Long before Harry Potter

20 Jul

Back in the dim, dark, 1960s, I read a pair of books which I would argue are still some of the very best “Children’s Fantasy”. Many people have praised the Harry Potter books for juxtaposing the magical within a mundane world. However, decades earlier, the British author Alan Garner had combined the commonplace and the magical in two books, “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” (1960) and “The Moon of Gomrath” (1967).

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

As they went deeper the blue light grew pale and strong, and by this the children knew that they were nearing the Cave of the Sleepers … Here in this cave, waiting through the centuries for the day when Cadellin should rouse him from his enchanted sleep to fight the last battle of the world, lay a king, surrounded by his knights, each with his milk-white mare. The children looked about them, at the cold flames, now white in the core of the magic, flickering over the silver armor, at the horses and the men, and listened to the muted, echoing murmur of their breathing, and beating of the heart of Fundindelve.

Garner populates his stories with schoolchildren Colin and Susan; Cheshire farmer Gowther Mossock; and local spinster Selina Place. But he also brings in, amongst others,  the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow;  Fenodyree and Durathror (dwarves); and the evil Grimnir and the Morrigan (aka Selina Place). Likewise, he sets his story about the perfectly real Alderly Edge (a massive sandstone ridge in otherwise mostly flat Cheshire), Stormy Point, and town of Macclesfield. Beneath these prosaic places (in the many abandoned mineshafts and caves) he places magical caverns and the burrows of some rather unpleasant creatures, the Svart Alfar. The chapters of  The Weirdstone that deal with a desperate escape from the caves and mines are some of the most gripping I’ve read.

Others have obviously thought so. Here is a photo-essay by a caving enthusiast that echoes the text:

The Moon of Gomrath

The sequel has a little less action, and more things happening in alternative (magical) realities.

The Brollachan.  Now the Brollachan, said Uthecar, has eyes and a mouth, and it has no speech, and alas no shape.  It was beyond comprehension.  Yet the shadow that rose in Susan’s mind as the dwarf spoke seemed to her to darken the cave.
Shortly after this, Cadellin arrived.  His shoulders were bowed, his weight leaning on the staff in his hand.  When he saw the children a frown grew in the lines about his eyes.
Colin? Susan?  I am glad to see you, but why are you here?

“What does the hunter do? What’s he for?”
“Do? He is, Susan: that is enough. There you see the difference between the Old and the High. The High Magic was made with a reason; the Old Magic is a part of things. It is not for any purpose.”

For 1960s children’s stories, these are fairly dark. Major characters are killed and no-one comes out unchanged. Mistakes are made that have unpleasant consequences. Rather like real life, in fact.

Two other unrelated stories, the average “Elidor” and excellent “The Owl Service“, conclude the “Early Garner” period. Garner himself was quite disparaging of his early stories – particularly “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” – and convinced that his later stories are better crafted. For myself, I completely disagree. I’ve reread these early stories decades later and greatly enjoyed them. His later work I found to be complete tosh (though other readers differ).


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