The Song of Roland:
Alan Garner's Elidor
Roger Howe

Waves crash, doors slam, acoustics shift. This is radio literature. The recording of Elidor may have been lost, but faint traces of the original play are still to be found in the published novel.

Dialogue, description, the outline of the plot have survived many redrafts. It is fascinating to trace the process of creation from half an hour of radio airtime in the North of England in 1962 to the paperback that remains in print today.


The play was commissioned to mark the fortieth anniversary of BBC radio broadcasting. As Alan Garner has written: “Everything about the production was going to be special: special music composed by a special composer; special recording; special actors who had a long association with BBC Manchester; special me.”

It would seem Alan Garner sat down to write Elidor long-hand at 9.40 p.m. Monday 10 September 1962:

“City noises : children’s voices”

The play begins on a November Saturday afternoon in Manchester variously described in Alan Garner’s drafts as “ hot”, “still”, “mild” and “unbeara[ble]”. “The stores were crowded with the first swell of Christmas shoppers”. The children would rather have been at home, where “at least the air wasn’t 2nd-hand”.

The theme of moving house, so central to the book, is absent from the radio version; the children simply couldn’t take any more of their mother’s progress through boutiques “in search of a hat she didn’t need” - and went off on their own.

The description of the urban wasteland into which the four Watson children escape is pretty much unchanged from the earliest drafts. The scene in the fish market survived successive rewrites, only to disappear in print.


            But the alley brought them to a covered market ofwrought iron, & glass -

                                                            F/x: footsteps on echo : carts

    - where men in rubber aprons trundled empty carts along far avenues of empty booths.

                                                            Nick [off-mic : on echo.]

            It’s the fish market.

                                                            David [off-mic : on echo.]

            It sure whiffs enough!

                                                            Helen [off-mic : on echo]

            Why’s it so dead?

                                                            Nick [off-mic : on echo]

            The fish is all sold before daybreak - they auction it.

                                                            Roland [off-mic : on echo]

            I don’t think this is the way.

There is the sense of the teeming life of a great city: shops, streets, markets, railway stations, past and present. Smithfield fish market in Manchester is long closed now; the façade remains, decorated with carvings showing scenes from the fishing industry.

Fog Lane, first home of theWatson family, still exists, between Wilmslow Road and Kingsway. Burnage before Oasis.

Even the roller-map outside the Manchester Central Library was real. Thursday Street existed, off New Allen Street in Miles Platting, but was demolished as Garner describes.

In an early draft of the novel we learn the youths the children pass in the back-streets talking to a girl were “all wearing leather jackets”. Worth recalling the paranoia about ‘Teddy boys’ in the early 1960s: in the novel The Children of Light, which Joseph Losey adapted into the film The Damned, the last house in the wasteland is occupied by a teenage razor-gang.

Alan Garner writes bluntly, "I abhor cities", yet he was drawn into their life.  Looking from Granada Television in Manchester, Garner asked a friend, the Salford artist Harold Riley, to show him the "secret details" of the terraced streets then being "destroyed in the name of progress".

Here many communities had lived: Irish, Jewish, Italian. "Harold showed me how what I found ugly and even intimidating was warm and human." Writing in 2001, Alan Garner noted many of the new tower blocks were now being pulled down, the "failed dreams of planners".

Harold Riley remembers Alan Garner as "a gentle person", very affectionate to his children, fascinated by the wooden windows for 'night soil' in the houses in the back streets - until he found out what the term meant.

The description in play and novel has the ring of straight reportage:

    The wasteland was bigger in the late afternoon light; the air quiet; and the houses seemed to be painted in the dusk.

This line, many times transferred, seems a private reference to Harold Riley's work documenting the process. Soon the houses will only exist in memory and art.

Everything must go. Everything must be destroyed. Even Chapel Street, Altrincham , "the bravest little street in England", from which 161 men volunteered, 29 of them killed, in the First World War, had to be pulled down.

The children disappear one by one. Sole inhabitant of the landscape an old tramp, seeming source of music almost too quick for the ear to catch.

