Scratching, scratching… scratching away, gnawing away, through the veneer of class, history, landscape & belonging; through language & myth.
The Owl Service weaves and dismantles; it explores; and exploits adolescence as crucible, chemistry set & melting pot; it touches on sexual frustration; on rumour & myth; it exposes tensions between incomers & native-born; between money & status; and between language & culture.
Strand upon strand; roots writhing within roots; a mystery; a glimpse of human relationships; floral owls and ancient jealousies; all knot and interlock, in Alan Garner’s tale, around elements of the fourth branch of The Mabinogion.
In the old time…
the magician Gwydion made a bride out of flowers for his nephew, Lleu. Blodeuwedd was beautiful, beautiful. Yet she fell in love, not with Lleu, but with his mortal neighbour, Gronw Pebyr. Her mystical, magical marriage shattered, Blodeuwedd plotted with Gronw to kill Lleu. But before he died, Lleu’s soul was transformed into an eagle and eventually he returned to kill Gronw, with the very same spear Gronw used to kill him. The magician Gwydion cursed Blodeuwedd, turning her into an owl, a huntress, and a bird to which no other bird will come close.
In the present time…
the stone with the hole through which Lleu threw Gronw’s own spear and killed him, still stands in a quiet Welsh valley. In this valley, the present is as significant as the past, legend means more than logic and Huw, a descendant of the magician Gwydion, can feel the owl lady near. In the old time it was Bloduwedd, Lleu and Gronw. In the present time, it will be Alison, Gwyn and Roger. But will the lady be owl or flowers? And will the spurned lover be lord of the valley or avenging murderer? And can anyone prevent the huntress from hunting?
A dinner service in the attic; the curious pattern of floral owls; a girl brought to life out of flowers; a summer in a Welsh valley; a paper owl; a reliving the roles of past drama; a step-family; a class struggle… ignite.
And into the mix, the Celtic notion of ‘thin places’ where the ‘other’ world is close, and present in all that we see and do and magnified by an engaged and almost sentient past who’s omnipotent influence affects the present, unseen, unbidden, but always, always felt.
In The Owl Service Garner suggests much and, as is his way, explains little. He plays with states of mind and explores contemporary reactions to the potent remnants of the past. He writes again of a magic rooted in the everyday, in everything we do and everything that we are. It’s a magic in and of hearts, and minds.
The Owl Service won him the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.
And it is a winner, an oddly creepy story of what happens when adolescence meets expectation that closes as it opens, and with a rush of owl feathers and the smell of flowers explores shape-shifting, emerging, urgent life and oft unspoken anguish.
Perhaps its central theme is the age-old battle between good and evil, but then perhaps aren’t most stories? It’s written with the sure and certain knowledge that nothing is black and white. All things – past, present and future – are subtle shades of grey.
Garner’s story is long on atmosphere, a multi-layered book of mystery and suspense, but also that musing on love, class structure and power. It’s a bringing to fruition of his long apprenticeship in a mesmerising mythical tale that bears more than a passing resemblance to a dream: eerie, intriguing, illogical, and as fleeting as a dream once daylight comes, and we return to the ‘real’ world.