poet. writer. imposter.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner’s 1960 novel has had me entirely in thrall for almost 50 years. It is a timeless tale of good versus evil, light versus dark and the main character is not Colin, or Susan, or Cadellin Silverbrow. The main character is the sandstone escarpment known as Alderley Edge on, or under, which much of the story takes place. Despite its geological stillness, it is a fickle place. A playground one moment and a trap the next. A carefree space of dappled sunlight and a mist shrouded, claustrophobic prison cell. Of wide-eyed innocence and gladiatorial terror. It holds both the Darkness of the Morthbrood, the Light of the Fundindelve.
It sits, it watches, it manipulates, as if a living, thinking intelligence. Garner notes this in his books of essays ‘The Voice That Thunders’ by suggesting that The Edge ‘ …is physically and emotionally dangerous. No one born to The Edge questions that, and we showed it proper respect.’
There is a feeling, in Garner’s works, that Alderley Edge is an agent of collective memory, a repository for local history. Its job is to observe, teach and heal. The events of the Weirdstone may be new to Colin, Susan, Bess and Gowther, but to Cadellin Silverbrow – possibly an avatar of The Edge – it is not the first time these events have taken place. Long is the battle between darkness and light and it is a story that is etched into the sandstone as scars and stories.
My first encounter with the book was in the final year of infants’ school. I especially looked forward to Friday afternoons mostly because the Saintly Mr Bessant had decreed that they should be spent doing art, then singing and then ending the week with a story.
After several books that were engaging but not wonderful, Mr Bessant chose The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to be one of those stories. In retrospect, it was probably a little too old for us, but he edited out some of the more difficult to stomach passages, as Emma found out when she brought her own copy to read along with him. She kept complaining that she couldn’t keep up with him because he kept leaving things out.
We were about two thirds of the way through the book when the unthinkable happened and my parents informed me that we were leaving Bedford for Tunbridge Wells. My immediate thought was that I was going to miss the end of the book! It wasn’t that I’d have to say goodbye to my friends, go somewhere unfamiliar or start a new school. I was going to miss the end of the book! I had to know what happened!
On my last Friday at Shortstown Infants’ School, we still had around four chapters to read. We didn’t make the move to the new house until Monday lunchtime, so I begged Mr Bessant to loan me the book, promising to return it before we left. The Saintly Mr Bessant agreed, and I was able to finish the book over a hectic and fraught weekend.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is the book I have read most. I still read it at least once a year and have done since I was seven years old. It is an old friend and a book I collect in as many different editions as is possible.
Surprisingly, it had never occurred to me to visit Alderley Edge. I knew the place was real, unlike Milbury, the fantasy version of Avebury in HTV’s Children of the Stones; a TV show that had almost as profound an effect on me as the Weirdstone, but Alderley Edge always seemed ‘other’ – a magickal place available only to those with a connexion or history to the place.
I left home and moved to Sheffield. My friend Mark came to visit and, despite the myriad pleasures Sheffield had to offer, suggested a road trip to Alderley Edge. He had read the book on my recommendation and was intrigued as to how much of the landscape was real.
On reaching The Edge, we were agog that except for The Iron Gates – the physical gates, not the rock they are named after – and The Fundindelve behind them, every location mentioned was real. We couldn’t be certain of The Earldelving – possibly the most terrifying and claustrophobic chapter ever written – but we found a dip in the land where the exit was supposed to be. It did not take much imagination to believe that Colin, Susan, Fenodyree and Durathor were still struggling to free themselves from the collapsed tunnel, the full force of The Edge pressing down on them.
We found the entrance to the underground ‘Cave of the Svartmoot,’ in reality – or at least in this reality – it is called ‘Engine Vein’ and located in the West Mine. We decided to follow Gowther Mossack’s advice to the children and not risk losing ourselves underground in the abandoned mines. We walked by the Seven Firs, gazed in wonder at the riven Goldenstone, drank from The Wizhard’s Well (not recommended) and looked over the ‘flat as a poncake’ levels of Cheshire from Stormy Point. Each location was tangible, beautiful, real.
We had lunch at The Wizard, a pub mentioned in the book, and then went to look for the home of Shapeshifter, The Morrigan, Selina Place – a building named as St Mary’s Cliffe in the book and on the other side of Alderley Edge Village to The Edge. We could not find it and made the assumption that it was another fantasy location, thinking no more of it.
