Saturday 11 February 2017

This Charged Land: Alan Garner's 'Elidor'

The prophet breathes the air of freedom. He smothers in the hardened world about him, but in his own spiritual world he breathes freely. He always visions a free spiritual world and awaits its penetration into this stifling world.

Nicholas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit.


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. One world segues into another. Take this passage, for instance:

Roland ran along the wider streets until his eyes were used to the dark. The moon had risen, and the glow of the city lightened the sky. He twisted down alleyways, running blindly, through crossroads, over bombed sites, and along the streets again. Roland stopped and listened. There was only the noise of the city, a low, constant rumble that was like silence.

He was in the demolition area. Roof skeletons made broken patterns against the sky. Roland searched for a place that would be safe to climb, and found a staircase on the exposed inner wall of a house. He sat on the top in the moonlight. It was freezing hard. Roofs and cobbles sparkled. The cold began to ache into him. He wondered if the others had decided to stay in one place and wait until he came.

This thought bothered him, and he was still trying to make up his mind when the unicorn appeared at the end of the street. His mane flowed like a river in the moon: the point of the horn drew fire from the stars. Roland shivered with the effort of looking. He wanted to fix every detail in his mind for ever, so that no matter what else happened there would always be this. (pp.188-192)

Who can forget writing like this? No-one in my experience. I've never known a book, at least among my circle of friends, which retains its impact for so long in the reader's imagination. People can recall whole scenes. Either that or specific images, such as the fiddler in the slum clearance area, leap into their minds as soon as the book is mentioned. Garner's story, in this respect, has much in common with Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker, another quest for meaning through a magical but treacherous landscape. Tarkovsky calls his liminal space the 'Zone', and Elidor has two such 'Zones' - both wastelands - sites of blight and dereliction - the parallel world of Elidor itself and a mid-1960s Manchester which bears absolutely no resemblance to the 'swinging sixties' of popular imagination.

Malebron, Elidor's 'king in exile', disguises himself as a fiddler to lure the Watson children into his world through the portal of a North Manchester church on the brink of demolition. Once there, the children encounter a pre-industrial mirror image of their home city - the bitter legacy of moral and spiritual decline:

"The darkness grew," said Malebron. "It is always there. We did not watch, and the power of night closed on Elidor. We had so much of ease that we did not mark the signs - a crop blighted, a spring failed, a man killed. Then it was too late - war and siege, and betrayal, and the dying of the light." (p.44)

The children are charged with rescuing the four Treasures of Elidor - a spear, a sword, a stone and a bowl - from within the sinister Mound of Vandwy. Their next task is to take the Treasures back to Manchester and guard them until Malebron sends word. The difficulty is that there are clearly other powers at work in Elidor than Malebron, determined to seize the Treasures for their own ends. Their attempts to break into the genteel suburban milieu created by the Watsons' parents form the substance of the second half of the book.

For Roland, the youngest and most sensitive of the children, this is a particularly heavy burden. He is greatly impressed by Elidor and more in sympathy with Malebron than any of his siblings. Malebron's goodness and Elidor's physical reality mean everything to him. When his brothers, Nicholas and David, attempt to rationalise what happened in the church, Roland is uncompromising in his defence of Elidor's veracity:

"But you're pretending it doesn't matter," said Roland. "Didn't it mean anything to you - Malebron and the Treasures, and that golden castle, and - everything."
"Listen," said David, "Nick's not all that dim, although you think he is. A lot of what he says makes sense, even if I don't agree with everything myself."
"What does he say, then? That there's no such place as Elidor, and we dreamed it?"
"In a way," said David.
"He's off his head."
"No, he's gone into it more than any of us," said David. "And he's been reading books. He says it could all have been what he calls 'mass hallucination', perhaps something to do with the shock after the church nearly fell on us. He says it does happen."
"if you can believe that, you can believe in the Treasures," said Roland. (pp.116-17)

Roland is proved right in the end, but his vindication comes at a price and brings him no joy. Roland is a prophet, and he shares in the eternal lot of prophets - sidelined, patronised, and seen as no more, even by his own mother, than a temperamental, overly-wrought schoolboy:

"I did see somebody!" said Roland. "I did!"
"Now come along inside, Roland," said Mrs Watson. "You know you're own worst enemy."
"But Mum, I did see somebody!"
"I don't doubt it," said Mrs Watson. "But you mustn't let you imagination run away with you. You're too highly strung, that's your trouble. You'll make yourself ill if you're not careful." (p.122)

The consensus among my friends is that Roland does indeed make himself ill and that, by the end of the book, he is close to 'cracking up' or 'losing it'. I'm not so sure. Roland's only mistake, as far as I can tell is to confuse Elidor - a parallel world to our own and nothing more - with Heaven itself. It is an error which comes from a good place, however, born out of Roland's great capacity for spiritual insight. It is exactly this ability to see what her older siblings cannot see that guides Lucy Pevensie to Aslan before anyone else in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. It is worth bearing in mind as well that participating in the final two chapters of Elidor would be an intense experience for anyone, let alone one so finely tuned as Roland. Nonetheless, I don't find anything in the text to suggest that he can't recover, go on to fulfil his potential and live a life of value and meaning. I take encouragement from Malebron's commendation after Roland has succeeded where his brothers and sister fail in the Mound of Vanwy: "Remember, I have said the worlds are linked ... and what you have done here will be reflected in some way, at some time, in your world."

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. Because who can say with certainty if the 'reflection' promised by Malebron has already been revealed, is currently with us, or still to come? The impact made by Elidor these last fifty-two years serves as sign and symbol enough, perhaps, that the greening of the wasteland - the recharging and resacralisation of our imaginations - might be nearer than we think.

We will know the day when it comes. Like Elidor, it will be freighted with gold:

Roland screwed up his eyes, and after a while he thought he could make out a form that was more substantial than the shifting cloud, away to his left. 
A castle. Black. Dead loss. There's got to be something. 
But the view showed only desolation. Plain, ridge, forest, sea, all were spent. Even colour had been drained from the light, and Roland saw everything, his own flesh and clothes, in shades of grey, as if in a photograph. 
Three castles.
He looked to his right. Here the dark was like thunder, impenetrable. Then - It came, and went, and came again.
It's a light. On a hill. Very faint - like - a candle - dying - towers! Golden towers!
Roland could never remember whether he saw it, or whether it was a picture in his mind, but as he strained to pierce the haze, his vision seemed to narrow and to draw the castle towards him. It shone as if the stones had soaked in light, as if stone could be amber. People were moving on the walls: metal glinted. Then clouds drifted over. 
Roland was back on the hill-top, but that spark in the mist across the plain had driven away the exhaustion, the hopelessness. It was the voice outside the keep; it was a tear of the sun.

* The illustrations for Elidor were drawn by Charles Keeping (1924-1988), who also illustrated many of Rosemary Sutcliffe's children's stories set in late-Roman and early Anglo-Saxon England, such as The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers and Dawn Wind. This provides a nice link, I feel, between one era of 'decline' and another.

** The edition of Elidor I have used in this essay was published by HarperCollins Children's Books in 2008, in the essential modern classics imprint.

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