Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Northern Mythological Traditions in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Posted by • Feb 1st, 2009

Readers of Journey to the Sea are doubtless already familiar with the significant contributions to the genre of modern fantasy literature made by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and perhaps to a lesser extent, by Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper. In this article, I’d like to consider a lesser-known writer, Alan Garner, and his first and best-known novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Garner’s novels are a rewarding combination of northern mythological and folkloric elements, incorporated into fantasy adventure stories set in modern times. By preserving these traditions in a modern fantasy story, Garner is doing his part to ensure the heritage of northern England is not forgotten. Sadly, too many readers are now forgetting Garner himself. But both he, and the traditions he aims to protect, are worth remembering.

In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, two schoolchildren, Colin and Susan, get unwittingly entangled in conflict with supernatural powers. Unaware of its mythic significance, Susan wears a family heirloom, the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, around her wrist. This jewel could bring great power to the forces of evil that could turn the tide in the imminent battle of the last days. The backbone of the tale is a kind of “reverse quest” — that is, a quest not to retrieve something, but to get rid of it. Susan must deliver that artifact into the safe keeping of the wizard Cadellin. The Great Enemy, Nastrond, desperately desires the Weirdstone; at the same time, Nastrond’s minions hope to snatch it for their own use. The bulk of the novel is an exilic journey in which the protagonists’ only goal is to evade capture until they can put the Weirdstone into more capable hands and return to their normal lives.

Garner grew up and still lives in Cheshire, a county in northern England. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen includes real landmarks from Cheshire — the Wizard’s Well, Goldenstone, and Clulow Cross — as well as other familiar features of the countryside — abandoned copper mines, the old quarry, Radnor Mere, and so on. This contributes to the novel’s verisimilitude (one can actually retrace the protagonists’ steps on their journey), but more than that, Garner associates them with supernatural and mythic underpinnings. Garner has used what one literary critic called an “immense narrative and verbal power, with a feeling for landscape” in this novel to “infuse the countryside of contemporary Cheshire with ancient, furious magic” (Butler 2005). The Wizard’s Well and its inscription, for example, are given a magical explanation: there really is a wizard! The landmark is well-known to Cheshire-folk, though no one remembers the true story of the carven image and inscription. Garner, having grown up near the Wizard’s Well, must have imagined many possible stories to explain it. In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, he offers readers his own fictive explanation, the wizard Cadellin.

The story is set in the environs of Alderley Edge, in present-day Cheshire, but its backdrop is an intricately woven tapestry of mythological influences drawn from the traditions of that region. Historically and geographically, Cheshire finds itself at something of a mythic crossroads, where Celtic, Old English, and Old Norse strands once met and mingled. Over the course of the Middle Ages, Celtic influences spread south from Scotland and northeast from Wales, while the Norse traveled southwest over the rough North Sea. Both of these converged on the native Anglo-Saxon tradition already well-established in England. The epic poems of legends of the Celtic Mabinogion, the Norse Eddas, and the English Beowulf were probably all known and appreciated in equal measure in this chilly northern county. Garner, therefore, takes pains to reflect the same admixture in his fictional representation. Let me give a few further examples of each to demonstrate how effectively Garner assimilates them into his novel.

The forces of evil include elements of all three mythologies. The Great Enemy is called Nastrond, and his abode is Ragnarok, both terms drawn from Old Norse mythology. But in the Old Norse, Nastrond is a place, not a person, while Ragnarok is an event, not a place. Why did Garner alter them? My suspicion is that he is trying to demonstrate the way in which mythologies erode over time. Names are remembered (usually), but their precise applications often are not — especially where disparate mythologies commingled. Tolkien demonstrated much the same kind of mythic mixture and erosion in his fiction. As another example, the svart alfar, represent the dark elves of the Old Norse tradition; here in The Weirdstone, they represent something analogous to the goblins of folklore. And where there are “dark elves,” there must also be “light elves” — and indeed the lios alfar make a quick appearance (they are more important in the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath). Later in the story, the forces of evil summon the fimbulwinter, a preternatural storm of snow, ice, and deadly cold invoked through dark magic, which also dates back to the Old Norse Eddic tradition.

