A lecture by Alan Garner

This week I went to see the ‘Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth’,  exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford during its final days (it finishes tomorrow) – I’ve been meaning to go all summer ever since Alex at Thinking in Fragments alerted me to it in this post. Alex described the exhibition which concentrates on the works of ‘The Oxford School’: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, and Alan Garner, together with many medieval manuscripts and a first edition of the first Harry Potter, annotated by JK Rowling, brilliantly, so I won’t go into detail here.


I will say though, that it felt like a room of power in there, I’m so glad I didn’t miss the exhibition.

I was particularly interested in parts relating to Alan Garner, for I read his books alongside Lewis’s Narnia series. Both authors were hugely influential to me around the ages of eight to ten, but Garner’s novels, being only published a few years before I read them, felt more contemporary and edgy.

The picture on the left from the exhibition shows a little of Alan Garner’s manuscript for Carnegie-winning novel The Owl Service (1967). There were also pages from his MS for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (WB) – his first book published in 1960. The handwriting on these showed lovely calligraphy in an almost runic style – slightly reminiscent of Tolkien’s Elvish script. It appears that had worn off by his fourth novel though!

Alan Garner

My visit also alerted me to the fact that there had been a lecture series running alongside the exhibition, most were lunchtimes so I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway, but the final one was last night at Magdalen College, given by Alan Garner himself. Now aged 79, he doesn’t speak often, and they still had a few tickets available, so I went!

This was the first time I’ve been to an author event which was a formal lecture, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and Garner is an alumnus of Magdalen, having studied classics and greats. He entered from stage right, looking slightly frail, and took out a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. The lecture was entitled “A Bull on my Tongue” – which Garner explained was from Agamemnon by Aeschylus. At the start Clytemnestra awaits Agamemnon’s return from Troy, (translation from an Open University text).

And may it be my master, when he comes,
will clasp this hand with his love-hallowed hand.
There’s more, but I won’t say it. The saying goes:
“My tongue’s become where the trampling oxen stand.”
You could ask the house. If this house had a mouth,
this house would speak.
I mean my words just so.
They’re dark to those in the dark: not to those in the know.

However, he soon put us at our ease, recounting his days in the Magdalen Players before getting into the real meat of the lecture. “Creativity and its expression in modern English fiction” – telling us of his own journey as a writer over 57 years (so far), and in particular how fifty years after he wrote WB and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, he was inspired to make it a trilogy. I was also grateful to finally find out how to pronounce Brisingamen – ie: Bri-ZING-gamun, not BRIZZing-GAMmon as I had always said as a child.

bonelandAfter deciding to become a writer, and writing two novels about the adventures of twins Colin and Susan, he was totally fed up of them – he gave us a hilarious alternative ending!

Instead Garner left unfinished business, and in the noughties he was inspired to think of what would happen to children who’ve experienced another dimension, but then had to grow up and live in the real world. CS Lewis had a way of dealing with that, he quipped, he killed them off.  In 2012’s Boneland, the third part of the trilogy which I’m longing to read – he wrote about the adult Colin and Susan – for adults, bringing things to a close.

He went on to tell us about his writing process – describing crafting a book as an archaeological excavation of ideas. ‘I’m a spectator – I watch‘ and write it down.  He emphasised several times during the lecture that he sees creativity as a pathological state, not a job, and quoted Jung, and many great poets to support this.

Then he asked, ‘So what have I learned about language after 57 years as a delver in the word-hoard?‘ (love that phrase).  He told us about his preference for words with Germanic, romantic roots finding them clearer, and how unless it is part of the fabric, he won’t use the same colourful word even twice in a novel.  To him, adjectives are superfluous, so when he uses one it has more impact, and adverbs mean I haven’t thought about what I want to say, he told us. He believes strongly that you need to learn grammar and syntax etc, in order to break the rules well.

He also told us about his experience adapting his novel Red Shift for BBC TV in the late 1970s. This was his fifth novel, and he’d moved on to a more dialogue driven style of writing. So not much work needed to make a screenplay out of it he thought – Wrong! ‘The word in the air, is not the same as the word on the page.‘  On the page, the dialogue has to tell what’s going on around it.  In the air, the TV camera is doing half of that job for you, so less is more.  This technique now influences writing on the page more directly.

