Ginger Nuts of Horror
I remember my father reading the Weirdstone to me as a child. I didn’t read it myself until recently – I think I was afraid to, even, to spoil the memory of hearing it read. But scenes from it, the language, the sense of the world it creates…. these things stayed with me from childhood. Shaped my own writing, the way I’m trying to capture not just people and actions but the pyscho-geography of a world. There’s a section in the Weirdstone where the children are crawling through the mine tunnels beneath Alderley Edge, attempting to escape the Morrigan. The memory of that scene still makes me shiver. Claustrophobia. The terrible fear of darkness, of being crushed. The blending of the real world horror of these old mine workings where men have sweated and risked their lives with the folklore horror of what might be living down here in the dark beneath the ground.
The Weirdstone is a classic good versus evil fantasy, whereby two children hold it in their hands to save the world from the powers of dark. Its world is an eclectic mixture of Norse, Saxon and Celtic tradition, replete with wizards, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls (female trolls, please note), prophecies. The language is the strange, entangled, poetic language of dark age literature, of Beowulf, the Mabinogion, the Gododdin, the Eddas. The enemy is ‘the Great Spirit of Darkness’. The warrior hero’s sword, gloriously, is called Widowmaker. There are some truly awesome fight scenes.
Yet these tropes exist within a vivid depiction of the Cheshire countryside and of rural mid-twentieth century working-class life. Garner is, indeed, pre-eminently a writer of the landscape. The places in the Weirdstone are real places. The mishmash of Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic elements, Victorian romantic invention, ill-defined local ghost stories, is the real way in which folk tradition works. This isn’t the clean, courtly, well-defined world of High Fantasy. This is the numinous, dirty, ambiguous world of folk belief. There’s a haunting passage where the children are fleeing across a wintery landscape where scarecrows, ramblers, crows all seem to be spies pursuing them, even the trees seem a threat. The danger is there present in the landscape itself, is uncanny yet mundanely real. Who hasn’t felt like that, walking a country road alone at dusk? Garner loved the landscape of Cheshire, knew its legends, its history, the deep-rooted relationship between people and place, and the Weirdstone is saturated with this. Good wins in the end – this is a children’s story, after all. But one is left with a lingering sense of unease. Things are not ‘explained’ or even really resolved. We have witnesses one brief moment in a longer story of the old powers of the earth, that exist just beneath the veneer of the human world.
The Weirdstone is also a powerfully gendered book. Our hero is female, the girl Susan who guards the weirdstone itself. The weirdstone was stolen by a man; women, by contrast, protect it, keep it safe. The central force of good, the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow, is male; he guards the sleeping knights who are England’s last defence against the dark. Opposing Cadellin is the Morrigan, the war goddess of Irish mythology, Morgause/Morganna King Arthur’s nemesis, here, fascinatingly, portrayed not as the seductive enchantress but as the scald crow, the hag, the woman whom men fear because she is not sexually desirably, because she cannot be sexually objectified by men. The Morrigan is the villain of the book - yet in my memory she is something other, an image of disruptive, ‘dirty’, uncontrolled female power in opposition to the clean, ordered, quasi-fascist masculine world of knights and kings. I found myself half on her side, listening to the story as a girl, and I still find myself half on her side now.
The Weirdstone can only considered ‘dated’. Its Cheshire dialect must be almost unintelligible to the Manchester wealthy who now live on Alderley Edge. The rural world it evokes is gone from most children’s experience – was gone, indeed, before I was a child. Alan Garner himself has described it as ‘a bad book’. But I will never forget hearing it read to me. It helped to shape my love of folklore, of the British landscape, and of epic fantasy.
Anna Smith-Spark’s novel The Court of Broken Knives will be published by HarperVoyager in June 2017. It is the first volume in the major new epic fantasy series Empires of Dust.
Anna Smith-Spark lives in London, UK. She loves grimdark and epic fantasy and historical military fiction. Anna has a BA in Classics, an MA in history and a PhD in English Literature. She has previously been published in the Fortean Times and the poetry website www.greatworks.org. Previous jobs include petty bureaucrat, English teacher and fetish model.
Anna’s favourite authors and key influences are R. Scott Bakker, Steve Erikson, M. John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault. She spent several years as an obsessive D&D player. She can often be spotted at sff conventions wearing very unusual shoes.
Find out more about Anna at her website "Court of Broken Knives", on Twitter and on Facebook
The Court of Broken KnivesWe live. We die. For these things, we are grateful.
The Court of Broken Knives is the first book in the major new grimdark epic fantasy series Empires of Dust. It will be published by Harper Voyager in June 2017, available in the UK and worldwide in hardback and e-book format.
The Court of Broken Knives has already been compared to the works of R. Scott Bakker, Ursula Le Guin and Mary Renault. It has been described as ‘lyrical’, ‘powerful’, ‘gripping’ and ‘particularly bloodthirsty’ by early reviewers. Pre-order a copy here