Alan Garner, OBE

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Alan Garner, OBE

Current Location:: Blackden, Cheshire East, England, United Kingdom
Birthplace: Congleton, Cheshire East, England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Son of Colin Garner and Marjorie Garner
Husband of Private and Private
Father of Private; Private; Private; Private and Private

Occupation: Writer, Folklorist
Managed by: Terry Jackson (Switzer)
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

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About Alan Garner, OBE

Alan Garner OBE

from Wikipedia

Alan Garner OBE (born 17 October 1934) is an English novelist best known for his children's fantasy novels and his retellings of traditional British folk tales. His work is firmly rooted in the landscape, history and folklore of his native county of Cheshire, North West England, being set in the region and making use of the native Cheshire dialect. Born in Congleton, Garner grew up around the nearby town of Alderley Edge, and spent much of his youth in the wooded area known locally as 'The Edge', where he gained an early interest in the folklore of the region. Studying at Manchester Grammar School and then briefly at Oxford University, in 1957 he moved to the nearby village of Blackden, where he bought and renovated an Early Modern building known as Toad Hall. His first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, was published in 1960. A children's fantasy novel set on the Edge, it incorporated elements of local folklore in its plot and characters. Garner completed a sequel, The Moon of Gomrath (1963), but left the third book of the trilogy he had envisioned. Instead he produced a string of further fantasy novels, Elidor (1965), The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973). Turning away from fantasy as a genre, Garner produced The Stone Book Quartet (1979), a series of four short novellas detailing a day in the life of four generations of his family. He also published a series of British folk tales which he had rewritten in a series of books entitled Alan Garner's Fairy Tales of Gold (1979), Alan Garner's Book of British Fairy Tales (1984) and A Bag of Moonshine (1986). In his subsequent novels, Strandloper (1996) and Thursbitch (2003), he continued writing tales revolving around Cheshire, although without the fantasy elements which had characterised his earlier work. In 2012, he finally published a third book in the Weirdstone trilogy, Boneland.


Early life: 1934–56

"I had to get aback [to familial ways of doing things], by using skills that had been denied to my ancestors; but I had nothing that they would have called worthwhile. My ability was in language and languages. I had to use that, somehow. And writing was a manual craft. But what did I know that I could write about? I knew the land."

Garner was born in the front room of his grandmother's house in Congleton, Cheshire, on 17 October 1934.[2] He grew up nearby, in Alderley Edge, a well-to-do village that had effectively become a suburb of Manchester.[2] His "rural working-class family",[3] had been connected to Alderley Edge since at least the sixteenth century, and could be traced back to the death of William Garner in 1592.[4] Garner claims that his family had passed on "a genuine oral tradition" involving folk tales about The Edge, which included a description of a king and his army of knights who slept under it, guarded by a wizard.[3] In the mid-nineteenth century Alan's great-great grandfather Robert had carved the face of a bearded wizard onto the face of a cliff next to a well, known locally at that time as the Wizard's Well.[5] Robert Garner and his other relatives had all been craftsmen, and, according to Garner, each successive generation had tried to "improve on, or do something different from, the previous generation".[6] Garner's grandfather, Joseph Garner, "could read, but didn't and so was virtually unlettered". Instead he taught his grandson the folk tales he knew about The Edge.[3] Garner later remarked that as a result he was "aware of [the Edge's] magic" as a child, and he and his friends often played there.[7] The story of the king and the wizard living under the hill played an important part in his life, becoming, he explained, "deeply embedded in my psyche" and heavily influencing his later novels.[3] Garner faced several life-threatening childhood illnesses, which left him bed ridden for much of the time.[8] He went to a local village school, where he found that, despite being praised for his intelligence, he was punished for speaking in his native Cheshire dialect;[2] for instance, when he was six his primary school teacher washed his mouth out with soapy water.[9] Garner then won a place at Manchester Grammar School, where he received his secondary education; entry was means-tested, resulting in his school fees being waived.[8] Rather than focusing his interest on creative writing, it was here that he excelled at sprinting.[10] He was then conscripted into national service, serving for a time with the Royal Artillery while posted to Woolwich in Southeast London.[11] At school, he Garner had developed a keen interest in the work of Aeschylus and Homer, as well as the Ancient Greek language.[9] Thus, he decided to pursue the study of Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, passing his entrance exams in January 1953; at the time he had thoughts of becoming a professional academic.[9] He was the first member of his family to receive anything more than a basic education, and he noted that this removed him from his "cultural background" and led to something of a schism with other members of his family, who "could not cope with me, and I could not cope with" them.[3] Looking back, he remarked, "I soon learned that it was not a good idea to come home excited over regular verbs".[9] In 1955, he joined the university theatrical society, playing the role of Mark Antony in a performance of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra where he co-starred alongside Dudley Moore and where Kenneth Baker was the stage manager.[9] In August 1956, he decided that he wished to devote himself to novel writing, and decided to abandon his university education without taking a degree; he left Oxford in late 1956.[11] He nevertheless felt that the academic rigour which he learned during his university studies has remained "a permanent strength through all my life".[9]

