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Alan Garner, books and me: growing up in other worlds

I never could have imagined how opening books as a child would have an effect on the rest of my life. Long before I heard of Tolkien’s Hobbit, I went hand in hand with Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan to Alderley Edge in the pages of The Weirdstone of Brisinghamen.

I would have been about seven when I first read that book. I was a solitary child, so Colin and Susan became my first imaginary friends. I couldn’t have known then that I was accessing retold folklore and how this would affect my own journey.

The Weirdstone of Brisinghamen, like so many other children’s fantasy stories and books, is a quest narrative. In this case, Susan and Colin carry a tear shaped gem to safety. Inspired by an ancient story local to Alderley Edge, The Wizard of the Edge, they are helped by the Wizard Cadellin to overcome many obstacles.

I devoured Garner’s books and begged my parents to take me to Alderley Edge, where I was sure that I would find Cadellin and the Owls. I never went there as a child, but as an adult I visited and re-imagined the Weirdstone story locations. When, in 2012, Garner released the final book in the triolgy, Boneland, I was delighted and reviewed it here. It closed an episode for me, and helped me to understand how these stories had influence my interests in life.

Between my first reading of the Weirdstone and reading Boneland I read Lewis and Tolkien, Pratchett and Gaiman, Atwood and Thomas. In the background of my reading were ancient tales, picked up and rehashed in modern terms, telling me about good and evil, morals and ethics.

In particular, the Weirdstone talked to me about wizards, witches, dwarves and elves and normalised these for me. Impossible, according to reason, my parents and my Sunday school teacher, but, at the edges of my imagination, where reality frays into fiction, the truths were already blurred, making me question the overarching narratives of my early teenage years.

I know now that this opened my eyes to the world and helped me to have a wider viewpoint. Garner’s stories helped me to imagine and to develop what would later become an understanding of stories and what they do by telling and retelling over the centuries. To grow up in other worlds, which made this world more interesting. To understand the past and how other people had imagined it.

My adult imagination connected Garner’s imaginings, with local folklore at its root, with the legend of King Arthur, and Merlin as the Wizard of the Edge, as many have in the past.

I’ve never met Alan Garner, but every time I pass The Merlin pub on my way to Chelford I remember the Weirdstone and Susan’s bracelet and how a little girl sat on her bedroom window sill in Oldham and imagined the world.