‘Think of the odds. In all space and time. I’m scared.’
-Alan Garner, Red Shift, p. 8.
Throughout Alan Garner’s novel Red Shift, the protagonist Tom frequently engages with elements from the past which help him to overcome difficulties in the present day. Garner splits the text into three narratives, the first explores Tom and Jan’s story as the present narrative, accompanied by two other tales from the past, one set in civil war England and the other in Roman Britain. Although Garner presents three separate narratives from varying time periods, connections are made between the different points in history because remnants of the past exist in Tom’s present.
It can be suggested that Garner’s presentation of the three narratives in such a way assumes a link between the past, present and future which are inextricable. The idea that it is impossible to separate the three time periods is valid, because it is hard to discuss time without having an awareness of each form. Linda Hall supported the past, present and future as being inextricably bonded and argued that the security of the present and future is determined by the fate of the past (p. 154). Hall’s suggestion is good but the reliance on the fate of the past is context dependant. For example, in Red Shift by Alan Garner, the modern protagonist Tom has a close friendship with another character called Jan, which is depicted through extracts written in a dialogue style. The entries are short and mainly exhibit conversations between Jan and Tom.
At the beginning of the book Jan announces to Tom that she is leaving Cheshire their current place of residence to live in Germany. Tom then contemplates how he met Jan and exclaims, ‘Think of the odds. In all space and time. I’m scared’ (p. 8). Here Tom shows an awareness towards time by discussing the odds of fate in allowing him and Jan to first meet. As a context, Tom’s interest in movements across time allows him like Hall to understand that events within different time periods can intertwine and influence one another. He finds comfort knowing that the fate of the past originally brought him and Jan together. However, in the future he now fears that Jan’s move to Germany will put a strain on their relationship and contemplates if fate will allow their paths to cross again. As a young boy, Tom expresses an advanced understanding about the progression of their relationship through time, suggesting that he finds a sense of security using experiences from the past to deal with situations in the present.
However, although Tom expresses an enjoyment in his awareness of the past, the time period is not presented explicitly as a safe haven because it does not exist in a format which Tom as the modern protagonist can physically escape to. For example, in the narrative set in Roman Britain an army invade a settlement killing all members bar a young girl who they rape and take hostage. One of the weapons used in the killing is an axe which belongs to a man called Macey and then in the present it is eventually discovered by Tom and Jan. Tom explains ‘It was an axe. Beaker Period. It was a votive axe. The best ever found’ and again, ‘It was an artefact. Not a toy. It was three thousand five hundred years old, and it’d survived’ (p. 131). The extensive knowledge that Tom displays towards the axe emphasises its position as an anachronism. Tom identifies that the axe does not belong in the present and labels the object as an artefact. The observation is significant because it creates a connection between Macey’s story in the past and Tom’s in the present, the axe was used by Macey and now years later has been found by Tom. Therefore, even though Tom cannot physically experience the therapy of escaping through time, he can still gain an understanding of the past through his life in the present, which for him provides some level of comfort.
As a form of comfort, the past presents Tom with an era which he can engage with because history is repetitive. For example, the third narrative in Red Shift is set in civil war England and it is based on the character Thomas Rowledge who lives with his wife Margery in Cheshire. Prior to Tom and Jan in the present, Thomas and his wife Margery also discover the axe which they label the ‘thunderstorm’.
A little time after coming across the axe, Thomas and Margery experience some trouble with some Royalist Troops. For their personal safety, they are forced to leave their village and take the axe with them. It is decided they will bury the axe in the chimney of their new home which they propose to build in a new village called Mo Cop, ‘And when it’s built, you’ll put the thunderstone in the chimney, for luck’ (p. 154). This action is significant because it places the axe in a position ready for Tom and Jan to discover it in the future. For Tom as the modern protagonist his narrative exists in the present, but for Thomas and Margery in civil England, Tom’s time period is their future. Therefore, the ‘personal and cultural continuity’ of the axe across history from the past into the present, expresses Tom’s relationship with the past as consistent. Tom can mentally engage with the past constantly depending on when he wishes to do so.
For Tom his interest in the past helps him to consciously deal with situations in the present both in a consistent and comforting matter. Therefore, to ensure the modern-day protagonist continues to benefit from his interest in the past, it is important that he continues to apply his knowledge to the present day in a way which will help him to shape his future.
Featured Image– Front cover, taken from the First Edition of the novel.
 Linda, Hall “House and Garden”: The time-slip story in the aftermath of the second world war (United States: Green Wood Publishing, 2003).
 Alan, Garner Red Shift (New York: Collins Publishing Group, 1975). All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.
Written by Imogen Barker.
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