saw a title with funny-looking words in it on the stockpile, and he decided to publish it." On its release in 1960, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen proved to be a "resounding success... both critically and commercially", later being described as "a tour de force of the imagination, a novel that showed almost every writer who came afterwards what it was possible to achieve in novels ostensibly published for children."
With his first book published, Garner abandoned his work as a labourer and gained a job as a freelance television reporter, living a "hand to mouth" lifestyle on a "shoestring" budget. He also worked on a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which would be known as The Moon of Gomrath.
The Moon of Gomrath also revolves around the adventures of Colin and Susan, with the latter being possessed by a malevolent creature called the Brollachan who has recently entered the world. With the help of the wizard Cadellin, the Brollachan is exorcised, but Susan's soul also leaves her body, being sent to another dimension, leading Colin to find a way to bring it back.
In an interview given in 1989, Garner admitted that he had left scope for a third book following the adventures of Colin and Susan, envisioning a trilogy, but that he had intentionally decided not to write it, instead moving on to write something different. However Boneland, the conclusion to the sequence, was belatedly published in August 2012.
Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift: 1964–1973
Set in contemporary Manchester, Elidor tells the story of four children who enter into a broken down Victorian church, only to find a portal to the magical realm of Elidor. Here, they are entrusted by King Malebron to help rescue four treasures which have been stolen by the forces of evil who are attempting to take control of Elidor. Successfully doing so, the children return home to Manchester with the treasures, but are pursued by the evil forces who need them to seal their victory.
The Owl Service was set in Wales, and used as its basis a story in the Mediaeval Welsh epic, the Mabinogion.
The Stone Book series and Folkloric collections: 1974–1994
The Stone Book series (1976–1978, The Stone Book Quartet in its omnnibus editions) is poetic in style and inspiration. Garner pays particular attention to language, and strives to render the cadence of the Cheshire tongue in modern English. This he explains by the sense of anger he felt on reading "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight": the footnotes would not have been needed by his father. This and other aspects of his work are the object of detailed analysis by Neil Philips in A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner (Collins, 1981).
In a 1989 interview, Garner noted that although writing The Stone Book Quartet had been "exhausting", it had been "the most rewarding of everything" he'd done to date.
Strandloper, Thursbitch and Boneland: From 1995
In 1996, Garner's novel Strandloper was published. His collection of essays and public talks, The Voice That Thunders, contains much autobiographical material (including an account of his life with bipolar disorder), as well as critical reflection upon folklore and language, literature and education, the nature of myth and time. In The Voice That Thunders he reveals the commercial pressure placed upon him during the decade-long drought (at the height of the neoliberal tide) which preceded Strandloper to 'forsake "literature", and become instead a "popular" writer, cashing in on my established name by producing sequels to, and making series of, the earlier books'. Garner feared that "making series ... would render sterile the existing work, the life that produced it, and bring about my artistic and spiritual death" – perhaps on analogy with Conan Doyle's dictum that "the ruin of every novelist ... has been effected by driving him into a groove" – and felt unable to comply.
Although Garner's early work is often labelled as "children's literature", Garner himself rejects such a description, informing one interviewer that "I certainly have never written for children" but that instead he has always written purely for himself. Neil Philip, in his critical study of Garner's work (1981), commented that up till that point, "Everything Alan Garner has published has been published for children", although he went on to relate that "It may be that Garner's is a case" where the division between children's and adult's literature is "meaningless" and that his fiction is instead "enjoyed by a type of person, no matter what their age."
The English author and academic Charles Butler noted that Garner was attentive to the "geological, archaeological and cultural history of his settings, and careful to integrate his fiction with the physical reality beyond the page." As a part of this, Garner had included maps of Alderley Edge in both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. Garner has spent much time investigating the areas that he deals with in his books; writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1968, Garner commented that in preparation for writing his book Elidor:
- I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten's War Requiem nearly every day.
Recognition and legacy
In the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, published by HarperCollins in 2010, several notable British fantasy novelists praised Garner and his work. Susan Cooper related that "The power and range of Alan Garner's astounding talent has grown with every book he's written", whilst David Almond called him one of Britain's "greatest writers" whose works "really matter". Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, went further when he remarked that:
- "Garner is indisputably the great originator, the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien, and in many respects better than Tolkien, because deeper and more truthful... Any country except Britain would have long ago recognised his importance, and celebrated it with postage stamps and statues and street-names. But that's the way with us: our greatest prophets go unnoticed by the politicians and the owners of media empires. I salute him with the most heartfelt respect and admiration."
Another British fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, claimed that "Garner's fiction is something special" in that it was "smart and challenging, based in the here and the now, in which real English places emerged from the shadows of folklore, and in which people found themselves walking, living and battling their way through the dreams and patterns of myth." Praise also came from Nick Lake, the editorial director of HarperCollins Children's Books, who proclaimed that "Garner is, quite simply, one of the greatest and most influential writers this country has ever produced."
The biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award conferred by the International Board on Books for Young People is the highest recognition available to a writer or illustrator of children's books. Garner was the sole runner-up for the writing award in 1978.
Garner was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in the 2001 New Year's Honours list. He received the British Fantasy Society's occasional Karl Edward Wagner Award in 2003 and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2012. In January 2011, the University of Warwick awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa). On that occasion he gave a half-hour interview about his work.
He has been recognised several times for particular works.
