Alan Garner’s Red Shift

Alan Garner’s Red Shift (UK 1973) represents a degree of variational subtlety that might seem to transcend the constrictions of writing for young people altogether. Its three narrative threads, involving characters in different eras of history having quite different kinds of experience and at first apparently quite unaware of each other’s existence, seem to begin with to have nothing to do with each other. Yet the novel seems to demand that readers try to think of ways they might be connected––for if not, why are they all appearing alternately within the covers of the same book? And not surprisingly, a closer look reveals many aspects of their stories that do in fact connect them, albeit in ways that seem to have more to do with fugal variation than with actual elements of plot––not with actions that mirror or otherwise have similarities with each other, but with ways in which the three different stories seem both to link to and illuminate each other through similarities and differences in their details. Upon its publication over four decades ago, Red Shift was seen as daringly innovative, for the most part because of its inclusion of three different and not obviously related story lines. Those back then who doubted that it should still be considered a novel for young readers might be surprised by the publication of so many novels for young readers with alternating and apparently disconnected narratives in the years following.

In an effort to find the various connections between the three separate narratives of Red Shift, I have come up with the following:

  • The three central characters’ names are Tom, Thomas, and Macey. Tom is clearly similar to Thomas, and a short form of it; less obviously, just as Tom represents the first syllable of Thomas, Macey seems connected to the second. In other words, the three names are all versions of just one name––as perhaps, the three characters are all versions (or variations?) of just one character?
  • While Tom lives in a mobile home in the late twentieth century, Thomas in a village during the British Civil war of the seventeenth century, and Macey in a Druid camp in Roman Britain, all three significantly occupy the same space, on or near a hill known as Mow Cop in Cheshire––a hill identified in the Druid past as “the netherstone of the world. The sky mill turns on it to grind stars” (64). If nothing else, then, the three stories act as variations on how life was different (and the same?) in that same place in different times.
  • Despite their vast temporal distance from each other, the characters in all three stories have interactions with what appears to be the same object, or at least a similar one: an axe that Macey wields in moments of mindless violence, an axe, perhaps the same one, that Thomas discovers in an earth bank and gives to his wife Margery for safekeeping, and an axe, again perhaps the same one, that Tom and his girlfriend Jan have found in a ruined cottage on Mow Cop and adopt as something of a symbol of their relationship. Any reasonable attempt to interpret the novel would have to account for the significance of this repeating object for each of the three characters and the ways in which it might connect them with each other––or perhaps, reveal the difference between them, since this one object has different significances at different times.
  • The central characters have visions or fits that have a profound effect on their lives, and that might be understood, at times, to connect them with each other. Macey becomes a maniacal killing machine when he has “flipped” (30); Thomas is epileptic; and Tom is emotionally unstable, and prone to fits of uncontrollable emotion which also give him apparently superhuman strength and allow him to twist metal objects out of shape. Shortly after Tom presses his hands against a window and breaks it, Macey reports that “there was two hands––pressing at me––a long way off against my eyes––and then near” (23). Later, Macey sees a non-existent tower near Mow cop (60)––perhaps the church Thomas and his fellow villagers have sought refuge in some centuries later? Later still, he reports of his visionary visitor, “He’s scared, caught, yes both” (84) and then implies that he actually sees two others: “They’re both” (84). Similarly, Thomas reports that when he is “badly,’ he sees a face––possibly Tom’s?–– and wonders if it might be his own: “He’s caught. He sees he’s caught . . . . .Is it me?” (76) Tom seems to have no visions of Macey or Thomas, But as he and Jan follow what appears to be a remnant of an ancient path that leads them to Mow Cop, she asks, “Have you any idea about where we are?” he does suggestively say “I’m more uneasy about when” (67)––their trajectory is toward the past occupied by the other two protagonists. Tom also tells Jan at one point that “We’re bits of other futures”(52) and “I see everything at once” (52). Even though Tom is unconscious of how suggestive those statements are in relation to the contrapuntal structure of the novel and the relationship of his story to the earlier ones, there appear to be hints here and elsewhere that Tom is somehow aware of the experiences of the other two, possibly throughout the novel.
  • Each of the three protagonists has a significant attachment to a woman: Macey to a Druid priestess, viewed as the incarnation of a corn goddess, Thomas to Madge, Tom to Jan. All three men depend on the woman in their lives for support and sustenance in moments of significant weakness, a weakness often associated with their strange fits and visions. The support seem important because all three men are understood to be significantly weak by others around them: Macey as sometimes maniacally out of control as a violent killing machine, Thomas as sometimes dangerously unaware of his surroundings, Tom as a loner with difficult parents who treat him as a child and who has moments of uncontrolled rage.
