Thursday 19 January 2023

Alan Garner, Treacle Walker

In her extended essay Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes:

When you read children's books, you are given space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.

Rundell also cites W.H. Auden: "There are good books that are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children."

The first time I read Alan Garner's Treacle Walker (to my shame, my first Garner ever), I read it not as a children's book, but as a child - placing my trust entirely in the author and the world they had created. Under this kind of reading the book was full of wonder, its world self-contained yet depthless, and the journey of the child Joe mythic and magical.

In my second reading, I came armed with recordings of book festival talks and online reviews, details about archaeology, particle physics and the philosophy of time. The mythic resonances of the first reading faded into crossword puzzle solving. It was like those moments in children's literature where one character outgrows the pluripotent world of childhood, and trades off imagination and make-believe for membership of the adult world, as if they'd sacrificed one of their senses in order to access the privileges of being grown-up. 

The first reading was eminently preferable to the second. It was a return to the reading of my childhood - Puck of Pook's Hill, The Sword in the Stone, the Narnia series (before my evangelical uncle ruined them) - when I read with the hope that one day, maybe, just maybe, something magical would happen to me. And even at that age I absorbed the lesson that magic comes with a price, that this is the justice of magic: you will have to choose between your old life and the new life you are offered, between safety and adventure, between being part of the story, or living out your little life ignorant that a story is even happening. A child's life does not usually feature many meaningful decisions: children's literature empowers children to practice decision making that might affect the whole universe.

Treacle Walker is the story of Joe, who has an improbable existence: he appears to live alone in his ancient-sounding home (his bed is on top of the chimney cupboard, the windows are mullioned, when his head aches he reclines on the settle - I still don't know exactly what a "settle" is and in honour of my childhood reading I'm not going to google it, but instead wait for another book to tell me one day), with little to occupy his time aside from marbles and archaic comic books ('Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit' being his favourite). He tells the time by the daily passing of a single train at midday. He is something of an invalid - he's not meant to be out in the sun, distances tire him, and he has a lazy eye, and must keep a patch over his strong eye to make his weak eye work harder.

The story is set in motion by the arrival of a rag and bone man, the eponymous Treacle Walker, in Joe's yard, who trades Joe his choice of pot and a stone for a pair of worn pyjamas and a lamb's scapula from his museum of natural history oddments:

The chest was full. Bedded in layers of silk, there were cups, saucers, platters, jugs, big and small: coloured, plain, simple, silvered, gilded, twisted; scenes of dancing, scenes of killing; ships, oceans, seas; beasts, birds, fishes, whales, monsters, houses, castles, mansions, halls; cherubs, satyrs, nymphs; mountains, rivers forests, lakes, fields and clouds and skies.

'Choose,' said the man. 'One.'

Joe chooses a plain china pot, adorned with blue writing: the least, the smallest, the cheapest of the wares on offer. It was previously home to some kind of ointment called 'Poor Man's Friend'. In exchange for his clothes and bone, Treacle Walker gives him the pot and a stone - a donkey stone, palm-sized, incised on one side with a simplifed figure of a horse, used to polish a doorstep. Two talismans thus enter Joe's story, and from here the adventure - not physical, but in place and time and knowledge - unfolds.


For those who have read the book. Treacle Walker left me tingling on my first reading, all my deep-housed childhood reading synapses firing. I was thinking about Kipling, and children being educated by ancient English beings; about T.H. White's Wart, who is taught about the world by the ancient and elemental Merlin, for whom confusion and not-knowing is simply part of the learning process; about Ursula Le Guin and children's introductions to the mysteries of time, space, and emotional justice. About Susan Cooper, who I came to late, and those writers, like Garth Nix in The Left-handed Booksellers of London, who pull on the elemental magic of the British Isles. 

I read Treacle Walker as the story of a child coming into his fate: of being prepared by two guides to take up his role in an ancient system of caring for time, place and the old stories. It touched a fundamental romanticism I didn't even quite realise I still held so deeply from my childhood. The book is filled with motifs - the sickly child, the magic ointment, the bewildering guide, the dewy grass and silvery moon - that are less tropes and more the ingredients for a magical spell, and powerful, magical storytelling. There are touches that feel utterly Garner: the bone flute is one (and the subject of a very beautiful lyrical passage), the battle between contemporary science and magic in a visit to the optometrist (workaday science loses) another, and the comic book sequences which are my least favourite part of the book, which feel like they're there to clunkily manifest a thesis about the nature of time and space.

I read the story first as a legend where a child must sacrifice their innocence and their small comfortable place in the surface world, in order to become part of the deeper world beyond, which holds that unseeing surface world together. My second reading came cluttered with experts' insights about Garner's interest in particle physics, his restoration of a centuries-old medicine house, theories about time. Maybe that reading comes with more admiration for the book and Garner's work, but it sucked out all the wonder. I'm going to discard that second reading, and hold instead on to that first.

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