SFF: Publications : Essays
Fusion with a land rescued me: landscape and presence in the writings of Alan Garner
Maureen Kincaid Speller
When I first began to think about this paper, a number of people commented on how the presence of landscape in Garner's writing is so strong it is almost like another character in the narrative. What is striking is that he writes in great topographical detail about actual places. It is possible to physically trace the routes followed in most of Garner's novels, although, by his own admission, he has occasionally fudged details to achieve a particular artistic effect. In the first two books, Garner practically invited readers to travel with him, by providing maps, while with Thursbitch, his most recent novel, he has been performing an illustrated talk about Thursbitch valley at literary festivals up and down the country. Always, his novels are as much about place as about people; this reaches its apotheosis in the Stone Book Quartet, where Garner writes in most concentrated and intimate detail about his 'own square mile of Cheshire hillside'. I want to think about why Garner invests so much importance in the sense of place and how this is reflected in the use of landscape in his novels. I want to consider Garner's position within his landscape and his account of it. And I want specifically to use postcolonial theory to examine Garner's relationship to the land, which is, I want to suggest, more problematic than it might at first sight appear to be.
Postcolonial theory primarily considers the reading and writing of literatures written in previously or currently colonised countries, or else literature written in colonising countries about the act of colonisation. It is built around the concept of 'otherness', focusing on the attempts of the colonised to articulate their identity and reclaim their past in the face of the otherness of that past. What does this have to do with Alan Garner and Cheshire, you might reasonably ask. Although we tend to think about postcolonial theory in geographical terms, about country A invading/colonising country B, and the results of this, the theory can be applied in other ways, depending on how you care to define colonisation. What I want to propose is that Alan Garner's narratives are a response to a sense of estrangement in part brought about by his education and its effects on him and those around him, an intellectual colonisation, if you like. However, I also want to suggest that while his novels are in part an attempt to reclaim his identity in the face of this, they might also be seen in terms of a second act of colonisation in which the colonised, Garner, becomes the coloniser.
I'll begin with a quotation from Emannual Levinas's essay, 'Heidegger, Gagarin and Us' - 'One's implementation in a landscape, one's attachment to Place, without which the universe would become insignificant and would scarcely exist, is the very splitting of humanity into natives and strangers. And this light technology is less dangerous than the spirits of Place.'
Garner opens one of his best-known lectures, 'The Edge of the Ceiling', thus: 'I was born, with the cord wrapped twice round my throat, in the front bedroom of 47 Crescent Road, Congleton, Cheshire, at Latitude 53� [degrees] 9' [minutes] and 40" [seconds] North, Longitude 2 degrees, 13 minutes and 7 seconds West, on Wednesday, 17th October, 1934.' There are two striking things about this statement; firstly, that Garner wasn't actually born on Alderley Edge, and secondly, the extraordinary level of detail he employs in marking his birthplace. Most of us could provide a rough location for our places of birth, but why would anyone want or need to give such detail? Why does Garner want to be so precise?
Garner's place of birth in effect marks the first of a series of estrangements from the 'one square mile of Cheshire hillside [where] the Garners are.' These estrangements are spatial, cultural, intellectual, and temporal, and they provide the driving force for his fiction. In his essays, Garner refers again and again to his family's close relationship to this particular area of land - 'a hill that Garners have inhabited, and worked, for as long as anyone knows. The identification is fiercely, microscopically, regional, but 'In this particular place, I find a universality that enables me to write.'
Garner is of course conscious of the dislocations of his own life - education at Manchester Grammar School, and then Oxford university; the shift from the Germanic language of home to the Classical/Romance languages associated with his education - and has discussed them in lectures and essays on numerous occasions. As he sees it, a 'sense of fusion with a land rescued me', in this instance his connection to Alderley Edge, because, as he puts it in 'The Edge of the Ceiling', 'as a family we have always known our place'. This statement seems simple, unequivocal, and yet from it emerges a tremendous uncertainty as to where that place might be, in geographical terms at least, and possibly others too. To return to the opening of 'The Edge of the Ceiling', to be able to recite the position of one's birth with such precision may indeed be to know one's place, but it also suggests an anxiety about where one's place in the world might be. (It's striking that when Garner talks about this sense of place, of home, he is obliged to use words from other cultures - rodina from the Russian, the German heimat. Rev. Neil Hook also draws my attention to the Welsh word for this sense of longing for home, hiraeth [and my thanks to Charles Butler for giving me the correct spelling of this word]. This is, one might argue, another form of cultural appropriation; it's interesting that this specific concept seems not to have an English word.)
Time and again, in his fiction, Garner also takes up the theme of geographical displacement. With the exception of The Stone Book Quartet, Garner's characters are invariably geographically displaced, usually by events beyond their control, rarely through choice. In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Colin and Susan move to Alderley while their parents are abroad; in Elidor, the landscapes in both this world and Elidor itself are devoid of people, while the Watson children are displaced in their own world, as the family moves house, and doubly displaced by the transition to Elidor. In Red Shift, the characters in all three time strands are displaced by war and emotional violence, while in The Owl Service every character struggles, often violently, to find their appropriate geographical place, and no one is where they should be. In Strandloper William Buckley is forcibly removed from his familiar world, through transportation to Australia. And in Thursbitch, while the estrangement from the land is as much of a spiritual rather as of a physical nature, the need to establish and maintain a relationship with the land remains a clear theme.
