by Alan Garner, published 1960. 268 pages.
Alan Garner's exciting--and somewhat dark--tale of a magical threat to the world blends magical and real worlds in a manner reminiscent of Narnia. However, unlike Lewis's books, where the characters travel distinctly between the worlds, in Garner's novel the worlds interact continually and the boundaries are indistinct.
Set in Cheshire (England), The Weirdstone of Brisingamen tells of Colin and Susan, brother and sister, who stumble into the magical world that exists under and around the everyday world they know. Susan wears a curious stone on a bracelet inherited from her mother, and the local corps of witches, wizards and evil beings recognize it as a magical artifact essential to a plan to protect the world from the forces evil (them). They are as determined to get it as the far weaker forces of good are to protect it, and the children, and their powers are twisted and terrifying. Garner paints them vividly enough to frighten those prone to nightmares.
Through the early chapters, the children stumble in and out of mysteries and dangers with no understanding of what they have (the stone) or what is at stake. Gradually, they learn the truth, and the action shifts more and more to the magical world, where they are repeatedly attacked and pursued by the evil beings. Or rather, the magical beings more and more take over what we thought was the everyday, magicless world. By the second section of the book, the children have gained a pretty good idea what is at stake, and set out to put things right. They have courage enough, but still lack understanding and the skills they need to survive the adventure. At the point when all seems lost, they pick up a couple of dwarfish protectors and magic has firmly taken over Cheshire.
In an unusual move for juvenile fiction of this nature, Gowther, the older farmer who is the children's guardian, not only comes to a quick understanding of the issues and acceptance of the magic world, but accompanies the children and the dwarves on their wildly exciting escape. Gowther proves invaluable to the escape and a stalwart fighter in the battles they have along the way. Garner manages to do something I think is very difficult in this kind of story, which is to allow children to be autonomous agents who face situations with courage, and also to allow them to interact somewhat realistically with adults. It seems like in most such stories, the adults in the lives of the child heroes are an obstruction at best. Here, while the adults wish to protect Colin and Susan, they also recognize that they have an important role to play, and allow them to take the necessary risks to play it (I only regret that Bess, the mother-figure, is packed off and not part of the party). You might say that is the lesson of the book for all us parents who read it: trust the kids but be prepared to fight alongside them when necessary.
Garner does not do anywhere near the world-building that, for example, Tolkien does. He doesn't need to. His story takes place in our world--and yet not. As a result we feel very much as Colin and Susan must--disturbed by a growing sense of danger, and frightened by vague or unimaginable threats and a growing sense that things are not what we have always assumed them to be. We also learn as they do, in bits and pieces, of the world that exists in and around them, and which they might have gone through their lives never knowing existed (as most of their neighbors do, apart from the ones who are in fact evil witches and warlocks). I kept expecting them to make that one, definitive "through the wardrobe" move that would take them out of our world until the adventure ended. The fact that, instead, the other world invades ours, is part of what makes the stakes so high and kept me from putting the book down.
Now, I have to admit that despite leaping fairly quickly into adventures and great dangers, the story did not initially grab me. Looking back at the opening chapters, I frankly can't see what my problem was (perhaps that it faced too much competition from the half dozen other books I was reading?). Certainly by the time I reached the midpoint, the book had acquired "don't put me down" status, and I read the last hundred and a quarter pages more or less in one sitting (leaving all the other books to sit around whining that it was their turn).
The writing is smooth, editing is professional (as one would expect), and the book does not read particularly as a "children's book," even while it is clearly accessible to at least the more advanced middle grade readers. A pair of maps at the beginning help set the scene and make a good reference as our heroes were being chased about the countryside. Looked at in one way, it could be said that Brisingamen is stereotypical (though I would argue that there are elements that I have seldom seen elsewhere), but it is well to remember that in 1960 there was very little yet written in the fantasy genre, and Alan Garner was one of the writers who developed the genre. More than 50 years and thousands of fantasies later, the story continues to pull us in and carry us ever-faster to the all-too-sudden ending. That seems worth 5 stars.
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