On the fiddler's note the church dissolves.

The cobbles of the street become the pebbles on the shore. They are set free, returned to their element.

The first scene in Elidor has something in common with Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal, set in the Middle Ages, but concerned with the threat of nuclear war, which opens with a knight playing chess with Death on a desolate coast at nightfall.

There is a trace of dialogue in the stone circle, which in the novel Roland, the youngest child, confronts alone.

The mood is similar to the Wild Hunt in The Moon of Gomrath , Garner's second novel, not yet published when the play was written. "The stags trod the peaks of the mountains, & their antlers were lightning against the clouds."

Malebron, king of Elidor, is revealed:


    He sat tall on the stag . What Roland had thought to be an old sack about the fiddler's shoulders now seemed to take on lights of bronze, & his rags were garments of war.  In his hand was a spear, & its head was fire.                               

The Platonic question of identity: What is a sword? What is a king?  When Malebron urges Roland to think his way into the Mound of Vandwy , he explains: "It is all doors."

Having already thrown so many sounds at the listener there seems almost a despairing note in the author’s direction at this point as Roland uses his mind to force a way into the mound:

                                                            F/x: God knows what

The stakes here seem to be that if all four Treasures are taken into the mound the death of the past will be complete. This is why Malebron needs Roland to go into the mound on his behalf. An abstract evil kills the past, denying its ability to communicate with us.

"Find some else!" Roland shouts in the novel.

            "Not me!  It's nothing to do with me!"

    "It is," said Malebron . "Our worlds are different, but they are linked in subtle ways, and the death of Elidor would not be without its echo in your world."

The implication seems to be that materialism would triumph in this world and Roland would be destined for a life of confinement in a lunatic asylum.

War in Elidor is indicated by the direction

                                                            F/x : distant battle noises

A siege: the walls of a city, surrounded by darkness with "things in it --- moving --- like wolves".

The play ends when the children return to Manchester the moment the house falls - a third of the way through the book.

The play draws on three elements, the story of 'Elidyr and the Golden Ball' from Giraldus Cambrensis , the ballad 'Burd Ellen' and Louis MacNeice's quest-drama The Dark Tower.

In the earliest draft of the play Helen is Ellen, Roland is Rowland and the ball is gold, not white plastic.

The story of the young boy who played truant and found his way into fairyland, played football with the inhabitants and was introduced to their king, was told to Giraldus' uncle, the bishop, by an elderly priest in Wales who maintained it had happened to him. He tried to make off with the golden ball to prove his story, failed, and never found his way back into the enchanted realm.

Elidor also has something in common with the Irish Immrama , tales of miraculous voyages. As Alwyn and Brinley Rees point out in Celtic Heritage, one of Garner's source-books, in the voyage of Maelduin "our world as we know it seems to resolve itself into its components" - there is an island of joy and an island of sorrow.

If Elidor resembles any of the 31 islands Maelduin encounters it is perhaps the Island of Black and White.  Colour-coding has always played an important part in Alan Garner's writing, including his actual manuscripts; difficult to convey on radio, but in fact it is there in the script - the good characters ride on white stags, the evil on black.

This motif is almost entirely absent from the published novel. There is a single fleeting reference to Malebron's enemies riding on stags, though the word 'black' is deleted; the children and the king are reduced to going on foot.

If a board-game is being played in Elidor it seems to be Welsh gwyddbwyll not chess: "The king, from the centre of the board, tries to break through to the safety of the outer edge; the hunting party (without a king) endeavours to pen him in and capture him."

The forces of evil are tenuous and abstract in Elidor.  They seem to be madness and death, estrangement from the past. Not necessarily in that order.

Susan Dickinson of Collins publishers could not hear the play on BBC Northern Region on 18 November 1962 and had to make do with reading the script.  She made some common sense objections in a letter to Alan Garner the following day.

Though impressed by how much had gone into the half-hour, she wrote:

    I am not quite sure what exactly was going on in Elidor . Why were the other three children just sitting in the hill? And if Roland hadn’t touched the apple blossom what would have happened? (or not happened?) I suppose the only purpose of the stags was that some animal had to carry them and stags are more dramatic than horses or camels.

