Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

The Judge

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WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS THROUGHOUT


Where to start with Treacle Walker? Well, perhaps with the lapidary verse from the Rosarium philosophorum which is quoted in the book on an optician’s chart, and is then translated from the Latin:

This stone is small, of little price; spurned by fools, more honoured by the wise​

Like the Philosophers’ Stone, this book is certainly small – it comes in at a meagre 152 pages, but 26 of those are completely blank and another 18 have only a Roman numeral on them, I to XVIII, marking the new scenes (representing the change of hours? days? years??). Little price – well, word for word it’s more costly than most paperbacks nowadays, but worth, that’s a different matter. Spurned by fools – it would be very easy to dismiss it as almost incomprehensible, but it’s certainly been honoured if not by the wise, then by many book reviewers and those drawing up the shortlist for the Booker Prize.

As for what it is, that’s harder to answer. At the basic level, it’s about a boy, Joseph Coppock – Joe – who lives alone in an ancient house, reading comics and playing marbles, and what happens after he is visited by a mysterious rag and bone man, the eponymous Treacle Walker, who can heal everything save jealousy. (The original treacle, before it became synonymous with molasses, was a medicinal compound, an antidote to poison.) But the book is actually about time, death, continuation, change, the circularity and whirligig of life. I think.

Despite its short length, this is not a quick, easy read. It’s like a giant extended cryptic crossword puzzle where everything is linked, but initially nothing makes sense, and only time, effort, and continual re-reading of the clues starts to bring light into the darkness, but even then, for me at least, a lot remains obscure.

Into the plot Garner throws Thin Amren, a bog body reminiscent of Tollund Man, who dreams the world; a cuckoo, harbinger of summer and layer of eggs in other birds’ nests – Joe thinks to steal a cuckoo’s egg for his collection by finding its own nest, showing how little he knows of the bird; an antique pottery jar of Poor Mans Friend, a C17th/18th remedy produced in Bridport (perhaps also a name for people who helped those dying in agony to have an easy death?); a train which passes at noon each day but never returns; the bonacon, a mythical beast described as like a bull but with a noxious self-defence strategy; a valued marble (a small stone of little price); Stonehenge Kit and his adversaries, characters from a comic who come from the page into Joe’s house running through mirrors upon mirrors and speak in capitalised Comic Sans; Joe’s alter ego/dream-self who cannot be allowed to touch him; a bone pipe which plays a tune with wings; the White Horse of Uffington which leaves silver hoof prints behind; an eyepatch, a lazy eye, an optician’s chart and double vision; a chimney where Joe sleeps and where he and Walker talk which is the Axis Mundi, on which the sky turns, "the way between" the earth and the heavens "and the sapient stars"; and a cleaning, protecting, donkey stone.

The relevance of all of these I’ve not yet worked out, but after two slow reads, I’ve solved some of the clues and arrived at the main plot. I think. Treacle Walker is a psychopomp, the guide who takes the dead from this world to the next (as is a cuckoo?); so is also, perhaps, the Philosophers’ Stone incarnate, transmuting the base metal of earth-bound life into the gold of the afterlife. Joe has died, but has not yet moved on, remaining in a limbo by the chimney where every day is the same. When Treacle Walker arrives, Joe gives up rags and a bone – symbols of his dead body – and in return is allowed to choose something from a box Walker carries on his cart. As in any good myth, the choice has consequences, and in selecting the cheap, chipped antique jar of Poor Mans Friend instead of one of the glittering valuables, Joe has chosen his fate -- he is not now destined to move on to the afterlife. Instead, he kills the cuckoo and re-buries/imprisons Thin Amren in the bog so he can continue to dream the world, and he gives Treacle Walker the gift he most desires (“To hear no more the beat of Time. To have no morrow and no yesterday. To be free of years. Oblivion.”) sending him home to the summer stars. Finally, Joe takes over Treacle Walker’s box of shimmerings, his horse and cart, and his job. He becomes Treacle Walker. I think.

This is not a book of limpid prose; the dialogue in particular is elliptical, difficult, and Walker and Thin Amren speak in riddles, with old-fashioned phrases and dialect words scattered everywhere. But there’s a good deal of humour in it, not least in Joe’s impatience at the riddling and his misunderstandings of Latin and difficult words. There’s not the lyricism and yearning for the English countryside I thought there might be (having read only one Garner, which I’ve wholly forgotten) but there is an air of myth about the book, and towards the end of my first read I was reminded of Pincher Martin by William Golding, perhaps because that also occupies the same liminal space between life and death.

So is Treacle Walker worth reading? Not if you want a commonplace read with a plot and characters you can immediately understand, nor if you have no patience for a kind of literary labyrinth. But it’s intriguing, strange, baffling, mysterious, and worth honouring, or at least worth puzzling over. I’m sure of that.
 
It sounds awesome, and seems to touch on several of my favorite subjects. Thanks for sharing your review. I am on my way to Amazon now to look for the book. I won't be able to read it immediately, but would be nice to have it on hand when I can.
 
