He began to climb the inside of the castle, the folly, the empty stone.
“Don’t be so bloody dramatic!”
At the top he stood upright, jerkily, balancing against the air above the wall and the cliff.
“You’ll not frighten me!”
He spread his arms and lifted his head to the sky.
“Through the sharp hawthorn blow the winds,” he shouted. “Who gives anything to poor Tom? Tom’s a-cold! Bless thee from whirlwinds, starblasting, and taking!”
“Stop it! You’re all quote! Every bit! Any you call me second hand!”
“Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill. Halloo, halloo, loo, loo!”
“You can’t put two words of your own together! Always someone else’s feeling! Other people have to hell to find words for you! You’re fire-proof!”
Red Shift (1973) by Alan Garner, is a complex book that weaves together three distinct but related stories. The main story, set in 1970s England, is about Tom and Jan, teenagers struggling to maintain their love in the face of Tom’s disapproving parents, looming separation as Jan prepares to enter nursing school in London, and Tom’s unsettled mental state. Jan is constantly expressing her love for Tom, but he seems incapable of really accepting that.
The second story is about Macey is part of a band of deserters from the Roman IX Legion named Macey and a tribal priestess raped and held prisoner by his comrades following the slaughter of her entire village. He is given to berserker rages where he fights like ten men and experiences visions of the other two stories.
The final tale is of Thomas Rowley, an epileptic, and his wife, Margery, who live in the village of Bartholemy, the site of a historical massacre during the English Civil War. Together, they and the other villagers are preparing for the approach of hostile Irish Royalist soldiers — the very ones who will carry out the killings.
The story is largely told in dialogue, with Civil War-era characters speaking in Cheshire dialect. The seventies inhabitants speak in a denatured, less distinct Cheshire dialect. In what can only be a reference to the ongoing Vietnam War and My Lai Massacre at the time of Red Shift‘s writing, the Roman soldiers speak like American GIs. As they attempt to go “tribal” and mix melt into the local population, they begin using a sort of Cheshire dialect, too. They also use the modern names for all the towns and geographic features, stressing the connection between their time and the present.
All of the book is written in powerful, beautiful prose, whether it’s the often staccato dialogue or the nearly poetic descriptive passages. It is a book filled with violence and despair, yet there’s also a strong sense that there’s hope, or at least the possibility of hope, for salvation and healing.
Coming after his first four novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, and The Owl Service, Red Shift marks the point where Garner moved beyond more traditional fantasy elements, and dove deeper into an exploration of place, time, and psychology. The title refers to the shift of light as cosmological objects move due to the expansion of the universe. Tom is studying astronomy in school and brings it up when he describes his life as too blue and he needs to shift away from it. Red is a color that runs through the story; Macey is painted red with alder dye by the priestess and something is hidden in a petticoat dyed red with alder by Thomas and Margery.
All three stories are bound at a physical level, being set around Mow Cop, a hill in Cheshire. For the British tribes of the Roman era, the hill is a holy place from where millstones are carved.
Logan shook the girl. “What’s this place? Why come here for rocks?”
She did not let go of Macey.
“What’s so special about Mow Cop?” Logan shouted.
“It’s the netherstone of the world,” she said. “The skymill turns on it to grind stars.”
“Why haven’t we been attacked?”
“The rock is sacred to the flour of heaven.”
The hill is hoped to be a sanctuary, though that only proves fully true for Thomas and Margery when they are sent there by an unexpected benefactor to wait out the duration of the Civil War in safety. While Macey survives, the murderous atrocities of his comrades abrogate Mow Cop’s protective status. For Tom and Jan, it is Tom’s own anger and willfulness that renders its protection worthless.
The men are bound together by the stars, too. Macey focuses on the Belt of Orion to help trigger his killing rage. Tom and Jan choose Orion as a way to be together when they are far apart.
“OK. We’ll have Delta Orionis: over there on the right. It’ll be with us all winter. We’ll be together at least once every twenty-four hours.”
“What’s a good time? Ten o’clock? Every night at ten o’clock we’ll both try to look at that star, and be together because we know the other’s watching, and thinking, At the same moment we’ll be looking at the same thing.”
“If it isn’t cloudy,” said Jan. “I love you: you’re so impossible.”
“It’s not. It’s a marvellous idea. That star and us. Like now.”
“There’s never ‘now’,” said Tom. “Delta Orionis may not exist. It isn’t even where we think it is. It’s so far away, we’re looking at it as it was when the Romans were here.”
“That’s why I don’t like astronomy.”
“But shall we have that star?”
“And ten o’clock.”
The other linkage between the three characters is a stone-age axe. Macey uses it to kill, though he comes to think he is defiling it and ends up burying it away. Thomas finds the same axe head centuries later where Macey buried it. He believes it to be a thunderstone, a common folk belief that stone-age tools were actually rocks hit by lighting and offered protection against lightning strikes. Finally, Tom and Jan find it in the ruins of Thomas and Margery’s house on Mow Cop.
Jan knelt on the fallen rubbish that blocked the heart. “It’s cemented in. I can’t move it. Be careful.”
