Across the fields from the medieval manor house of Toad Hall, and the accompanying 16th-century timber-frame apothecary’s house which Alan Garner dismantled and moved 17 miles to join it in Blackden in rural Cheshire, sits Jodrell Bank Observatory. Here huge telescopes scour the cosmos, seeking radio waves from distant planets and stars.
This juxtaposition between past, present and future, all existing in harmonious symbiosis on land that Garner’s family have lived on for 400 years, seems the perfect metaphor for the creative output of this most singular of English writers.
Garner is a visionary who since 1960 has merged history and place-writing with sci-fi, fantasy, regional dialect and memoir to create work that sits more closely alongside Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than any current contemporaries. There are few living writers who evoke quite the level of devotion across generations of children and adults alike, while somehow happily remaining under the mainstream radar. A 2016 anthology of writings in his honour drew contributions from Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams. Yet, publicly at least, Garner is largely unrecognisable.
Other such contradictions define a career built on admirable creative integrity-cum-stubbornness, whether in perception-altering children’s works such as The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973) or time-straddling adult novels including The Stone Book Quartet (1976-1978), Strandloper (1996) and Thursbitch (2003). Garner is northern, but speaks with a crisp English accent and lives in that part of the north that bleeds into the Midlands, where wealthy Manchester footballers now live. He comes from a long line of skilled labourers, such as stonemasons, yet is an Oxbridge-educated middle-class man of letters. Not for him the safe wage of academia; instead his life’s work exists on a different timescale, his words hewn from rock, lifted from the loam and divined from the Cheshire landscape.