In his study of Alan Garner, A Fine Anger, Neil Philip makes the point that Elidor might be seen as a book of two parts that “do not entirely marry”. The reason for this is that the book begins with the discovery of the parallel world of Elidor but then does not return to explore this world later on. Instead, we are left with an uncomfortable sense that Elidor is not the ideal world that it initially appeared to be; that it is simply different, rather than superior to mundane reality. What makes Elidor such a fascinating book is not so much the other world aspect of Elidor itself, but rather the way in which this appearance of a different reality intrudes into our own world. It is the response of the child protagonists to the discovery of Elidor that is of most interest; how they make sense of this other dimension and how they attempt to integrate the experience of visiting Elidor (and also the experience of Elidor visiting them) into their everyday lives.
An important aspect to the nature of the ingress and egress of visitors to and from Elidor is its setting in various liminal places. Initially, the children gain access to Elidor in an abandoned church. Churches can often indicate a much more ancient sacred site and act as liminal spaces accordingly. To the extent that this plays out in Elidor, the church fulfils the function of the dark tower as pointed to in the book’s epigraph: “Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came.“ But it is the church’s location in an area of slum clearance that really creates the eerie atmosphere of the early part of the book. In fact, what Garner does in Elidor is to relocate the idea of liminal space from more conventional ideas drawn from traditional folklore to more mundane, urban settings, places that can best be thought about with reference to the concept of edgelands.
The term ‘edgelands’ was coined by the environmentalist writer Marion Shoard to denote spaces that sit in an uncomfortable threshold position, difficult to classify as either urban or rural.
“Between urban and rural stands a kind of landscape quite different from either. Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. This peculiar landscape is only the latest version of an interfacial rim that has always separated settlements from the countryside to a greater or lesser extent. In our own age, however, this zone has expanded vastly in area, complexity and singularity. Huge numbers of people now spend much of their time living, working or moving within or through it. Yet for most of us, most of the time, this mysterious no man’s land passes unnoticed: in our imaginations, as opposed to our actual lives, it barely exists.”
This essay will explore the idea that, with Elidor, Garner has begun to reimagine edgeland spaces as liminal locations, and that with this reimagining we have the beginnings of a peculiarly modern folklore.
As just stated, it is the slum clearance setting for the early part of the book that gives it an eerie edge. But even prior to that, before the children find the clearance area, Garner still pays attention to an edgelands geography. When the children make their way to Thursday Street they veer off the main drag and walk through some classic edgeland space: “The children had never been in the streets behind the shops. The change was abrupt. . . They were in an alley that ran between loading bays and store-houses lit by unshaded bulbs: the kerb was low and had a metal edge, and there was the smell of boxwood and rotten fruit. Fans pumped hot, stale air into the children’s faces through vents that were hung with feathers of dirt.” Here, the purely functional transactions of capitalism take place, behind the commercial facades of the shop fronts. The ‘unshaded’ bulbs are a telling sign of the unadorned infrastructures upon which commerce is built. The rotten fruit and stale air are the excreta of capital, expelled from the back sides of the shops. Garner is using the repressed, unmapped nature of this space to create a notion of a movement away from the planned, civic space of a town centre. It is also a movement away from consensus reality to a liminal state.
The discovery of the slum clearance area is inherently spooky. The primary sensation conveyed is one of distance from other people. Streets of empty, condemned houses posit the simultaneous presence and absence of the human. Everything is built for human habitation but there is nobody to live there. It fulfils one of Mark Fisher’s definitions of the eerie: “Why is there nothing here when there should be something?” But in the early part of the book the slum wasteland is not the main focus; it is the space wherein egress to Elidor may be achieved. A very potent description of the genuinely eerie aspect of the slum clearances can be found in the extraordinary four-and-a-half-page opening paragraph of Morrissey’s autobiography:
“Past places of dread, we walk in the center of the road, looking up at the torn wallpapers of browny blacks and purples as the mournful remains of derelict shoulder-to-shoulder houses, their safety now replaced by trepidation. Local kids ransack empty houses, and small and wide-eyed, I join them, balancing across exposed beams and racing into wet black cellars; underground cavities where murder and sex and self-destruction seep from cracks of local stone and shifting brickwork where aborted babies found deathly peace instead of unforgiving life. Half-felled by the local council, houses are then left slowly crumbling and become croft waste ground for children to find new excitements with no lights for miles.”
At one level, this space is a no-man’s land but at another level it is a place of specific, though contested, ownership. One of the chapters of Elidor is called, ‘Corporation Property’ and, although in the context of the story this refers to the misunderstanding of the demolition team thinking that the treasures from Elidor are objects that the children have taken from the church, it also has a wider applicability. There is a widespread feeling that the slum clearances were a major work of social engineering, breaking up working class communities that had formed in towns during the industrial revolution. The question of ownership is important because the slums were compulsorily purchased by local councils and the residents were effectively forced out. The way in which this was done could be quite dehumanising. One resident of the Oldham Road slums who was moved out as a child describes the process: “When you moved out of them slum areas they used to take all your furniture and your clothing and everything to be fumigated at Monsall Hospital before you could take anything into a council house, because everything you had was buggy. Then they used to fumigate the houses before they knocked them down.” When seen from this point of view, the question of the local council (i.e. the corporation) appropriating property has a directly political connotation as it touches on the question of the extent of state power over the individual.
