This is a children’s fantasy, published in 1963, which is a sequel to “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”. It deals with the adventures of brother and sister Colin and Susan, who discover that beings regarded as fairy tales exist right along side human beings, and that magic really does exist.
I first read this as a child, and revisited again to write this review. I think this is a great book for kids. It has dwarves, elves, a good wizard, a wicked witch, magical artifacts, danger, good versus evil, and so on. It has the Wild Hunt, a tale of European folklore concerning magical or supernatural hunters who can be seen in the sky with their hounds. Garner based much of his writing on actual mythology, and I think the tradition of such legends lends authenticity to his work.
I enjoyed the introduction of ‘Old Magic’ into this story, as a juxtaposition of the ‘High Magic’ espoused by the wizard Cadfellin and the witch Morrigan. Old Magic is seen as wild and unpredictable, and Cadfellin is worried about it, but it is not inherently evil. It is not good either, more amoral and out of the control of anyone. Susan’s own exposure to Old Magic leads her inadvertently to summon the Wild Hunt, and she seems far more understanding of it than any other character. The wizard has very little action in this story, and it is hard to know if his dire warnings are ultimately justified. Old Magic is ambiguous, and the reader is not left with any real idea whether its re-introduction to the world is a good thing or a bad thing.
Susan, in a continuation from the first book, seems to be singled out for some kind of power. The being Angharad (a fairy, perhaps), gives her magical artifacts, and Susan instinctively uses them at certain times, though when the crisis is past she again does not know how. I can’t help but feel that Angharad is using Susan, and certainly she seems to be able to instruct the Huntsman (whose magic is supposedly uncontrollable) to leave her at the end.
‘”Leave her! She is but green in power! It is not yet!”’
Susan and Colin are both far more inclined to do their own thing in this book than in the first of the series, which fits with their extra experience and the fact that they are a little older. I especially enjoyed Colin in this book. He will take any risks to protect his sister, and will stand up to anyone, even under threat. His reaction to being shot at by an elf is indicative of this.
‘”What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted. “You nearly hit us with that thing.”’
The elves in this story are treated rather interestingly. I’m a Tolkien fan from way back, and I guess I have a customary picture of elves as beautiful and wise. These elves may be good-looking but their leader is surly, impolite, and unconcerned with anything except his own agenda. Maybe this makes him more realistic than the likes of Legolas and Elrond? That’s a point to ponder.
‘…they are merciless without kindliness.’
I think it was hard at that time for fantasy writers, especially in Britain, not to follow Tolkien’s footsteps, but Garner certainly did his best to follow his own unique vision. For example, I also found it interesting that Albarac is identified as being from the Children of Danaan. Often in the old stories elves and the Danaan are merged as one and the same. It was a unique choice for Garner to separate them.
A point of interest is that the geographical locations used in this story are real. The Edge, for example, refers to the Cotswold Edge, an escarpment above the Severn Valley, and Alderley and the other places all exist. I think these very real places being described help bring the story to life, and further enhance the blending of the real world with that of myth and folklore. When Colin runs alon the magical ‘old straight track’, he is in a very real place:
‘Over Wildboarclough the cone of Shuttlingslow stood apart from the long ridges, watchtower to the plain which lay like a sea from Rivington Pike to the surge of Moel Fammaw. But Colin saw none of it, for his eyes and his being were fixed on the delicate Mothan which he held cupped in his hands.’
The book is not without its flaws. Garner has crammed an awful lot into a relatively short novel and it seemed to me that he didn’t follow through on all the different plot points. The reader never gets told what was going on with the elves in their own lands, other than a vague statement that man-made industry was making them sick. What action they were planning to take was unclear. The evil creature called the Brollachan is referenced quite heavily early on, but ultimately not used very much except in the finale, and certainly not explained. There are certainly points which I would like to have seen explored a little more thoroughly.
A bone of contention for many is the almost abrupt ending. Garner does this in many of his books, so it’s something on an author’s preference. There is no winding up of the story, no goodbyes between characters, no epilogue, I suppose you would say. I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, though it’s certainly different. It takes some adjustment on the part of the reader, but I think it works.
‘And away they rode together across the night, over the waves, and beyond the isles, and the Old Magic was free forever, and the moon was new.’
I would recommend this book to lovers of fantasy, both child and adult. I would also encourage readers to go beyond this to investigate some of the folklore used here. “The Moon of Gomrath” thus becomes a stepping-stone of sorts to a wider reading of and immersion in the fascinating myths and legends of Britain.