This review contains spoilers
Treacle Walker can be easily read in one sitting. It is a deceptively simple story. But before I discuss that, I have to say that I have never read Alan Garner before. My impression from those familiar with Garner’s work is that there is an advantage in having read his entire oeuvre when coming to this book: that it is a culmination of themes and subjects in some of his other novels. From what I have read, there may be some truth in this. If you’re also interested in a perspective from a person who has that background, I suggest you also read Maureen Kincaid Speller’s ‘The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker’.
Others’ reactions I have seen or read have expressed puzzlement or dissatisfaction with the novella. Here is a selection of responses I found on Goodreads:
This slender fable-like novel was a bit of a head scratcher
DNF at 40% and completely lost
A rather unaccessible [sic] shortlist choice from the Booker Prize jury.
Sadly, I was incapable of seeing the magnificence of this novel. It’s short-listed for the Booker, and it was too far in the fantasy genre for me to understand. Plus, the wording….too archaic or too much local vernacular which went beyond my head of comprehending.
Absolute, indecipherable nonsense. I can only presume that there’s some kind deeply niche knowledge required to make any sense of this which I evidently don’t have. Strong no from me.
There are many other positive reviews of Treacle Walker on Goodreads, but this small selection shows the kind of puzzlement the novella can cause. Yet I found that reading Treacle Walker was not a burdensome task, as I anticipated it might be, based on those reactions. For a start, the book is too short for that. And the story has a simplicity that carries you along, much like a children’s novel, even if, at times, there appears to be more to the story than is apparent on the surface. One aspect of this is Garner’s wordplay; his obscure words and references. Another is that Garner is drawing from Celtic and druidic culture, myth, fairy tale and other forms of popular culture. I was reminded of Ideas I’d come across reading John Fowles, or the world of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, as well as various essays I’ve read about myth. My point, that even if you don’t ‘get’ every reference or understand every obscure word and don’t feel inclined to look them up to begin with (or at all) the effect of the book can be like understanding a painting without the need to understand its technique. Different readers, as always, will have different experiences and perceptions. For this reason, in my attempt to talk about Treacle Walker I am not going to avoid ‘spoilers’ because I feel others will have entirely different experiences with the book, anyway. And others who have had difficulty with the book may be looking for someone else’s perspective, and that’s hard to give without discussing elements of the book in detail. So what I’m offering in this review is my experience of reading Treacle Walker, a few of my thoughts and a bit of a discussion about some of the references and allusions in the story. For this reason, readers may prefer to read the book before continuing.
To begin with, I will repeat that you should not find Treacle Walker difficult to read, even if you feel some difficulty in understanding it. I didn’t think it difficult to come to my own understanding of the story, even if I didn’t get every detail on a first reading. Joseph Coppock is a young boy who lives in a house on his own. He has been unwell and he must keep out of sunlight as much as he can. He also wears a patch over one eye to try to encourage his other lazy eye to come good. One day a rag-and-bone man who calls himself Treacle Walker appears outside his house with his white pony and cart, under Joe’s pear tree. Treacle Walker offers him a trade: “rag and bone” for “pot and stone”. The character of Treacle Walker is based upon a class of merchants who traded in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They typically walked about to do their trade. Some used a cart as Treacle Walker does. They traded for scraps that could be turned into a small profit, like rags or bits of metal or glass that could be sold on for recycling. They generally lived in poverty. In fact, Garner has stated that his character is based on a real person, Walter Helliwell, who claimed, as does Treacle Walker, to heal ‘all things but jealousy’. The name ‘Treacle’, Maureen Speller notes, “is a corruption of an older word, “triacle,” which is associated with healing”. Garner says in an interview that Helliwell was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, near Huddersfield, but it’s a fact, I think, that doesn’t need to concern us too much. Garner, himself, says he knows little of Helliwell.
The real point is the relationship Treacle Walker forms with Joe and the role he is to play in his life. For those who think Treacle Walker is a difficult book, it is helpful to remember that the novella follows the Hero’s Journey Structure common to many many novels and films. Most children’s stories, in fact, follow this structure. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, I’ve inserted the following short video to help:
Treacle Walker is the mentor figure who sets Joe on his journey, crossing the ‘threshold’ into a world hitherto unknown, in which Joe gains new sight and understanding of the world in which he lives. The reader follows Joe into this world, and in turn is exposed to the same ‘lessons’. Everything that happens in the novel conforms broadly to the monomyth originally identified by Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey.