I've been inspired by this and have got myself (legitimately not pirate!) a copy of it now.

Regarding other books by him
There’s not the lyricism and yearning for the English countryside I thought there might be (having read only one Garner, which I’ve wholly forgotten)
I also have only read one Garner - The Owl Service.
(On lists of his books there are some that reference a book titled Smith, but I can't find anything about it online)
 
I enjoyed my recent re-read but you've made more sense of it than me. The only thing I can perhaps add is that I wondered if the name Treacle Walker referenced the phrase "wading through treacle", i.e. making a frustrating lack of progress. This could work with the idea of Joe being dead and unable to move on, which I hadn't twigged. That certainly fits with the fact that his parents are nowhere in evidence, though I'm not then sure what to make of his visit to the optician.

There’s not the lyricism and yearning for the English countryside I thought there might be (having read only one Garner, which I’ve wholly forgotten) but there is an air of myth about the book, and towards the end of my first read I was reminded of Pincher Martin by William Golding, perhaps because that also occupies the same liminal space between life and death.
I'd be interested to know which Garner that was (if you remember in future), as I don't associate him with rural lyricism: his observations of the countryside seem to me hard-edged, if beautifully worded.

Good comparison though with Pincher Martin.
 
Thanks for a terrific review. This sounds very interesting. I like Alan Garner and it will be worth comparing to Wierdstone of Brisingamen and its sequels.

@Danny McG There was a book by Leon Garfield called Smith. Is that the one you are thinking of? Both Garner and Garfield were published by Puffin in the 60s & 70s and I used to confuse them.
 
It sounds awesome, and seems to touch on several of my favorite subjects. Thanks for sharing your review. I am on my way to Amazon now to look for the book. I won't be able to read it immediately, but would be nice to have it on hand when I can.
The scenes are all very short, as you might expect -- I see HB says it's only 15,000 words in all -- and if you can scrape a few minutes together, it is worth reading just one scene at a time.

I've been inspired by this and have got myself (legitimately not pirate!) a copy of it now.
I'm suitably gobsmacked!

I also have only read one Garner - The Owl Service.
That's the one I read, too!

It’s been a tricky one to sell, this might help as we have been pushing it as fans of Garner :)
If you think it might help, feel free to print it out and show it to people, either in whole or part. (I wouldn't usually recommend giving spoilers for a novel, but in this case I think it would have assisted me considerably if I'd had a clue as to what was going on before I'd started it!)

I enjoyed my recent re-read but you've made more sense of it than me. The only thing I can perhaps add is that I wondered if the name Treacle Walker referenced the phrase "wading through treacle", i.e. making a frustrating lack of progress.
Ooh, clever idea. But it was actually the nickname of a real person, who also coined the "heal everything save jealousy" line. Garner gave an interview and spoke about a conversation he had with a friend called Bob Cywinski, and how Garner had been taught to "Pursue the anomaly":

Cywinski told Garner how his mother had frightened him as a child by warning him that if he didn’t behave, Treacle Walker would come and get him. It was only some time later he discovered that Treacle Walker wasn’t a myth but a historical person, a vagrant called Walter Halliwell (Garner has since found him in the 1911 census) who used to walk a circuit of hill farms doing odd jobs for food in the early part of the 20th century. Cywinski puzzled over why “Treacle” – “it’s the sticky stuff, isn’t it?” The classicist Garner saw the link. Halliwell was supposed to be a medicine man who could cure everything except jealousy. “Treacle” was theriake – which means a cure for venom – and descends to its present form via middle English. “I said: that’s the anomaly. Just remember – note the date, note the time – that you have just given me a book.”​

This could work with the idea of Joe being dead and unable to move on, which I hadn't twigged. That certainly fits with the fact that his parents are nowhere in evidence, though I'm not then sure what to make of his visit to the optician.
No parents, not even thought about or considered; nobody ever around the house or in the fields; no food or drink taken but he's never hungry or thirsty; the pyjamas put away unwashed (I wondered if his body still wore them, or his mother couldn't bear to lose the smell of him); and he tells us that he's been ill. Also at the end there's rather the giveaway "Treacle Walker, am I dead?" and Walker's response isn't "No" but "I will not say that you are dead. Rather, in this world you have changed your life, and are got into another place."

The visit to the optician isn't real, or, rather, only as real as Treacle Walker and Thin Amren are. That to me was shown when Walker questions Joe about seeing the optician, and Joe can't give a proper answer, and gets upset about it.

I'd be interested to know which Garner that was (if you remember in future), as I don't associate him with rural lyricism: his observations of the countryside seem to me hard-edged, if beautifully worded.
The Owl Service -- which I'm pretty sure I borrowed from you. I can't recall anything of it now, but notes I made at the time talk of "a real sense of atmosphere and place" and "Wonderful" so it led me to think wonderful writing. I'll have to get a copy of my own and re-read it!
 
