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!
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.
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.
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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