Colin and Susan go to stay for six months at a farm on Alderley Edge with a Cheshire farmer called Gowther Mossock and his wife, who used to be the children's nurse. The book was written in the 1960s, so the middle-classness is rather taken for granted. Susan's 'tear stone' turns out to be the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, stolen from a nearby cave where wizard Cadellin keeps watch as one hundred and forty knights lie sleeping, to be awoken "when England shall be in direst peril". Tolkien-esque adventures ensue with friendly but sword-wielding dwarfs, witches and warlocks, elves and troll-spawn, and all the bestiary of fantasy.
Garner borrows heavily from Norse mythology. The place where the arch-fiend dwells is called Ragnarok, the Norse Gotterdammerung; the goblins are called svarts (in this magic white represents good and black bad), the chief witch is the Morrigan, from Irish legend (she casts spells in Latin, like Harry Potter), the baddies control the weather, bringing fimbulwinter, which in Norse myth is the winter that destroys all life on Earth as an immediate precedent to Ragnarok; Managarm is the wolf that chases the moon.
In common with books of that era, it is allowed a slow start. Recognition that Susan's 'tear' is the Weirdstone doesn't happen until the 25% mark; it is almost instantly taken from them. There are no moral ambiguities although the dwarfs are experienced, efficient and ruthless killers who boast to one another about how many they have killed. There is little scope for character development. Perhaps more seriously, there is little opportunity for the heroes to display strengths other than endurance. Whenever the children are faced with a challenge they are aided by yet another magical helper who appears from nowhere, such that the deus ex machina is almost a leitmotif. It is only at the end that triumph and disaster become imposters, and for that the children are bystanders and witnesses.
What lifts the book beyond the ordinary is the two journeys that the children, with accompanying dwarfs, make: one through mine shafts and tunnels, fleeing from goblins, and one through the surface landscape. In both cases minute attention is paid to descriptive detail. The author must know ar first hand what it is like to wriggle through tunnels little bigger than yourself, sometimes flooded, and to climb down rock faces. He must know every rock of the landscape he describes: "Any movement would have set the leaves dancing at the end of their snake-like branches. It was as though they were dangling in a snarl of burglar alarms." (Ch 16) In this book the hills and forests and rocks and caves are characters more vividly described than the humans.
Some great moments:
- "Owls ... fly like drunken elves by day." (Ch 7)
- "Men thought to drain that land and live there, but the spirit of the place entered them, and their house were built drab, and desolate, and without cheer; and all around the bog still sprawls, from out the drear lake come soulless thoughts and drift into the hearts of the people." (Ch 7)
- "He did not like witch-magic: it relied too much on clumsy nature spirits and the slow brewing of hate. He preferred the lightning stroke of fear and the dark powers of the mind." (Ch 9)
- "This crude magic had weight. It piled force on force, like a mounting wave, and overwhelmed its prey with the slow violence of an avalanche." (Ch 9)
- "The yellow walls were streaked with browns, blacks, reds, blues, and greens - veins of mineral that traced the turn of wind and wave upon a shore, twenty million years ago." (Ch 10)
- "They cried or laughed, each according to his nature, but the sound in all cases was the same." (Ch 14)
- "It had the tumulus's air of mystery; it was subtly different from the surrounding country; it knew more than the fields in which it had its roots." (Ch 17)
A fairly standard fantasy hero's adventure story, written for children, but lifted into excellence by the quality of the descriptive writing.
October 2020; 236 pages
Garner is author of a number of novels, mostly aimed at children, in which ancient legends and magical worlds impact upon everyday life:
- The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, and the distinctively different concluding part to the 'trilogy', Boneland.
- Elidor, a Narnia-style children's fantasy
- The utterly brilliant Owl Service (aimed at young adults)
- Red Shift, also aimed at young adults and perhaps the darkest of Garner's novels. A line in Elidor - "The legend says that there was once a ploughboy in Elidor: an idiot, given to fits. But in his fit he spoke clearly, and was thought to prophesy." (C 6) - seems to be a link with one of the characters in Red Shift.
- The definitively adult Thursbitch