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath: 1957–64

Aged 22, Garner was out cycling when he came across a hand-painted sign announcing that an agricultural cottage in Toad Hall – a Late Medieval building situated in Blackden, seven miles from Alderley Edge – was on sale for £510. Although he personally could not afford it, he was lent the money by the local Oddfellow lodge, enabling him to purchase and move in to the cottage in June 1957.[12] In the late nineteenth century the Hall had been divided into two agricultural labourers' cottages, but Garner was able to purchase the second for £150 about a year later; he proceeded to knock down the dividing walls and convert both halves back into a single home.[12]

In 1957, Garner purchased and began renovating Toad Hall at Blackden, Cheshire Garner had begun writing his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley, in September 1956.[10] However it was while at Toad Hall that he finished the book. Set in Alderley Edge, it revolved around two children, Susan and Colin, who are sent to live in the area with their mother's old nurse maid, Bess, and her husband, Gowther Mossock. Setting about to explore the Edge, they discover a race of malevolent creatures, the svart alfar, who dwell in the Edge's abandoned mines and who seem intent on capturing them, until they are rescued by the wizard Cadellin who reveals that the forces of darkness are amassing at the Edge in search of the titular "weirdstone of Brisingamen".[13] Whilst engaged in writing in his spare time, Garner attempted to gain employment as a teacher, but soon gave that up, believing that "I couldn't write and teach; the energies were too similar", and so began working as a general labourer for four years, remaining unemployed for much of that time.[3] Garner sent his debut novel to the publishing company Collins, where it was picked up by the company's head, Sir William Collins, who was on the look out for new fantasy novels following on from the recent commercial and critical success of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954–55).[14] Garner, who went on to become a personal friend of Collins, would later relate that "Billy Collins saw a title with funny-looking words in it on the stockpile, and he decided to publish it."[14] On its release in 1960, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen proved to be a critical and commercial success,[15] later being described as "a tour de force of the imagination, a novel that showed almost every writer who came afterwards what it was possible to achieve in novels ostensibly published for children."[16] Garner himself however would later denounce this novel as "a fairly bad book" in 1968.[17] With his first book published, Garner abandoned his work as a labourer and gained a job as a freelance television reporter, living a "hand to mouth" lifestyle on a "shoestring" budget.[3] He also worked on a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which would be known as The Moon of Gomrath. The Moon of Gomrath also revolves around the adventures of Colin and Susan, with the latter being possessed by a malevolent creature called the Brollachan who has recently entered the world. With the help of the wizard Cadellin, the Brollachan is exorcised, but Susan's soul also leaves her body, being sent to another dimension, leading Colin to find a way to bring it back.[18] Critic Neil Philip characterised it as "an artistic advance" but "a less satisfying story".[18] In a 1989 interview, Garner stated that he had left scope for a third book following the adventures of Colin and Susan, envisioning a trilogy, but that he had intentionally decided not to write it, instead moving on to write something different.[3] However Boneland, the conclusion to the sequence, was belatedly published in August 2012.[19]

Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift: 1964–73

In 1962 Garner began work on a radio play named Elidor, which would result in the completion of a novel of the same name.[20] Set in contemporary Manchester, Elidor tells the story of four children who enter into a derelict Victorian church, in which they find a portal to the magical realm of Elidor. Here, they are entrusted by King Malebron to help rescue four treasures which have been stolen by the forces of evil who are attempting to take control of the kingdom. Successfully doing so, the children return to Manchester with the treasures, but are pursued by the malevolent forces who need them to seal their victory.[20] "As I turned toward writing, which is partially intellectual in its function, but is primarily intuitive and emotional in its execution, I turned towards that which was numinous and emotional in me, and that was the legend of King Arthur Asleep Under the Hill. It stood for all that I'd had to give up in order to understand what I'd had to give up. And so my first two books, which are very poor on characterization because I was somehow numbed in that area, are very strong on imagery and landscape, because the landscape I had inherited along with the legend."

Before writing Elidor, Garner had seen a dinner service set which could be arranged to make pictures of either flowers or owls. Inspired by this design, he produced his fourth novel, The Owl Service.[21] The story was also heavily influenced by the Medieval Welsh epic poem, the Mabinogion.[21] The Owl Service was critically acclaimed, winning both the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.[21] It also sparked discussions among critics as to whether Garner should properly be considered a children's writer, given that this book in particular was deemed equally suitable for an adult readership.[21] It took Garner six years to write his next novel, Red Shift.[22] In this, he provided three intertwined love stories, one set in the present, another during the English Civil War, and the third in the second century CE.[23] Philip referred to it as "a complex book but not a complicated one: the bare lines of story and emotion stand clear".[23] Academic specialist in children's literature Maria Nikolajeva characterised Red Shift as "a difficult book" for an unprepared reader, identifying its main themes as those of "loneliness and failure to communicate".[24] Ultimately, she thought that repeated re-readings of the novel bring about the realisation that "it is a perfectly realistic story with much more depth and psychologically more credible than the most so-called "realistic" juvenile novels."[25]

