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Literature / Boneland

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But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones

The final book in a trilogy by Alan Garner, Boneland concludes the story that began over fifty years ago in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and continued in The Moon of Gomrath.

Professor Colin Whisterfield is a brilliant academic and polymath, described as a high-functioning Aspergers case. He spends his days at Jodrell Bank, using the radio telescope (officially) to study constellation M45 for its scientific interest. Unofficially, he is using it for a completely unorthodox purpose he professionally needs to keep secret. There are grave doubts as to his sanity and he is on serious medication for psychiatric purposes. Running out of ideas, his doctor refers him to a gifted but seriously maverick psychiatrist. She has it in her favour that she is also a genius psychotherapist.

At the same time, and in another time, the Watcher cuts the rock and dances, to keep the sky above the earth and the stars flying.

Colin can’t remember; and he remembers too much. Before the age of twelve years and nine months is a blank. After that he recalls everything: where he was, what he was doing, in every minute of every hour of every day.

Magic and mysticism meet science, art and religion as Colin begins to disentangle the trapped and seemingly lost events of his childhood.

Tropes which may or may not manifest in this book, and dance on the edge of awareness in a tantalisingly ambiguous way in which Quantum may show itself, include the following. Or may not. Or maybe.

  • Ambiguously Human: As the story develops, Meg, Bert and the unseen Fay become stranger and odder
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Colin, after the presumed death of his sister Susan.
  • Author Tract: Alan Garner is known to loathe the ongoing "gentrification" of Alderley Edge by the rich and tasteless, which elsewhere he has deplored as sucking out the magic and character from a town he loves and still lives nearby to. In comparing the "old" Alderley Edge from the new, and the change that has taken place in the fifty years between the books, he is surprisingly restrained, voicing his feelings through incidental asides spoken by Colin (who cannot bear going anywhere near the farmhouse he grew up in, now it has been sold on and "gentrified" and is no longer a working farm. Garner is known to feel the same way about the former working farm that inspired the Mossocks' Highmost Redmanhey.)
    • Indeed, an inferred detail is that given the vulgarisation of the area, magic is no longer possible here in the way it was fifty years ago: a theme of The Moon of Gomrath was the way how, even then, human ignorance and "progress" was driving out the older magical races, Good and Evil alike, and forcing them to the margins, like Native Americans. How pollution was killing the Elves, and the introduction of firearms to human warfare was having a psychic resonance - for the bad - on the older peoples. The caves under the Edge are seen to be empty. Were the older peoples ever here at all, or has human interference reached a tipping point and rendered them extinct? Did we kill the Magic? But like so much else, this is ambiguous...
  • Broken Masquerade: one interpretation (among many) of the ambiguous and multilayered story is that Colin Whisterfield was blessed with Laser-Guided Amnesia as an act of mercy by Cadellin and the Lady, after walking in the magic otherworld and fighting in its battles. This was necessary to preserve the secret of the Sleepers and the peoples of Magic from an ever-encroaching human peril, as well as to protect his own sanity. If this is true, there would also be a need to cover for the (ambiguous) destiny of his sister Susan, thought dead by by the human world, although no body was ever found. But in adulthood, memories and flashbacks and bad dreams are surfacing; it becomes clear the amnesia is not total.
  • Call-Back:
    • The book is peppered with references and allusions to people, places, events and conversations in the first two books: often presented in the sort of hazy, distorted, dream-like way in which an adult will recall conversations and people from a childhood around thirty years prior to the "present day".
    • The manner of Susan's inferred death - she rode into deep water on the back of a horse - is an eerie call-back to her possession by the Brollochan in The Moon of Gomrath, in which the Brollochan, possessing a pony, lures her to get on its back for a ride. It then gallops over a cliff into a flooded quarry and a possessed Susan is then seen dripping with water and shrouded in water-weed.
  • Canon Discontinuity: in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Colin and Susan are introduced as siblings. It is fairly explicitly said Colin is the elder of the two. But here, in Bonelands, a Retcon applies which makes them into twins. Given the sub-text explores the strange closeness of twin siblings, offers another layer of explanation into Colin's trauma and allows Meg to introduce a recognised psychiatric disorder (Missing Twin Syndrome"), Garner's reasons for this are clear: it makes for a better story. It also becomes clear, when the book is rigorously examined and one well-hidden clue is decoded, that Garner has also Retconned the timeline so that the "action" of Brisingamen and Gomrath takes place in the later 1960's rather than the earlier part of the decade. note 
