Alan Garner’s years at Oxford heavily influenced his children’s fantasy tales and have resonated across 50 years. John Garth meets the author, one of the subjects of a major Bodleian exhibition.
In the window seat in Cloisters, looking out over the moonlit snow that had stopped falling, and seeing the tower and listening to the chimes, I said, ‘If I don’t get in here, I think I’m going to die.’” So Alan Garner OBE arrived at Magdalen for entrance exams in January 1953, picturing himself in the Chair of Greek one day. But after just four terms he left Oxford permanently for his native Cheshire. Oxford’s loss was literature’s gain, and this summer Garner is the focus of a Bodleian exhibition of children’s literature along with Tolkien, CS Lewis, Philip Pullman and others, drawing on their papers at the library.
When Garner dropped out, he had already begun The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, an instant classic of children’s fantasy set in Alderley Edge, where he had grown up. A sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, hurled twins Colin and Susan deeper into an idiosyncratic and potent brew of Norse and Celtic folklore, yet left the plot unresolved: Garner had tired of the children. But last year, after a 50-year hiatus and numerous unrelated books, Garner unexpectedly completed their story with the elliptical and thoroughly non-juvenile Boneland, in which Colin is a deeply disturbed astronomer at Jodrell Bank, searching the night sky for his missing sister.
As Garner, now 78, talks for the first time at length about his relationship with Oxford, the dish of Jodrell Bank’s radio telescope looms massively in the view from his book-lined study in a restored medieval hall. “I love the contrast,” he says. “The great dish two fields away.” Ancient and modern, hands and head, Cheshire and Oxford: such are the poles that have propagated Garner’s creative spark.
By the time Garner won a place at Manchester Grammar School and first fixed his eye on Oxford, well-meaning adults had begun a severe deracination. For generations the Garner menfolk had been left-handed craftsmen, but his mother closed that road by stuffing his left hand up his liberty bodice to enforce right-handedness. At six, his teacher washed his mouth with soapy water for “talking broad” (Garner still uses ‘received pronunciation’, which he articulates with exceptional clarity). Meanwhile childhood sickness brought him close to death, confined him for months in bed and isolated him at primary school. He discovered books – an undiscriminating hunger for words – and a talent for running from bullies.
Garner was able to go to grammar school only because means-testing meant his fees were waived. It was a culture shock, not least for his family. They were thrilled that “Alan was going to get an education” but, he says, “There was no concept of what that was. I soon learnt that it was not a good idea to come home excited over irregular verbs.” They felt threatened; he felt alienated: the classic pickle of the first-generation educated (vividly dramatised in Garner’s Carnegie-winning novel The Owl Service and its successor Red Shift). He loved Aeschylus, Homer, and the subtle expressiveness of Greek regardless. Though at 18 he was Britain’s fastest schoolboy sprinter and could have had a career in athletics, the Regius Professorship in Greek became his goal.
So Garner came to Magdalen as an applicant. His interview was abysmal until he was asked if he thought it were possible to break the four-minute mile. “I said, ‘Yes, Roger Bannister will do it in May or June next year.’ They were on to me like a hornet’s nest. I stood my ground: and that was my interview.”
National Service supervened, as a subaltern with the Royal Artillery. “I was stationed at Woolwich, which is what they did with the ones they realised they shouldn’t have commissioned,” says Garner. But acting as court-martial defence taught him about men, mendacity and responsibility. When he met up with old school friends he found them “still children”. Yet one chance meeting made a decisive impact. In the first week of Michaelmas 1955, Garner bumped into an old friend who had been in the school dramatic society with him. “He was a bit of a fixer and before I knew what was happening, I was auditioning for the Magdalen Players Cuppers entry, which was Everyman, directed by a young Anthony Page. And that’s how I came to play Antony in Antony and Cleopatra with...” Garner laughs, “...Dudley Moore as Enobarbus and Kenneth Baker as stage manager! Heady times.”
At Magdalen as organ scholar, Dudley Moore was just discovering his comedic talents. “We were very close friends,” said Garner, “but it was one of those friendships that didn’t survive university.” The odd conjunction leads me to unearth a real surprise: on an online discussion forum, an eyewitness recalls that the two would practise deadpan comedy, as if in anticipation of Pete and Dud: Moore as ‘Copper Knickers’ and Garner as ‘Des Carts’, both riffing on philosophy. When I check with Garner he responds, “I’d forgotten!” Proof of Garner’s taste for dry, crackling repartee may be found in his novels from The Owl Service onwards.
In private Moore was angst-ridden and would spend hours in Garner’s room worrying about his debt to his parents and other matters. And Garner had his own unease at Oxford. “I loved and still love the place, but it was a dangerous place in the end,” he said. “At the end of my first term, as the last week was looming, I realised that I didn’t want to go home. Then an image came into my head – I saw Oxford as a medieval map with whales in the water at the bottom and cherubs blowing at the city walls, and outside nothing; and I thought, ‘This isn’t very healthy.’ That snapped me out of it.”