The Stone Book series and folkloric collections: 1974–94

From 1976 to 1978, Garner published a series of four novellas, which have come to be collectively known as The Stone Book quartet: The Stone Book, Granny Reardun, The Aimer Gate, and Tom Fobble's Day.[23] Each focused on a day in the life of a child in the Garner family, each from a different generation.[22] In a 1989 interview, Garner noted that although writing The Stone Book Quartet had been "exhausting", it had been "the most rewarding of everything" he'd done to date.[3] Philip described the quartet as "a complete command of the material he had been working and reworking since the start of his career".[23] Garner pays particular attention to language, and strives to render the cadence of the Cheshire tongue in modern English. This he explains by the sense of anger he felt on reading "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight": the footnotes would not have been needed by his father.[citation needed] In 1981, the literary critic Neil Philip published an analysis of Garner's novels as A Fine Anger, which was based on his doctoral thesis, produced for the University of London in 1980.[26] In this study he noted that "The Stone Book quartet marks a watershed in Garner's writing career, and provides a suitable moment for an evaluation of his work thus far."[22]

Strandloper, Thursbitch and Boneland: 1995–present

In 1996, Garner's novel Strandloper was published. His collection of essays and public talks, The Voice That Thunders, contains much autobiographical material (including an account of his life with bipolar disorder), as well as critical reflection upon folklore and language, literature and education, the nature of myth and time. In The Voice That Thunders he reveals the commercial pressure placed upon him during the decade-long drought (at the height of the neoliberal tide) which preceded Strandloper to 'forsake "literature", and become instead a "popular" writer, cashing in on my established name by producing sequels to, and making series of, the earlier books'.[27] Garner feared that "making series ... would render sterile the existing work, the life that produced it, and bring about my artistic and spiritual death"[28] and felt unable to comply. Garner's novel, Thursbitch, was published in 2003. Garner's novel, Boneland, was published in 2012, nominally completing a trilogy begun some 50 years earlier with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

Personal life

With his first wife Anne Cook he had three children.[9] In 1972 he married for a second time, this time to Griselda Greaves, a teacher and critic with whom he had two children.[9] In a 2014 interview conducted with Mike Pitts for British Archaeology magazine, Garner stated that "I don't have anything to do with the literary world. I avoid writers. I don't like them. Most of my close personal friends are professional archaeologists."[29]

Literary style

"I have four filing cabinets of correspondence from readers, and over the years the message is clear and unwavering. Readers under the age of eighteen read what I write with more passion, understanding, and clarity of perception than do adults. Adults bog down, claim that I'm difficult, obscurantist, wilful, and sometimes simply trying to confuse. I'm not; I'm just trying to get the simple story simply told... I didn't consciously set out to write for children, but somehow I connect with them. I think that's something to do with my psychopathology, and I'm not equipped to evaluate it." Alan Garner, 1989[3] Although Garner's early work is often labelled as "children's literature", Garner himself rejects such a description, informing one interviewer that "I certainly have never written for children" but that instead he has always written purely for himself.[3] Neil Philip, in his critical study of Garner's work (1981), commented that up till that point, "Everything Alan Garner has published has been published for children",[30] although he went on to relate that "It may be that Garner's is a case" where the division between children's and adult's literature is "meaningless" and that his fiction is instead "enjoyed by a type of person, no matter what their age."[31] Philip offered the opinion that the "essence of his work" was "the struggle to render the complex in simple, bare terms; to couch the abstract in the concrete and communicate it directly to the reader".[26] He added that Garner's work is "intensely autobiographical, in both obvious and subtle ways".[26] Highlighting Garner's use of mythological and folkloric sources, Philip stated that his work explores "the disjointed and troubled psychological and emotional landscape of the twentieth century through the symbolism of myth and folklore."[32] He also expressed the opinion that "Time is Gardner's most consistent theme".[23] The English author and academic Charles Butler noted that Garner was attentive to the "geological, archaeological and cultural history of his settings, and careful to integrate his fiction with the physical reality beyond the page."[33] As a part of this, Garner had included maps of Alderley Edge in both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.[34] Garner has spent much time investigating the areas that he deals with in his books; writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1968, Garner commented that in preparation for writing his book Elidor: I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten's War Requiem nearly every day.[35]

Recognition and legacy

The Medicine House, an Early Modern building that was moved to Blackden by Garner. In a paper published in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Maria Nikolajeva characterised Garner as "one of the most controversial" authors of modern children's literature.[24] In the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, published by HarperCollins in 2010, several notable British fantasy novelists praised Garner and his work. Susan Cooper related that "The power and range of Alan Garner's astounding talent has grown with every book he's written", whilst David Almond called him one of Britain's "greatest writers" whose works "really matter".[36] Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, went further when he remarked that: "Garner is indisputably the great originator, the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien, and in many respects better than Tolkien, because deeper and more truthful... Any country except Britain would have long ago recognised his importance, and celebrated it with postage stamps and statues and street-names. But that's the way with us: our greatest prophets go unnoticed by the politicians and the owners of media empires. I salute him with the most heartfelt respect and admiration."[37] Another British fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, claimed that "Garner's fiction is something special" in that it was "smart and challenging, based in the here and the now, in which real English places emerged from the shadows of folklore, and in which people found themselves walking, living and battling their way through the dreams and patterns of myth."[37] Praise also came from Nick Lake, the editorial director of HarperCollins Children's Books, who proclaimed that "Garner is, quite simply, one of the greatest and most influential writers this country has ever produced."[38]


The biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award conferred by the International Board on Books for Young People is the highest recognition available to a writer or illustrator of children's books. Garner was the sole runner-up for the writing award in 1978.[39][40] Garner was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in the 2001 New Year's Honours list. He received the British Fantasy Society's occasional Karl Edward Wagner Award in 2003 and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2012.[41] In January 2011, the University of Warwick awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa).[42] On that occasion he gave a half-hour interview about his work.[43] He has been recognised several times for particular works. The Owl Service (1967) won both the Carnegie Medal[44] and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize,[45] For the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie in 2007 it was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works, selected by a panel to compose the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite.[46] The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) was named to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list by the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education in 1970, denoting that it "belongs on the same shelf" with the 1865 classic Alice in Wonderland and its sequel. The Stone Book (1976), first in the Stone Book series,[47] won the 1996 Phoenix Award as the best English-language children's book that did not a major award when it was originally published twenty years earlier.[48] The 1981 film Images won First Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival[49]

Television and radio adaptations

The Owl Service (1969), a British TV series transmitted by Granada Television based on Garner's novel of the same name. Elidor was read in instalments on a BBC children's radio program in the early 1970s. Red Shift (BBC, transmitted 17 January 1978); directed by John Mackenzie; part of the BBC's Play for Today series. To Kill a King (1980), part of the BBC series of plays on supernatural themes, Leap in the Dark: an atmospheric story about a writer overcoming depression and writer's block. The hero's home appears to be Garner's own house. Garner and Don Webb adapted Elidor as a BBC children's television series comprising six half-hour episodes, starring Damian Zuk as Roland and Suzanne Shaw as Helen.[50][51]



The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, 1960 The Moon of Gomrath, 1963 Elidor, 1965 The Owl Service, 1967 Red Shift, 1973 Strandloper, 1996 Thursbitch, 2003 Boneland, 2012

Short story collections

The Guizer: A Book of Fools, 1975 The Stone Book Quartet, 1979 The Lad of the Gad, 1980 Fairytales of Gold, 1980, illus. Michael Foreman. Book of British Fairy Tales, 1984, illus. Derek Collard. A Bag of Moonshine, 1986, illus. P. J. Lynch. Once Upon a Time, 1993 Collected Folk Tales, 2011 Other books[edit] Holly from the Bongs: A Nativity Play, 1966 The Old Man of Mow, 1967 The Breadhorse, 1975 Jack and the Beanstalk, 1992 The Little Red Hen, 1997 The Well of the Wind, 1998 Grey Wolf, Prince Jack and the Firebird, 1998 The Voice That Thunders, 1997


'There is a light at the end of the tunnel': Why novelist Alan Garner's reality is tinged with mysticism

From The Independant

His second death, Alan Garner explains, is the one that he really remembers. "When I was six," the writer says, "I contracted whooping cough and measles, which developed into meningitis. There were two doctors by my bed. I was in that delirious state where things drift in and out of focus, and yet I could hear their conversation clearly. The first one said: 'He's gone.' But the really terrifying bit came next, when the other doctor replied: 'I concur.' A word which – precocious infant that I was – I understood."

At that point, recalls Garner, who is 75, "I exploded emotionally. I screamed but made no sound. I couldn't communicate or give a signal. I remember the anger; I remember the fury. At which point I must have had an adrenaline surge. And that is why I lived – because I was too angry to die."

He was pronounced dead on three separate occasions before he was 10.

"I have been in the tunnel," he says. "There is light at the end. It revolves. You are running. I have been in the tunnel more than once."

If rage hadn't rescued him on that day in 1941, we would have lost one of the most extraordinary writers in the language. Initially acclaimed as a children's author (the date of 10.10.10 will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of his first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen), his voice was distinctive from the start, for its innate capacity to resonate with, and never patronise, his readership.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is set in and around Alderley Edge, the Cheshire village which, on account of its popularity with Premier League footballers, has become a kind of synonym for New Money. The Garners have lived here, as farm labourers, miners and craftsmen, for at least five centuries. "I don't think I am going to get further back than William Garner, sepultus [buried in] 1592," the writer tells me. "Peasants were not recorded earlier than that."

Since 1957, his own home has been a few miles away at Blackden, in the 15th-century timber-framed house he calls "Toad Hall". Even though it's very close to Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the Hall (whose name derives from the local pronunciation of "the old") is, to the delight of this very private man, almost impossible to find. I tell him I'll come with a local cab driver.

"You'll still get lost," Garner says, and he's right. Neither the patience of the driver, the satnav, the map, or the author's sheet of directions are of any help. We pull up at the dead end of a dirt track and phone him for help. Arriving at Blackden feels like crossing a fault line into some other world – a recurring theme in his fiction.

In 1970, noticing, as you do, that a 16th-century apothecary's house was about to be demolished in Staffordshire, Garner had it moved, piece by piece, and joined to the Hall. And it's here, in "The Medicine House", at two seats inside the large central chimney, that he suggests we sit down to talk. The chimney has something of the feel – and, Garner believes, the effect – of the confessional.

