With the stunning reprints out now from HarperCollins, this summer I am re-reading Alan Garner's classic books for children and taking deep dives into each. You can read about my reflections on Elidor but today I'm deep-diving into Alan Garner's award-winning The Owl Service.
Like Elidor, which was published beforehand, The Owl Service is a low-fantasy and 'an expression of the myth' (in the author's words) of the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Published in 1967, the book was met with critical acclaim, winning the Carnegie and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. It is often ranked highly in lists of the top Carnegie-winning books for children. But, after over five decades, does the Owl Service still hold up?
I think it does hold up. It is very much of its time, but, as with all of Garner's fiction, it is also timeless. It is worth discussing the concept of time in regards to Garner's work, as nearly all of his books are perhaps meditations on the nature of time, its cycles and fragility. Myth for Garner is not consigned to the past; it is alive and permeates the present. In the recent Booker Prize shortlisted Treacle Walker, Garner plays with time and the narrative is almost circular. The preface includes a quote from Carlo Rovelli: 'Time is ignorance.' For me, this is Garner pointing us towards the notion that trying to order and understand time is futile; only existing in the timeless can we obtain knowledge. In The Owl Service, there is one paragraph, when the character Gwyn enters the forest at night, that almost breaks the fourth wall, revealing how Garner's writing itself is an attempt to deconstruct time in order to discover the magic in the timeless:
'The moon shone. And Gwyn began to play with time, splitting a second into minutes, and then into hours - or taking an hour and compressing it to an instant. No hurry.'
Alan Garner is notorious for spending years researching and writing his books. He plays with time. So critically assessing The Owl Service also means viewing it through the lens of the timeless, or like Joseph Coppock in Treacle Walker, properly seeing the world and its 'glamour' from his lazy eye. The Owl Service then adapts or brings out the timeless of the story of Blodeuwedd from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, or Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi in Welsh, are some of the oldest prose texts, taken from oral tradition, in the British Isles. I have read them, although trying to recall what happens in them is like trying to recollect the strange images of a dream. Recently, the 'Mabinogion' has been rewritten for children as 'The Mab', demonstrating its continual appeal. And this is what Garner seems to do, and why his fiction still matters; he takes an element of that timeless dream and allows it to disrupt the present as low-fantasy.
So what is the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi all about? Firstly, the part Garner uses or adapts for The Owl Service comes towards the end of the Fourth Branch. Simply put, the magicians Math and Gwydion magically create a woman for a man called Lleu:
'to charm a wife for him out of flowers... they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden... and named her Blodeuedd.'
Blodeuedd means owl. So here we have the seed of Alan Garner's story. But what I love is how, with 'no hurry', he allowed the idea to germinate. In his own words, Garner says:
'The legend stuck in my mind for several years, and then one day my mother-in-law showed me an old dinner service. She had noticed that the floral pattern round the edge of the plates could be seen as the body, wings and head of an owl.'
So The Owl Service starts with such plates in a cottage in a valley in Wales. The children, or teenagers, Alison, Roger and Gwyn discover the plates in the attic, causing a disturbance. After reading Elidor, I am reminded how often Garner uses these hidden away places. In Elidor, the children hide the Treasures in the eaves of the attic; their power disrupting the electricity. Even in his recent Treacle Walker, Joseph Coppock climbs down from his mattress on the chimney cupboard. If we think of timelessness, I often wonder whether these domestic spaces hark back to when Alan Garner was a child, bed-bound with serious illnesses, staring up at these spaces and imagining the possibilities hidden behind them. Unlike say C.S. Lewis with the wardrobe to another world, Garner introduces timeless, mythic objects that disrupt our own world. Plates with flowers or owls or both on them making a noise in an attic, and causing Alison to become obsessed and begin to transform into a new version of Blodeuedd. The binaries of owls/ flowers, danger/ beauty swings in The Owl Service, until the end, when one is chosen. There is always an edge to Garner's writing: myth/ reality, danger/ beauty, magic/ science.
As with Elidor, The Owl Service blurs the lines of myth, history, science and magic. The story of Blodeuedd doesn't end there. Lleu, who falls in love with her, is killed by Gronw Pebr who throws a spear at him, turning him into an eagle. Later, Lleu returns by killing Gronw Pebr by throwing a spear at him through a stone as he bathes in a river. This stone, with a hole, is in The Owl Service: the Gronw Stone. What I love about Garner's imagination is how he takes a mythic object and feeds it power through science. Roger takes photos through the hole and when he develops the film shadowy, strange images appear. Science and magic for Garner are two sides of the same coin. Throughout the story, there is reference to the valley having a power, like a battery, and how that power transfers and builds from the plates to the walls and into Alison herself. Which is why this new edition cover of The Owl Service is so refreshingly good. Chris Wormell has focused his illustration on the Welsh valley, giving it a dense, foreboding and inescapable power. The Welsh valley Garner set the book and the subsequent TV series is uncannily linked, perhaps, to the myth. Read Garner's postscript to see why (an owl brushes past his face and a local scratches the word Blodeuedd on a flat slate and talks about a murder by an arrow in the local river.) What I love about Garner's writing process is how he allowed the myth, its history and the landscape to grow in his mind over time, before taking flight. His books are always bigger, then, than the sum of their parts. They are anchored, tethered to the timeless.
While The Owl Service is often categorised as Middle Grade (8-12 year-olds), I would argue it is more pitched as teen and YA. Why? Because, as with the myth from the Mabinogi, this is a story about two boys or men vying for the attention of their Blodeuedd. It is about teenagers wanting to be seen, dealing with their growing emotions and hormones. Does Alison transform into a women? Is it about the wild power of growing-up? Is it flowers or owls? There is restlessness and yearning and repressed desire, which is deeper and more mature in its nature than in Elidor. Is it also about breaking the cycles of the past, learning from the mistakes of previous generations. Is it owls or flowers?
Upon re-reading The Owl Service, I am again struck by Alan Garner's storytelling power. His books are valleys, are batteries, are mythic and dreamlike and stark. The Owl Service conjures so much atmosphere and mystery, driven almost exclusively by dialogue. Again, taking his time, Garner learned Welsh just to inhabit its world, even if he chose not to use Welsh in the text or use dialect knowingly. It is a strange and unsettling book, and while dated in some respects, it carries with it a timeless power that utterly captivates and disturbs, blurring the lines between the mythic and the mundane once more.
Thank you to HarperCollins for sending these new editions to me. My next deep-dive will be into Garner's 'Red Shift'