Alan Garner: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia are atrociously written’

The author on the lascivious subtexts of Catullus, mistaking Lord of the Flies for a satanic text and CS Lewis’s ‘totalitarian’ fantasy epics

My earliest reading memory
In March 1941, aged six, I was lying in bed in an isolation hospital, recovering from measles, whooping cough and meningitis, and looking at the Knockout comic. My favourite character was Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit. I could read the speech bubbles because my mother had taught me capital letters, but the extended captions under the pictures in upper and lower case were beyond me. I must have been decoding them unconsciously for some time, but the moment of realising that I understood the words, that I could read All By Myself, seemed to be instantaneous. I fell back in the bed and stared through the window at a silver barrage balloon hanging in the sky above Manchester and couldn’t stop trembling. From then on I binged on words: The Dandy, The Beano, Shakespeare, Leslie Charteris’s The Saint books, ghost stories and science fiction, comics and pulp magazines cadged from US soldiers; whatever came my way. I was omnivorous.

My favourite book growing up
While recuperating, I discovered a tattered copy of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The final pages were missing, and I read the book 11 times, hoping to find them. But all I learned was how to say “Kagoda” – “I surrender”, in Mangani Gorilla language. After that, I immersed myself in my grandmother’s eight volumes of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia of 1910, which were the main source of education for me in my primary school years while I continued to be frequently and spectacularly ill.

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The book that changed me as a teenager
I was a sixth-form classicist at Manchester Grammar School, where we were given the opportunity to study in depth the erotic subtleties of the poems of Catullus, which did wonders for adolescent male angst.

The writer who changed my mind
Aeschylus. Reading his Oresteia aged 17 made me aware more than any other text of the power of language, and its examination of matricide came at an opportune moment.

The book that made me want to be a writer
I never had any ambition to write. I was set to be an academic. After a period of unfocused growing unease, I had a Damascene moment where I “saw” that I had to follow my family of creative manual craftsmen in Cheshire. But I was useless with my hands. However, I did have a facility for languages. Therefore, I would write. That was the most stupid and illogical thought I ever had; but it helped to quell the panic of realisation. And once I started, there was no turning back.

The author I came back to
TS Eliot’s The Waste Land irritated me when I first met it in 1950, and still does; but it led to the Four Quartets, which I read frequently for its spiritual charge.

The book I reread
The King James Bible, intermittently, for its language, wisdom and mythology.

The book I could never read again
I never enjoyed CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I read the books with horrid fascination. They were, in my opinion, and remain, nasty, manipulative, morbid, misanthropic, hectoring, totalitarian and atrociously written.

The book I discovered later in life
One day in 1955 I picked up William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, thinking it was a textbook on demonology.

The book I am currently reading
CG Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

My comfort read
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It takes me back to the warm comfort of my grandfather’s speech as we sat in the dark of his forge and I listened to the stories of his youth, our family and rural neighbours, and the Legend of Alderley.

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner is published by 4th Estate (£10). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Alan Garner

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