"Things are said here," he tells me, "that would not be said elsewhere."

The silence is such that, when a train goes by, I find myself mentioning William Wordsworth's letters, whingeing about how the English countryside was being desecrated by the railways.

"Oh, I like the trains," Garner says. "When they stopped running, while were relaying the track a while ago, I missed them."


"Because they emphasise tranquillity."

He could not, friends say, write anywhere else. The notion of an intimate connection between an artist and his native landscape is one that DH Lawrence intellectualised at some length, once he'd abandoned Nottinghamshire for the less- punishing ambience of Bloomsbury, Capri and New Mexico. For Garner, the ideal has been a reality.

In 1965, a reporter came here and observed: "You can imagine this man waiting behind the door with a plate of custard, or shaving off his beard and posting it to a friend." Alan Garner, she continued, "can be painfully shy". Of these three assessments, it's the last that seems to retain its relevance.

Which isn't to say he lacks humour. Garner's generous laugh comes easily, and he's considerate and friendly, but his transparently acute intelligence and intensity of manner can be unnerving. ("That one went badly," his wife Griselda will tell him later, speaking of one of his other occasional interviews, "because you frightened her.")

This isn't actually the first time we've met. When I was about 11, I tell him, he came to talk to my class in my first year at secondary school. By that time he had published The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor and The Owl Service. (The last of these books, inspired by a Welsh medieval text, The Mabinogion, ' manages the not insignificant achievement of creating a deeply disturbing story about a haunted dinner-service. The Owl Service has won two Carnegie medals: one following its publication in 1967, another three years ago, as one of the 10 most important children's books of the past 70 years.) His public profile back then was such that Nova magazine wrote of Griselda, a former teacher: "She goes to the shops – just like an ordinary woman."

"I can remember," I say, "even at that age, thinking: this person is very unusual, even disturbing. As I recall you were dressed all in black. You told us how you would sometimes spend several hours gazing at a stone, on Alderley Edge."

Garner laughs, but doesn't deny that this has been one of his recreations.

"We of the craft are all crazy," Lord Byron once said. "Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched."

A long-term sufferer from bipolar disorder, Alan Garner has described his experience of the condition in a brilliant collection of essays, The Voice That Thunders, originally published in 1997 and reissued last month. Confused and occasionally incapacitated by his mood swings, he was relieved to be diagnosed, in 1989, with what was then termed manic depression.

"That diagnosis came very late," Garner says, "but it was still the best news I ever had." He took part in a clinical study organised by the American academic Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Touched with Fire (1993), the definitive history of the relationship between art and mental illness.

Alan Garner has avoided some of the symptoms suffered by other writers mentioned by Jamison, such as inappropriate use of firearms (Paul Verlaine), manic promiscuity (Byron) or stripping off and mounting equestrian statues in Argentina (the poet Robert Lowell). If there's one characteristic that radiates from this author, it's a sense of wanting to Do the Right Thing.

His Blackden estate has become a charitable trust; at certain periods, visitors attend courses on writing, music and archaeology at the property.

That last noun, he says, "is a word I dislike. This land has been occupied for 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age. I could not be so arrogant as to say that I 'owned' it."

Alan Garner's most recent ancestors were metalworkers. He was the first of his family to receive a serious formal education, through scholarships to Manchester Grammar School and Oxford, where he read classics. But when he was working here, on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, in his early twenties, he recalls: "I didn't have much. It helped that I'd done National Service, because I'd learnt how to live on things like nettles." He pauses, then adds, "And hedgehogs."

"Are you joking?"


His first wife, Ann Cook, mother of his first three children Ellen, Adam and Katharine, found this regime too much. The strain of producing that first book, Garner says, destroyed their marriage. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which tells the story of two schoolchildren stalked by forces of evil that inhabit the disused copper mines under the Edge, was an immediate success. Based on "The Legend of Alderley", one of many folk tales describing an army of knights sleeping under the hillside, his first novel has lost none of its power to enthral a young reader, as I discovered when I tried it out on a nine-year-old before coming here. Like his other fiction, it has never been out of print.

"Did you and Ann separate because your focus on the writing was obsessive?"

"Yes. It is a relationship that has remained amicable," Garner says, instinctively dodging the familiarity of a less cumbersome phrase such as: "We're still friends."

For a man who is no stranger to foraging in hedgerows, he can sound pretty posh.

"My primary tongue, I would call North-West Mercian." (His grandfather could understand Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the middle-English text written in Cheshire dialect, without footnotes.) "My secondary tongue is standard English, a dialect of the seat of power, London."

With visitors he sticks to the second register, which he articulates with precision. He uses fewer contractions – "isn't" or "can't" – than anyone I've ever met. You can still hear the voice of the Oxford Professor of Classics he once wanted to be.

Alan Garner's writing is notoriously tricky to categorise. His work typically involves reinventing a legend or folk tale, usually from this immediate area, so creating a mystical reality, into which stumble characters from the modern world. If his early books were primarily for young readers, his unique voice is even more compelling in his later novels, whose complexities stretch the most attentive adult reader. Thursbitch, his most recent work, which appeared in 2004, has a poetic sensibility that bears comparison with Samuel Beckett.

