From the first sentences of an Alan Garner novel, we’re disoriented, and Garner never lets us get oriented.
Upon starting his 2021 book Treacle Walker, the reader will ask: Where—or, perhaps better, when are we? Joe Coppock is reading a comic book when he hears a shout from the street outside his window: “Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!” It’s Treacle Walker, a peddler in a horse-drawn cart, perhaps a wizard with his long coat and tall hat and riddling questions. He promises to cure Joe’s lazy eye; indeed, he claims he can heal every human malady “except jealousy.” He gives Joe a jar of ointment and a donkey stone in exchange for old pajamas and a lamb’s shoulder bone, but when Joe accidentally gets ointment on his good eye, he begins to see everything, all the way to the bottom of the eye-chart and even letters that aren’t there. He tracks silver hoofprints up a hill and returns to find himself at home talking to Treacle Walker. Joe enters his comic book and gets lost in a labyrinth made up of mirror-images of the rooms of his house. Treacle Walker sends Joe through a looking glass. (The Lewis Carroll reference isn’t gratuitous; in Alice in Wonderland, the Dormouse tells Alice a story of three sisters who lived on treacle at the bottom of a treacle well.)
Garner’s diction is contemporary and exotic by turns. “Treacle” is a corruption of the Middle English “triacle,” which refers to dark, dank water thought to cure poison. “Blinking heck,” Joe says when he finds his own name on a brass plate on Treacle Walker’s trinket chest. The characters don’t seem to be contemporaries. Joe reads comic books, but Treacle Walker is from a world before comics. Time has folded in on itself; the deep past and the present coexist in the fictional now.
And then the perennial question about Garner’s work: Who’s the book for? The simplicity of the prose, the slangy dialogue, and the age of the protagonist suggest it’s for children, but who beyond the most precocious kids will suss out what’s going on? For that matter, how many adults will spot the Latin sentence hidden in the pyramid of letters on page 41? I didn’t, until Treacle Walker explained it on page 63. (It’s an alchemical formula that translates as, “This stone is small, of little price: spurned by fools, more honored by the wise.”) Perhaps, though, I underestimate the instinct to solve puzzles.
Now eighty-eight, Garner has been doing this kind of thing for a long, long time, plotting complex stories and achieving uncanny effects with matter-of-fact but densely allusive prose. In The Owl Service (1967), a divorcee and his new wife, a widow, take a “family honeymoon” in Wales. Each brings a teenager to the marriage—Roger and Alison. The two teens befriend the Welsh housekeeper’s son, Gwyn, and the three soon get caught up in an action they don’t understand and can’t control.
The teenagers learn a local legend of Lleu and his wife Blodeuwedd, who was made from flowers. Blodeuwedd falls in love with Gronw Pebr, and the lovers conspire to murder Lleu. Raised from the dead, Lleu kills Gronw Pebr with a spear thrown with such force that it pierces the solid rock where Gronw is hiding. Blodeuwedd is punished for her treachery by being turned into an owl. Centuries later, another tragic triangle shook the valley: Gwyn’s mother, Nancy, was in love with Alison’s uncle Bertram, rousing the jealousy of Gwyn’s father, the groundskeeper Huw Hafbacon. Bertram died in a motorbike accident after Huw removed the brake pads. As in Treacle Walker, time keeps stumbling on itself.
And the triangular plot begins to replay in the lives of Roger, Alison, and Gwyn. When Roger suggests the valley is haunted by its past, Gwyn answers, “Not haunted . . . More like—still happening?” It’s up to them to break the curse.
Odd as the story is, the book feels even odder. It’s almost entirely dialogue, with little scene-setting or description of action. Garner forces a choice on his readers: Pay very close attention or learn to live in bewilderment. Crucial details are mentioned in passing. Treacle Walker’s rebuke to Joe is directed to Garner’s reader: “My friend, you saw; yet you do not see.”
I suspect Garner thinks his fictional worlds are just the real world. He’s said inhe has “not yet experienced religious faith,” but he has a religious sensibility: “I see the world, I see the cosmos, I see time as such a strange and wondrous phenomenon.” Our world is so strange “it would be arrogant of me to say that I knew the truth.” The enchantment is enhanced by the straightforward way he tells his stories. A holiday in Wales or an afternoon with a comic book can open up primordial mysteries of the world as readily as a visit to Narnia or Middle Earth. His novels suggest we don’t inhabit a world haunted by departed gods, but a world in which myth is “more like—still happening.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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