I’ve been reading Alan Garner’s new novel, Boneland, which finishes the story that started in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. For me, it’s a story that began when I was ten, and Weirdstone was my school reading book – one of the best books a teacher ever gave me to read. It’s the story of Colin and Susan, who meet the wizard Cadellin and get caught up in the myths of Alderley Edge. It was followed by The Moon of Gomrath, an eerier, older feeling book about what happens next. Weirdstone has that scare factor that great kids books often have, where the adventure has genuine peril, but Gomrath was always the creepier one, that I wouldn’t read before bed. And now there’s Boneland: older, stranger, eerier, and possibly more beautiful than the story that came before. I say older, because as the story has gone on Garner’s myths have gone back in time, from wizards and elves, to Norse, and now to prehistoric man, and his magic has got older and more fundamental. The Moon of Gomrath ends with the phrase: …”and the Old Magic was free for ever and the moon was new.” But in Boneland we go back further, to the magic that turns the world.
Boneland itself is, fundamentally, beautiful but strange. The first time round, I had *no* real idea what was going on – but I knew I liked it. There are careful echoes of the earlier books – for example, Colin’s cry to the small boy at the doctor’s: “Young man. Do not go into the witch’s house. Do not. And whatever you do, do not go upstairs. You must not go upstairs. Do not go! You are not to go!“1 which calls up key moments of both Weirdstone and Gomrath – but I couldn’t make the connections. I had to go and dig out the first two books, and re-read them, before going back into Boneland to begin to get somewhere – and even so, I’m feeling my way, not thinking clearly (and, I think that thinking clearly, looking to know, would spoil it).
“I’m for uncertainty. As soon as you think you know, you’re done for. You don’t listen and you can’t hear. If you’re certain of anything you shut the door on the possibility of revelation, of discovery. You can think. You can believe. But you can’t, you mustn’t, know.”2
I read the book for the second time with a notebook to hand, which is now full of random scribbles like: ‘Is Sue the Woman? / the trinity of women: Sue (new moon), Morrigan (full moon), Angharad (old moon) – Meg the Morrigan or Angharad? There is a sense that she might be the Morrigan – but she is warmer, I *want* her to be Angharad. / Colin dresses up in academic robes for convocation – the calling – as Colin and the Watcher…’
I’m getting somewhere, but I’m not sure about it. I don’t want to be sure, I like the discovery. Discovery is, as Colin says, play. For me, Colin is the Watcher, and Sue is the Woman, and his search for her mirrors the Watcher’s need to free the Woman and keep the world turning, but both are over-thinking it and breaking things on their way there. But it’s not just a mirror. Colin remembers every experience he’s had since he was 13 perfectly, and only has flashbacks of the time before that – and time, he is clear, is not linear. So he remembers, re-lives, and is in all the times at once as he searches for his sister.
Place is more important for Colin than time, or space:
“… But it’s not so much deep space that concerns me as deep place. Once place is lost, you fall into history.”3
And the Edge is the place where time meets:
“In the time before the Old Magic was put to sleep, it was strongest on this night, the Eve of Gomrath, one of the four nights of the year when Time and Forever mingle.”4
It’s a point in balance, on the edge of crisis, between thinking and feeling, now and forever, and science and myth. But Colin has got lost in his place, uncertain of when he is, losing the boundaries between the worlds, baffled – it turns out, by Cadellin – looking for Susan, who went to join Celemon and the Pleiades (from Gomrath), in M45 – the Pleiades, and he loses both balance and perspective.
Ultimately, though, he seems to regain his place
“They may both be real but they occupy different dimensions.”5
The myth of the Pleiades and the physical constellation can both be real – but you don’t access them the same way. Science and myth/story/religion both tell us something true about the universe – often the same something, but in different ways. Sue gets to the Pleiades through magic and Redesmere. Colin gets to them through the Jodrell Bank telescope and by being the Watcher – but has to learn that the two may be in the same space at the same time, but they are not in the same place, or dimension (although, with the Pleiades, that place is deep space). He has to break the enchantment, through fear (the crows, the blue and silver light, the place of Saddlebole) to remake the connection between the ‘reality’ of science and the myth as metaphor – an idea that I love. Myth and Science telling the same story, in different, true, ways. They are both knowledge – but you should never think you know all of either.
I have come this far in my journey through Boneland – but I still don’t understand what happens when Colin and I get here. I’m not sure of the question, and certainly not of the answer. Maybe I’ll get there on the next re-read, or the one after. Maybe I won’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as enjoy the playing and discovering. And I like the story I am finding.
1. Boneland, p.16
2. Boneland, p.80.
3. Boneland, p.86
4. The Moon of Gomrath, p.102
5. Boneland, p.97