First read 1982/3
Re-read 21/03/2021- 27/03/2021
Rating 3 stars
Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is set in a Welsh valley not far from Aberystwyth. The valley contains an ancient, mysterious power. Teenagers Alison, Gwyn and Roger somehow unlock that power and have to deal with the consequences.
The story has themes of love and betrayal, and is based on the legend of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion, a woman made from flowers by King Math and the magician Gwydion as a bride for a cursed man who may not marry a human woman. Blodeuwedd betrayed her husband Lleu with another man, Gronw, whom she persuaded to kill her husband. Her punishment was to be turned into an owl.
I first read The Owl Service when I was 12 years old. I’d loved Alan Garner’s books Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when I read them in primary school. Elidor in particular was my first encounter with writing that merged ancient myths with present day life, and made a deep impression on me. The Owl Service was an ‘older’ book. Young Adults didn’t exist, then, but that’s what its audience would be classed as now.
I remember it unsettling me, with the way spirits from another time, maybe even another realm, crossed so easily into the present world. I wasn’t affected in the same way on this reading, but still enjoyed the tension and the mystery of the bizarre goings-on.
Alison, Gwyn and Roger form a parallel triangle to that of Blodeuwedd, Lleu and Gronw. This allows the ancient legend to break into the present. Alison has inherited the cottage where Gwyn’s mother, Nancy, works. Alison’s mother, Margaret, has remarried and Roger is the son of Alison’s new step-father, Clive. The family is wealthy – this is their holiday cottage – and both Roger and Clive take a high handed attitude in their interactions with Gwyn and his mother. This brings out an exaggerated Welshness in Gwyn, as he performs their disparaging version of who he is.
The book starts with Alison, suffering with a stomach ache, hearing a scratching sound in the attic above her bedroom. The scratches, she says, are louder when her stomach ache increases. Garner doesn’t say as much, but I have always supposed that Alison’s stomach pains are menstrual, tying the story in with various myths about the female monthly cycle and women’s sensitivity to the occult or unexplained. Alison becomes a conduit for Blodeuwedd, possessed by a compulsion to free her from the prison she’s been trapped in.
Up in the attic is a set of plates, the owl service of the title. Alison’s compulsion starts with the pattern on the plates, a floral abstract that Alison traces, making paper owls from the pattern. From that moment on, strange events take place, revealing that this is no ordinary Welsh valley and the legend of Blodeuwedd no ordinary bit of folklore.
Alison has no agency in her possession, responding seemingly irrationally, allowing her step-father, Clive, to dismiss her odd behaviour as some emotional imbalance. There’s a weird tension between Alison and Clive, too, made worse by Alison’s mother not being present for any of the book, just being referred to in the third person.
Roger tries to keep a lid on things, acting as though he’s unaware of what’s going on, getting on with practical things, like taking photographs, as a distraction from the weirdness. There’s a hint that he has survived some kind of trauma, a prickliness around the subject of his father’s second marriage, that makes his focus on small things feel like a denial of what else is going on.
Gwyn has the most curiosity about the situation, partly because his mother, Nancy, reacts so strongly to the appearance of the plates and is so determined to stop Gwyn finding out more.
Gwyn and his mother moved to the valley from Aberystwyth a week before the narrative begins. His mother grew up in the valley and has a love-hate relationship with the place. She seems to have moved back against her better judgement, and can’t explain why to her son. And yet she is so fixated on the place that Gwyn, who has never been there before, feels he knows the valley and its people intimately after years of hearing his mother talk about it.
The only person his mother hasn’t spoken of, the person she is determined to keep Gwyn away from, is the odd job man Huw Hannerhob, translated as Halfbacon, also known as Huw the Flitch. Huw is the keeper of local folklore and drops oblique hints about Blodeuwedd. It’s his uninvited sharing of information with Roger that makes him realise that what should be a myth is becoming present in their world. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is something more to Huw than his apparent half-wittedness belies. He’s linked to the magician Gwydion in some way. His job is to manage the unleashed power and stop the teenagers getting hurt.
Gwyn and Alison have more of a connection. Each says that they can talk more easily to the other than to anyone else. Alison’s family don’t like the closeness between the pair and the adults try to separate them. I found the way Garner had written Alison particularly annoying on this reading. She is largely passive and behaves helplessly, as though, because she’s a girl, she doesn’t have the mental capacity to work things out. Gwyn, Roger and Clive all patronise her. Even taking into account that the book was first published in 1967, it felt a bit much to have the central character so pathetically dependent on the male characters. Gwyn calls her girl, Clive calls her princess, Roger is just rude to her, and it’s only in her moments of possession by Blodeuwedd that she stands up to them.
More of the book’s focus is on Gwyn’s battle for independence and escape from his mother’s expectation of him. It’s interesting from a class perspective – Gwyn is working class, bright and dependent on a decent education to escape the valley. Alison has sympathy for him, but doesn’t really understand what his life is like. She behaves towards him as though he’s a dog with a thorn in its paw. Margaret, Clive and Roger have the upper and middle class attitude parodied in the Frost Report Class sketch. Gwyn refuses to know his place, though. I remember liking Gwyn the most on my first reading, perhaps because his situation was more similar to my own than Alison’s. His attitude to Alison dimmed my liking this time around, but he is still the better one of the characters.
It can be a risk, re-reading something you’d loved years ago, especially a book from childhood. As an adult, I can see why this story caught hold of my less cynical imagination back then and left me unsettled. I think, if I were to recommend it now, it would be with caveats.
I’ve added this to my Dewithon reading. Garner himself isn’t Welsh. He’s from Cheshire, and not the side that borders Wales. My inclusion of it might not entirely be in the spirit of the Wales Readathon, but I’m claiming it as having a meaningful connection to Wales through its setting and its link to the Mabinogion.