    Malebron's speech 11 on page 27 is difficult. Was he of “this world” ?

Alan Garner seems to have envisaged Elidor as a cross between Ireland and Cheshire. In a discussion of the reality of Elidor between the children cut from the end of Chapter 12, Nicholas, the rationalist, says, "The whole place can't be bigger than a county."

To Roland, Elidor is the land of archetypes, Platonic absolutes: "the trees were more tree- like & even the stones were more stone-like than trees or stones here".

In 1965 Alan Garner sent a detailed annotated typescript of the novel to the children's literature expert Naomi Lewis.

Elidor in its glory is Tír na nÓg, the Irish Land of Youth. Garner quotes from The Voyage of Bran: "Fair is that land to all eternity beneath its snowfall of blossoms"; and The Wooing of Etain : "A magic land & full of song..."  The four castles, "cities" in the original play, are the four cities of the Tuatha De Danaan, the legendary first inhabitants of Ireland; the treasures their treasures.

Gorias, the surviving castle, is described as "a tear of the sun", an image taken from The Song of Amergin, believed to be a creation song put into the mouth of the first of the Milesians to take possession of Ireland.

The prehistoric mound at New Grange in Ireland was opened in 1962 and found to contain a long passage and chambers, as Garner describes, in which the remains of the dead were deposited once a year when the light shone in.

Not far away, though inhabited thousands of years later, stands the Hill of Tara, a plateau with views out across Ireland in all directions, including towards the Cooley Mountains in the north: home to the high kings of Ireland until the coming of the English. One of the structures on the hill is the Mound of the Hostages - rather small - where prisoners were apparently held.

Mondrum, however, was the Saxon name for Delamere forest in Cheshire; the 'Starved Fool' is based on the Cheshire prophet Robert Nixon, reputed to have died at the court of Richard III. Garner laconically notes, "He probably never lived".

The starved fool was thus Nixon, almost certainly Wilfred Owen, and obviously to some extent Garner himself.

The description of the war within Elidor contains a hint of Gildas , historian of The Ruin and Conquest of Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire.

    The darkness grew," said Malebron . "It was always there. We did not watch, and the power of night closed on Elidor. We had so much of ease that we did not mark the signs - a crop blighted, a spring failed, a man killed. Then it was too late - war, and siege, and betrayal, and the dying of the light."

Gildas complains "luxury also grew" among the Britons. Their country an "island stiff with frost... remote from the visible sun". God, "lest Britain should be completely enveloped in the thick darkness of black night, kindled for us bright lamps of holy martyrs".

Alan Garner seems to favour the controversial steady-state theory according to which there is no drastic break between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon populations in Britain; Irish myth accordingly the best insight into our own.

What the Irish make of the story is not recorded.

The radio Malebron is a kindly reassuring figure; he addresses Roland by name and leads him through from the ruined house (not church) into Elidor, rather than leaving the boy to fend for himself as he does in the book. (“You just dumped me by the cliff ”.)

Malebron only speaks forcefully once in the play and the author states this is out of character. Alan Garner has written that the change to a harsh commanding tone came late in the process as a result of seeing Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of Saint Michael triumphing over the devil on the wall of the new Coventry Cathedral and Robert Stephens’ performance as the Inca Atahualpa in the stage version of The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

This is 'king and country' stripped to basics: a limping outcast and a muddy wasteland.

The radio Roland is more clearly autobiographical than in the novel.  Roland sprints. Alan Garner was a champion schoolboy sprinter. The boy hero is described as nervous and highly-strung, “always imagining things”.

Alan Garner uses the line “Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came” as the epigraph to the novel.  Thought to be a line from a lost ballad, Shakespeare uses it to typically mocking effect in King Lear.

Roland was the hero of the early medieval epic The Song of Roland.  The battle of Roncevalles was a real event on 15 August 778 and there is no reason to doubt Roland was a real man, though as Dorothy L. Sayers points out none of the other details of the chronicle account made it into the epic.