From the start, Treacle Walker alludes to the act of seeing, which is to become a major aspect of the novella: “‘What the eye doesn’t see . . . the heart doesn’t grieve for.’ Or does it?” he asks Joe enigmatically, quoting a common idiom when Joe explains his lazy eye. Immediately, Joe realises that Treacle Walker appears strangely to him: “Your face,” he says, “One road, it’s old. The other, it’s not. Straight, it’s all sorts.” Joe is already easing into the world Treacle Walker will introduce him to before he even encounters the effects of the ointment in the jar. At this point – I am looking at pages 10 and 11 here where this encounter takes place – there are details that may distract some readers. A difficult word, ‘amblyopic’, refers to Joe’s impaired vision, which may describe Joe’s lazy eye, but Treacle Walker is likely referring to the ‘vision’ Joe will gain through the course of his ‘journey’. Another comment by Joe in response – “Elephant’s eggs in a rhubarb tree” – references a now lost children’s program from the 1970s. As a reader, the allusion is an example of the kind of rabbit hole you can enter if you try to chase everything down. Joe is merely irritated at Treacle Walker for not directly answering his question about why his name appears on Treacle Walker’s chest. In answer to that, given the ending of the novel and other textual evidence, one reading of the novel is that Joe and Treacle Walker are the same, perhaps at different stages of life. Given the significance of time and the way traditional concepts of time are eschewed in the novel, this is not an unreasonable approach to the story. As readers, so that we don’t become confused and disheartened, as some have, we have to decide whether a difficult word or allusion is pertinent to our understanding of Joe’s ‘journey’, or whether we think it is merely idiomatic of the character’s speech or Garner’s writing. We have to remember that a writer makes meaning when they write, but a reader, in turn, makes meaning when they read.
When Joe makes his trade he finds himself mysteriously changed. He swaps some old pyjamas and a lamb’s shoulder blade for a white glazed jar and a donkey stone, a type of scouring stone used primarily by the English working class in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to clean their doorsteps and entranceways. Donkey stones were originally manufactured in Manchester by a company that used the image of a donkey on its product, but other manufacturers also used different animals in their design, like lions. The stone Joe takes from Treacle Walker has one side cut with “the outline of a horse, legs and tail outstretched, head forward, long.” The description recalls the Uffington Horse cut into the side of a hill in Oxfordshire, a prehistoric image predating Roman Britain and the introduction of Christianity to England. The Uffington Horse is used on the cover of my edition of the book, too. The image, cut into the chalk of the hill, is thought to be up to three thousand years old, rivalling the age of the pyramids. The period during which it was created is associated with druidic traditions, deep connections with the land and old magic. Under Treacle Walker’s direction, Joe uses the stone to clean the entrance to his home and thereby create a mystical barrier against the entry of unwanted forces.
There is also the jar which holds remnants of an ointment, a brand of cure-all called ‘Poor Mans Friend’ which was produced by Dr Giles Roberts in the early nineteenth century. When Joe accidentally gets some ointment from the jar in his eye good eye – the one he keeps patched – he finds he begins to see things that don’t seem to be there. When he is given an eye examination by his optometrist, he discovers he sees a different set of letters in the optometrist’s Snellan chart when he looks at it with his good eye, now affected by the ointment. The jar with the ointment gives Joe the ‘glamourie’, as another character, Thin Amren, calls Joe’s new power of perception. In fact, as Treacle Walker later points out, the letters he saw – Joe has written them down – are, in fact, a sentence in Latin which, when translated, states, “This stone is small, of little price; spurned by fools, more honoured by the wise.” The mysterious message is an affirmation of Joe’s choice made from Treacle Walker’s chest of bric-a-brack: “They were shimmerings,” Treacle Walker later tells Joe of the objects he passed over, “You chose true.”
So, it seems apparent from the start that Garner’s story draws from old pre-Christian traditions of Britain, and that while Treacle Walker may read like a children’s story, it is steeped in old mythologies. Conversely, the objects Joe receives from Treacle Walker may be familiar for some readers: within the reach of memory, perhaps. Others will have a historical knowledge of them. But they are exotic enough to our modern world that Garner can imbue them with undefined mystical power. They are also old enough to be associated with a mystical past set even deeper in history. The jar and the stone are plot devices, but they also help characterise Garner’s world. Garner creates an ambiguous and largely undefined world characterised primarily by the colour that myth and tradition evoke. Joe is a young boy but he seems to have no family living with him. Treacle Walker always arrives outside his house, beneath the pear tree, but excepting generic descriptions of the surrounding area – Barn Croft, Pool Field, Big Meadow – the town or village in which Joe lives remains indefinite. We never meet another person from this place, excepting Treacle Walker, Thin Amren and the optometrist. But the optometrist is of no real importance to the story, except for the one scene which establishes that Joe’s sight has changed as a result of his contact with the ointment. In fact, as you read, the optometrist may feel like a jarring intrusion against the tone and character that has been established for the story. Joe’s village seems rural. Apart from ‘Noony’, a steam train that runs by Joe’s house each day, the period setting feels like more a distant past in which the objects Joe is given and Treacle Walker’s trade, belong. Treacle Walker is of a class of worker largely gone in the second half of the twentieth century, and he still drives a pony and cart. No other technology seems apparent. The optometrist and his practices, however, feel strangely modern.