Thanks for all that analysis @The Judge and doing the research I couldn't be bothered to. I'll have to read it again soon in the light of what you've said.

The Owl Service -- which I'm pretty sure I borrowed from you. I can't recall anything of it now, but notes I made at the time talk of "a real sense of atmosphere and place" and "Wonderful" so it led me to think wonderful writing. I'll have to get a copy of my own and re-read it!
I remember lending Jeff a copy, but I'm not sure I lent it to you too. I think what you said about atmosphere etc is true, but again, I wouldn't have said lyrical. It's next on my reading list, though, so I'll check!
 
@Danny McG There was a book by Leon Garfield called Smith. Is that the one you are thinking of? Both Garner and Garfield were published by Puffin in the 60s & 70s and I used to confuse them
I think that's it, cheers....this listing on Fantastic Fiction (4th book down) also gets it wrong!
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Looks like our library hasn’t ordered it yet, though they have his other works, might just buy it and ask library to order also.
 
Many thanks for the review, Judge. I read this yesterday, as I think you know. Your excellent review supports and agrees with almost everything I thought about it, and it also helped crystallize some ideas I had but had not quite managed to bring into mental focus.

One point I will pick up is that you mention it's not a quick, easy read and that the dialogue is difficult. I'm not sure I agree with that - I found it the easiest read I've enjoyed in a long time (I read it in just a few hours, more or less in one sitting). With regard to dialogue, it's difficult to fully understand some of Treacle Walker's references and terms, but again, it flows well, and is not a challenge to get through - the difficulty is only in immediate interpretation. But I think Garner does something quite clever, which is to align Joe's misunderstanding and skepticism of Treacle's pronouncements with the readers' confusion, which keeps it more grounded and penetrable than it would otherwise be.

In short, I liked it a good deal, and would recommend it. One of the things I liked most was the sense of old myth or arcane truth, buried but not lost. The rag-and bone man, the childish 'made-up words', the bog, the copse, the cuckoo, the old style children's comics - it's all very redolent of a lost connection with an England we don't really recall, but which seems 'right' some how; as though it reminds us of a sort of pastoral national subconscious. It also struck me that Garner managed to do something that is very uncommon these days - create a fantasy which is non-derivative, or at least strikingly original. When was the last time you read something fantastic and it seemed like a new idea, presented in an original way?
 
One point I will pick up is that you mention it's not a quick, easy read and that the dialogue is difficult. I'm not sure I agree with that -
Yes, I perhaps didn't express myself very well there.

I didn't mean difficult in the sense of using arcane or recondite language as such. I mentioned the old-fashioned expressions and dialect words since they may well cause problems for anyone without any knowledge of 1940s/50s British English or anyone for whom English is a second language. (Though personally, I loved them -- the ones I didn't know I could guess at or get along without knowing, and still derived pleasure from them eg "a hurlothrumbo of winter" and "a lomperhomick of night.") But rather, difficult in the sense of not fully understanding what is being said and why, because it's convoluted and elliptical. I usually read very quickly. Long practice with legal documents means I can virtually skim-read and yet miss very little of what's been said and what's happening, but here I was having to slow down and repeatedly re-read to try and follow it. Which is no bad thing, of course, but it certainly took me longer to read than 15,000 words of an ordinary fantasy would do.
 
Yes, I perhaps didn't express myself very well there.

I didn't mean difficult in the sense of using arcane or recondite language as such... But rather, difficult in the sense of not fully understanding what is being said and why, because it's convoluted and elliptical.
That makes sense, and that's how I felt about it. But I read everything at the speed of speech, such that if I read it aloud it would take the same time, so I didn't have to slow down!
 
Alan Garner said:
‘The process that led to Treacle Walker lasted from 22 July 2012 to 25 July 2020. It began with an anecdote a friend told me, which I instantly “knew” would produce a novel, though what kind of a novel it would be I had no idea.

‘Treacle Walker, real name Walter Helliwell, was a tramp who claimed to heal “all things but jealousy”. He was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, near Huddersfield. Not much else is known about him.’
 
Haven't read the OP because I want to read Treacle Walker without too many preconceptions. I post here only to say that I gave my big sister a copy for Xmas, chosen only on the title and that the author was Garner. My sis thought that I'd given her a book called Treacle W*nker
 
It also struck me that Garner managed to do something that is very uncommon these days - create a fantasy which is non-derivative, or at least strikingly original. When was the last time you read something fantastic and it seemed like a new idea, presented in an original way?
Good point, and I'd place it with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and Russel Hoban's Riddley Walker (another Walker!) as belonging to a small group that seemed to come from nowhere (in terms of the genre, at least) and lead to nowhere in the sense of other works not obviously drawing on them. (I guess it's too soon to tell the latter regarding Treacle Walker, but I really can't imagine it will spawn imitators.)

Another one might be Garner's Red Shift, which I've decided to tackle next, having only read it once before.
 

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