  • All three relationships are complicated. Tom, has invested everything in his love for Jan: “I have believed there is a single person in all time and space who is honest, and that I have found her” (111). He must then cope with knowledge of her earlier affair with an older man from another country that she has hidden from him despite their insistence that they have no secrets from each other. This bothersome remnant of an earlier affair resonates in relation to Madge’s previous involvement before Thomas with Tom Venables, a man who has left their village but returns as part of a foreign army––just as, we are told, the foreigner has returned to Jan and can thus be observed with her by Tom on a secret trip into London. Tom Venables, finally, saves Thomas’s life out of love for Madge, handing him over to him much as Jan claims her old lover has left her life knowing of her new love for Tom. Jan’s sexual affair resonates in quite different ways with the sexual uses made of the Druid goddess by the disguised Roman soldiers accompanying Macey and exploiting his mindless violence to defend themselves against the locals––a use of a woman he appears to love that Macey, quite unlike Tom, nevertheless accepts.
  • Macey is associated with a group of foreign soldiers who pretend to be local tribesmen: invaders pretending to be the invaded. In a contrapuntally opposite situation, Thomas’s village is under attack from an invading army of Irishman, many of whose members turn out to be local men from their own and nearby villages, so that the invasion that leads to violence and destruction is at least partially from within; instead of apparent insiders being outsiders, apparent outsiders are actually insiders. In Tom’s story, however, the most obvious “invader’ is his girlfriend Jan, whose family has recently moved into a house near Tom’s, and whose parents leave for elsewhere when Jan and Tom’s relationship is just under way. On the other hand, however, Tom’s father is a soldier, and his family live in a trailer park, a place more obviously associated with transience than Jan’s suburban home. While Jan is is an outsider who enters Tom’s life, there is a way in which he can be seen to be an invasive newcomer in her life. Furthermore, after she leaves to continue her education in London, they meet in a town equidistant from both of them and at first strange to both of them, a place they treat as secretive invaders, spending time in shop-window furniture displays and bingo parlours, and then later, in the contemporary version of the place Macey and Thomas inhabited in earlier centuries, pretending that a ruined cottage––possibly once the home of Thomas and Madge––is actually their own home. Meanwhile, Tom must put up with his mother’s invasions of his privacy, so that questions of who invades and who is being invaded occur throughout.
  • All three stories significantly involve deception and betrayal. In Thomas’s story, others in the village refuse to betray Thomas’s friend John, knowing the refusal will result in their own death, and Madge’s old beau Tom Venables wounds him in a such a way that he can be left for dead but survive, a betrayal of Venables’ fellow soldiers that honours Madge’s love for Thomas. The only seriously negative betrayal is by Thomas’ friend John, a man he looks up to but who mistreats him because, it seems, John, too, loves Madge and cannot understand her choice of Thomas over him. Furthermore, John betrays the other men of the village by refusing to acknowledge who he is, an act which results in their immediate death at the hands of their enemies. In Macey’s story, the woman is the key betrayer: she poisons the Romans’ food in order to protect Macey and the unborn child in her womb. (That child of invaders might then be paralleled when Tom Venables rapes Madge, perhaps leaving her, too, pregnant; it seems that both Macey and Thomas have no objection to these pregnancies.) In any case, The Druid woman tells Macey, “We’ve both betrayed” (134). Perhaps similarly, then, Jan has betrayed Tom by not telling him of her earlier affair; but then he betrays her trust by keeping important secrets from her––especially, his selling of the ancient axe that meant so much to her to the British museum. They, too, have both betrayed, in ways that seem to prevent them from continuing their relationship and thus finally differentiates them from the earlier two couples. Meanwhile, however, Tom and Jan have been betrayed by Tom’s parents, especially by his mother’s reading and hiding of Jan’s letters to Tom.
  • As well as elements of the three stories resonating in relation to each other, there are repeating references to the same places in different times, and repeating allusions and images. The constellation Orion is mentioned by a Roman soldier (29), by the Rector of Thomas’s church (56), and by Tom (39) and Jan (124). Macey refers to his violent fits in terms of the colours blue and silver turning to red: “Blue. Silver. and Red” (22). Somewhat similarly, Thomas speaks of seeing “”all of them blues and whites” (76), and later “blue and white flashes of the winter sun” (123), followed by “the redness of the sun” (123). These reference might be explained near the end of the novel, as Tom says farewell to Jan as she boards a “blue and silver train” through “red doors” ()155); perhaps the earlier two have caught psychic glimpses of this defining moment of a sad end.

