When I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), I found myself in two places at once. I lay on the fold out bed in my Grandpa’s study, sleeplessly turning the pages under the anglepoise lamp, and at the same time I was dragging myself with Susan and Colin through the narrow darkness of the mines under Alderley edge. I remember feeling a shiver as an idea struck me, a bone-deep conviction I’d never had before with any children’s novel I’d read: Alan Garner’s two young heroes really could die here. They might not be alright in the end.
We might not be alright.
Weirdstone follows Susan and Colin, a brother and sister who come to live on Gowther Mossock’s farm while their parents are abroad. They find themselves hunted through the shadows of the Cheshire hills by goblins, witches and a tall hooded sorcerer named Grimnir, who carries fear wrapped around him like a cloak. These adversaries all seek a family-heirloom that Susan wears around her wrist. Unknown to her, this keepsake is the titular weirdstone and it was once used to weave a spell that binds a hundred and forty knights in sleep beneath the ground, waiting for the battle at the end of the world. If the stone can be broken and the knights wake before their time, they will age and die, and the darkness will stand unopposed when Ragnarok comes.
Susan and Colin lose the stone, regain it and fight to protect it, weaving between their safe, sane mundane world and the enchanted one hidden in, and beneath, the forests. It’s a chase that includes one of the two most shudder-inducing pieces of chthonic writing I’ve ever read, as the children and their two dwarven companions claw their way through the confines of an ancient copper mine. The front of my 50th anniversary edition is plastered with quotes from Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and Garth Nix, all praising Garner’s writing in general, and this sequence in particular. It showcases everything that makes the novel sing. We have a headlong flight from web-footed hammer-wielding goblins, the clash of swords and screams in the dark and then… silence. Fifty pages where the only enemies are cave-ins, flooded tunnels and claustrophobia. The magic and the mundane rest side by side, with their own particular perils and Garner’s facility with writing each only strengthens the story’s conviction in the other.
There’s that word again, conviction. Conviction is key to this book, it blisters you with its sincerity.
In another children’s novel only the child characters would experience the magic, while the adults would either somehow miss it, or refuse to believe. It would be intended as an ‘aren’t we special’ wink to the kid readers, but ultimately it would make the story ring hollow, because we kid readers know that real, true magic doesn’t care what age you are. It tears through the lives of young and old alike, taking what it wants. In Weirdstone, the chief witch of the enemy stalks up to nice, normal, respectable farmer Mossock’s front door and threatens to unleash troll women and fimbulwinter if he doesn’t give Colin and Susan up. Even when he tells her to go to Hell, Mossock knows she’s serious. So do we. So does Garner. Garner gets it.
This is a game of make-believe which believes totally in itself. That self-belief makes all the threats feel real, and that was what sent that shiver running up my eleven year old neck.
As in any game of make-believe, everything in this book has many identities, many histories, many names. Everything has a sinister and potent shadow-self. A chunk of blue crystal is both a mundane family keepsake and the key to the end of the world. Lindow: a sodden mere in the middle of a common surrounded by council housing is also Llyn Dhu, the black lake, lair of the corrupt sorcerer who would usher in that very apocalypse. This weed-strewn country track is an elf-road, and will give you a little, fragile protection from evil. The mythic is given a phenomenal sense of proximity. Characters talk about walking near the abyss of Ragnarok, as though it really were just over the other side of those hills. The lady in the lake holds court in Redesmere, a few miles up the road.
Late on in the novel, one of the dwarves says "You’re in our world now, and without us you won’t regain your own, even though it lies at your feet." It’s the quintessential statement of urban fantasy, (even though the book goes nowhere near a city) and one that fascinates me even now. The dwarf’s talking to Mossock, but he could just as well have been talking to me. The difference between what Colin and Susan and the Farmer are doing and a game of make-believe is that they can’t stop. The hikers on the other side of that ridge will be warlocks hunting for them, whatever they do, so they’d better run. They can’t drop the pretence and go back to being in just one world. Lying on my bed gripping the pages and gripped by them in turn, I found that neither could I.
In a way, I’ve been looking for elf-roads down weed-strangled tracks ever since.
Tom Pollock is paving a few elf-roads of his own in his acclaimed debut novel The City's Son, out in August from Jo Fletcher Books. For more of Tom's musings on children's and young adult books (nostalgic and contemporary), check out his blog or give him a poke on Twitter.