When I was just a few chapters into Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brsingamen, I was sure I had found a new favorite fantasy series. The 1960 novel follows the adventures of Susan and Colin, two children who are spending six months in the town of Alderley in Cheshire while their parents are out of the country. Amid the mines and natural landmarks of Alderley, most notably a steep sandstone ridge known as The Edge, the children find a world of magic—slumbering knights, witches, dwarves, elves, and a wizard named Cadellin. It turns out that Susan is the keeper of a long-lost jewel, the stone that protects the knights who sleep in Fundindelve waiting for the day when they must wake and save the world.
In its opening chapters, the book reminded me of Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series, both for the incorporation of Celtic myth and for the (not particularly uncommon) storyline involving children discovering their own ties to a legendary world. There are some amazing sequences in the book. My favorite was the string of chapters in which the children much travel through the mines. At one point, they had to cross a crevasse on a teetering plank, and the tension in this one simple scene was as strong as the tension in any of the big magical showdowns. Their claustrophobic journey through the narrowest of tunnels, a journey in which getting to stop shimmying and crawl on their hands and knees felt like sweet freedom, had me vowing never to attempt any kind of spelunking.
Unfortunately, The Weirdstone of Brsingamen did not live up to its initial promise. One problem was with the characterization of Susan and Colin. They’re just so bland, almost like blank slates on which I suppose we readers are expected to draw personalities, backgrounds, and basic information. Unless I missed it, we never learn how old they are (I pictured 11-ish) and which sibling is older (I think maybe Susan). They’re curious about the area, as any children would be, but nothing sets them apart from any other children. I wonder if this was intentional, to make them relatable to everyone. If so, it’s an interesting choice, but not, for me, a successful one.
My other problem had to do with all the mythology Garner employed. He fills his books with references to Celtic and Norse myth, which is impressive, except that I don’t know who any of these beings or places are. I hate to complain this about because if I knew the stories of The Morgannen, Nastrond, Angharad Golden-Hand, and the Huldrafolk, I’d probably be amazed by the way he seamlessly wove them into the story.
This kind of mythological borrowing is tricky for any writer. How much can a writer expect his readers to know, and how important is that background knowledge to the story? Garner did provide enough information to make it clear that this character is good and this one is a threat, and maybe that’s sufficient for many readers. Yet a lot of the time, I felt like I was coming into the middle of a story and had missed the key background chapters. I had the sense that certain characters were supposed to be menacing by virtue of who they are without feeling the menace itself.
My bewilderment might mirror what it’s like for two children who were suddenly pulled into a world they’ve been told nothing about—except that Colin and Susan have the advantage of being there and seeing Grimnir, Durathror, and Gaberlunzie in action. That might make it a little easier to keep them all straight and to have something more than the most rudimentary sense of what they’re like.
What I’d really like to see is an annotated version of this book, with the mythological references footnoted and explained. For all I know, some of these names could just be words Garner made up or drew from myth without meaning to say that this was the mythical character.
The unfamiliar-myth overload continued in The Moon of Gomrath, which has the children brought into a series adventures related to a bracelet given to Susan in the previous book. The children were slightly more interesting here. Their loyalty to one another and their belief in justice (of a sort) became key to the plot. The story raised some serious questions about the price of war and the relative value of one life over another, and I found the children’s way of dealing with that to be pretty interesting. This huge issue was addressed briefly enough that it didn’t come across as preachy, but it reverberated backward into the whole last section of the book, making me see lots of events—and the children themselves—differently.
Although The Moon of Gomrath improved on The Weirdstone of Brsingamen in some respects, the plot doesn’t work nearly so well. Weirdstone is a series of distinct adventures, but all those adventures relate to the ultimate quest to return the weirdstone to the wizard Cadellin. Moon lacks this unifying quest; instead, the children are reacting to a series of events (and causing one event) that are interrelated. There’s no larger goal, except to survive and not get trapped in another world. A good goal but maybe not enough of one to drive a plot.
My own feelings about these books has ended up far more mixed than I anticipated when I began them. They are at times rather brilliant, but inconsistent. Garner has just written a third Adderley book, due out later this year. I’m not sure that I’ll read it, but I’m curious as to whether 40 years of refining his craft will mean he’s equipped to be more consistently brilliant in the new book. If so, I could definitely get behind the new book. I’ll be watching for others’ reactions before I decide to pick it up.