Garner has been a successful children’s author in the past, and Treacle Walker mostly feels like a fantastical children’s story. This was largely my opinion of the book as I read, despite the optometrist who didn’t ‘fit’ for me, and the presence of some words I did not understand. I was willing to believe that Garner was coining words, much like Roald Dahl does. I was particularly thinking of his BFG and that character’s idiosyncratic language which doesn’t need translation in order for children to understand the meaning. So I glossed words on my first reading and that worked well enough. But for my second reading I went back and checked words and phrases, and found that a couple of those words proved significant. For instance: “Hurlothrumbo”. “It was a hurlothrumbo of winter”, Treacle Walker tells Joe after a strange wind blows open a door and ushers a darkness into Joe’s house. Hurlothrumbo was the title of a nonsense play by Samuel Johnson (not the famous dictionary creator) in 1724. Its subtitle was The Supernatural. Treacle Walker is probably alluding to this to say that what has just happened was supernatural. Another word he uses here – “lomperhomock” is the name of a character from the play: “It was a lomperhomock of night”.
Thin Amren tells Joe that Treacle Walker is a “pickthank psychopomp”. “Pickthank” is a pejorative term from The Pilgrim’s Progress that describes someone without strong convictions who seeks the approval of others: someone who allows themselves to be pressured by the crowd and will support a cause merely to gain approbation. Thin Amren clearly dislikes Treacle Walker, and each gives Joe different advice about his new sight. The second word Thin Amren uses – “psychopomp” – describes a supernatural being, like an angel, a spirit, a shaman or what you will, that escorts the recently dead to the afterlife. The meaning seems significant to possible interpretations of the novella, especially since Joe asks Treacle Walker, “am I dead?”, and Treacle Walker replies, “I will not say that you are dead. Rather, in this world you have changed your life, and are got into another place.”
The basis of Campbell’s monomyth is the ‘journey’, the result of which is the growth of the protagonist as a result of the challenges that that entails. But ‘growth’ also implies change, and the idea that this story may be read as being about a boy who gains a mysterious ability through the agency of an ‘supernatural aid’ – the ointment – and how he comes to terms with the insights this affords him, seems reasonable. At the same time, we may decide that the story is also about moving on: that it explores notions about life and death, and concepts about time. Ordinary concepts of Time seems illusory within the larger scheme of the world understood by Treacle Walker and Thin Amren, who seem outside the normal strictures of human time. Garner has chosen as his epigraph a line from Carlo Rovelli, an Italian physicist: “L’ordine del tempo – Time is ignorance.” Like much in quantum mechanics, which I do not profess to understand at all, the explanations given to Joe by Thin Amren and Treacle Walker which are meant to help Joe understand his new sight, seem paradoxical. When Joe has his good eye covered he sees the world as we are used to seeing it. When he uncovers his good eye he sees the world overlaid with a hidden world he doesn’t understand. With his eye uncovered, he can see Thin Amren, a man naked except for a skull cap who lives in a bog. Thin Amren, by his appearance and the conditions of his existence – he cannot allow himself to dry out – is clearly a bog man, one of the corpses sometimes found in peat bogs believed to have been ritually sacrificed in prehistoric times. When Joe asks Thin Amren how long he has been in the bog, Thin Amren replies, “A honeycomb of ages”, which appears to be evasive, except Joe can give no more suitable a reply when asked how long he has lived in his house: “Always. I live there.” What becomes increasingly apparent is that human perception of the world is disconnected from the long term realities of creation. Our lives are too short, our ways of explaining, of labelling and understanding the world, are too embedded in a fleeting reality, on too small a timescale to perceive the broader realities of a natural world that has nothing to do with human taxonomies.