  • Conveniently an Orphan: the conceit of the original books was that Colin and Susan were staying with foster-parents (the Mossocks) who were known to the Whisterfield parents, whilst the parents worked overseas in an occupation not given. Boneland expands on this by offering the extra layer of childhood trauma: that the parents died in an air crash, making the fostering into permanent adoption. Colin can effortlessly recite the flight number and call-sign of the aircraft in which his parents died, as if this is a mantra against grief at his loss, a way of not needing to think too much about it. This is his first reaction whenever Meg raises the matter. note 
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Colin. It is progressively revealed throughout the book that before he was thirteen, he was:
    • possibly abducted and sexually abused by a man and a woman;
    • His parents died in a plane crash;
    • Lost his twin sister in mysterious circumstances - she went horse-riding by night, and only the horse was found; it is assumed she was thrown in the waters of a lake and drowned;
    • Was struck by lightning while alone in the hills, suffering brain damage that went undetected until an MRI scan in later adulthood.
  • Darker and Edgier: Considering this is the conclusion of a children's trilogy for grown-ups, this is to be expected.
  • Dream Apocalypse: This is one of the many alternative explanations for Colin Whisterfield's experiences of having visited a Narnia-like fantasy land superimposed on his own Cheshire, England. It is all just a dream, brought about by psychosis and treatment for mental illness. This is written in step with the story of a neolithic shaman who fears that if he stops dreaming, his world will end. At the end is an apparent ironic twist - that in one very real sense, the world you dream will inevitably stop and cease to be - at the moment of your own death.
  • Freudian Slippery Slope: This novel is the continuation, for grown-ups, of the 1960 and 1963 novels The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. This is a psychodrama that plays with the idea (among many) that the events of the first two books might be complete fantasy created inside the head of Colin Whisterfield to deal with a series of shattering traumas in early adolescence. For instance, that the memory of being abducted by a black-magic witch straight out of the pages of a not-very-good fantasy story, and by her evil dwarf servant, masks a more "mundane" case of childhood sexual assault. The Dwarf did threaten him with penetration by a long rigid sword, and was even called Pelis The False - one letter away from... and the witch did greet him with "Welcome. Long have our teeth rusted seeking your flesh." He recalls being tied down, soiling himself and lying in immobile terror...
  • Genre Shift: The emphasis moves from outright fantasy to a more nuanced psychological drama with overtones of science fiction.
  • The Ghost: Susan, who is "present" throughout, although physically long gone. Her memory haunts Colin and is indirectly responsible for everything he has done since she "died".
  • Growing with the Audience: In a big way. The original two fantasy novels in the early nineteen-sixties were aimed at a readership of 12 or above. The fact he didn't like the books very much meant it took him a long time to get around to writing a concluding sequel, Boneland. Fifty years, to be precise. Boneland is as far away as you can possibly get from the certainties and the linear plot of The Moon of Gomrath. The book has a dark, grey quality to it and follows one of the child-characters from the earlier books into adulthood. Colin, the heroic child who entered Faerie at age twelve, is bewildered, disillusioned, on the brink of the male menopause, and fighting mental health issues. He is, quite literally, wondering where the Magic went to. It isn't difficult to suspect Garner is writing an ironic postscript for all those children who devoured the magic of Brisingamen and Gomrath. And then grew up into adults, thinking back to the magical excitement of reading Garner's adventures as kids, and who today....
  • The Hecate Sisters: Garner's work retells old folk myths from the British Isles and draws on thousands of years of oral and mythological tradition. The mythology and folklore of the moon and lunar cycles features heavily, as does the symbolism of triads and triples. Observe the triad of roles played by Meg Massey as she shifts gears and approaches in dealing with Colin's mercurial states. She is almost-girlfriend(the maiden, the waxing moon); healing therapist (the nurturing Mother, the Full Moon) and closes her involvement with a kind of separation(the waning old moon, the Crone, herald of Death and change).
  • Hermetic Magic: As above, so below. The concept, among many interpretations, that just as Colin stands at exactly the middle point between microcosmic and macrocosmic, the events of Gomrath and Brisingamen also happened, both at the objective and subjective levels. Susan is both in the stars, the Otherworld, and a part of Colin too. Colin is the bridge that links her back to Earth.
  • Innocence Lost: Colin Whisterfield in the multi-level, multi-ambiguous, ever-shifting Bonelands. Is he - in reality - a survivor of child sex abuse? Whose trauma was then compounded when his sister drowned accidentally? That his memories of dealing with an evil witch in a primal fight against evil, abducted to her by her dwarf servant, are really of sexual trauma.
  • Insufferable Genius: Colin hovers on the brink of this and Meg accuses him of cultivating it as a pose, to drive people away when they get too close.
  • Carl Jung: Meg explores Colin's case by playing with Jungian concepts: she speculates that a wizard, goblins, dwarfs and elven nature-spirits dwelling beneath the earth are archetypes straight out of the collective unconsciousness. Witches represent the dark destroying shadow-side and Susan is an aspect of Colin himself, his Eternal Feminine side, his Anima. Colin therefore has to decipher the message and find out what insights into his personality that they are trying to communicate to him.
