Strandloper (novel)

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Strandloper
Cover to the first edition
Cover to the first edition
Author Alan Garner
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Historical novel
Publisher The Harvill Press
Publication date
May 1996
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 199 pp (hardback edition) & 208 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 1-86046-160-3 (hardback edition) & ISBN 1-86046-161-1 (paperback edition)
OCLC 35113032
823/.914 21
LC Class PR6057.A66 S77 1996

Strandloper is a novel by English writer Alan Garner, published in 1996. It is loosely based on the story of a Cheshire labourer, William Buckley. The historical figures of Edward Stanley and John Batman also appear as characters in the novel.

Plot summary[edit]

In 1803, William Buckley is a young member of a working-class farming family in Cheshire. Along with the rest of his community he participates in ancient folk rituals which exist alongside, and encompass, the local Christian church. An epileptic, William is prone to dreams and visions, seeing patterns in his hallucinations (some of which he does not recognise). At the same time, William is being taught to read by the young son of the local land-owning family, Edward, who has an interest in spreading literacy among the working class and who sees him as both friend and test subject. Both men have a close relationship with William’s fiancée, Esther.

Edward’s father, Sir John Stanley, sees both working-class literacy and community rituals as threats to property, order and hierarchy. Outlawing the rituals under property laws, he ensures that William is convicted on a trumped-up charge of trespass. William is taken to London for punishment, vowing to Esther that he will return to her. Accompanied by assorted convicts (who, like him, are from disadvantaged working-class groups including Cockneys and Irish labourers) he is then transported to Australia.

On arrival at the Australian settlement, William becomes part of an escape attempt of which he is the only survivor and the only successful escapee. Given the opportunity to return, he determines to remain a free man in the wilderness, no longer trusting his own society’s values (including its promises and punishments). After wandering for days, surviving wildfires and privations, he eventually collapses from exhaustion in the outback on the grave of an Aboriginal shaman. He is discovered by aborigines of the Beingalite people, who regard him as the reincarnation of their shaman Murrangurk, an idea reinforced by William's epilepsy.

William learns the language and ways of the Beingalite, and discovers that he fits perfectly the role of their healer and holy man. Taking Murrangurk’s name, he spends the next thirty years of his life as an adopted Beingalite and eventually becomes a “feather-foot” - arbitrating in disputes, reinforcing and carrying out Aboriginal justice, and performing the rituals of walking and storytelling which maintain story and reality (the Dreaming). The inexplicable patterns which William saw in his youthful hallucinations are revealed as being Aboriginal in nature, and become an integral part of his day-to-day life.

Many years later, in the 1830s (when William/Murrangurk is a Beingalite tribal elder in his late forties or early fifties) he intervenes to prevent the slaughter of a group of newly-arrived English soldiers and re-encounters members of his original culture for the first time in thirty years. Still hoping to return home and grant his long-standing promise to Esther, he becomes a translator and peace-broker between the Aboriginal tribes and the British sheep-farming interests led by John Batman. Although suspicious both of Batman and the culture he represents, William/Murrangurk carries out his task, reasoning that the incursive white culture cannot be stopped and must be accommodated, although he hopes that the resulting new society will be inclusive. For his work on behalf of the settlers, he is granted a governmental pardon, freeing him to return to British society. Still unsure of his position, he does not do so immediately, remaining as Murrangurk and maintaining his rituals.

The aims and attitudes of the white settlers and the Aborigines soon prove incompatible. Under increasing material and cultural pressure, the Beingalite slaughter the settlement’s sheep, which they consider to be destructive to the land. In reprisal, most of the Beingalite are then themselves massacred and defiled by Batman’s settlers, with the remnants of the tribe (mainly old people and young children) being forcibly subjected and Europeanised. William/Murrangurk realizes that his efforts have failed, and that his life among the Beingalites has been destroyed along with their culture. He participates in one last spirit ritual in which he sees Bungil, the ultimate Beingalite ancestor. Bungil tells William/Murrangurk that the Beingalite Dreaming has been taken from its shattered present and preserved: it is now William's role to take the Dreaming back to his own home and to leave it there for another person to take up later. As a token of the task, Bungil gives William a ritual woomera (spear-thrower).

Back in his native Cheshire, William finds the landmarks and practices of community ritual destroyed or marginalised by growing land enclosure, expanding agriculture and a greater degree of social control. He re-encounters Edward Stanley, now a vicar presiding over a local school in which the local children are taught literacy but also meekness. Despite Edward's compromises and failures - and evident lack of spiritual understanding - William acknowledges his former friend's "velvet true heart" and gives him the woomera. William also finds Esther – long-since married to someone else and the mother of a young man who works as a weaver, selling to the growing local market towns. Esther has named her son after William, but it is strongly implied that his actual father is Edward.

Though heartbroken, William accepts these events as part of "the Dance." Bidding Esther goodbye for the last time, he leaves to ritually walk the landscapes of his home as he once walked the landscapes of Australia. In doing so, he senses continuance concealed beneath the changes, and is somewhat comforted. His walk ends in the church, in which he now sees the patterns of native English, native Australian and mystical Christianity all layered together. Taking off his clothes and painting his body with clay, he once again puts on the aspect of an Aboriginal shaman. Performing a spirit dance inside the church, he unites the patterns of his own life and its two cultures.

Major themes[edit]

The book is rich in idiom, folk expressions and word play, as well as aboriginal motifs both visual and conceptual. Time is treated as cyclic, not linear, and experience is approached in immediate terms rather than preconceived constructs. The landscape of Cheshire and his life there live in Will's mind as an anchor of memory that he never forsakes. His return home is an overwhelming experience.

Literary significance & criticism[edit]

The book is seen by critics of Garner's work as related in style and structure to Red Shift (1973) and Thursbitch (2003). In all three time is fragmented, since it is approached through the characters' inner lives in terms of both memory and experience, and it is their idea of their identity that shapes the experience.