The difference between The Edge and Milbury – both hugely influential on my developing mind – is that with Milbury, the fantastic was overlaid onto an existing space and then stripped out again once the cameras had gone. A temporary phantasm. The location of the story, despite being based on a real place, existed outside of ‘reality’. It was ‘artificial.’ At Alderley Edge, the legends of the Farmer meeting the Wizard with the pure white horses – or rather ‘milk white mare’s – go back for generations with the earliest written version of the story dating back to the early 1800s.
These legends and stories that are utilised in The Weirdstone are rooted in the landscape and in the collective memory, rather than simply dropped on top for the duration of the storytelling. Children of the Stones roots the story to the place by using genuine Avebury history, but then fudges the setting by renaming it and ‘enhancing’ an already magickal space with additional polystyrene and fibreglass ‘stones’, some adorned with sinister carvings. Perhaps a bigger feeling of unreality and liminality may have been experienced, had the name change not occurred, although the inclusion of the false stones, in retrospect, made the real place seem ‘lesser’. Perhaps honesty, or integrity, makes the fantastic more ‘phantasmagorical,’ as Matthew Brake, lead character in Children of the Stones, might have said.
Re-reading the book on returning home was an entirely new and vivid experience. The story had a whole new life and corporeality. The places I had imagined as a seven-year-old boy and had perpetuated and embellished on each reading, suddenly seemed wholly inadequate.
Thirty-Five years after my first visit, I made my long-promised return. In the intervening years, the town of Alderley Edge has hugely expanded. Rather than being a quaint English Village, it has become the playground of the ultra-rich, with soap stars and footballers making a substantial portion of the population. As a result, a gigantic Waitrose has taken over from the independent traders and the main street is now a slew of café bars, high-end restaurants and haute couture. The rural element has been almost completely displaced.
It has lost its soul to the ‘Real Housewives of Cheshire.’
Of The Edge itself, it has been taken over by The National Trust and rather than being a free and wild space, it has been segmented into ‘paths’ and colour coded walks. I couldn’t imagine Colin and Susan running from the horrors of the Morthbrood along these prescribed routes. I thought of Guy Debord, railing against the Haussmanisation of Paris and creating the derive in an act of protest to the city’s ‘compartmentalisation.’ For the first time, I really understood his ire. The existence of these paths diminishes the impact of the book and rather than being a wild space where supernatural adventures take place, it has been made a commodity. Arrows mark the way around The Edge unforgivably showing the evil Svarts how and where to find the fleeing children.
The Edge is still beautiful, but its wildness has been tamed; domesticated. Its timelessness, ‘a place that stopped and melted time,’ now bound by a garish orange three strand polypropylene rope; the natural yellows, greens and ochres unfettered, but nervous.
On this visit, with a more concerted effort, I found St. Mary’s Cliffe, aforementioned home of The Morrigan. All I had to go on was a bare description from the book and a tiny line drawing in the frontispiece. Luckily, the roof and gable patterns are very distinctive, there could be no doubt that this was the place where The Morrigan and Grimnir – the treacherous lackeys of Nastrond – had sought to extinguish the light of the Firefrost. Even the wall that blocked the lower levels of the house in the picture was present, inscribed onto a rude map of the local area. Now called ‘The Hollies’, on seeing it, I still got chills wondering if columns of smoke still hid behind heavy, scarlet, velvet curtains; wondering if, like the Marsten House in Stephen King’s novel ‘Salem’s Lot,’ evil attracts evil; wondering what really lay behind those tiny Norman windows; wondering if the excruciating blandness of the name was masking something unspeakable.
What is most extraordinary, however, is that my memory of the real, physical village and its surroundings, so vividly brought to life from my previous visit, has been slowly eroded and replaced by the Alderley Edge of my imagination, much as the carving of the ‘wizhard’ above the well has eroded.
I could no longer be certain of either landscape.
Alderley Edge, or at least my Alderley Edge, exists only in my mind and there is now little correlation between the reality and fantasy Edges. Perhaps that is the point. Despite being birthed at the beginning of the Mesozoic era, The Edge is an ephemeral place. It is solid – as solid as sandstone is – but it absorbs stories, revealing them to those who search for the ‘wild magic’ of the place. This is the essence of Deep Topography; the recovery of the past to affect the present and illuminate the path to the future.
