Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Review of Elidor by Alan Garner (1965)

The cover of my teenage copy of Elidor

I have always been disappointed by Alan Garner's Elidor (1965); coming as it does between two of my very favourite children's fantasy books The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and The Owl Service (1967). Indeed, I simply did not enjoy Elidor when first I read it (aged 14 0r 15), or at subsequent attempts. 

Yet, Elidor has been the most well-known of Garner's four children's fantasies; being often taught in schools, and leading to a BBC TV series. So I thought I would give the book another try - this time in the audio version read by Jonathan Keeble. 

I can see why I was not much taken by the book, since it is structured more like a thriller than a fantasy. The fantasy elements are swamped by the detailed, realistic descriptions of physical and social life in Manchester and its suburbs - which are often grimy; replete with arguments, angst and stresses; and containing implied 'social commentary' (which are very likely the exact reasons why British school teachers appreciated this book above Garner's true fantasies).  

Furthermore the book starts slowly and with a miserable tone. Following a deal of childish bickering, the fantasy land of Elidor is briefly glimpsed and seems almost-wholly unpleasant and hazardous. Malbron - the only Elidorian man the children talk-with - is a callous and unsympathetic character, and we know hardly anything about him - or indeed Elidor. 

The early chapters set up the main interest of the book which is that four siblings have been given (against their will) the task of guarding four treasures of Elidor, needed to stop the land being destroyed. 

However; I felt that I did not know enough about Malebron to be confident that he was honest, or to care whether Elidor was a place worth saving at great risk to the children. 

The siblings return to modern Manchester with the treasures disguised as modern objects - and the best part of the book is the exciting middle section during which the children gradually realize that the treasures are hazardous (giving-off a strong and disruptive electromagnetic field).

The treasures are also attracting sinister warriors from Elidor - who are repeatedly trying to break-through to the modern world, and getting closer and closer... 

After the slow pace and detailed descriptions of the main book; the ending is abrupt, feels incomplete, and is emotionally unsatisfying. 

Furthermore - it is so complete a plot re-set, as to leave the children in their modern world without any record or residue of their experiences: apparently the modern world is completely unchanged by its period communication with Elidor. 

So, the retrospective reframing of the Elidor narrative - looking back from its ending - is that its only purpose was to save a land we barely know; and that the process has been futile from a modern perspective.

Everything that happened 'might as well' have been a dream or a delusion (as some of the siblings tend to believe, about halfway through the story)...

And this was, unfortunately, Garner's own retrospective reframing (in Boneland some half century later) of his first two novels (Weirdstone of Brinsigamen and Moon of Gomrath) - as nothing more than dream-delusions of one of the child protagonists. As I remarked in my review - this is anti-fantasy, being subversive of fantasy - as evidenced by its rejection of eucatastrophe

The actual ending of Elidor comes across as cynical, pretentious, and indeed aggressive. 

This is very interesting to me in contrast with Garner's previous Moon of Gomrath; which ends with the liberation of the Old Magic into the modern world, and the implication that things will never be the same again - that, indeed, the modern world is just about to be transformed (for the better, it is implied) by a resurgence of enchantment and a renewed contact between Man, nature and the spiritual powers. 

My best guess would be that Garner underwent some kind of profound disillusionment between the writing of Gomrath and Elidor - which left him increasingly bitter and resentful (which is how he generally strikes me, as a person). 

But this is speculation; what is clear from the texts is that Garner lost his youthful optimism and decided to explore and evoke downbeat pessimism and despair in his later fiction, lectures and essays. 

My evaluation of Elidor is that overall it fails structurally as a novel and as a fantasy; and fails to establish credible characters and motivations in relation to Elidor. On the plus side, it is genuinely tense and exciting through the middle section and until near the end - which section, after all, includes most of the book.  



John Fitzgerald said...

Well, we can't all like the same things and I understand your critique, but to me Elidor's an absolute lightning-flash of a book. It has been for a number of my friends over the decades as well. Is that because we're from Manchester? Maybe so. Garner did a wonderful thing for my sometimes drab home city here - baptising it, as it were, in the waters of the imagination.

I wrote a reflection on Elidor on Albion Awakening in 2017, you might remember. Here's my opening paragraph -

'Every word in Elidor is freighted with gold. Published in 1965, Alan Garner's third novel does for Manchester (and all cities by extension) what The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and Moon of Gomrath (1963) did for the valleys, woods and hills of Cheshire. He imbues the cityscape with a numinous depth charge. The stuff of everyday urban life - lamp posts, railway bridges, terraced houses - take on an almost sacramental glow, pointing to a level of understanding beyond the reach of materialist models of reality.'

Roland, for me, comes across as nothing less than a prophet. Not appreciated in his 'home country', of course -

'Roland is a lantern bearer. He unfurls the banner of the Imagination, in both Elidor and Manchester, at the points where disenchantment and desacralisation seem strongest. I also see in him a herald of the coming spiritual resurgence, the Age of the Holy Spirit prophecied by Joachim de Flore in the twelfth century and Nicholas Berdyaev in the twentieth. Roland stands in the High Places, watching and waiting for the signs of this imaginative renaissance. It is a fine and noble calling, and possibly all that can be achieved at this time.'

So there we are. I'll certainly check out The Minnipins and hopefully read it to the kids,


Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I know of your love of this book, and it was partly this that made me have another try at it; but it's clearly not for me!

On the other hand, my own special love of The Moon of Gomrath (specifically - distinct from Brisingamen and at a qualitatively higher level) seems to be almost unique to me among Garner fans.

John Fitzgerald said...

I'm with you on Moon of Gomrath. There's something deeply powerful and quite extraordinary about it. It's infinitely more than a 'sequel' and despite everything I've just said about Eldor I think it's his best book. I never once thought we needed a third Colin and Susan book to round things off and I was surprised, then excited, then disappointed when Boneland came out. What a waste of space that book is!

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - Great! So that's at least two of us - maybe we should from a Gomrath Society!

I also really would prefer if Boneland had not been written. Aside from its being shockingly ineptly-written in parts; the way AG implies that the first two novels had all been a dream or delusion is both puerile and an act of literary self-vandalism.

But I find it fascinating to speculate about how the world might have changed if the Old Magic really had been awoken at Alderley Edge in the middle 1960s; including how it might have affected Colin and Susan's life from that point. The theme is potentially so vast and rich as to be almost frightening.

I have a hunch that AG was expecting, as well as hoping, that exactly this might happen; and was devastatingly disappointed when it did not. I had similar expectations myself, in my middle teens (partly fuelled by Gomrath, and the White Goddess, which was a source); and it took a very long time to work through them and out the other side.

John Fitzgerald said...

That's an interesting thought. I might reread MoG in the near future and keep that angle in mind as I do so.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - That's good - I hoped I might be planting a seed there!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Brisingamen, Moon, and Elidor - all only read as an adult - maybe more as John did, with Elidor different not least as 'urban' (I somehow think of Elidor and Madeleine L'Engle's The Young Unicorns (1968) together - maybe since 'urban'?).

I never caught up with Boneland and, I think, avoided 'spoilers', and so am sorry to read how it seems to have attempted to 'scupper' Brisingamen and Moon.

You both certainly leave me wanting to reread Brisingamen, Moon, and Elidor!

David Llewellyn Dodds