His name stuck because it sounded heroic.

Brutish heroes hewing one another with great knives. The Emperor Charlemagne was not an old man with a long white beard, he was 38 at the time of the battle.

The mountain setting, the desperate rearguard battle in the pass, the sounding of the horn - all these elements match Elidor, the novel rather than the play.

As nothing is known about the historical Roland beyond his having been Prefect of the Breton Marches myth embroidered incidents, such as his initiation as a knight, maintaining a vigil in a dark tower. These traditions have in turn been all but lost, surviving as hints or clues.

Louis MacNeice developed his much-loved radio play The Dark Tower from the one line of Shakespeare. The play was written in Ireland during the summer of 1945; broadcast by the BBC Third Programme on 21 January 1946, with music by Britten, when Garner was eleven.

Roland is the youngest son, last to set out to fight "a nameless force"

                        All we know is there is something there
                        Which makes the Dark Tower dark and it is the source
                        Of evil through the world.

By 1962 it was Garner's turn to set out on the quest.

Malebron is rejuvenated. He goes from a lame old man playing the violin in a demolished wasteland to a tall figure on the battlements of a castle with a golden cloak around him.

As with the last lines of W. B. Yeats’ play Cathleen Ni Houlihan:

                        - Did you see an old woman going down the path?

                        - I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.

Another Yeats' play is entitled The Unicorn from the Stars.

Malebron is a king without followers of any kind, his opponentsfollowers without a king. Perhaps the king survives in the grave while his followers turn to dust.

"We fight our own people," Malebron explains in the novel, "Darkness needs no shape. It uses. It possesses."

The name was borrowed by Garner from a servant of Oberon.

A Beckett character too, more explicit in the radio version where he first appears in dark glasses: Samuel Beckett set out to be the voice of the voiceless, discarded and dead. Jung says in 'The Soul and Death' (1934), sometimes the souls of the dead "break through the barriers of space and time".

Elidor is the only one of Garner’s novels with an urban setting. Alderley Edge shrinks to a Manchester suburb. (“What could happen here? thought Roland. Even the toadstools are made of concrete.”)

The Manchester flats that replaced the terraced streets, those which have themselves survived demolition, look as if they were designed by Leonid Brezhnev on a bad day.

This is the paradox of the Sixties: the music has lasted, the buildings haven’t.


Novel and play express Alan Garner’s doubts about modernity.

Tempting to look for parallels at the time of writing: in the autumn of 1961 the world appeared close to war during the Berlin crisis when Soviet and American tanks confronted one another in a city as dark and ruinous as Manchester.

We now know the Soviets had detailed plans for occupying Manchester - though they decided to keep their tanks out of the Trafford Park industrial estate.

A favourite artistic motif of the Sixties might be described as ‘juxtaposition as interaction’: Germano Facetti’s Penguin book designs, Peter Blake’s Magic Crowd, Angus McBride’s cover art for the children’s educational magazine Finding Out.

Thus Confucius turns up in JFK’s speeches… better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Khrushchev’s achievements: a satellite, a wall and a downed plane.

Elidor begins with a similar montage: a Victorian chapel, a mechanical digger and a Bronze Age king.

The one house standing alone "like a snaggled tooth" in the wasteland in the play becomes a church in the novel. The derelict building contains

    ...the things that are always left behind.   There were some mouldering Sunday school registers; a brass-bound Bible; a faded sepia photograph of the Whitsun procession of 1909; a copy of Kirton's Standard Temperance Reciter, Presented to John Beddowes by the Pendlebury Band of Hope, February 1888. There was a broken saucer. There was a jam jar furred green with long-dried water.

This gives a sense of the church congregation as village within the city. The 'reciting contest' which Beddowes won surely an episode crying out for the novelist's attention.

Another important event in the cultural life of the Britain in the Sixties, now forgotten, was the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral on 25 May 1962 - also broadcast.  The modern cathedral housed artworks by Graham Sutherland, Elisabeth Frink, Keith New and others.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was composed specially and became a huge commercial success. Britten’s music can seem chilly and remote, here it is thunderous and overwhelming. This is how it must feel to be in a building as it is destroyed - which is where the children find themselves at the end of the play.

