Alan Garner, author of “Thursbitch”
I warned you this was coming, Part 2 of my review of Alan Garner’s brilliant novel, Thursbitch. Goodness knows, it’s a novel worth spending time on and it would be a shame to waste all my notes.
From page 1, line 1, the setting of this novel is made apparent and unforgettable. The sense of place could not be more distinctive or important. Readers are blasted with names upon names of towns, landmarks, houses, hills and stones, without any description of the environment, as though “names alone mean everything”1. Their significance is part of the story that we gradually unearth through reading this novel – Garner hands us nothing on a plate – but initially we are disorientated, overwhelmed, lost in the fog settled over the landscape.
In contrast, as Jack Turner makes his way home with his team of packhorses, past “Ormes Smithy, up Blaze Hill and along Billinge Side”, although “he could not see for the whiteness […] he knew the road” (1). Jack orientates himself by the rocks and Tor faces around him, for “there’s not a brow nor a clough nor a slade nor a slack, nor a crop nor a crag, nor a frith nor a rake, nor a moss nor a moor, as we don’t know it, by day and by night, for as far as you can see and further” (34); he feels a connection to every nook and cranny of the land, and no matter how far he travels, he always returns, for “’this here nook of the world, for me, smiles more nor any other’” (31). He is a jagger, a traveller and trader, and the valley’s only connection to the outside world.
Saltersford Hall, the home of the real Turner family
In fact, all the villagers of Saltersford know of England outside Thursbitch is that it is located “up a-top of down younder, miles-endy-ways” (20) – somewhere highly ambiguous. “’London? […] What’s that?’” his mother Mary asks him when he gets home; neither she, nor his father Richard Turner, brother Edward or wife-to-be Nan Sarah have ever been out of the valley. They haven’t even been to the top of its slopes. But, like it or not, the modern world is encroaching and life in their solitary valley is endangered by the “land man”, a “high-learnt letter gent” (108) with “big ways” (146) who, thanks to permission from the government, wants to fence out “every inch of land; walling right up Tors” (109) in order to create new property rights. To do this, he’s prepared for “raunging […] out” (109) the mystic monoliths, a violation against the forces of Bull and Dionysus and Mother Earth that is unthinkable for Jack: “He can’t, Father. Never. He can’t.” (109)
Thoon, the rocky outcrop associated with Bull and Dionysus
Precious though the valley is to the people of Saltersford and their way of life, the energy and spiritual presence within it that is channelled by the great stone monoliths also incites great fear among them. The throne of Bacchic revelry is Thoon, the “worst” (2), most powerful, most dangerous stone in the system, which will “take a life as lief as give” (75). (Thoon was a name of a giant or gigante of Ancient Greek mythology, son of earth mother Gaia, and father to a race of men.) Passing underneath this prominent outcrop, “the lead horse felt it, even though it was up the moor, and she reared, whinnying” (30); Martha Barber, prominent Maenad and worshipper of Dionysus herself, keeps her door strictly “bolted” (4) after dark due to its potential malevolent force; Jack warns Nan Sarah not to “ever go to Thursbitch” (75) on nights when the stones are said to move, and she flat-out refuses to go near the underground stone well at Pearly Meg “for love nor money” (29), scared of snakes or poison, or both. Present-day characters Ian and Sal can feel a powerful and intimidating force as they traverse the valley, too, feeling “’This place has had enough of us’” (27).
Believe it or not, the fear and anxiety that Thursbitch and its stones inspire is not merely artistic fantasy. In a lecture delivered about the process of writing and researching this novel, Garner himself pieces together the Old English words þyrs, ‘demon’, and bæch, ‘valley’, that became recorded as ‘Thursbitch’ in 1384. “This was no Romantic conceit”, he says. “For the people of those hills in the fourteenth century, that valley was frequented by þyrs: a demon [in the shape of] “’something big’”. Those he spoke to of the valley in the 21st century were no less unnerved: “’There isn’t a farmer in all these hills around […] as will open his door after dark […] Not even to cross the yard”2 .
Thursbitch monolith and ruins
However, as shaman of the cult of the Bull, Jack knows the ways of the stones and the rites that must be carried out; as long as these stones are respected, revered and “it’s done proper, and we mind us manners” (31), no one will get hurt. In fact, so in tune is he with the spirits of the valley that, on occasion, he seems to be one of them: words “came to him out of Thoon’s very own mouth” (5), “the sound of the brook entered him, and he grew to the stone” (45), “he and the hare and the brook and the valley were one, below Thoon” (46). He was found as a newborn baby on Thoon, it is where his children are born during the novel’s span, and it is where Nan Sarah also finds her place, her shoe fitting perfectly into “a shallow print in the rock” (33). He cares for the stones, witnesses their movements, and makes sure they’re set back in their right places, for “every so often yon moon and stars get out of sorts, and it’s given to folks same as us to fettle ‘em and put ‘em back on their high stones. […] Bull shall never die, choose what [Christian] ranters and land man do” (154).
In order to carry out this duty Jack leads the people of Saltersford in ritualistic worship, the aim being to achieve wholeness with the valley in an explosion of joy and ecstasy, so that “the deathless life became his life, so that he knew nothing of him but all that was within and without was one, and the rock and well were one, and the sky and the waters were one, and death and life were one, and he was one of them all; and there was no ending of them” (111). There are rituals for marriage, rituals dedicated to agricultural deity Crom to bless the harvest, rituals to encourage the passing of the seasons and rituals to appease restless spirits. Preparation for these rituals involves eating the hallucinogenic, high-inducing Fly Agaric mushrooms or, alternatively, drinking the urine of one who has done so, which has the same result. Yes, you read correctly, and Jack has the best “piddlejuice” (4) around, “sweet and fragrant, nectar” (61). Through this practice of “opening een and ears and tongue” (146) through the drug, a wild, Bacchic frenzy erupts, with dancing, singing and even “tearing, baying, gnawing” at a bull’s flesh as a sacrifice to Crom.
Thoon, up close.
If we take a moment to consider all the imagery and allusions associated with this pagan lifestyle, it becomes clear that there may be more to Jack than mere shamanic abilities, for he is said to “tur[n] from servant and priest of Bull into incarnation of Bull” as he “loses his identity in identifying with the deity he serves”3. Similarly, Jack is born and dies “covered in bees” (42) or “all over honey” (8). These creatures are important mythical symbols, the bull being attributed to Dionysus, while bees were though to be manifestations of mother goddess Gaia and born of sacred bulls. They are symbols of awakening, regeneration, immortalisation and renewal; Jack, having been nursed by them at the beginning of his life, has, in other words, been nursed by Mother Earth herself. Other hints and spiritual similarities break through the mist too: like Dionysus, Jack travels the earth, spreading his faith, followed by female revelers and worshippers, overseeing the bloody sacrifice of live animals with teeth and bare hands. What is more, Jack, “knowing only the Bull’s truth, the wisdom of the Bee” (143), is often said to be both “beast and man” (145); his own father recognises that “Bull and Jack are one folk” (145).” When the bull is torn to pieces in the field, Jack too suffers a life-threatening attack that he barely makes it out of alive.
Despite the depth of his faith and the power of all these mystical figures around him, it is, astonishingly, tiny, innocent Nan Sarah who causes Jack to question his loyalties. Blinded – crazed, even – by love for her, Jack’s faith is shaken and Christianity is allowed, for a time, to creep into the valley in Bull’s place. The new religion is initially despised and ridiculed by everyone as being “a festerment” (3); sitting indoors to worship is likened to “shutting sky in a box of walls […] same as it was a suit o’ coffin stuff” (3) to those who so embrace the wild moors, and ‘services’ of the time, which preached violent and “everlasting torment” (128) for all, were dismissed as pathetic “muckfoodle talk” (130) and “hill-hooting” (131). Slowly, though, Jack’s new sermons begin to convert the smalltown population, and the Jenkin stone is even “broke” (2) down to allow Jenkin Chapel to be erected in pride of place. However, it is Jack’s father who is responsible for mixing the cement, a man undeviating from his principles; he manages to “mix a gallon of bull’s blood” (140) with the mortar, confident that Jack will see the error of his ways and that Bull shall save them from this new and “sorry land” (140).