Garner was once described by this newspaper as, "The most important author working in the UK." Reading his work, AS Byatt once remarked, with reference to the more orthodox output of JK Rowling, "We are put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures – from whom we thought we had learnt our sense of good and evil – inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled."

Why is it, then, that when you go to the Alan Garner appreciation page on Facebook (which begins with a basic biography of the English author) every post from visitors is in the vein of this, the first listed comment: "ALAN GARNER: 'Nobody's gonna fuck on you! I'm on your side! I hate Godzilla! I hate him too! He destroys cities! Please! This is not your fault! I'll get you some pants!'"

How, in other words, has the name of one of our greatest living writers been usurped by Zach Galifianakis, a portly comic from North Carolina who, playing a character called "Alan Garner", delivers the above lines to a nude Japanese hitman in The Hangover, Todd Phillips's 2009 comedy about a stag party in Las Vegas?

It is a combination of factors. Networking is not his strong point. Networking involves quite a few of the things he least enjoys, such as going out. And in an industry where, these days, even some writers for eight-year-olds are tireless public raconteurs on the subject of their own work, self-effacement is a less useful attribute than it was 40 years ago, when Garner was already calling publishing "a narcissistic and masturbatory industry".

"I loathe crowds," he says. "I especially don't like cities. A city involves biomass. And biomass gets to me."

Then there is his rhythm of working. Some popular authors, especially writers associated with a youth market, maintain the speed of output that Ernie Wise used to boast about in his role as playwright. If there's one adjective you'd struggle to apply to Garner, it's "prolific". He spent seven years writing Red Shift, a magnificent book for young adults, whose events, which span 1,000 years, are recounted through three intersecting narratives. Red Shift, when it appeared in 1973, irrevocably lifted him out of the category of children's writer.

In the past 27 years he has produced two novels. Strandloper, widely considered to be his masterpiece, is the story of William Buckley, a local man transported to Australia ' in the early 19th century. Published in 1995, and written, as he is proud to tell you, at a rate of 0.5875 words an hour, it took 12 years to finish. Thursbitch took 10.

His rate of output has always been inextricably connected to his state of mind. "In April 1980, I was listening to Benjamin Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor and Horn'. Suddenly I heard, behind the music, a compulsion to die. All I could hear was death. I remember thinking: 'Get out,' and so I ran. In the next flash of memory I have, I'm back in the kitchen, looking out over the lowland valley, holding the guts of a music box. I turned the handle and I just couldn't stop. I was doing that for I don't know how long. It could have been four or five hours. Until somebody came home. I was just..." Garner's extensive vocabulary fails him momentarily. "...Gone."

He spent the next two years "lying on the settle" (a high-backed wooden bench) mostly in the foetal position, for 12 hours a day.

He and Griselda have two children: Joseph and Elizabeth (now an outstanding author in her own right). "It was an enormous strain on Griselda and the children," he says. "The only thing I felt communicating was tactile. Our children would have been seven and eight. They would instinctively stroke the back of my neck. That was wonderful."

"What was going on in your mind?"

"Very little."

"Did they give you lithium then?"

"No. I wasn't diagnosed. Later they did, but I decided that I would rather not take it, and endure the lows for the sake of the highs." Back in 1980, he says, "they gave me antidepressants. They didn't work. Then all of a sudden, it lifted, two years later, and I went into a kind of hypomanic [emotionally elevated] state, which coincided with my beginning Strandloper. I learnt that I must never finish a book with nothing else to do."

Since then, he has achieved a kind of equilibrium; that said, in the course of my writing this article, he sends me an email saying that the "black dog" has been close to his door for three days, and that he "has to be careful".

Alan Garner was born, with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck, on 17 October 1934. One of his earliest memories is of being led screaming out of a cinema by his mother, who had taken him to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Afterwards, "She thrashed me, for making her look a fool."

"How old were you?"


He recalls his father (Colin), a painter and decorator, as "warm and generous" and his mother (Marjorie), a tailor, as "complex and domineering".

"I was an only son. She had her own failed ambitions to deal with. When I was 18, rummaging in a drawer at home, I came across Approach to Latin Part I in mint condition."

"This was a book you'd used at school?"

"Yes. She had been trying to keep up with me. You cannot teach yourself Latin from that book."

When he first had to leave home to make the daily trip to Manchester Grammar school, says Garner, "I had great difficulty coping. The best view of the Edge is from the railway, between here and Manchester. I remember looking up at it as I left for the first time, thinking, I am letting you down. Until one day I was in the art hall, the highest room in the school. I looked out, and there was the Edge."

"You've described Alderley Edge as a place that is 'physically and emotionally dangerous'. [The most dramatic point is Castle Rock, a precipice with vertiginous views across the valley 400ft below.] There was a widely held belief in Manchester, where I grew up, that Alderley Edge would not be a place you'd want to be at night. People said no bird would sing there."

