192 pages, Sandpiper
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Timeless. It's a word that's often carelessly thrown around when discussing children's literature. Recently, I heard J.K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” books described as being “timeless classics”. I find this description somewhat hard to swallow. To call a series “timeless” after only 16 years? That's stretching it a bit, isn't it? Enid Blyton's books are frequently called “timeless” but many of them have aged so badly that modern publishers have had to edit and change characters so as not to offend (such as the Gollywogs in the Noddy stories) or cause inadvertent fits of giggles (the character Fanny in “The Enchanted Wood” has now been renamed Frannie in some editions). This need to rewrite and tinker with the stories would indicate that they are anything but “timeless”.
It's hard to believe that Alan Garner's third novel “Elidor” is nearly fifty years old. Reading it today, there are very few clues in the text that anchor it to a particular period – the children in the novel could well be children of my generation. Indeed, Garner's sparse description enables the reader to place the novel within their own frame of experience. This, in my eyes, is what makes a novel earn the status of “timeless”. Only the sequence in which the children's father adjusts the vertical hold on their television set indicates the era at which the story is set. Modern children might not have a clue what the vertical hold knob on a television set is but other aspects of the novel will ring just as true to them as to the original generation of readers who were captivated by this magical book.
As with other novels by Alan Garner, the main theme is that of a fantasy world intruding on the real world. Four siblings, Roland, Helen, Nicholas and David, are out playing in the slums of Manchester one day when they find themselves suddenly transported to the magical world of Elidor. Here, they meet a warrior named Malebron who gleams with strange golden light. He tasks them with recovering four enchanted items from a burial mound as only the power of the four items can save Elidor from being swallowed up by a malevolent darkness. The children oblige and recover the sword, spear, stone and chalice before hurtling back to their old world. The forces of darkness in Elidor are not happy to be thwarted in such a manner and so follow the children to their world where they begin to make their presence known in a variety of creepy and unsettling ways.
What makes “Elidor” such a clever novel is the fact that the children's adventure could all be in their imagination. When they return to modern-day Manchester from their strange journey in the other world, the magical items they have brought back with them have changed into ordinary pieces of junk. The spear is a rusty iron railing, the sword is a piece of wood, the stone is a rock and the chalice is a plain cup. The odd noises in the house, the rattling of the front door, the strange shadows they see could be a manifestation of evil from the other world but they could just as easily be the product of the children's over-active imaginations. There's a brilliant sequence where young Roland is stood at his front door quaking with fear at what might be on the other side. Using the power of his mind, he forces the sinister spectres away by blocking their entrance into his world. Or, is he merely using the power of his mind to banish his fears and pull himself together? We've all been there as children, our young minds conjuring all manner of ghouls and goblins to torment us in the darkness when we should be sleeping. It feels so real at the time but only as adults do we truly understand what was going on. This is what Garner manages to capture so vividly in the short novel.
The contrast between the real and imaginary worlds, the youthful imagination and the sensible reality of grown-ups is summed up perfectly by the response of the oldest sibling Nicholas who tries to explain the bizarre series of events as a mass hallucination. Of course, as the novel progresses, the children experience phenomena that becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss and the wonderful climax to the story is as baffling as it is exciting.
“Elidor” is a marvellous little novel that deserves to enchant generations of readers to come. However, as anyone who has read one of Alan Garner's novels will attest, he is a writer who makes his readers work. The sparse description, the ambivalent tone, the lack of explanation... all this adds up to make “Elidor” a curiously inaccessible book for those more used to being spoon-fed their entertainment. I worry that children and young people who have grown up on the instant gratification provided by less-talented authors will be able to get through this novel without losing patience. Kids these days, eh?
Hereward L.M. Proops