Saturday 13 November 2010

Review: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

When Colin and Susan are pursued by eerie creatures across Alderley Edge, they are saved by the Wizard. He takes them into the caves of Fundindelve, where he watches over the enchanted sleep of one hundred and forty knights. But the heart of the magic that binds them – Firefrost, also known as the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – has been lost. The Wizard has been searching for the stone for more than 100 years, but the forces of evil are closing in, determined to possess and destroy its special power. Colin and Susan realise at last that they are the key to the Weirdstone’s return. But how can two children defeat the Morrigan and her deadly brood?

I have been quite ill over the past week, spending pretty much the best part of four days in bed. Quite scarily, for the first three of those days I struggled to read as I couldn't focus on a book for more than ten minutes at a time. Friday however saw a great improvement in my concentration and ability to stay awake and so I made a visit to my ever-wobbly To Be Read pile and for some undefinable reason selected this book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. This book has been sat on said pile for some time, but has often been overlooked - it was first published fifty years ago and with so many new releases coming out reading it was never a priority. However, I recently read several comments about Weirdstone by author David Gatward, and in particular an interview he did for fellow Chainsaw Gang member Alexander Gordon Smith where he explains: "[My] biggest influence might be Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner. It was the first book I didn't just read, but experienced. I was 11. It made me want to write stuff that would make people feel the same way I did when I read it. Particularly the bit in the cave, where they're being chased by the svarts and the cave gets narrower, they can hardly move... then they come up against water and they've no choice but to go through. Unreal! And terrifying!" Praise indeed from an author whose work I have greatly enjoyed and so I decided to take the plunge.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the first publication of this book, and the reason I received a copy from HarperCollins is that it has been re-released in both an anniversary paperback edition, and also a stunning commemorative hardback edition. Incredibly, this book has never been out of print in the fifty years since its birth - how many of today's releases will be able to claim this in half a century's time? This suggested to me that there was something pretty special about this book, but as I started reading it I was still half expecting a dated fantasy story with little interest or relevance for the young readers of today. I couldn't have been more wrong, and I will be buying copies for my godchildren for Christmas as I feel it is a book that they should read and will definitely enjoy. My only regret is that I was never given this book as a child and have had to wait until now to 'discover' it.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen tells the story of Colin and Susan, siblings who have been sent to stay with a friend of their mother's whilst she journeys abroad to be with their father. This friend and her husband, the wonderfully named Gowther Mossock, live in Alderley Edge, a small settlement near Macclesfield in Cheshire. On their first afternoon in their new temporary home Gowther tells the children a legend of the area, about a farmer who met a wizard who takes him deep inside the hill and shows him an army of 140 silver-armoured knights, in a deep magical slumber. These knights, the wizard explains, will wake when England needs them most. The wizard then gives the farmer a fortune in gold and gemstones in exchange for the horse he failed to sell in the market earlier that day. This story ignites the imaginations of the two children, who that evening venture up to the Edge, in an excited hunt for the wizard of the story. What they find is both unexpected and completely terrifying, until they are rescued by the ancient wizard himself, Cadellin who explains the full legend of the knights of Alderley Edge, and the long lost Weirdstone that was created to protect the area from evil.

Safely back at home the children soon discover that their lives are already tied to this legend as they deduce that the charm that Susan has worn around her wrist for many years is actually the missing Weirdstone. However, in their haste to return it into the safe-keeping of Cadellin they are again attacked on the edge and the stone is lost to an ancient evil, with potentially disastrous consequences. The rest of the story details that perils that the two face in their attempt to retrieve the Weirdstone and the character and creatures, both good and evil, that they encounter on the way. Two of these characters are, Fenodyree and Durathror, dwarves who become the protectors and guides of the two children as they lead them through the maze of tunnels and caverns that make up the underworld that lies beneath Alderley Edge. For me, this underground flight for freedom was the most exciting and terrifying part of the story, and I completely understand why so many people laud it as the most memorable aspect of the story. This edge-of-your seat journey last for more than sixty pages of the book, and yet I was so tense reading it that the story rushed by; be warned - if you suffer from claustrophobia then you may not make it through in one piece.

There are a number of elements that make this stand out from many other fantasy stories for young people. First of all, the geography of the setting is all very real, and an area that Alan Garner knows like the back of his hand, given that it is the area in which he has spent most of his life, and this makes the story seem all the more real to the reader as it is no far off mythical land. The evil is not all fantastical either: many of the scores that search for Susan, Colin and the Weirdstone are locals from the area, people that Gowther has known for years, but who are actually witches, warlocks and members of the morthbrood, now disguised in plain sight as seemingly harmless hikers, so the hunted have no idea who they can and can't trust. This is a book that has for its roots the folk tales and legends that the author grew up being told by his parents and grandparents, stories that were passed down by word of mouth over centuries.

This is a book that every child should read at some point, and I am sure that many will be inspired to delve deeper into the fantasy genre; some may even be inspired to become fantasy authors themselves. A look at some of the hugely successful authors who cite it as an influence should be testament to this, including the likes of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, and Jonathan Stroud. It is not a book that less confident readers will necessarily find easy as Mr Garner has Gowther Mossock speaking using local dialect, which some children may struggle to follow at times, although the story is so good and perfectly paced that this just may not bother them at all. I am hugely grateful to HarperCollins for sending me a copy to review, and to David Gatward for bringing this long overlooked gem to my attention in the interviews he has done for The Book Zone and others since the release of The Dead (and also for his permission for the quote near the start of this post).


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