The evil hoards against which Colin, Susan, and their allies find themselves pitted include a group of witches and warlocks called the morthbrood. This is clearly resurrected from Old English (morth ‘death, destruction, perdition’ + bród ‘brood’). Another part of the dark forces are the Lyblacs — a strange-sounding name for the equally strange scarecrow-like creatures it represents. But for those in the know, not so alien after all — lyblác is a kind of dark Anglo-Saxon magic. The word means ‘sorcery, witchcraft, the art of using drugs or potions for the purpose of poisoning, or for magical purposes.’ And finally, we have the Mara, great troll-like women, practically indestructible, and one of the most significant threats to our protagonists. These, too, are not mere invention on Garner’s part. The mara is a mingled Norse / English representation of the nightmare personified. The Old Norse word mara means a ‘nightmare, incubus,’ while in Old English there is the mære, mara, or mera ‘a night-mare, a monster oppressing men during sleep.’ (For more information on this mythical tradition, see Alaric Hall’s essay, cited below).

Garner’s principal witch, and the leader of the morthbrood, is called the Morrigan. This is a direct reference to a kind of sorceress archetype in Celtic mythology. One of the heroes, too, the dwarf Fenodyree, has Celtic origins. His cousin, Durathror, on the other hand, owes his name to Norse myth. But their mysterious ally, Gaberlunzie, is also a Celtic figure, as are Angharad Goldenhand and the distant realm of Prydein, to which some of the characters allude. Prydein lies outside the immediate map of the action, but it represents Northern Scotland, mythologized in the tradition of the Mabinogion (Prydain, so-spelled, also forms the mythic backdrop for Lloyd Alexander’s well-known fantasy series; however, Alexander shifted it southwest to Wales). In most cases, Garner draws little more than these distant names into his tale, like herbs and spices added to an already rich stew. But as with the examples of Nastrond and Ragnarok, Garner minds less that these remote people and places erode and evolve than that they be lost entirely.

I could easily enumerate a dozen other elements from these three major mythologies — the Weirdstone of Brisingamen itself refers to the necklace of the Norse goddess Freyja — but half the fun is in stumbling upon them for yourself. Indeed, these mythological landmarks are analogous, within the novel, to the actual landmarks of Cheshire and Alderley Edge, around which Garner built his fantasy adventure. Any walking excursion in the real, present-day countryside will reveal one ancient sight after another, and Garner wants to remind us that these landmarks have genuine stories — stories whose distant echoes in England’s early mythology can still be heard, if one stops to listen. And perhaps even a little of the magic lingers there as well.

Works Consulted

  • Butler, Charles. “Alan Garner.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 6 August 2005. (Excerpt available for free online; membership required for full entry.)
  • Butler, Charles. Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children’s Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper. Lanham, MD: Children’s Literature Association and Scarecrow Press, 2006.
  • Garner, Alan. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. New York: Ace Books, 1960.
  • Hall, Alaric. “The Evidence for Maran, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Nightmares’.” Neophilologus Vol. 91, No. 2. (April 2007): 299-317. (Abstract available online.)

5 Responses »

  1. “A lesser-known writer”? “Too many readers are now forgetting”? It must be an American phenomenon, because in the UK Alan Garner is considered to be one of the finest writers of prose since World War II, all his novels have remained in print from their day of publication, and he is still active and the subject of much discussion.

    You may find these interesting:

    Best regards,

    John Gould.

  2. Hi John. Yes, I was speaking from an American perspective — in fact, in the first draft of this essay, I included a parenthetical, “at least, in the United States”, which was subsequently cut. A mistake perhaps. :)

    I do know that he is not at all forgotten in his native England, and that is very reassuring. In America, however, it is a different story. When I was a teenager in the 1980’s, Garner’s books were everywhere. Now, it’s getting much harder to find them in the bookstores. If it weren’t for online booksellers, it would be almost impossible to find anything other than The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Certainly not Elidor, The Owl Service, Red Shift — and forget about Thursbitch or Strandloper.

    But your post is a reminder that Journey to the Sea has an international audience. A point well-taken. :)

  3. Thank you for the article, it is great! I have been searching for information about lyblacs and Gaberlunzie for years! Can you just point out, where exactly should I search for Gaberlunzie, and Angharad, and Ossar? Thanks!

  4. I know this is 18 months old and maybe no one will read this comment, but hey…just thought you might be interested in this link:

    Its an event (well series of events) celebrating the 50th anniversary of Wierdstone :)

  5. Well personally I loved the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, since it met my criteria of a dramatic tale. This particular story left me reeling from a range of extreme emotions as at times I felt anxious but also very excited!