And finally (she said, deliberately breaking a grammar rule or two), he brought us back round to that Magdalen Players production, alongside Dudley Moore no less, and the bull on his tongue.

Sadly, given Garner’s age, there was no Q&A or book signing, but there was an opportunity to write down questions which will be responded to by email via The Blackden Trust, which Garner set up with his wife to celebrate arts, crafts and heritage in their corner of Cheshire. I wanted to ask about the runic handwriting in the WB manuscript – so I await my reply with anticipation.

Being linked to the Bodleian exhibition, I had been expecting a talk about the myths and legends that Garner has built into his novels rather than exploring his writing process and its evolution. No matter, it was lovely to hear him deliver this erudite and witty lecture. Now, I can’t wait to read the WB trilogy in its entirety, alongside revisiting and reading all his other works.

* * * * *
To explore Garner’s books on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (50th anniversary edition), paperback
The Moon of Gomrath
Boneland (Weirdstone Trilogy 3)
The Owl Service


17 thoughts on “A lecture by Alan Garner

  1. It sounds like a wonderful talk! I was never able to get into Alan Garner, but I think the time is right to try him again. Do you think he’s one of those authors you really have to read as a kid in order to love him?

    • I actually haven’t read him as a proper adult (!) but plan to revisit WB and its sequel plus Boneland which concludes the trilogy and was written for adults. I’ll get back to you then. 🙂

  2. How lovely, Annabel! I read Weirdstone and Moon absolutely years ago – I wonder what the final volume is like?

    • Be warned, Boneland is not what you may expect – although the conclusion of the ‘Weirdstome’ trilogy, it is not the straightforward adventure like its predecessors and may disappoint on that level. However, it is a magnificent book which requires more than a single reading and touches upon his other works. The wonderful mysteries will leave you pondering and will present more questions than answers. If this is Garner’s last book (as hinted at) then it is a fitting finale to a wonderful career.

      • Thanks Paul – looking forward to reading it even more. At the lecture he did hint that he’d thought Boneland may be his last book, but that he’d had an idea! We shall see.

  3. This is wonderful. It brings happy memories for me – though not of childhood as I didn’t read Garner as a child. As a young teacher in Scotland, newly trained, there was a technique at that time to build the curriculum around a book – a term’s work essentially. I worked with a few others to develop and then use a curriculum project on Alan Garner’s book “Elidor” – and I loved it. Loved the story and loved the kids response to the story. We did several other book related curriculum at that time (another successful one was Ann Holm’s “I Am David*) but none worked as well, nor was as popular with the kids, as Elidor was. I loved his books so I really enjoyed your post – I just wish I’d been there!

      • It is a joy when a class are into a book you love. And hell when they’re not ( I recall reading them John Christopher’s The Prince in Waiting was your archetypal flogging a dead horse!)
        Mind you I think the kids I taught and the parents of the kids I taught might say I wasn’t a proper teacher either! Too much pissing about in my classroom!

  4. How amazing! I’ve been a lifelong fan of Alan Garner too and it sounds like it was a wonderful evening, I’m so envious! Strangely, I learnt exactly how you pronounced Brisingamen yesterday myself during a myth & folklore panel at a convention!

  5. You were very lucky indeed to hear Garner. He his famous (or infamous) for his refusal to attend conferences or speak in public. I had the very great privilege of meeting him and his wife some years ago and actually had an invitation to visit if I was ever in the Alderly Edge area because we feel the same way about the importance of knowing about language before you can bend it to your will. Unfortunately, I was never able to take it up.

    I will be really interested in what you think of ‘Boneland’. It may not be what you are expecting.

    • I hadn’t realised quite how rare his appearance was – obviously the pull of his alma mater was strong. I’m going to (re)read the whole trilogy over the next couple of weeks. He teasingly made a throwaway quip about the last line of Boneland – I had taken my copy with me just in case there was a signing opportunity, but resisted opening the book to see …

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  8. Thank you for your description of the lecture. The Weirdstone… was my most favorite book as a child – until I read The Owl Service as a teenager. He’s a magician. I actually just finished his 90’s novel, Strandloper. Very difficult to read, not sure I understood some of it. But very powerful. I have Boneland, will read it someday.

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