This is an idea that recurs throughout the novella, but there are two explanations, given by Thin Amren and Treacle Walker, that best encapsulate it. First, Thin Amren refers Joe to a flowing brook to consider the problem of Joe’s understanding of time. “Do you see yon whirligig of water there?” he asks, meaning a swirling eddy of water. Of course Joe sees it. Thin Amren next asks, “Then what is whirligig?”; “Then what is brook?” The questions seem nonsensical and the answers self-evident. Except that Thin Amren is identifying the problem of language and time as conceptual mechanisms: “Whirligig stays. Though he’s not the same water. Then what is yesterday? What today? What tomorrow?” Time, like the river, exists beyond Joe’s ability to conceptualise it.
Treacle Walker also attempts to explain time and Joe’s second sight by using Noony, the train that passes by each day, as a metaphor for understanding existence. It may be noted here, that Joe’s only understanding of the train to begin with is that it passes by around noon each day, hence his name for it. Treacle Walker encourages Joe to compare the train to his own cart, which obviously cannot run on the rails. “Noony’s got a doings on the side of her wheels to keep her on the rails”, Joe explains. And, he adds, that, “When Noony comes it is now.” Treacle Walker questions Joe’s belief that time can be pinned down and define our understanding of the world so easily: “For at the very moment you have Now, it flees. It is gone. It is, on the instant, Then. Surely”, he says. Treacle Walker identifies the concept of time as one of those human taxonomies that are inadequate to understand the world; that conceptualise its component parts without understanding it as an organic whole: “You know the moment and tell the time. But that is the doings, not the travel; not the wonder, not the sight.”
All this is not to argue that Treacle Walker is a novel that must be thought excellent or great. For my part, I enjoyed Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books far more, if we are to compare Treacle Walker as children’s literature. Cooper’s books evoked a sense of an old England and old magic, based around the Arthurian legends, but delivered better stories. As a book that touches on the notion of time or of our relationship with nature, there are many novels that do that, too, and I was struck by how similar some arguments made by Treacle Walker and Thin Amren about our conceptualising of nature are to discussions in John Fowles’s The Tree, which I enjoyed more. Part of the problem, for me, is that Garner has placed concept, atmosphere and allusion above character and story. Not all elements of the story worked well, for me. I’ve already mentioned about the place of the optometrist within the narrative, which is the kind of thing I am talking about. Garner seems to be creating a fable-like story, but elements, like the optometrist or Joe’s interest in Knockout Magazine, seem to jar with the atmosphere he is creating.
Knockout Magazine was a cartoonish publication for children featuring several serialised stories each week. The magazine was published during two period: first, from 1939 to 1963; it was resurrected for a further two years, between 1971 and 1973. One of the featured stories that Joe reads in Knockout Magazine is ‘Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit’. This particular story was published early in the magazine’s history, between 1939 and 1950. Garner combines Joe’s love of this magazine and his interest in marbles, particularly his favourite, the dobber glass alley, to create a side plot. Essentially, Joe’s second sight provides a means by which Stonehenge Kit, Whizzy the Wicked Wizard and Brit Bashers are able to escape from their comic strip into our world (like Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, if you’ve seen that), when Joe’s favourite marble accidently rolls into the world of the comic strip. They run about and eventually enter Joe’s mirror (like Alice Through the Looking Glass, if you’ve read that). I found this to be the least engaging part of the novel, even though it was interesting to learn a little about Knockout Magazine. For narrative interest there has to be stakes, and Garner tries to create a sense of urgency as Joe is instructed to ‘stone’ the house against their entering, using his donkey stone, and must somehow lure them back to their comic book world. Joe, like Alice, enters the mirror and engages in a pursuit through a series of alternate rooms, this one the right way around, this one not, as you would expect in a mirror world: “He was running in a tunnel, pulled by a hand he could not see; a black tunnel, turning and lined with stars, so that he could not tell up from down; only the turning: but he ran.” I found the sequences involving the Knockout characters to be too removed from the rest of the story, and I came to feel that they had been inserted merely to toy with another conceptualisation of time and reality, and to provide a bit of action. Maybe to flesh the story out a bit, too. It is short. The ‘hero’, after all, must face some challenges on his ‘journey’. I also felt it didn’t quite fit with the idea of Thin Amren. After all, the climactic moment in the story comes when Joe must secure Thin Amren back in his bog with the five green alder branches so that he might continue to dream the world into existence. Essentially, this is the same as returning Stonehenge Kit and his crew back to their comic and reversing the effects of Joe’s second sight upon reality. But I felt the Knockout side plot cheapened the import of the main plot, which is steeped in ancient belief and magic, and a deeper understanding of humanity’s frailty – Joe may be coming to terms with his own mortality, after all – and our limited perception of the world. Bringing a comic strip to life to toy with similar notions, for me, detracted from this.