Tom himself suggests a way of understanding these colours in terms of the red shift of astronomy, also evoked in the novel’s title: “I need to adjust my spectrum, pull myself away from the blue end. I could do with a red shift” (126). Later, speaking of how he tries and fails to make each “next time” they meet better, he adds, “Galactic. Red shift, The further they go, the faster they leave. The sky’s emptying” (152). In astronomy, a red shift occurs when light from an object moving away from an observer increases in wavelength, i.e., shifts to the red end of the spectrum. Conversely, a decrease in wavelength, a blue shift, occurs when a light-emitting object moves toward an observer. It seems, then, that the colours Macey and Thomas speak of as the markers of their unsettling visions evoke their awareness of Tom, and their nearness to or distance from him. For Tom, meanwhile, the idea of a red shift appears to evokes his conflicting needs of intimacy and distance.

In addition, there are other red shifts in the novel. When Tom says of red shifts that “Galaxies and rectors have them” (126), he refers to the remnants of red paint representing the ceremonial robe of the effigy of a priest in the church, and Margery keeps the stone axe in a petticoat died with alder bark (56), thus making it, too, a red shift.

  • On first reading Red Shift, I assumed that the the separate events of the three stories would parallel each other in ways that made them symbolic variations of each other. In fact, however, the events of the stories are so unlike each other that that rarely happens. There is the occasional moment when something important that happens to Macey echoes something that has just happened to Tom or Thomas. More usually, however, what ties the different plot-lines together are the repeating elements I have already discussed and, also other less central repetitions, so that a phrase or an object in one section will repeat in the next one. As Maria Nikolajeva argues, “To see the connection between two successive episodes is not easy, but the sequence is never accidental. The connection may be a place, an object, a color . . . , a pattern of behavior, a phrase . . . , an image” (“Insignificance”129). For instance, Jan holds Tom’s wrists as a new section begins, just after the one before it finishes with the priestess touching Macey’s hair to smooth it (35). Jan is holding Tom’s wrists while she washes his hands to free them of broken glass in one section; in the section that follows, Margery washes Thomas’s muddy hands to reveal the axe he has found (42). In another, less complex example, Tom’s mention of Oak Farm is followed by Thomas;’s friend ‘s John’s mention of Oak Farm after a switch to the other narrative thread on the same page (73). While the three stories have many variational relationships, they do not in any obvious way operate as differing versions of the same basic set of events.
  • Nevertheless, all three stories involve unlikely lovers finding each other––but only two of them end with couple happily together. As a result, .the novel almost inevitably seems to focus on how life in the present is different than it once was––that, as in the astronomical red shift, people grow more distant and more prone to isolation. Or, at least, these two particular people, Tom and Jan, do.

