This is a magical book, and the finest of Alan Garner’s young adult novels. Now, a lot of people associate magic with ethereal forces, great quests and spells and all that, and indeed spells can be found in several of Garner’s other books. The Owl Service reveals a different kind of magic, the kind that arises from the interaction of people with patterns, of desires that unwittingly mesh with the larger forces around us, harsh magic that people employ without knowing it. The book is multi-layered, with themes that sneak up on the reader, requiring a second or third read, and many fans who read the book as children report returning to it as adults. This book won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award, and has remained in print since its original publication.
Many people have written about Garner’s brilliance; indeed, whole dissertations have been published on the subject of his use of Welsh myth and its impact on children’s literature. Early on, Garner was compared to Tolkien, just as recent young adult writers have been compared to Garner when they venture into the territory of Welsh myth. Much has also been written about Robert Graves’s influence on Garner’s concept of female deity, a view that emphasizes the dread, awe and cruelty of the female archetype. Is there anything left to say about Garner, and The Owl Service? Maybe not, but that has never stopped me before.
The Owl Service interprets a story from the Welsh Mabinogion, namely, portions of the story of “Math Son of Mathonwy.” In this story Math’s niece, Arianhrod, is tricked into giving birth when her claim to virginity is tested. She rejects her children, and one is raised by her brother, Math’s heir Gwydion. (In a matrilineal system the maternal uncle is the male relative who takes responsibility for the child.) Resentful, Arianhrod curses her son Lleu. Her first curse is that he will not be named until she names him. The second is that he will not bear arms until she arms him. Finally, she declares that the child shall not have a human wife, and so Math and Gwydion fashion a woman of flowers to be Lleu’s wife, and name her Bloduwedd (flower face).
Yet this third curse is not so easily thwarted because the couple must now make a marriage, and Bloduwedd becomes enamored of neighbor Gronw Pebr, who counsels her to find out how Lleu can be killed. Although some have interpreted Gronw’s liaison with Bloduwedd as an act of pure, selfish passion, most writers also note that she had no choice of partners, and her feelings for Lleu are never really described in “Math,” although her feelings for Gronw are quite clear.
Like many Celtic demigods, Lleu must abide by the curses of his mother, similar to the geas, or taboo, laid on Irish heroes, and can only be killed in unusual circumstances that usually arise only when the character breaks the geas. Gronw tries to kill Lleu, yet before he dies, Lleu manages to turn into an eagle and fly away, to be found eventually by Gwydion, who talks him down from a tree where he huddles with his flesh rotting away. Gwydion saves Lleu and takes revenge on Bloduwedd by turning her into an owl.
The Owl Service, set in the 1960s, tells the story of three children, this generation’s actors in the ancient drama. Gwyn, the Welsh son of the housekeeper Nancy, along with his father Huw Halfbeacon, form two of the three doomed lovers from the previous generation. Allison is the young English owner of the Welsh estate where Nancy and Huw work. She is visiting with her mother, stepfather and stepbrother Roger. Allison and Roger find a mysterious set of dishes in the attic, and Allison begins compulsively tracing paper owls from the pattern, which then disappear, as do the patterns on the dishes.
The children investigate the intricate patterns of mystery, drawn on by clues of the last generation’s trio, acquiring aspects of the original trio and yet remaining entirely themselves. The story is not so much a commentary on the original, or a retelling, as it is a carefully staged exploration of how the myth works in all times. It just is, and the characters can no more avoid participation in the greater mystery than they can avoid having personal issues.
The teenagers recreate their roles in a way that determines the fortunes of the valley. Bloduwedd can either be flowers or owl; Lleu can be either the lord of the valley and her partner, or he the betrayed lover and she the vindictive mother. The dramas of the previous generation are woven through the fates and impulses of the three adolescents.
For me, Garner’s brilliance is in conveying the curious worldview of the Welsh stories. He captures the interaction between ordinary reality and the Celtic otherworld in a way that raises questions about how the reader experiences physical and temporal reality. He identifies the way that individuals and groups recreate and participate in the dramas of demigods that push the reader to see these patterns in themselves and others, without any notion that such participation might justify wrong actions. Occasionally, Garner even manages to capture the old stories‚ sense of following one’s nature in a way that transcends dualistic notions of good and evil. No one does it better, or in a more subtle fashion.
Writers often remark about the Celtic people’s relationship with the land, yet few, when convenying this sense, move beyond the warm fuzzies city folk feel on a country drive. Garner is able to portray this kinship in the relationship of the people in the valley, the interaction between ancient sites and contemporary people, and the brooding sense of dread that manifests through the interaction of the young people. He also conveys the interaction of people across generations as Huw manifests Gwydion across time, sometimes answering from the present, and other times slipping into another age.
The Owl Service is the best of his young adult stories because Garner does all this without resorting to plot tricks like traveling through time (Elidor ) or populating the story with wizards, elves, dwarves and goblins (“The Alderly Tales”: The Wierdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath).
The Owl Service is one of those books I found transformative as a young person. It also set me on the path to the original tales of the Mabinogi, and provided new insights on their worldview. I admire Garner’s courage in moving beyond the good and evil morality tales that simplify issues for children. He wrote a great story, portraying the complications of life at the transformation from childhood. It is rich in symbolism that does not distract from the plot, and unsentimental about characters‚ motivations, limitations and hidden strengths.
This book is a must read for children with dreamy natures who demand both mystery and the truth about people’s interaction with the larger forces at play in our world.
(Magic Carpet Books, 1967)