September 06, 2005

Elidor, by Alan Garner

Recently someone asked me whether I'd read any Alan Garner. I had, of course, but not in over twenty years.

I first encountered Garner's fantasy novels when I was in college, and had an odd reaction to them--or, rather, to three of them; one, Red Shift, I simply didn't like. But the other three I read and enjoyed; and yet, although I've kept them all these years I'd never been moved to re-read them. That's extremely odd; I can't imagine that there are many books I've had for so long without re-reading them at least once.

Anyway, now, as then, I decided to start with Elidor. Going in my memories of the book were exceedingly faint, consisting mostly of two impressions: that I'd liked it very much, and (somewhat paradoxically) that there wasn't much to it. And now that I've read it again, I can see why I retained those impressions.

What the book is, is a somewhat contrarian take on an old chestnut: the story in which children from our world are magically transported to another which desperately needs their help. The children usually adapt quite marvelously to their new surroundings, and (except for Eustace Clarence Scrubb) have little difficulty understanding the folks they meet. Culture clash simply isn't an issue, and the strangeness is embraced with joy. Garner's tale is grittier, and quite likely more realistic.

The story takes begins in London, at a time some short while after World War II when entire neighborhoods laid desolate by German bombing are still standing. Four children, Nicholas, David, Helen, and Roland, are exploring the ruins when they are drawn into another world. There they meet a strange figure named Malebron; they speak his language, somehow, but they don't really understand him or his world--how could they, after all? He persuades them to rescue three treasures from an ancient evil vault, and return with them to England for safe-keeping. It's an interesting answer to the question, "Why should children from another world be needed so desperately?" Precisely because they are from another world, and can return there.

That's about all I remembered of the plot from the first time I read it, and there's little enough to it. The remainder of book takes place in England, and it's a doozy, almost more of a horror novel than a fantasy. There are strange goings-on and peculiar manifestations, and although good triumphs in the end, due in no small way to the children's actions, there's much that remains strange, fantastic, and unclear. The result is both compelling and oddly unsatisfying. We haven't seen the whole story, and we know it; we've been on the edge of things, and will never see or understand the center.

As I say, it's a contrarian approach to a classic plot, and probably the way things would actually be if a story like this could actually be true. I'm not surprised that other authors haven't followed Garner's line, here, though.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 6, 2005 06:49 PM