The poems of Wilfred Owen, killed in the First World War, are given wings by Britten’s music.

The War Requiem is a prayer for the preservation of the world, an artistic comment on three world wars: the forces of destruction that killed Wilfred Owen, destroyed Coventry Cathedral and now threaten to annihilate humanity.

Garner wrote:

    ...in the third book, Elidor, I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten's War Requiem nearly every day.

Elidor emerges in the book as the embodiment of manic depression.  The landscape Alan Garner had seen in the ceiling when bedridden with illness as a child:

    ...the view showed only desolation. Plain, ridge, forest, sea, all were spent. Even colour had been drained from the light, and Roland saw everything, his own flesh and clothes, in shades of grey, as if in a photograph.

Only the golden figure of Malebron and the castle of Gorias, glimmering like a candle-flame, give meaning to the world.

The king is described as “the source of the brightness”; when Roland sees the golden castle he jumps to the conclusion: “It would be all right now.”

The novel was written in its final form January-July 1964, published in the autumn of 1965, coming out as a Puffin paperback two years later.

Garner insisted on two points - and lost. The unicorn Findhorn should come as a surprise, exploding into the story at the end and David should be allowed to shout out the word “bastards!” as the children are pursued down the road and the neighbours pull their curtains.

He went so far as to say it was “crucial to the whole book”.  “It’s what people are, it’s what they do. It’s Colin Jordan, Martin Luther King, old ladies coshed in Wolverhampton, passers-by watching a policeman being roughed up in Leeds.”

No use getting shrill with the publishers.  The unicorn went on the cover and the word was changed to “devils”.

A line about the older children sitting in the Mound of Vandwy with "empty eyes" had to go as well, presumably because it was too frightening.

Elidor is one of Garner's few excursions away from rural Cheshire and the only one of his early novels to be illustrated, by Charles Keeping, whose inky looping lines manage to combine Victorian engraving with Abstract Expressionism; a link to the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, set mainly in Roman Britain.

There seems to have been some suggestion Harold Riley should illustrate the book, but he did not see himself primarily as an illustrator.

Keeping wanted to depict the children as bomb site kids, but Garner insisted the Watson family were above all painfully eager to be middle class.

An American edition was published, encountering an early manifestation of political correctness. Various changes were insisted upon: "We're not allowed to call them 'redskins' here." The full text was published later, seemingly without ill effects.

A German publisher rejected the book while expressing admiration for it.  The fantasy element was too much for them: “it is almost as if the dangers of ideological thought were looming on the horizon”.

In response Garner explained his approach in a letter to his publishers: “I use myth and fantasy at the moment not because it’s escapist, but because myth is itself the distillation of humanity.”

If as Neil Philip has written in his study A Fine Anger, Garner brought the "vigour of the oral tradition" to the novel, his radio work played a part in the process: recording how people actually spoke.

Alan Garner believes the play was not recorded, but this cannot be right. On 24 November 1966 the New York Times radio listings included

    10 - 10:30  WBAI : “Elidor,” a radio play by Alan Garner, with Wilfred Pickles as the narrator, and Geoffrey Banks as Malebron

Another opportunity for home-taping. Perhaps listeners to station WBAI should go rummage in their attics.

This is obviously the BBC production from four years earlier.

Elidor was read, con brio, by John Stride on Jackanory on BBC television in June 1968, illustrated by generic shots of trees and stones photographed by James Matthews-Joyce, reaching a wide audience. The mix of mythological fantasy and kitchen-sink realism a clear step beyond C. S. Lewis.

Elidor was further adapted, for television, by Don Webb, presumably with input from Alan Garner, in 1995.  The dramatisation catches some of the atmosphere of the novel and Damian Zuk makes a creditable Roland, but the children are tiresome in their relentless metronomic bickering and the scenes in Elidor look like Macbeth enacted by Neanderthals.