All of that seems very suggestive––and yet I am uncertain about exactly what it might be suggesting, A number of critics have offered readings of the subtleties of Red Shift that offer very specific interpretations of them––each of them, presumably, a definitive way of answering the questions the novel seems to be raising. and thus, of enunciating its specific intentions, For instance, Maria Nikolajeva asserts, “The three male figures are not reincarnations of the same person, but one person living simultaneously in three times, or rather in one boundless, non-linear time.” (Insignificance”129); as a result, then “Tom feels unreal and shadowy because he belongs to different times or one universal time. That makes him feel that he does not belong anywhere, that he is an outsider” (130). Elsewhere, Nikoleva suggests that, as in other novels by Garner, “Other times and alternative worlds are present . . . only insofar as they relate to the people of today and their emotions” (Children’s Literature Comes 178). in other words, the book really is only and exclusively about Tom, and the other two plots are there to throw light and comment on his strange malaise.

According to Aidan Chambers, however, the other two plots are not so easily pushed into the background: “Garner means them to be co-plots, the function of which is not simply to support the top tune, but to add variation to the main theme” (“Literary Crossword” 495). In a carefully argued and richly textured analysis of Red Shift, Charles Butler also engages with the idea of the three stories as variational, but complicates his analysis by envisaging them all of them as variation on yet another story, one that is not actually present: “The novel gives us three expressions of the Tam Lin myth; but we should not forget that their combination in a single text, Red Shift itself, constitutes a fourth expression, one in which the themes of change, of uncertainty, of identity are given new and complex forms” ().

While Butler’s argument is compelling and logically convincing, I find myself resisting agreement with it. I have a sense that much of the pleasure of a book like Red Shift is the tantalizing uncertainty created through the variational relationships of the three stories it tells and implies connections between. No matter how sophisticated and satisfying it might be, an explanation of the novel’s meaning that moved past that unique and distinctive uncertainty seems, in some mysterious and important way, to make the novel something different and something less than I believe it is. For me, at any rate, it remains a key example of the variational relationships that can be developed between alternating narratives exactly because those relationships and the mysterious nature of what and why they are connected remain unresolved––eternal inviting an ongoing awareness of how what is separate and distinct can nevertheless take part in a wider network of interconnected events and images that amplifies its significance of separate and distinct elements simply by including and implying connections between them.

In Red Shift, furthermore, the significance is being amplified in ways that do not ever cause the novel to move past the elements that define it as a novel for young people: for all the mystery of what ties it all together and all the pleasure of trying to figure that out, it remain in essence a conventional novel for young people, a plot-oriented story filled with action that is told for the most part in simple and direct prose consisting of large portions of conversation and remains mostly uninterested in and silent about its character’s thoughts about their own and each other’s feeling except in terms of their often terse conversations about them. Its complexities all have to with the contrapuntal interweaving of three stories, each of which, on its own, would have made a fairly conventional novel and fairly uncomplicated for young people. For me, then, Red Shift is centrally about the subtlety of its simplicity, a subtly that emerges from its contrapuntal relationships. It is a contrapuntal novel about the pleasures of counterpoint.

Works Cited

Butler, Charles. “Alan Garner’s Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of “Tam Lin.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.2 (Summer 2001): 74-83.

Chambers, Aidan. “Literary Crossword Puzzle… or Masterpiece?” Horn Book 49 (1973): 494-497.

Garner, Alan. Red Shift. 1973. London: Collins Lions, 1975.

Nikolajeva, Maria. “The Insignificance of Time: Red Shift.Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 14.33 (Fall 1989): 128-131.


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