Mythology and Folklore in Fiction, and Alan Garner’s “Treacle Walker

After some discussion of mythology, legend, folklore and fairytale – retellings, journeys, explorations – my mind inevitably turns to the next iteration of these tales: fiction influenced by or based on these ancient stories. Much fiction for children, especially fantasy literature, wears this influence: children in jeans battle (or befriend) sphinxes and dragons; fairies and unicorns are everywhere to be found. Alan Garner is one of our greatest living writers, in my opinion, and his novels are deeply rooted in myth and folklore, especially of the area where his family have lived since the sixteenth century.

I first encountered Alan Garner’s work aged eight or so with his first book. “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” is a modern classic of children’s literature, weaving wizards, dwarves, and magic into a contemporary story of two siblings caught up in momentous events. At the heart is the Cheshire version of the Sleeping Hero myth – that beneath the Edge lies a king and his sleeping knights, awaiting the day when they must rise to save the land.

Garner’s “The Owl Service” is one of my all-time favourite books. It’s a short work, rich and yet lean, where every word matters – all descriptors which could also be used of Treacle Walker. “The Owl Service” reveals Garner’s preoccupations with time and destiny, and a personal mythology of a recycling of energy through stories. He has described mythology as ‘a very condensed form of experience’.

This idea of endless cycles of events, playing out endlessly through the ages, is a captivating one. It pervades Susan Cooper’s superb “The Dark is Rising” sequence, another series seamlessly creating new mythologies by blending the ancient with the contemporary.

Treacle Walker was published in 2021 and, at the time of writing, is on the shortlist for the 2022 Booker Prize, one of the shortest novels ever to be so honoured.

It tells the story of Joseph Coppock, who wears a patch to cure his lazy eye, and a mind-bending rite of passage which starts when a rag-and-bone man comes to his home. It’s impossible to say too much without spoiling the experience of reading this extraordinary book, so you’ll just have to trust me.

Garner has said ‘I don’t make things up, I find them.’ So: The rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, is based on a real person – a local man who claimed to be able to heal everything except jealousy; Joe’s sight, or perhaps insight, reveals Garner’s fascination with and knowledge of quantum physics; the objects exchanged with Treacle Walker betray Garner’s long appreciation of archaeology; Lindow Man (a bog body) was found just a few miles from Garner’s home in Cheshire. And these and other parts are woven together into a whole which is sparse and yet incredibly rich, and perhaps due to Garner’s life’s work in folklore and myth, this new story has the feel of a story which has always been told. Perhaps it always will be.

Aoife is the manager of Dubray Books Liffey Valley. She loves fantasy, history, natural history, mysteries, picture books (and all the rest really). Reader, tree lover, hobbit...

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