"The thing about birds is not strictly true, but it is something I grew up with. There is not a lot of birdsong there, considering the number of trees." In 1843, adds Garner, "The Honourable Dorothy S Stanley wrote that locals report seeing 'many wondrous sights' on the Edge. And hearing the sound of music under the ground."

He recalls how, in 1996, his cousin Eric told him that, as a boy, he and two friends had sat on the Edge and heard bagpipes playing, underground.

Garner is a leading authority on the geology, archaeology and every other aspect of the area. In the mid-1990s, he instigated a full-scale scientific survey of Alderley Edge.

"I am proud of that; it is an objective fact that, because of what I did, the Bronze Age was established on Alderley Edge, and it was recognised to be the earliest dated metal- working site in England."

As for the bagpipes, he offers a rational explanation, involving air pressure. "Eric and his friends were sitting on a burial mound, 4,000 years old. He said that the bagpipes came from the right, and travelled under the ground, in front of them. Being a good journalist, I asked, calmly, "What did you do?" Eric said: 'Do? We ran like buggery.'"

His English and drama teacher at Manchester Grammar, Bert Parnaby, laid the foundations of a department that would nurture performers such as Alan Garner's close friend Robert Powell (who was married here at the local church), Powell's classmate Krishna Bhanji (now Sir Ben Kingsley), the late opera director Steven Pimlott, and the producer Sir Nicholas Hytner, among others.

The qualities the school seems to have encouraged in him include an irreverent sense of humour, fearlessness in the face of authority and, in terms of his writing, perfectionism: this last quality was one his family had long valued as craftsmen. "My grandfather Joe [a smith] used to say: 'Always take as long as the job tells you, because it'll be here when you're not. And you don't want folk asking what fool made that codge?'"

Which makes it all the more surprising that Alan Garner should have left Magdalen College, Oxford, in his second year, without a degree.

"My tutor said I would have to find a position in life where the only way out was to succeed. He knew me very well."

"I imagine that, when The Weirdstone of Brisingamen appeared, with its wizard and its army of dark elves, people who didn't know 'The Legend of Alderley' claimed that you'd copied The Lord of the Rings."

"Which showed that they hadn't read any middle or old English. Tolkien and I ripped off the same sources. He did it for his reasons. I did it because, at a simple level, I hated made-up names. If I'd used a name that was familiar [in ' connection with "The Legend of Alderley"] considerable baggage would have come with it."

"A name like King Arthur?"

"Yes. When my archive was given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford six years ago, I heard from somebody connected with the film of The Lord of the Rings. He said that one of the Tolkien family had given him JRR Tolkien's annotated copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. And apparently his notes are just vitriolic."

"What bothered him?"

"'Trivial use of language.' I would love to see that book."

It's hard to imagine two more different writers, or individuals, than Garner and Tolkien. Where the Oxford academic sought to create a self-contained universe of pure fantasy, Alan Garner's hallmark has been the collision between such mythical landscapes and characters rooted in everyday life. Garner is a man with "absolutely no interest in politics". Tolkien, to quote his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, "did not believe in the rule of the people, but opposed democracy because he believed in the end his fellow-men would not benefit from it".

Alan Garner can't be said to be the first writer to have produced books where working-class children were the norm, by contrast with the public-school characters of Enid Blyton, Anthony Buckeridge or, come to that, JK Rowling. On this side of the Atlantic alone, Eve Garnett, Silas Hocking and Arthur Morrison, among others, might dispute that title. But while Garner may not have been the first, in Britain, as those three comparatively obscure names might suggest, he has surely been the greatest. In Elidor, his 1965 story based on the Northern ballad "Childe Roland and Bard Ellen", his juvenile heroes enter a bleak parallel reality via a disused church off the Oldham Road, in central Manchester.

The inspiration for the dead land of Elidor, Garner says, came from the weeks he spent on his sick bed as a child, staring at the ceiling. "I lived in the ceiling. It was natural, for me."

Recalling this period in The Voice That Thunders, he writes: "I never ate or drank in the ceiling. Food was the rule for the other world. There was no wind, no climate, no heat, no cold, no time... everything was white. I met people I knew, including my parents, and some who were only of the ceiling. The people I knew in both states of waking had no knowledge of the ceiling when I asked them. I soon stopped asking."

There are innumerable kinds of writers, I suggest to Garner, but it's probably fair to identify two distinct types: novelists who have a keen sense of the market, and others, like himself, who simply write what they write.

"My feeling is that writing is, for me, a pathological condition. That could sound like a mystical experience, and it may be a mystical experience, but I have learnt just to go with it."

He can spend years pondering and researching a subject before he begins to write. "Then I get it down, and revise it. And then," Garner adds, "another turd comes through. I know the pattern. I don't want to be mysterious about it. It's the unconscious mind delivering to my conscious mind. A little comes. Then there's a space. As time goes on, the spaces get shorter and the amounts get greater."

Perhaps the strangest thing that has ever happened to Alan Garner – no trivial phrase in the context of his life – was the sequence of events that led to him beginning Strandloper, in 1983.

