The title still impresses me.
I must have read Alan Garner’s first novel (published 1960) in the late seventies, by which time I was already a Tolkien/C.S.Lewis veteran. The parallels were not lost on me then, but they didn’t leap out so much as they do now, reading the book to my own kids.
Just as with the Narnia books, the central child characters are sent to unfamiliar surroundings without their parents and stumble across portals into a parallel world. And, like The Lord Of The Rings, the story describes good and evil forces struggling to possess an ancient magical piece of jewellery, so as to wield great power.
Garner treats young Tolkien fans by giving two ordinary English kids the chance to interact with a cast of Middle-earthish characters within a real British landscape. Myth-based fantasy is mixed with twentieth century reality, while a local version of the Sleepers Under The Hill legend provides a convincing back-story.
I went for walks around Alderley Edge with my family when I was little, but I don’t remember ever spotting the Wizard’s Well, with the face carved in the rock, or the Stone Circle. I visited several times as an adult before I managed to find these landmarks… and so many people I spoke to and asked for help had no idea where to find them, even though they said they knew the area well!
If you drive out of Alderley Edge town on the B5087 Macclesfield Road, you come to The Wizard pub on your left. There’s a National Trust carpark here. But just before you reach the pub there is a lay-by on the left where you can usually park, which is also signposted by the National Trust.
This entrance to the woods is very close to the Armada Beacon, which lies a little way back towards Alderley town, and, further back in that direction, you can find the Wizard’s Well. You follow the path with the B5087 to your left and to your right, the land slopes down dramatically. There are overhanging rocks, one of which carries the carving of the Wizard’s face. If you leave the path by the road (carefully) there is another rough path which takes you below the rock formations. The Wizards face is carved into one of these with the inscription:
Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the Wizhard’s will
Apparently this may have been created by Alan Garner’s great-great-grandfather Robert Garner, a local stone mason in the 19th century. The ‘well’ looked like a muddy puddle on the day we visited!
If you head straight into the wood from the lay-by, heading away from the road, the path will take you to Stormy Point and the Devil’s Grave.
The plaque states that the land was left to the National Trust by the Pilkington family.
The Stone Circle lies between the B5087 road/Armada Beacon area and Stormy Point, amongst the trees, just to the right of one of the paths and slighty raised above it, so that it’s very easy to walk straight past it without noticing! Apparently it was also created in the nineteenth century.
Garner’s magical characters are fantasy-fiction stereotypes. They have two-dimensional personalities, Tolkieny names, predictable archaic speech patterns and dress, and are often described indulgently in that sentimental pseudo-epic style which makes fantasy writing so easy to parody. If I see the phrase “clad in green” once more I’ll scream.
The Weirdstone characters almost all have obvious Middle-earth equivalents:
Cadellin Silverbrow = Gandalf (Wizard)
Fenodyree & Durathror = Balin, Dwalin, etc (Dwarves)
Angharad Goldenhand = Galadriel (Elf Queen)
Gaberlunzie = Aragorn (Wanderinig Knight)
Svart-Alfar = Orcs (Goblins or Evil Elves)
Grimnir = Saruman (Corrupt Wizard)
Nastrond = Sauron (Dark Lord)
Gowther Mossock = Sam Gamgee (Salt-of-the-earth Companion)
Tolkien’s output was so low on female characters that Garner’s witch Selina Place (also called Shapeshifter and The Morrigan) doesn’t have a doppelganger. (She always reminded me of Dodie Smith’s Cruella De Vil.) The Mara – giant female sphinx-like (stupid) monsters – also deserve a mention.
Colin and Susan, the children in the story, are empty vessels… Garner gives us zero insight into their emotional lives and doesn’t even tell us what they look like. They are cardboard cut-out kids. Perhaps this can be justified if we consider them as proxies for the reader – like avatars in an adventure game.
Garner himself said in 1989
“…my first two books, which are very poor on characterization because I was somehow numbed in that area, are very strong on imagery and landscape, because the landscape I had inherited along with the legend.”
The best-drawn characters are Gowther and Bess Mossock, the elderly couple who live at the farm Highmost Redmanhey. In Chapter 5, the description of Gowther patrolling his property at night is subtley frightening and convincing… for once you can see inside a character’s mind and the result is effective. And Bess Mossock gets the best line of the book in Chapter 15, when she tells the dwarves that they should rendezvous-vous with Cadellin the wizard by catching the Macclesfield bus! They refuse of course. And the next four chapters describe their tortuous journey on foot, pursued by all manner of horrors. My kids kept saying
“Why didn’t they just get the bus?”
And the story comes to an end with ridiculous abruptness, as if Garner got bored and just couldn’t be bothered to finish it. I rooted out the sequel, The Moon Of Gomrath, expecting it to pick up exactly where Weirdstone left off (which might let him off the hook) but it doesn’t.
We made a start with The Moon Of Gomrath… but then a whole new bunch of fake-Tolkien characters appeared in Chapter 3 to torture us with their ridiculous names (Uthecar Hornskin, etc) and I lost the will to continue: