Anyone who has ever read Kipling's PUCK OF POOK'S HILL will remember that Puck, and the attendant spirits of Old England, are first summoned up by A Midsummer Night's Dream being performed three times over on Midsummer's Eve in a fairy ring right under the titular Pook's Hill. The young protagonists of the book have had a small play made for them out of "the big Shakespeare one" by their father.
The reason I bring this up is that for sixty or seventy pages I experienced a similar reaction whilst reading Alan Garner's treasured 1960 debut novel. The only difference being that it was THE LORD OF THE RINGS which I felt I was reading a savagely pared down and diluted version of. All of Tolkien's literary furniture seemed to still be in situ, from the magical artefact that has to be protected from a resurgent evil, to the ubiquitous sagacious wizard, the valiant dwarfs, arrow shooting elves, bog dwelling ring-wraith and an army of goblins and with children deputising for hobbits. However self-evident it was that Garner was too superior a storyteller to be dismissed as a Tolkien imitator the proximity of publication between the two works seemed to suggest that Garner was subject - willingly or otherwise - to the enormous gravitational influence of Tolkien's epic.
But then quite spontaneously my entire perception of the book was profoundly altered and my appreciation of it magnified accordingly. The turning point occurred when the young - and it must be conceded rather bland - protagonists, Colin and Susan, experience a terrifying odyssey through the abandoned mine workings that riddle the plateau of Alderley Edge. Mines of Moria allusions notwithstanding, as an unrepentant claustrophobe I found the protracted pot-holing sequences to be the stuff of my very worst nightmares. By the time the outside world is once again attained I was completely converted and utterly engaged with this simply magnificent book.
What I believe is so powerful and appealing about it is the manner in which Garner makes a fully believable fantasy world - by turns both wondrous and sinister - out of the landscape of Cheshire. Just as Kipling did he fosters the engaging idea of a surviving world of folklore living in parallel with the real world but hidden from it by modern man's loss of imagination.
The actual story is a straightforward fable of good and evil played out against the backdrop of the Peak District wherein dwells the wizard Cadellin, the mage of Alderley, who guards a sleeping army of knights destined to battle the evil of Nastrond, the spirit of Darkness. But the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the magical jewel that protects the cave of Fundindelve wherein the knights slumber, has been lost. Colin and Susan find themselves drawn inextricably into the efforts to recover the stone and thwart the schemes of Nastrond's earthly servitors, the Morthbrood.
It is a simple if compelling premise and one developed with consumate skill which is all the more remarkable when one considers that it was Garner's first book. There are moments of genuine pathos and emotional poignancy and several quite nightmarish sequences also which would put real children into therapy for years but which Colin and Susan suffer with scarcely believable equanimity: none more so than the moment when they are hunted down by a foraging squad of goblins - or Svart-Alfar as the book names them - bound and trussed and prepared for transport to their subterranean caverns.
The book culminates with a journey to the peak of Shuttlingslow which for all its measure of mere miles rather than hundreds of leagues matches Tolkien in scope whatever it surrenders in scale and is marvellously eventful and exciting.
The book certainly isn't without its faults; magical aid seems to come the children's way with unbelievable convenience and indeed Garner himself is said to nowadays largely dismiss it as a bad book. But it isn't a bad book at all. Quite the opposite and the way in which it celebrates old fashioned values of loyalty, friendship and duty makes it one to cherish and to treasure.