In the first sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, Susan is overwhelmed by the wild magic and is transformed – we’re not really certain what this transformation is in any real sense as Garners writing is awash with riddle and conundrum – most perplexingly in the multi-layered second sequel ‘Boneland’. It may be a transformation into a magical being, becoming one of the mythical ‘Seven Sisters’ and travelling to the Pleiades to fulfil an unseen destiny. It may be a metaphor for the onset of womanhood. She may simply have died. Nothing is certain. Boneland – written and set fifty years later – does little to confirm her fate.
But that’s okay.
The story is not about Susan, or Colin, or Cadellin. It is not even about the titular Weirdstone at all. They are merely bit players in the story of The Edge. How do we know this? Quite simply, the characters are secondary to the locations. Garner himself, on numerous occasions, has noted that Colin and Susan are little more than ciphers. They have enough character to facilitate the action but lack any real depth.
Throughout the trilogy, The Edge reveals itself to be the subject of the books. The lack of depth in the human, Elvish or Dwarven characters is irrelevant as they are not the focus of the story; they are phantoms that haunt The Edge – fleeting memories recalled by a Triassic giant. A hauntological repetition.
The dreams of ore and ether.
In Boneland, Colin’s fate is revealed. With the disappearance of Cadellin, whose presence in this book is little more than thunderclaps and anger, he has taken over custodianship of The Edge. He becomes its conscience, it’s avatar. He remembers nothing of the adventures he had with his sister, just that she was lost. He is a brilliant, if erratic, astrophysicist that works in Jodrell Bank, visible from the village and, not surprisingly, has a special interest in The Pleiades. He, like the radio-telescopes he works with, is constantly searching. He may also be seen as an avatar for science. There is an adage that states a Shaman is ‘one who walks between two worlds’ and Colin’s fate is to walk between the worlds of wild magic and cool, calm science, perhaps even to reconcile them.
Just as in Garner’s novel Red Shift, which sees a relic lost and found through time by the narrators of the intertwining stories, so Colin discovers a stone-age axe that links him to a Shaman, a previous avatar of The Edge from a time long before Cadellin; from the age of the wild magic that has taken his sister. The Edge is revealing its history to Colin, showing him his place within its story; suggesting that Cadellin and the High Magic he performs has no place where wild things are hidden. It is a double-edged sword that gives him purpose but also reveals that his presence on The Edge is fleeting and that the story he is currently engaged in has played out countless times before. It is a reminder of his inevitable mortality.
But there is uncertainty in the inevitable and as this incarnation of the story unfolds, previously friendly characters spit their rage at him, and previously villainous characters coax him out of his mania to live a more fulfilling life. The Edge has repositioned and rewritten the characters to ensure its avatar is capable of the job entrusted to him. It also suggests that The Morrigan, Grimnir and the Morthbrood were really the heroes of the previous books, trying to dismantle the bounds that caged and commodified the wild magic.
My time at Alderley Edge, both the village and the outcrop, amounts to a little less than four days. That includes time spent in the hotel, not sleeping, as the source of the Old Evil in the Moon of Gomrath was imprisoned in a capped well that I could see from my hotel room. I thought it might be fun to stay at the hotel named in the book – The De Trafford Arms – but that innocent looking drainage cover rattled me. I could almost feel the black, smoke-like appearance of the Brollachan with its flaming red eyes staring at me through time, page and access cover.
The time spent in my imagined Alderley Edge runs into years – not just reading time, but the daydreams, the night terrors and the wishing. I feel more comfortable in my Alderley knowing that the indifference of the Edge is tempered by human softness… and having an ‘off-switch’ for when being ‘relentlessly pursued by outlandish creatures’ becomes too much of a burden.
Despite being static and largely unchanged, except of course for the tragic erosion of the Wizhard carving and its – in the light of Boneland – arrogant invitation, it bristles with life and change. It will outlive its current bound indignity and laughing, will tell stories to its future avatars of the time ‘men-folk’ tried to constrain it.
A monument to life death and magic, Alderley Edge is a remarkable entity that I feel both married to and divorced from.
It is a place that haunts me.
A place that haunts itself.