Time is ignorance, reads the epigraph to Treacle Walker. So what is knowledge, then? Well, what’s out is in, and what’s in is out, if characters in this book are to be believed. And if you can believe them, they will show you what they mean.
Alan Garner packs within hundred and fifty odd pages enough to put multi-part fantasy franchises to shame, so laying out a plot synopsis for Treacle Walker is a complicated endeavour. But let us give it a shot.
Joseph Coppock is a young boy who lives in a house, seemingly with neither parents nor community. He has been unwell, we are told at the beginning of the story, and he has a lazy eye so he wears a patch over the good one. One noon, Treacle Walker – engaged in a business of barter of sorts— finds his way to the pear tree in front of Joe’s house.
In exchange for a pair of Joe’s old pyjamas and a lamb’s shoulder blade, Walker gives him a stone with a horse engraved on it, and lets him choose from a chest a small, alluring jar. These are not mere trinkets; as Joe finds out, they have powers he does not yet understand.
Inside the jar is a mysterious paste, and upon accidentally touching it to the right eye, Joe is able to peek into a different world – he has got “the glamourie.” Is this world real? Perhaps the wrong question to ask in a book that might well be read as a very interesting symposium on realness as a serious measure of existence.
Outside time and place
Treacle and Joe’s friendship is also the beginning of chaos in Joe’s world, where a series of inexplicable events follows: characters from comic books break out of the written word and jump out of the page, mirrors metamorphose into portals, and darkness stalks.
Then there is also Thin Amren, the bog man, who is naked except for a hat, and his skin is leathery brown. Somehow mysteriously woken, he chats with Joe about the cuckoo and the whirligig of the brook in his livelier moments. But it is clear that he does not belong, and in the book’s phenomenally written climax, Joe must make a difficult decision on his fate.
The plane of these happenings remains unclear: Joe marks time by the daily passage of the train Noony at midday in the valley, but the presence of a train is not an indication of where the story is set in our known expanse of time. Neither is the frequent appearance of the comic book Knockout, which became popular in Britain in the mid-twentieth century and which we often find Joe reading.
Untethered thus from time and place, Treacle Walker resembles a fable also in form: a central character who chances upon magic, his unwillingness to embrace what has been revealed to him, a mystic guide, gentle, persuasive, and pansophical, and the character’s eventual acceptance of that which he must rise to.
Baffling but clear
In Treacle Walker, Garner masterfully brings together the compelling elements of both fable and folklore. Reading the book is like attempting to assemble a multi-dimensional puzzle – even when the picture appears complete on the surface, putting it together again while adding another layer adds depth that you might not have missed, but are delighted to find.
Brimming with allegories and symbolism, mythology and metaphor, Treacle Walker is a book that invites you for another read, and then another. Each time, it lets slip something new: the Latin text that the glamourie reveals to Joe is actually from the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s garden; there was actually a bog corpse once found near Garner’s home. What you take from the book is embedded within this seemingly infinite matrix of ideas.
Peppered with words and expressions that will baffle any reader unfamiliar with the old Cheshire dialect that Garner grew up with, Treacle Walker employs language to play a game of hide and seek with meaning. “Pickthank psychopomp,” Thin Amren responds when Joe asks him if he knows Walker, disapproving of his “nookshotten cart and catchpenny oddments.”
The vocabulary used does not maintain the chasm between this world and ours – it renders it mutable. In deciphering the tone, usage, and intent, much of these characters and their thinly described world slowly comes to the fore.
The character of Treacle Walker, from whom the book borrows its name, speaks in part riddle, part proverb, but the completeness of meaning radiates from his speech into the fog that hangs over the reader while reading the novel. It may not reveal itself to you in the moment of reading – much of its depth was lost on me before I sat with it and went back for another read – but you know it swims under the words, hides behind the sentences, teasing you into finding it.
The addition of layer upon layer does not eclipse the readability of the prose; it heightens it. It is much to Garner’s credit that the narrative is dense with meaning and light in its handling, its narrative universe one of pause, but not stagnation. Though a book about a child – and I can see myself getting a thrill out of it at age eleven or twelve – this is, by no means a book for children.
While the eleven-year-old might find in it a fantastical world to escape to, the mature reader will find in it a potent opening for the consideration, if not resolution, of anxieties and questions that make up the terrain of their quieter moments.
Treacle Walker is a book as endearing as it is awe-inspiring, and a testament not only to the wisdom of age, but also to the power of attuning the novel to a space of possibility over truth. The book ends as it begins, and in these circles of narrative and being, Garner’s readers will lose themselves as the characters do, only to find themselves again – perhaps more, perhaps less, but certainly changed.
Treacle Walker, Alan Garner, Fourth Estate.