There are those who consider Alan Garner, an intriguing figure who was so sickly as a child he was twice legally declared dead, to be Great Britain’s master fantasist. I am not among them. Elidor, his best-known book, does have quite a lot to admire, even if it does fall far short of other acknowledged young-adult “plucky kids transported to a magical land” classics — to wit, C.S. Lewis‘s Narnia series and Susan Cooper‘s magnificent The Dark Is Rising sequence (let alone Oz). Elidor conveys a rich, eerie, dreamlike atmosphere in its best moments, rooted in Garner’s strong fidelity to locale and history. But these moments are dealt a severe blow as the overall story is much too thin and underdeveloped, and the climax is so abrupt you’ll leave the book feeling you were never really there.
Garner’s boilerplate quest story introduces us to the Watson siblings: Roland, his brothers David and Nicholas, and sister Helen. The day before the family is due to move from one end of their native Manchester to a house on the outskirts, the kids decide to kill an afternoon exploring, and stumble upon a deserted and remote part of the city still bearing the scars of the Blitz. Among the abandoned and condemned buildings is a massive church slated for demolition, and it’s within its crumbling walls the kids discover the passage to another world — Elidor.
Yet Elidor is a dying land. The children encounter Malebron, who could be a king, a warrior, a mage, or just an old man with a fiddle (Garner keeps it unclear, which is all right.) Malebron has the children recover four magic artifacts to bring back home to their (our) world so that these might not be discovered by those forces seeking to destroy Elidor once and for all. Who or what those forces of destruction and woe are, and why they want Elidor destroyed, Garner singly declines to explain. And that isn’t all right.
Elidor is written with a simplicity and clarity appropriate to young-adult fiction, but, as in The Owl Service, Garner chooses to be vague to the point of obscurity when dealing with the story’s fantasy elements. So there’s a magical land, and these four kids have been prophesied as its saviors, and it’s vitally important that they keep these artifacts safe… why? That’s where Garner stumbles. No good explanation is given for the connection the children have to Elidor, why it is that it possesses a passage to our world in the first place, and why anyone from our world should go out of their way to defend Elidor.
Did I mention we hardly get to see Elidor? Most of the novel takes place back in our world as the children attempt to conceal the artifacts and come to terms with their experiences — a good storytelling choice, actually, as it keeps the tale from being just another Oz/Narnia knockoff, and lets Garner construct a few genuinely suspenseful setpieces. I got a kick out of the way the artifacts — which in our world resemble mundane pieces of scrap — cause massive power failures and electrical disturbances all through the Watsons’ neighborhood. But of Elidor all we get to see are fleeting glimpses of demolished castles, grey skies, and no people anywhere. There’s no sense given of the beautiful and vibrant land Elidor presumably once was, to give us readers a stake in its restoration. And we aren’t really helped in this by the rather grim ending, either.
I didn’t dislike this book, really. I’m just frustrated by it, as it could easily have been so much more. Had Garner fleshed it out to the tune of another fifty or a hundred pages (it’s barely 150), I think it would have had the depth it sorely needs to achieve, if not classic status, at least a level of merit commensurate with Garner’s inflated reputation. At the risk of sounding horribly patronizing to a novel no less than the Times Literary Supplement has called “intelligent, rich and terrifying,” the best I can call Elidor is “the one Alan Garner almost got right.”
This review by Thomas M. Wagner is reprinted from his website SFReviews.net by special arrangement.