I had my first dealings with Alan Garner as a child when my second year junior school teacher Mrs Stanley read us The Weird Stone of Brisingamen, a dark tale of intrigue that seemed rooted in the northern landscape and the history of the world immediately around us. His latest book, Collected Folk Tales, brings together many stories originally published in The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins in 1969 with a good few that have never seen the light of day before.
The first interesting thing to strike you about the collection is how, as with Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda, you can’t see the join between the older stories and the newer stories. In his introduction, Garner tells us that these are stories that were once available to everyone that these days seem to have become ‘tracts to support authority, with moral lessons inserted’ rescued by academic folklorists keen to preserve in amber these ‘remote and unattractive’ tales. What Garner has sought to do is to let the wilder elements of the stories run free again.
And boy, do they run free! These are stories that range geographically across the world, taking in Vikings and samurais and fairies and hobgoblins and Norse gods and ancient myths like a wondrously devilish pick and mix. More often than not, the tales refute our modern sensibility’s desire for a beginning, a middle and an end, reminding me at times of the tales children tell (in which random elements can come from left field at the last moment to upset everything that came before).
The only thing I would say is that you should probably not read the book as I did, as you would read a normal book, one page after another. This is a book that warrants savouring. If you read story after story after story, as I did, you can come to feel an excess of wonder, a glut of out of this world-ness that has you hankering after some run-of-the-mill sameness just to keep your brain in check. But this is a small point. Stories like the marvellously titled ‘Shick-Shack’, ‘Gobbleknoll’ (with its tale of a hill that ate people), ‘Vukub-Cakix’ and ‘Glooskap’ rub shoulders with tales that, like The Weird Stone of Brisingamen all those years ago, take you back to a world that is strange but familiar, a world of barguests and wild worms, stoorwurms and flying childers. This is a book you want to parcel out. Just be careful that, when you try to leave, you still can…
Any Cop?: A treasure trove that, as Philip Pullman remarks on the cover, ought to be bound in gold.