Soon after discovering Elidor the children are involved in a house move of their own. And here we can see the way in which Elidor differs from Garner’s first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those first two books there is a similar sense of liminal spaces which give access to another world, most obviously the gate that gives entrance to the inside of Alderley Edge where the children find Cadellin, but also the old straight track in The Moon of Gomrath. But in those books the entire landscape is a pastoral one and this setting lends the books a somewhat conventional air. And, of course, in common with The Lord of the Rings each book is prefaced with a map of the idyllic territory to be traversed by the young protagonists. In Elidor, by contrast, there is a subtle but persistent awareness of the loss of the pastoral. The house the Watson’s move to is out in the suburbs: “Mrs Watson spoke of it as a country cottage, which it may have been a hundred years earlier, but now it stood in a suburban road, and its front door, with the porch, opened on to the footpath.” And again: “The cottage was convenient for the station, so that Mr Watson could travel to work in Manchester, yet being in an outer suburb there were fields half a mile away.”
It is here, out in the suburbs, where the denizens of Elidor are able to establish a fix on the treasures that enables them to break through. Almost comically, the treasures are buried beneath Mr Watson’s rose bush and it is this location that becomes the site of intersection between the worlds. At one level, Garner is carrying out a rather heavy-handed satire of suburban bourgeoisification (“’That’s what you must expect when you have overspill in a decent area,’ said Mrs Watson. ‘They shouldn’t be allowed to build out in the country. People aren’t going to change when they move from the city. And goodness knows what it will do to property values.’”) But at another level he is demonstrating that when urban sprawl encroaches into rural areas, the liminal places that act as a threshold between two worlds retain their numinous power. It is just that they are overlaid with an increasingly urban, built environment. And within such an environment it is the edgelands areas that provide the most suitable setting for these liminal places.
In The Unofficial Countryside, a superb example of edgelands nature writing, Richard Mabey makes the point that our expectations of what nature should be tend to demarcate too cleanly between the urban and the rural. Mabey is keen for us to be able to appreciate the rus in urbe and to see the environmental niches that many urban locations provide for plants and creatures:
“Think of the sites inside an urban area which can provide this opportunity: the water inside abandoned docks and in artificially created reservoirs; canal towpaths, and the dry banks of railway cuttings; allotments, parks, golf courses and gardens; the old trees in churchyards and the scrubby hawthorns at the back end of industrial estates; bomb-sites in old parts of the town and building sites in the new; the sludge of sewage farms and the more elegant mud of watercress beds. Every patch where the concrete has not actually sealed up the earth is potential home for some living thing.”
This potential for nature to persist within an urban setting should be allied with an expectation for the numinous (or, if you prefer, the imaginative) aspect of nature to also persist. When looked at from this perspective, the appearance of a liminal space in the Watson’s pleasant and tidy garden should not be so jarring. The garden itself is an edgelands place and it only requires a subtle shift in thinking to see it as such. The edgelands concept allows us to begin a process of re-enchantment and to reclaim the lost pastoral.
When the unicorn, Findhorn, first appears in the book the location is signalled as a liminal place (Boundary Lane) but it is also an edgelands space: “The road ended near a stile that led into a cinder path by the allotments. . . It ran through a no-man’s-land between two built-up areas and came out on the road where the Watson’s lived. At one point it crossed a stream over a bridge of railway sleepers.” Again, the mundane setting creates a sense of incongruity or, to put it better, a difficult balance between incongruity and aptness. It is a balance that comes naturally to the edgelands but is not easily resolved into a comfortable or settled sense of place. The keynote is ambivalence, and this goes some way towards explaining Garner’s use of these settings.
At one level Elidor is concerned with the inadequacy of Platonic Ideals as a metaphysical system; with the notion that this other world is not actually ideal at all, merely different. Hence the devastating final sentences, “The song faded. The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.” But with this loss of an ideal world, Garner has simultaneously relocated the sense of the liminal from a pastoral setting to an edgelands setting. Elidor is an interesting attempt to account for the absent pastoral by reimagining the liminal in the context of a growing urban environment. The feeling that many readers get from Elidor, that Garner is, “creating a new world and then abandoning it,” is directly related to his attempt to relocate the liminal in an edgelands setting. Garner seems to have realised that the most interesting thing about Elidor was not the fantasy otherworld itself, but the points of ingress and egress to and from it. With this realisation he is then able to go on in later works to explore the liminal power in the land as a force in itself, rather than as a technique for enabling the creation of a fantasy world. True, with the exception of Red Shift, Garner would not go on to explore the edgelands in his later works. But the edgelands remain an urgently necessary zone of numinous communion with the spirit of place, a dispersed and disorganised locale wherein the absent pastoral can be reclaimed in a suitably contemporary fashion.
- Philip, N. (1981). A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner. London: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.
- Shoard, Marion (2002). “Edgelands”. In Jenkins, Jennifer. Remaking the Landscape. London: Profile Books.
- Garner, A. (1965). Elidor. London: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.
- Fisher, M. (2017). The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books.
- Morrissey. (2013). Autobiography. London: Penguin Classics.
- Kath Dunne quoted in Hall, D. (2012). Working Lives: The Forgotten Voices of Britain’s Post-War Working Class. London: Bantam Press.
- Garner, op cit.
- Mabey, R. (1973). The Unofficial Countryside. London: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.
- Garner, op cit.
- Philip, op cit.