But through the displacement of his characters, and the subsequent attempts to locate them once again in their appropriate places or to make a space for them, Garner is, I believe, writing performatively, actually writing his home. That is, he is addressing his own heritage and his distance from it, but he is also creating his own place in and through these acts of fiction. The detailed topographical descriptions of Alderley Edge, Barthomley, Mow Cop and Thursbitch, attest to a deep knowledge of the locale, but accompanied by the frequent incantatory recitation of place names, they seem to do more than simply provide context. 'By Seven Firs and Goldenstone they went, to Stormy Point and Saddlebole' in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or its mirror image in Strandloper: 'He walked the Holy Well, by Saddlebole and Stormy Point to Golden Stone and Seven Firs and Thieves' Hole, he walked the Beacon', or in Thursbitch: 'Jack climbed out of Goyt by Embridge Causey, over Withenlach and passed through Old Gate Nick. The road dropped straight to Saltersford.' These strings of names are no longer route markers but a beating of the bounds, an establishing of boundaries and edges; they are the activity of the boundary-walker, the mearcstapa that Garner describes in his essays.
But to walk the edges is also to secure and enclose the centre, to annex territory and to possess it. Garner presumably assumes the land as his birthright, but I'd like to suggest that, severed from his roots by birth and by education, he claims it also in an act of nostalgia and effectively remakes Cheshire through his writing, evoking a past world as an act of wish-fulfilment, an act of homage and perhaps also as an expression of regret.
Garner's Cheshire landscape is distinctively an historical rather than a modern artefact. He rarely portrays modern dwellings, and if he does, they are transitory places - a caravan, a house which is empty and on the market; likewise, modern vehicles rarely appear, except as agents of separation and disaster. Travel is conducted on foot or on horseback. Everything is done in the old way; in a memorable scene in Elidor, ancient, otherworldly powers adversely affect modern electrical appliances, burning out their motors. Bess Mossock, in The Weirdstone would surely have had no truck with such labour-saving devices any more than Gowther Mossock would dream of owning a tractor. Everything is played out against a background of historical and regional certainty. So long as the land is secure, Garner seems to suggest, the rest will surely follow, and the way of life will endure, and in his fiction at least, it has.
But in securing his territory, Garner seems not only to have suspended it in time and deprived it of any means to develop - even those novels with a contemporary setting sooner or later reach back to an earlier period for an anchor; it is often difficult to date the modern settings with any degree of certainty, while the earlier settings are almost always precisely identified - but in some ways almost to have transformed its inhabitants into rural caricatures. His use of dialect is striking, but it's hard to avoid a sense that for all his pride in his linguistic roots - Garner presents himself as working in the same linguistic tradition as the North-West Mercian Gawain-poet, and this is particularly evident in The Stone Book Quartet - Garner's treatment of the 'Cheshire' characters and their language is becoming somewhat paternalistic, professorial even. One feels a little too frequently that one is being invited to view a batch of linguistic specimens rather than a distinctive group of people. It is because of this highly controlled presentation of what he characterises as his own people, his own land, that I suggest Garner has to some extent become the coloniser in turn.
This is most strikingly observed in The Stone Book Quartet, four novellas which chart a history of Garner's own family, beginning with his great-great grandfather, Robert, before moving to Garner's grandfather, father and, in the last story, a boy who may or may not be a thinly disguised avatar of Alan Garner. The stories are presented as fiction, but in writing them Garner has drawn so heavily upon his own family's biography through the stories he heard as a child and through his own research that it becomes difficult to determine where fact ends and fiction begins. But it can be argued that Garner's control over the story extends beyond the text into the life of the family. As the literate, educated descendant of uneducated craftsmen, he has taken over their lives in much the same way as he possesses the landscape, and his version of the story, written rather than oral, becomes the definitive text, unalterable, unchallengeable. In 'Aback of Beyond' Garner discusses the need among each generation of the Houghites, the occupants of his square mile of Cheshire hillside, to 'do better, or do other than, the one before. It is called "getting aback of'."' In becoming a writer, as Garner himself recognises, 'I get aback of smith and stone-cutter and all of them.' In this Garner sees the integration of his divided selves, but in getting aback of all of them, Garner has effectively taken possession of his family's history as well as its landscape, exerting a power that earlier his education had deprived him of. If, as I suspect, identification with his territory and its occupants is for Garner much more of a conscious act of making than a simple acceptance of things as they are, this re-accounting of family history seems to be consistent with his detailed recording of the landscape, expressing a continuing anxiety about the certainty of knowing one's physical place in the world, and being aware of one's status.
It is also rare for Garner's protagonists to experience a satisfactory closure of their experiences. The earliest novels might appear to offer a traditional happy ever after but for Colin and Susan their lives have been disrupted by their magical experiences, to the point where they can never recover the security of their earlier lives; the experience for the Watson children in Elidor is similar. In subsequent novels, excluding The Stone Book Quartet, the endings are generally so ambiguous as to defy easy interpretation, but generally suggesting further emotional and physical dislocation. Even The Stone Book Quartet concludes with a further dislocation, the death of Joseph, the last connection with Robert, the paterfamilias, with no indication that young William will assume this role.
In Albion: the origins of the English imagination, Peter Ackroyd notes that 'It is sometimes supposed that landscape shapes human perceptions and that the power of the earth, the ground upon which we stand and move, is greater than that of the heavens in determining human destiny.' This would seem to be so in the case of Alan Garner's work, although it seems to me that for Garner, severed from his roots, through birth and education, those perceptions have been further shaped by a need to return to a landscape so specific that he has been obliged to create it, or recreate it, through his fiction. Salman Rushdie memorably observes that in colonial and postcolonial literature the Empire writes back to the centre, and it seems to me that Alan Garner's novels do precisely that.