Between Two Worlds
Alan Garner’s Elidor
‘Wasteland and boundaries: places that are neither one thing nor the other, neither here nor there – these are the gates of Elidor.’
Elidor (1965), Alan Garner’s third children’s book, marks an important transition point in his career – from the straight forward storytelling of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and Moon of Gomrath (1963) to The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973) – multi-layered explorations of the interaction between history and mythology and the impact this might have on human lives and relationships.
Elidor reads, in many respects, like a transition piece. The two halves of the book do not quite match, and the characterisation remains sketchy and incomplete in places. But these criticisms seem almost not to matter, such is the imaginative vitality and bardic intensity with which Garner, in flashes, conveys his vision.
Hovering between worlds, the writing prowls the border country of adolescence – the open universe of the child in equivocal, restless contest with the fixed mindset of the ‘grown up’. The setting is Manchester, a city pinned between past glory and post-industrial insecurity, the story unfolding in a beaten down milieu of slum clearance and harsh mechanical Machtpolitik:
At the bottom of the row the children stopped …
Alone and in the middle of the wasteland stood a church …
And beside it a mechanical excavator and a lorry.
“I can’t see anybody”, said Roland.
Nicholas, Helen, David and Roland steal into the church, stumbling into a parallel world – Elidor – scarred with similar tokens of sterility and decline:
“The darkness grew”, said Malebron. “… We had so much of ease that we did not mark the signs … Then it was too late – war, and siege, and betrayal, and the dying of the light.”
The children are given four Treasures to take home and guard from Elidor’s enemies – a spear, a sword, a jewelled cauldron and a royal stone. Once in Manchester however, the Treasures lose their numinous sheen, transmuted into a rusty iron railing, a wooden lath, a cracked cup and an ordinary 1960s keystone. For post-Cottonopolis Manchester, the ‘greatest’, in Macbeth’s pithy phrase, is most certainly ‘behind’.
Or is it? There are no answers in Elidor, only questions – in-between places – ‘wasteland and boundaries’. With a city in flux, a maimed king wrestling in the dark, and four teenagers at the borderline of innocence and sexual awakening, Elidor is a striking, sometimes startling, modern myth. Freighted with archetypal energy, the story blends the everyday with the ineffable, pointing beyond to new, suggestive (though always ambiguous) levels of meaning and creative possibility:
Roland snatched the cup from Helen and threw both it and the railing at the windows. Nicholas and David threw their Treasures. They struck together … and for an instant the glories of stone, sword, spear and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light..
The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.