There were elements of the story that I found remained obscure to me, too. The Cuckoo, for instance, is a significant motif throughout the novella. When Joe plays upon the old bone, shaped into a flute, he awakens a response from a distant Cuckoo, which seems to herald the awakening of the ancient world of which Treacle Walker is a part. The bird is mentioned several times throughout the novel, including in an old rhyme Treacle Walker repeats, beginning, “Iram, biram, brendon, bo”. This reference, alone, is a good example of the rabbit holes you might find to enter while reading the book. The rhyme alludes to a fairy tale, ‘The New Mother’, which Garner has elsewhere retold as, ‘The Pear Drum’. It is a tale in which two children are tempted into naughtiness in order to see inside a box supposedly populated with little people. But knowing this will not help you understand the answer to the question posed by the rhyme, “Where did all the children go?”: “They went to where the cuckoo has its nest.” Joe collects birds eggs, and is eager to find the egg of a cuckoo. In fact, he first stumbles across Thin Amren as he becomes disorientated by the sound of Cuckoos. Thin Amren is amused by Joe’s confidence that he will find a Cuckoo nest, and mocks Joe – “Oh, you’re the very know-all of cuckoo” (page 49) – who clearly doesn’t understand that Cuckoos hide their eggs in the nests of other birds. (Strangely, Thin Amren has a similar conversation with Joe about twenty pages later in a scene that seems to forget the previous conversation has taken place.) The Cuckoo, we may accept, represents an ineffable part of nature, and is a representation of Joe’s ignorance which will be further elucidated in discussions about the nature of time, etcetera. But the Cuckoo assumes a significance beyond what the text seems to initially imply. As we reach the climactic moments of the story the Cuckoo is transformed into an adversary; a Jabberwock or dragon, if you will: “Above the house, the sky cracked. And in the crack was a claw.” Suddenly the cry of the Cuckoo is ubiquitous and Treacle Walker warns Joe, “This is no hurlothrombo. No lomperhomock. This is Winter. This is Night.” Garner has suddenly introduced an adversary to be fought and overcome, turning his philosophical tale into a brief action sequence. Blackness surges. Black ivy climbs up the pear tree associated with Treacle Walker. Thunder. More cuckoo calls. The threat seems real. But its import is opaque. There has been little to prepare the reader for this and nothing to say what it means. Predictably, Joe has had the means to dispose of the Cuckoo all along – like Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers – and he dispatches the bird with his catapult and favourite marble, the dobber. So much for Winter and Night, so powerfully evoked at the beginning of the story:
But night was in the room, a sheet of darkness, flapping from wall to wall. It changed shape, swirling, flowing. It dropped to the ground and ruckled over the floor bricks; then up to the joists and beams of the ceiling; hung, fell, humped. It shrieked, reared against the chimney opening, but did not enter.
I felt the sequence, clearly meant to be powerful and climactic, diminished the mythic undertones of the story rather than enhanced it.
There are other elements that I could discuss, like Joe’s dream, or the significance of the chimney and fire place in the story, which are a symbol of the World Tree, or, as Treacle Walker calls it, the “Axis Mundi”, a reference to the axis of the earth between the celestial poles: “It is the heart of all that is,” he tells Joe. “The sky turns on it. It is the way between.” But it wasn’t my intention to attempt to explain everything about Treacle Walker. If you’ve read this far, my point is that the book is entirely readable, and that it can be understood in different ways: as a children’s story, even as something profound. The thing to understand, I think, is that this is not a perfect book, even though it has much to recommend it, and it is not necessarily cleverer than its reader, even if, with time and study the author has crafted elements that would be unlikely to find a reader who instantly comprehends them all. The fact is, I don’t think all the elements within the story are entirely cohesive, and if that is so, then there will always be aspects of the novel any reader will find difficult. As a result, we can decide to be whatever kind of reader we wish. Some readers may want to just read the story, others may wish to further ponder the different theoretical, mythological, spiritual, historical or philosophical paths the novella offers. Everyone brings different experiences, cultural backgrounds and reading histories to each book they read, not to mention expectations and needs, so it is unlikely any two readers will value the book for the same reasons, or even dislike it for the same reasons.
Joe is a keen reader of stories in Knockout Magazine, including ‘Stonehenge Kit and the Ancient Brit’. When the characters escape the confines of the magazine, Joe must engage in a side quest to return them. The following two images are extracts from the serialised story that appeared in Knockout Magazine. Click on the images to view a readable version of each page.