"I'd had a letter from Ralph Elliott, a leading Australian academic," he recalls. "He organised a literary festival and asked me to go over. I didn't want to, but I did. I stayed a month. For part of the time – over Easter – I stayed with a critic, close to Geelong, which is outside Melbourne, towards the bush. I started to get this cold feeling. I thought, please don't let me get a depression. Not here.

"Then," he continues, "I was drawn to a feature in the landscape, half an hour's walk away. It was called Mount Moriac. I just felt drawn to go up there, so I did, each day of the holiday. I didn't get a depression. Within 10 days, I was home."

Back at Toad Hall, Garner says, "I felt exhausted. So I decided to clear out my cuttings box. I came across this local newspaper clipping about 'The Wild Man Of Marton'. Marton is five miles from here."

The article told the story of William Buckley, and his deportation. In Australia, Buckley spent 32 years outside Geelong, with Aborigines who considered him a shaman. "Mount Moriac turned out to have been the spiritual centre of Buckley and his clan. I had had the whole of Australia to pick somewhere to sit, and that's where I..." Garner pauses, reluctant to underline the improbability. "Anyhow. That started it."

He discovered Arthur Buckley, William's closest surviving relative, living locally. "He said, 'I know more about the Garners than you do.' As a result of that meeting, I have a photograph of the Alderley Hough Silver Band, which consists almost entirely of Garners, and this one Buckley. There comes a point where you stop wasting time asking questions, and say, 'Thank you.'"

There's a line in Elidor where a character says: "Coincidence? That's all you can say? Coincidence? You make me sick." How does Garner explain this combination of events?

"Australia," he concedes, "is a very big place. And Marton is a very small one."

"How do you rationalise this?"

"I don't want to talk about that. You and I have a similar background and education. But there is a whole numinous [divine] other that, because it is amorphous, we were both led to assume we should shun. I have lived long enough to find that it would be very foolish to do that, for me."

"So what force is at work? Telepathy? God?"

"I find myself avoiding that question because what I write sometimes attracts people who are not... entirely in balance. And to speak publicly about inner spiritual forces could be dangerous. There was a time when I was bombarded by people who saw me as some sort of John the Baptist figure; a sage. It would be hubris on my part if I were to encourage that, and very dangerous for others."

(Among the many letters he has received that might be filed under "Handy if True" was one giving him a formula for making interstellar fuel from seawater.)

If there has been one significant change in Alan Garner's writing, it is an intensification of a feeling it has always had: that its author is somehow in touch with another reality. His most recent, most challenging, novel, Thursbitch, was inspired after he came across a memorial stone on a Pennine track, not far from his home.

One side read: "Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snow storm in the night in or about the year 1755." On the reverse, Garner found the words: "The print of a woman's shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead."

In Thursbitch, Turner is a packman, transporting salt and silk. Though he travelled great distances, he perished mysteriously close to home. Garner imagines the impact of his death rippling across time and afflicting the lives of two 21st-century hikers, Ian and Sal. The writing is, as almost every reviewer observed, stunning, even if the full meaning of the book does not give itself up easily.

Thursbitch is, as its author once wrote of another story, "less of a text than a state of mind".

Alan Garner once observed that writing, for him, was "close to prayer". I get the sense, I tell him, that the best of his work comes from a semi-hypnotic state.

"If you were to put me into a corner, I would say that my attitude is... animistic," Garner says, referring to the belief that soul or spirit may be incarnated in animal, plant or even mineral form. "One thing that I've noticed over time is that – because of my nature, and because of this particular place, here – Blackden has become a kind of safe house for people. A lot of them are responsible to others in other religions. I have had priests of various kinds say to me: 'You are clearly so deeply religious; why aren't you one of us?' They have trouble when I say that I feel, intuitively, that my use is to stand to one side. They all come up with the same image, and ask: 'How can you bear the cold?'"

'I can't wait for the next book,' I tell him.

"Oh, that's a shame. Because you'll have to."

He began the groundwork on his current novel in 2004, and has been writing it for 14 months.

"It has reached 14,758 words, according to my computer, and the latest 3,000-odd have come in the past month. I realise that I have to take as long to write a book as the book takes to write me. I am almost 76. Strandloper took 12 years. Thursbitch took 10. So, er... it's time to concentrate again."

"But not to hurry."

"No. I have always been aware that I am balancing composition against decomposition. And now, it's like an egg-and-spoon race. I can see the finishing line. But when is the egg-and-spoon race lost? When you do the last three steps too quickly."

"I am only a writer," he once said. "A maker of dreams. You can dismiss me, and no harm is done."

When Alan Garner dies, he tells me, Toad Hall and the Medicine Hall will be bequeathed not to his family but to the Blackden Trust. He feels able to speak about this, as he says, "without any morbidity. I am not afraid of being dead. That doesn't bother me at all. I could get squeamish about getting there."

He talks quite a bit about the long-term future of Blackden, without ever mentioning where he wants to be buried, or what he might choose as an epitaph.

If he wants a phrase that would reflect his humility, his private nature, and his unique relationship with this landscape, he could do worse than a line he has used more than once, both in his writing and in our conversation: "I know my place."

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Alan Garner, OBE's Timeline

October 17, 1934
Congleton, Cheshire East, England, United Kingdom