Ostensibly a sequel to ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ and the ‘Weirdstone of Brisingamen’, though written fifty years later, “Boneland” is a problematic read. To anyone who has read the first two books, I would caution not to expect any kind of continuation or resolution here.
I find I cannot really discuss this without straying into spoiler territory, so please be warned.
Garner’s writing is excellent. It always has been, and nothing has changed. So as a novel I would happily give it thumbs up. It is dream-like, deeply psychological, quite ambiguous, and really demands concentration from the reader. As a stand-alone book, about a guy called Colin, it’s fine.
He cut the veil of the rock; the hooves clattered the bellowing waters below him in the dark. The lamp brought the moon from the blade, and the blade the bull from the rock. The ice rang.
My gripe is that as a third in a trilogy I don’t feel it entirely works. There are many possible interpretations of the narrative, but I am unable to make any definite conclusions.
Colin, a highly respected astronomer, has some kind of mental breakdown. He is referred to a psychiaatrist, called Meg. He is a genius, appears to have ASD, and cannot remember anything about his life before thirteen years old. However after this age he remembers every single detail, and recall at a moment’s notice exactly what he was doing at any time, any day, going back years. (This condition is known as hyperthymesia, a real condition though a very rare one. The wikipedia article on the subject indicated that those with this condition often remember from a specific age, usually early teens, though they do not forget everything beforehand as is the case with this character. The Wikipedia article also states that the condition mimics ASD but is not the same.)
They don’t know what it’s like. Inside. For them it’s only fun, even though I tell them it isn’t. You see I don’t delete. Anything. Ever.
Interspersed with Colin’s story, is the story of a stone age shaman who may be the last of his kind. He has no one, and he performs the rituals of his people even though no one is left, as he believes they are vital to the world. His story runs parallel to Colin’s. The only obvious connection is that the shaman lived in the same area, and constructed a stone axe that features later in Colin’s story.
“Why are you here?”
“To fetch the woman I cut from the veil of the rock.”
“Why did you cut?”
“To send her spirit out, so that she would come to make the child, for me to teach to dance and sing and dream, to free the beasts within the rock to fill the world.”
“Have you found her?”
“She is not here. There are only people horrible to see.”
“Where are your stories?” said the other.
“I cannot tell them. My head is a cloud.”
You could interpret this entire story as a man having a psychotic break, and if it were a stand-alone novel, it would be a valid conclusion. Colin lives in hut within sight of the Edge, believing he needs to guard it. He wanders in the woods wearing his university robes. He says he only went into astronomy because he is looking for his sister in the Pleiades. He says he doesn’t know his sister’s name, nor anything about her, only that he has one. His occasional flashbacks and apparent belief in magic are part of his delusional state.
The problem with this interpretation is that the book is presented as part three of the ‘Tales of Alderley’ so the events of the first two books cannot be completely dismissed. To interpret the book in this way would make it lazy writing, in a sense. Have you ever seen movies that end with an ‘it was all a dream’ explanation? Aren’t they annoying? This would be that kind of thing. So I don’t think that’s what the author intended.
So, accepting the first two books, we have to look at Colin as being under some kind of spell. We learn in ‘Moon of Gomrath’ that Susan has power and wants to go with the magical Hunt to wherever they are going, interpreted in folklore as being the Pleiades. While she is not taken with them, as the fairy Angharad insists she is ‘not ready’, it would appear that she disappears later. Meg finds evidence in an old newspaper that she rode out one night on the farm horse. The horse was discovered on the very island where she met Angharad, but there was no sign of Susan.
Colin has a flashback that indicates that when he was a child, desperate to find Susan, he made an attempt to wake up the Sleepers (Arthur and his knights, sleeping til the world needs them.) The wizard Cadfellin appeared, and cast a spell on Colin, which wiped his memories. This is what has sent Colin into a slow decline throughout his life, leading to his current unstable state. Cadfellin always said he had little understanding of humans, so this would indicate he either didn’t understand how much this would hurt Colin, or didn’t care.
There’s the man. The tall man. Thin. He’s old. He’s very old. He should be dead. But he’s not. He can’t. He’s angry. He’s looking at me. His eyes. He curses me. His eyes! He curses me with forgetting and remembering, dreaming and waking! No! Flashback! Dreams! Always dreams! Always him! He puts his fate on me! To guard! To dream! For all Time!
In this interpretation Meg and the taxi driver are somewhat ambivalent. They are magical, but do they have Colin’s best interests at heart? This would explain why Meg’s help to Colin seems to be rather dubious. I feel she is steering him in the direction she wants him to go, rather than giving him any real assistance. It is she who tells him, “if the sleeper wakes, the dream dies”. Connecting this to the prehistoric shaman’s activities, this indicates that the Sleepers wake at the end of the world.
He walked along the brink, along the line of nothing, between sky and ancient river. He turned from the rock towards the dish. It waited. He spoke.
Colin is standing on Castle Rock, here, and if you look at pictures you will see that it would be a good place for a jumper. It doesn’t state that this is his intention. But it left me feeling very uneasy.
So, what’s wrong with this interpretation? It would make the magical folk awfully cold. They were not always warm and huggy, but could someone not have explained to Colin where Susan had gone? Could Cadfellin not have taken pity on a child’s distress instead of getting all steamed up about his precious Sleepers (especially as there was never any indication Colin would know how to wake them)? This interpretation would make it seem that Susan was the object all along, and Colin could just be thrown aside like rubbish, and driven to lifelong suffering and eventual madness. This would be a sad way to end what started as a great children’s story.
However, I’m not about to say I’ve got it all right. The late, great, Ursula LeGuin reviewed this novel, and suggested Colin is a shaman himself, a descendant, maybe, of that long ago shaman whose story flanks his. His compulsion to stay in sight of the Edge is simply his instinct telling him what he needs to do, to keep the world alive. It’s an interesting idea, and certainly not one I’d thought of. That would increase the significance of the hand-axe, the creation of that long-ago shaman being passed down through millenia to his successor. It might also indicate Colin did possess the power to wake the Sleepers, though I still think Cadfellin’s solution is awfully harsh.
While I do like to understand what I read, I wonder if maybe this is not the kind of book that should be analysed, as much as experienced?
So in summary, is “Boneland” a good book? Yes. Is it a good sequel? I’m still unsure about that.