“I’ll take away the other stones round it,” said Tom. The mortar perish, and he lifted the blocks away from the chimney breast. “It’s a cavity. Here she comes –”
Tom brushed the dirt with his sleeve. He held a stone axe head. It filled his palm. He rubbed with wet grass, and the axe shone grey-green, polished, flawless. It tapered to a thin edge at one end, and the other was a hammer shape, pierced for hafting.
“It’s very beautiful,” said Tom.
“Let me hold.” Jan took it as if it were a delicate bird. “This is it,” she said. “This is it. My real and special thing. Can we keep it? From our house?”
Finally, there are clear psychic bonds between the three men. Macey and Thomas both see flashes of red, silver, and blue, the colors of the train that Tom waits for Jan to arrive on. They also both see the folly built on top of Mow Cop long after their deaths. Macey is introduced in the story right after Tom in a moment of rage, first presses his fists to his eyes and then against a window until it breaks.
“You were right, kid. I saw nothing.”
“Blue. Silver. And red.”
“What’s with this blue and silver? You ever had it before?”
“When I was a kid. Pain. But then it was — Hell, there ain’t words.”
“Like you flipped?”
“But I didn’t go,” said Macey. “Blue and silver — makes me so chickenshit I can’t remember whatall next. It was changing. But when — that guy — killed him heareabouts — when I killed him — on the road — blue and silver — I freaked — but I could see him, what I did — but there was two hands — pressing at me — a long way off against my eyes — and then near — and then noplace — big as all there is. Sir, I don’t think I’m too good for this unit anymore.”
All three men are broken and their salvation and healing only seem possible at the hands of the woman who loves them. Garner has said that Red Shift was inspired by the legend of Tam Lin. Tam Lin was ensorcelled by the fairies, and only by the persistence of the woman who loves him is he freed. That is reflected in both stories set in the past. The priestess saves Macey from death when the other soldiers are made to suffer for the crime of raping her. Margery stands by Thomas as the Irish soldiers arrive and the massacre occurs and is later able to secret him away to safety on Mow Cop.
Jan is prepared to do whatever is needed to help Tom. Tom, though, is unable to hold on, driving her away as he succumbs to jealousy and an act of monumental self-destructiveness. For Jan, the axe has become a totem of their love, something she can hold on to when they’re apart. When he sells it to a museum, it devastates her and signals the collapse of their relationship.
At that point, it seems clear the axe has its own protective quality. Macey wants to rid himself of it at one point but the priestess insists he keep it and he is spared. Thomas wants to break it up and parcel out its anti-lightning benefits to other people. Instead, Margery convinces him not to, and they survive the massacre. Tom, not only seems to lose Jan, he also finally seems to lose his footing in the real world, even experiencing visions of the other timelines as he climbs Mow Cop for what might be one last time.
Famously, the book ends with a page of coded text. When the couple realized Tom’s mother was intercepting and reading Jan’s letters to him, they started communicating in code. Garner leaves it untranslated, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out. Until recently, I’ve always read the message as one of desperation and hopelessness. Something I read yesterday, though, made me realize it might still be that, but there’s also a slightly optimistic reading that also reinforces the link between the three stories.
In his foreword to the 2011 New York Review of Books edition of Red Shift, Garner explained in detail the various things that had spawned the novel. The first thing was a newspaper article about a young couple that had a fight in a pub that ended with him throwing a computer tape at her. He then left and later killed himself. Only afterwards did she play the tape and read his message which was an apology, but also read that “if she didn’t care enough to read the tape within the week he would know he had ruined everything and life would not be worth living.”
Later, he heard a legend that Mow Cop had been settled first by Spanish deserters from a Roman legion. Then there was the massacre of 1643. Soon, he began fixating on two things, though there was no obvious connection.
Finally, he spotted a piece of graffiti in a railway station:
Janet Heathcote + Alan Flask. It is true.
Under it, someone had come later and written beneath it, in silver lipstick:
not really now not any more
He describes the moment he read that as the moment “the sky fell in…and, with it, Red Shift.”
That sky-fell-in moment is sort of how I feel about Red Shift. Each story leaves me with deep impressions, largely of those twin things I mentioned in the beginning – despair, and hope. Each one hits like a hammer. I see the connections between each but I don’t know why they’re there. I’m left a little devastated but more than a little confounded.
In real life, Alan Garner is intimately entwined with Mow Cop and Cheshire, its history, its geography, and its legends. More than in the similarly set Weirdstone and its sequel Gomrath, Red Shift brings the region and its language to life in a way that feels like I’m reading actual history, not fiction. To what ends all this serves I can’t decide. This is the second time I’ve read this book in twenty-five years, and as much as I find myself affected by the three stories, I can’t quite figure out what Garner was attempting. Maybe it was nothing concrete, only the need to tell these stories, all rooted in a place dear to him, to examine the way it might bear on other characters. I’m just not sure, but I know I will return to Red Shift sooner rather than later.
Fletcher Vredenburgh writes a column each first Friday of the month at Black Gate, mostly about older books he hasn’t read before. He also posts at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.