- The Owl Service (1967) won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, one of six books to do so.[a] For the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie in 2007 it was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works, selected by a panel to compose the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite.
- The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) was named to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list by the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education in 1970, denoting that it "belongs on the same shelf" with the 1865 classic Alice in Wonderland and its sequel.
- The Stone Book (1976), first in the Stone Book series, won the 1996 Phoenix Award as the best English-language children's book that did not a major award when it was originally published twenty years earlier.
- The 1981 film Images won First Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival 
Television and radio adaptations
- The Owl Service (1969), a British TV series transmitted by Granada Television based on Garner's novel of the same name.
- Elidor was read in installments on a BBC children's radio program in the early 1970s.
- Red Shift (BBC, transmitted 17 January 1978); directed by John Mackenzie; part of the BBC's Play for Today series.
- To Kill a King (1980), part of the BBC series of plays on supernatural themes, Leap in the Dark: an atmospheric story about a writer overcoming depression and writer's block. The hero's home appears to be Garner's own house.
- Garner and Don Webb adapted Elidor as a BBC children's television series comprising six half-hour episodes, starring Damian Zuk as Roland and Suzanne Shaw as Helen.
Short story collections
- Alternatively, six authors have won the Carnegie Medal for their Guardian Prize-winning books. Professional librarians confer the Carnegie and select the winner from all British children's books (although it was established in 1936 as a once-in-a-lifetime award). The Guardian newspaper's prize winner is selected by British children's writers, "peers" of the author who has not yet won it, for one children's (age 7+) or young-adult fiction book. Details regarding author and publisher nationality have varied.
- Garner 2010. p. 08.
- Philip 1981. p. 11.
- Thompson and Garner 1989.
- Garner 2010. p. 05.
- Garner 2010. pp. 08–09.
- Garner 2010. p. 07.
- Garner 2010. p. 09.
- Garth, John (Trinity Term 2013). "The Storyteller". Oxford Today 25 (2): 44–48.
- Blackden Trust 2008.
- Lake 2010. p. 317.
- Lake 2010. pp. 316–317.
- "Alan Garner to conclude Weirdstone of Brisingamen trilogy". Alison Flood. guardian.co.uk 15 March 2012. Retrieved 15 March 2012.
- Stone Book series. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
- Alan Garner, The Voice That Thunders (London 1997), p. 35.
- Garner, Thunders, p. 36.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (London 2001), p. 203.
- Philip 1981. p. 7.
- Philips 1981. p. 8.
- Butler 2009. p. 146.
- Butler 2009. pp. 146–147.
- Garner 1968. p. 577.
- Pullman et al 2010. p. 02.
- Pullman et al 2010. p. 01.
- Lake 2010. pp. 315–316.
- "Hans Christian Andersen Awards". International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). Retrieved 29 July 2013.
- "Candidates for the Hans Christian Andersen Awards 1956–2002". The Hans Christian Andersen Awards, 1956–2002. IBBY. Gyldendal. 2002. Pages 110–18. Hosted by Austrian Literature Online (literature.at). Retrieved 29 July 2013.
- "Alan Garner". Science Fiction Awards Database (sfadb.com). Mark R. Kelly and the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. Retrieved 29 July 2013.
- "Warwick awards honorary degree to acclaimed Cheshire author Alan Garner". News & Events. University of Warwick. 21 January 2011. Retrieved 25 January 2011.
- "Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen". Writers at Warwick Archive. University of Warwick. 20 January 2011. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
- (Carnegie Winner 1967). Living Archive: Celebrating the Carnegie and Greenaway Winners. CILIP. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
- "Guardian children's fiction prize relaunched: Entry details and list of past winners". guardian.co.uk 12 March 2001. Retrieved 2 August 2012.
- "70 Years Celebration: Anniversary Top Tens". The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children's Book Awards. CILIP. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
- "Phoenix Award Brochure 2012". Children's Literature Association. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
See also the current homepage "Phoenix Award".
- "Alan Garner", Guardian 22 July 2008
- "Elidor (1995– )". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 18 August 2010.
- "Elidor". Classic Kids TV (classickidstv.com). Retrieved 18 August 2010.
- Butler, Charles (2009). "Children of the Stones: Prehistoric Sites in British Children's Fantasy, 1965–2005". Written on Stone: The Cultural Reception of British Prehistoric Monuments (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing): 145–154.
- Thompson, Raymond H. and Garner, Alan (subject) (12 April 1989). "Interview with Alan Garner". Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- The Blackden Trust (2008). "Toad Hall". Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- Garner, Alan (6 June 1968). "A Bit More Practice". Times Literary Supplement (London).
- Garner, Alan (2010). "Introduction by the author". The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (50th Anniversary Edition) (London: HarperCollins Children's Books): 05–14.
- Lake, Nick (2010). "A Note from the Publisher". The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (50th Anniversary Edition) (London: HarperCollins Children's Books): 315–320.
- Pullman, Philip; Gaiman, Neil; Cooper, Susan; Nix, Garth; Almond, David and Faber, Michael (2010). "Praise for Garner". The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (50th Anniversary Edition) (London: HarperCollins Children's Books): 01–02.
- Butler, Charles (2006). Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham MD: Scarecrow. ISBN 978-0-8108-5242-6.
- Philip, Neil (1981). A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner. London: Collins. ISBN 0-00-195043-6.
- Alan Garner coverage by The Guardian
- Alan Garner at the Internet Movie Database
- Alan Garner at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database