The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
by Alan Garner
I’ve heard about Alan Garner’s addition to the fantasy canon many times over the years, but this was my first real exposure to the book itself. I had no knowledge of the plot or particulars, other than guesses related to “weird” or “wyrd,” the Anglo-Saxon word for fate, and the Brisingamen being a jeweled necklace worn by the goddess Freya of Norse mythology.
Although the novel was originally published in 1960, this edition comes from 1978, as if the central figure didn’t make that date immediately obvious. Despite the cover image, Darth Vader does not actually appear in the book, nor are there any similarities to Star Wars. The obvious predecessors instead are The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, as they are for most fantasy novels, but here the parallels are pretty strong. The story is set in the modern day (of 1960) with two English children from London, Colin and Susan, being sent out to spend six months in the country like the Pevensies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and one of them unknowingly possesses a powerful artifact wanted by an ancient dark lord like a Baggins of Bag End. But all of the action takes place in the exotic, magical land of Chesire (Alderley Edge, specifically) rather than Narnia or Middle-Earth. And it’s the modern age, full of bicycles and mackintoshes and electric torches (translated to “lamps” rather than flashlights for some reason), ski gear, lemonade and sandwiches, but it’s also a place where the local farmer still takes a horse-drawn wagon into town to pick up supplies.
Colin and Susan stumble into an ancient struggle between wizards. One wizard, Cadellin, watches over a slumbering cohort of knights beneath the earth, who will be needed at some distant day foretold to battle the evil Nastrond (a geographical location in Norse mythology, but here some god of darkness). A small jewel, called the Weirdstone, is meant to keep those knights asleep until that day, but if it should fall into the wrong hands, say those of Grimnir, the hooded figure on the cover, then the knights could be brought to life before the appointed day, and their absence in that final battle could prove the doom of the world. Susan has inherited the stone from her mother and the children quickly become a target of Grimnir and his allies, the witches and warlocks of Chesire, the svarts, the shapeshifting Morrigan, and other terrible things.
Two dwarfs (Tolkien would have used “dwarves”) are on hand to help Susan and Colin as well; the clever Fenodyree and the bold Durathror. They help guide the children through the harrowing underworld of Alderley Edge, during a legitimately claustrophobic series of chapters that involves spelunking through absolutely tiny passages and old mines in order to escape the svarts (small, goblin like creatures, although they derive their name from the supposed dark elves of Norse myth).
Like a lot of urban fantasy, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen posits a magical world living side by side with the modern world, and the children explore that magical world as they explore the countryside around Alderley Edge and Macclesfield. There are stromkarls and maras and magical islands and muspel cloaks and magical storms and faerie hounds and all sorts of creatures out of folklore and legend, sort of churned up and repurposed to suit the needs of the story. Or at least reinterpreted by Garner into his own setting, incorporating stories from across Northern Europe. There’s Norse and Anglo-Saxon and Irish and Welsh and English folklore all functioning side by side, integrated into a new whole that also encompasses modern England.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was originally categorized as juvenile literature, perhaps because of the young protagonists, but it graduated into the fantasy canon pretty quickly. It’s a solid epic fantasy adventure, well-told with a strong voice and a deft hand.