The enemy have become sub-human, snarling.

So is Elidor real? The reader may feel it has to be real at least within the context of the book or the story makes no sense.

The manuscript has some interesting passages omitted from the published version which show Garner wrestling with this:


                        A year passed.

                        For a while the children talked about
                        Elidor, but with time it grew remote, a
                        private memory for each of them, & as unconnected
                        with their real life as their annual holiday by the sea.
                        It was hard to distinguish between what had
                        happened & what they had said or dreamed

The author hedged his bets. In 1960 he seems to have sent a copy of his first book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to C. S. Lewis, who commented in a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green that it was, “Not bad, tho’ too indebted to Tolkien.”

However, by February 1966 Garner was writing to his publisher: “I’ve said that, having finished Elidor, I noticed it was THE anti-Narnian fantasy, but this was done unconsciously.”  The fantasy world is two-dimensional, the end of the story brings Roland to the verge of breakdown “but Nicholas will survive”.

Garner and Naomi Lewis found they shared a dislike for the Narnia stories. “‘Fascist’ was the word Naomi used.”

Lewis’s Narnia, from the Greek word nānos for small, literally, ‘land of dwarfs’ or ‘land of children’, specifically the world of books, a refuge into which unhappy children can escape while hiding in the attic or the wardrobe into Arthurian romance, the Arabian Nights, Sherlock Holmes or Shakespeare - all explicitly mentioned.

Not a cheat, nor an allegory, Lewis might have said, but a key to the reality of a beautiful landscape or real living creatures.

The stags have been replaced by a unicorn, still striking sparks from the stars.


The characters reveal aspects of the author’s personality separated by the prism of the story.  Too close sometimes to see: as the end of Chapter 16 makes clear it is Nicholas, the reader of books, the only one of the children old enough to travel full-fare on the bus, who is having the breakdown. Roland, the youngest, is merely overcome by the desire to live there all the time, recognising the other world as his natural home.

Gildas invoked Jeremiah, Owen Ezekiel and Isaiah, Bergman Revelation. There are disturbing elements, autobiographical elements in Elidor: Alan Garner carried an ancient shovel from Alderley Edge like one of the treasures with him through National Service and Oxford, convinced of its antiquity, carbon-dating eventually dated it to 1700 BC.

He is the last person one would suspect of writing Cold War allegory, but perhaps at the time the world was vibrating like blitzed houses with the threat of war. The whole city moving house. From the Palace of the Boyne to the spinning map - all real. The sunburst at the end of the novel linked to Piper's window in Coventry Cathedral.

The children perform a ritual they do not understand and in which they do not believe.  The theme of giving back, faith and proof, take the reader right back to the real-life Elidyr.  Sacrifice not the ram of pride but the unicorn of instinct in place of Roland.

That and the lost voices of the actors.


Towards the end in Manchester, the late Seventies, maybe 1980, the wooden doors of what appeared to be derelict engine sheds, scheduled for demolition, near to Piccadilly Station, down the long slope from the station, a short way up the turning to the right in the direction of Strangeways Prison stood open.

Inside it was very murky, with rust and plaster fallen from the roof, but there too was fabulous wrought-iron work, with a raised gallery, presumably for repairing railway engines, all embellished with ironwork mottos about the dignity of labour and the virtues of industry.

The left-overs of a lost civilisation.The lost world of Mitchell & Kenyon. Teeming, smoke-grimed. Like an Etruscan tomb.



Copyright © Alan Garner, reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown on behalf of Alan Garner

Colin Harris, Superintendent, Special Collections Reading Rooms and Dr Judith Priestman, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscript Collections, Bodleian Library, Oxford

Renate Keeping, Keeping Gallery, Bromley

Harold Riley, Riley Archive, Salford

Catherine Saunders, Curtis Brown, London

George Turnbull, Co-ordinator, Heritage Information Manchester Archives and Local Studies, Central Library, Manchester

Jeff Walden, Archives Researcher, Information and Archives BBC Future Media and Technology, BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham.

© Roger Howe  2011

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