In the modern day, connected to the past as through a “rift” (26) in time that causes a profound “geometric anomaly” (27), Ian and Sal are also trying to come to terms with their relationship to the valley and to each other. Sal, scientist and academic, quickly describes the landscape in black and white terms, reducing the geological formations from mystic portals to “textbook […] Chatsworth grit” (11) with nothing more special above them than a touch of “strong stylisation” (15). Meanwhile, Ian tries desperately to make sense of the sporadically-placed stone pillars in the same way, but fails to convince either Sal or himself. Of course, “the [monolithic] system works on observation of [light] rising and setting times at the fixed outcrop when viewed from the variously placed stones”2, but there’s something missing from this purely mathematical view.
Maenads leading Dionysian bull to sacrifice, from a Vatican bas-relief
Questions creep into Sal’s mind first, along with a strange spiritual sensation, as though “everything’s moving” (13) in a world of quiet that’s “different” (26). Ian chastises her for “bawling demotic rubbish in my ear” (64) and losing her scientific mind to subjectivity as a result of her “symptoms” (86). Perhaps this is true, or perhaps her neuro-degenerative disease has called into question her loyalty to science; perhaps she is more open now, with her own mortality in mind, to the idea of faith, of spirits, of a “sentient landscape” (87). Slowly, Sal convinces herself of her connection to the landscape, determined not to become “one of those yomping urban oiks” (65) who fail to appreciate the world around them. She encourages Ian, lover of order, justice, walls and “public right[s] of way” (71), a modern-day land-man sans immoral intentions, to put his precious map of the landscape away and “watch the real thing” (14).
Ian tries to resist her sentimentality, their dialogue packed with rebuttals –
‘I simply don’t have the maths.’
‘Who needs it? Just look.’” (90)
But soon he too begins to be swayed by the woman he loves, just like Jack.
Fly Agaric Mushrooms
Eventually, with only a box of pills to aid her instead of magic mushrooms, Sal reaches a point where, like Jack Turner, she “can’t tell which is the valley and which is me” (67); she has a “religious experience” (156) in the valley and is happy to spend eternity within its shelter. It is not heaven she senses around her, but an innate bond with the undulations that moves, with continental drift, at the same rate as her fingernails grow. In this unity of spiritual enlightenment and scientific principle she draws comfort in this “place of understanding” (152) that permeates Ian with peace too.
At the end of the novel, and without giving too much away, it is peace that the characters seek and find, rather than religious ecstasy. All signs of malevolent demons go out the window as human relationships are shown to have the greater power to influence minds, change lives and have strength enough to quake or construct whole systems of belief. Ian chooses Sal’s happiness over his beloved “spiritual or medical ethical” (137) principles; Jack is swayed into and out of Christianity by Nan Sarah before ultimately realising that his only duty should be to “do right” (6) by his love, whatever fate that brings.
“He had an odd-strucken sort of twist to his face, full of grief and good. I swear as I saw a broken man, but one as could mend. And I swear, Father, I never did see a happier man” (148).
It really is a fantastically moving novel. Please read it.
Thursbitch. Photo taken by Andy Turner.
1 FABER, Michael. “Oh, perispomenon!”. Review published in The Daily Telegraph, 5th October 2003. Accessed online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3603911/Oh-perispomenon.html
2 GARNER, Alan. “The Valley of the Demon.” Lecture first delivered at Knutford Literary Festival, 4th October 2013. Available online: http://alangarner.atspace.org/votd.html
3 RENNER, B. “Notes Toward a Survey of Thursbitch by Alan Garner.” Undated. Accessed online on 31/12/2013: http://elimae.com/reviews/garner/thursbitch.html
GARNER, ALAN. THURSBITCH. LONDON: VINTAGE, 2004.