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Review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

The Weirdstone of BrisingamenI seem to remember that my mother encouraged me to read this when I was young (or maybe it was Elidor by the same author). And I just have. And I’m glad I did so.

There is a school of thought that one should write about what one knows – Alan Garner does this. Although The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a fantasy novel, it’s based in the solid reality of the Cheshire countryside. I’m a Cheshire boy myself (although I’m from the shitty part in the northern corner) and I recognise some of the placenames used, and indeed the character of the rural landscape (it brings back memories of hiking and camping with the Cubs and Scouts).

Colin and Susan are a brother and sister spending six months with their mother’s former nurse while their parents are abroad. This means going to live in a farmhouse with Bess and Gowther Massock. Susan has a crystal set in a bracelet that was given to her by her mother, and was given to her mother by the childless Bess, who received it from her mother and so on. The two children are stalked and chased by beings with untoward intentions – it turns out they are after the stone – the eponymous Weirdstone – which is an object of immense magical power. And so the pair get sucked into a struggle for their lives and for the fate of the entire world.

Despite this epic plot, the story is short, intimate and modest in scale. There are only a few characters and the book is a mere 236 pages in length. The writing is a nice mixture of young adult accessibility, old-fashioned eloquence, poetry and fantasy idiom:

In the middle of the cave the floor rose in the shape of a natural, tomb-like couch of stone; and here lay a knight comelier than his fellows. His head rested upon a helmet enriched with jewels and circlets of gold, and its crest was a dragon. By his side was placed a naked sword, and on the blade was the image of two serpents in gold, and so brightly did the blade gleam that it was as if two flames of fire started from the serpents’ heads.

And a fair amount of dialect, too, mostly from the mouth of Gowther:

You go and enjoy yourselves. But when you’re up on th’Edge see as you dunner venture down ony caves you might find, and keep an eye open for holes in the ground. Yon place is riddled with tunnels and shafts from the owd copper-mines. If you went down theer and got lost that’d be the end of you, for even if you missed falling down a hole you’d wander about in the dark until you upped and died.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is definitely post-Tolkien but pre-contemporary fantasy. It lacks the epic scale of either and is written in a more assured style than most (on either side, to be honest), but forms an interesting link between the two. I should look into this further (see here), but I was surprised to see the terms ‘svart alfar’ and ‘lios alfar’ used for goblin- and elf-like beings respectively. Surprised because Guy Gavriel Kay uses exactly those names in the wonderful The Fionavar Tapestry.

The only real disappointment in the novel was the ending, which was abrupt and depended on the characters surviving until the forces of evil had spent themselves, rather than actively triumphing over that evil. But apart from that, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a charming example of the fantasy genre and a very good book.

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