In Hilary 1956, preparations for Antony and Cleopatra took over. In Trinity, Anthony Page, who was directing but was also billed as Caesar, grew increasingly manic. With a fortnight to go he decided he and Garner must swap roles. The company committee overruled him, and even found another Caesar. For Garner, Antony was an apt role – in the words of the programme he “cannot reconcile the demands of the two worlds”.
Classics tutor Colin Hardie witnessed something similar when he asked Garner to account for the origin of Greek Comedy. Garner remembers: “I started to read round the subject, and I realised I was reading about something I knew. So I turned up at my tutorial and I performed for him, in the Cheshire dialect, the Alderley Mummer’s Play. It had the same basic characters as the Old Greek Comedy.” Hardie awarded Garner’s highest grade.
Garner kept a strange old oak shovel: both a symbol of home and an enigma. He’d seen it long ago on a hook at primary school and had forgotten about it until, at 17, he saw a picture of the selfsame object in a Victorian book by a Cheshire antiquary. Learning that the shovel had been found among some crude stone mauls in the Alderley Edge copper mines, Garner had retrieved it from his first school. He consulted the Ashmolean but was not satisfied when it was dismissed as a Victorian child’s toy spade.
The insistent urge to make Cheshire count in Oxford was symptomatic of Garner’s ongoing unease. A ‘Damascene moment’ came at an Alderley Edge bus stop during the summer vacation. “I was staring across the road at a wall that had been built by my grandfather’s grandfather, and it almost came to me in words: ‘You’ve got to follow this.’” He must emulate the standards of his craftsman ancestors, and that did not mean becoming Professor of Greek. He lacked the hand skills to be a craftsman, but his facility with language gave him one idea. In his diary that day, 21 August 1956, he wrote, “Became inspired to write.”
For many years Garner has viewed that moment as irrational, but now he remembers some earlier glimpses of his future. Out of many dull primary school exercises, one had lit a spark: writing a fairy story. “It’s still very good; you can see me coming,” he says. As a child he had told stories to his cousins, as well as to school bullies so they wouldn’t pick on him.
In 1956 diary entries, published here for the first time, Garner recorded that on 30 August he “did quite a lot of thinking over the book”, and on 4 September, “Actually started to write the book.” On that first MS page Colin and Susan, gazing on incessant London rain, seem to reflect their creator’s own inertia; yet a holiday promises adventure. Garner crossed it out and wrote “mush”, but five days later he had a complete draft of chapter one of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The key ingredients had been with him all along: the sandstone Edge that towered over the Garner family home; and the local tradition that within it a wizard guarded a sleeping king and his knights, ready for Britain’s direst peril.
He went back for Michaelmas term on advice from his elders, taking his newly begun novel. “It just lay there, dead – and the trouble was, so did Homer.” Colin Hardie agreed Garner should leave “and discover whether you have an original mind”; if not, he could return to spend his life studying others. With Hardie’s exhortation that “you will have to create your own Oxford”, Garner left university at the end of 1956.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published four years later. It was completed at Toad Hall in Blackden: a cottage which he recognised as a medieval hall and borrowed £510 to buy. With his first wife Anne Cook (Cleopatra) he had three children. In 1972 Garner married teacher and critic Griselda Greaves, with whom he had two more children.
Toad Hall shares its site – inhabited for 10,000 years – with six Early Bronze Age burial mounds, plus the Medicine House: a second medieval hall which was facing demolition until the Garners bought it and moved it there wholesale. Here Garner has indeed created his ‘own Oxford’: The Blackden Trust (www.theblackdentrust.org.uk), dedicated to cross-disciplinary education on local archaological and other matters, which hosts regular digs, talks, and performances. Tutors include experts from as far afield as Sussex and Orkney.
The old oak shovel that Garner had brought to Oxford exemplifies his non-writerly activities. Persisting with his investigations, in 1991 he took it to Manchester Museum, where carbon-dating revealed it was 4,000 years old. New investigations, triggered by this and other finds, showed the Edge mineworkings, too, to be far older than anyone had realised.
Garner has returned to Oxford many times since dropping out, including a 1960 stint at the Bodleian researching the spells used in The Moon of Gomrath (his notes are on show in this summer’s exhibition). In the novels that followed, including the starkly different delayed sequel Boneland, Garner has increasingly turned from the direct and linear to the fractured, multi-layered and oblique. From Joyce to Picasso to Lennon, it’s a hallmark of modern cultural pioneers. One aid in this dismantlement was Garner’s stage experience: his third book, Elidor, began as a radio play; and he adapted The Owl Service and Red Shift for television.
He says the academic rigour of Oxford has been “a permanent strength through all my life”; Tacitus taught him “the power of spare writing”; the Oresteia suggested ways to transmute his own internal tension and convey it to the reader. But Oxford, along with Cheshire, is part of the tension itself. The energy between these two poles has produced nine different novels bookended by a trilogy. Face to face, he gives every impression of having much more to say.
Magical books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth runs at the Bodleian from 23 May –27 October, accompanied by an illustrated volume of essays edited by Carolyne Larrington and Diane Purkiss. John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War.