  • Lobotomy: Colin is threatened with electro-convulsive therapy and "sectioning", ie this being done to him without his consent, is also mentioned. Indeed, the enigmatic eight opening lines of the novel describe somebody being anaesthetised prior to an operation. note 
  • Magic Versus Science: The "Magic Is Mysterious" version, which cannot easily be quantified according to known science.
  • Meaningful Name: Colin is the modern version of the Irish hero's name Cú Chulainn. He invokes the Grey Wolf as a nature spirit. note 
  • Meanwhile, in the Future…: Colin and the Watcher are playing out the same issues of loss and trauma, in much the same geological place but separated by up to half a million years in time. Both are struggling to work out what is happening to them according to their conditioning and cultural preconceptions. Garner even hints that Recursion is happening and they are somehow directly linked. Matryoshka Objects in each other's minds linked by Recursion?
    • Meg - her name invokes Arthurian witch Morgana leFay. Who trapped the wizard, Merlin, into eternal imprisonment in a cavern under the earth.E
    • Meg Massey. The name Megan means 'pearl'. Pearl was a Middle-English poem written by a person that some claim was also the Gawain And The Gren Knight poet. The most commonly suggested candidate for authorship is John Massey of Cotton, Cheshirenote . A pearl is a gemstone nurtured in deep water which has lunar associations.
    • The multilayered derivations of the unspoken name Susan - which variably derives from a flower associated with death and transition, the lily; from a flower associated with spiritual growth and fulfilment - the lotus; and from a Middle Eastern deity of protection and guarding, Inshusana.
    • Fay - a Faerie spirit, an elf, the "fey", that which comes from the Otherworld.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Alderley Edge, Macclesfield, Mobberly, Lindow and Wilmslow are all real places in Cheshire. The nearby Jodrell Bank radio telescope is a world-famous research institute owned by the University of Manchester. The street names quoted all exist in Alderley Edge. Most of the places mentioned in the book along the Edge such as The Wizard's Well, Goldenstone, the Beacons, the Points, and so on, are also real. The only harm intended is to the ongoing "gentrification" of Alderley Edge by the rich and tasteless, a process Garner is known to loathe in a town he loves and still lives in.
  • One-Word Title: Portmantitle-type compound word.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: The svart-alfar, called into being for the novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The name literally means dark Elves, but the underground creatures have far more in common with Orcs or Goblins. In the sucessor novel The Moon of Gomrath, the place of evil footsoldier is taken by the bodachs from far Albany: these are a more lizard-like sort of goblin, still humanoid and intelligent enough to forge metal and organise as war-bands. The concluding novel in the trilogy, Boneland, pays Homage to a well-founded theory that as newer sub-species of the human race arose, the predecessor races they co-existed with, and then suceeded over, inevitably became the goblins, dwarves and Elves of our legend. The Watcher is clearly of a different sub-species to the Homo Sapiens/Cro-Magnons who rescue him. Did the Cro-Magnons consider the Watcher and others of his kin to be cavern-dwelling dwarfs and goblins? Indeed, are the "svart-alfar" dawn humans who went deep underground, and whose evolution took a different direction?
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Gowther and Bess Mossock, who, inferentially, suffered trauma and grief, especially at Susan's presumed death. They went to their own deaths five or six years later feeling a sense of grief and failure that they failed in a duty to their adopted children, and to the dead Whisterfield parents, who in their time had been loved and cherished in the same way (Bess Mossock had been nanny to Colin and Susan's mother). It is inferred that they did not recover from the loss of Susan, and keenly felt the psychological damage to Colin.
  • Shout-Out: there are several homages to other authors and creative artists.
    • Possibly as a way of reminding us things should never be taken entirely seriously, to alert us to the Cosmic Joker being active, there is an allusion to a very-well known song about mental stability by Genesis. Garner also writes from British, specifically English, folklore and traditional themes.
    • As Homage to one who fished in the same stream and also lived in the tradition of the English storyteller, giving old stories new slants, there is a blatant reference to Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel of things beginning in stone eggs, Thud! Garner even represents the noise of flint-knapping as "Tak, Tak, Tak, Tak, Tak..."
    • Boneland is also an echo of "The Waste Land" of T. S. Eliot, a place of broken dreams and dissillusionment.
    • And the biggest, most obvious, elephant-in-the-room Shout-Out of all: to Neil Gaiman's essay on what happens when the child protaganist of a fantasy novel grows up having suffered loss and change and dislocation - The Problem Of Susan. Gaiman is writing about Susan Pevensie in C. S. Lewis' Narnia. But Susan Whisterfield entered a less forgiving and certainly non-Christian "Narnia"....
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: The other explanation, the rational and surface one, for Colin's loss of his conscious memories of events before he was thirteen. Given the level of trauma he received, this is not surprising.