Archive for the ‘Alan Garner’ Category

The Owl Service by Alan Garner ~ 1967. This edition: Collins, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-675401-5. 224 pages.

Alan Garner’s melding of Welsh myth and 1960s’ teen angst tale has, over the years, become something of a legend of its own.

Pondered over by literary folklore scholars and a wide range of students from its publication fifty years ago to today, analyzed to the nth degree, filmed in 1969 with immense popular success, this novel just goes on and on.

Here’s the set up.

Teenage English step-siblings Alison and Roger accompany their recently married parents to Alison’s dead father’s house in Wales. It’s technically Alison’s house now, for it was left to her in her father’s will, bypassing her mother to avoid death duties. Roger’s father is divorced from his first wife, who was blatantly unfaithful to her husband; this situation has left Roger with a serious chip on his shoulder.

On site are three Welsh employees: gardener Huw, housekeeper Nancy, and Nancy’s teenage son Gwyn, odd-job boy.

Huw is viewed by the English visitors as something of a half-wit; he tends to do a lot of standing around gazing into the distance, and is continually making strangely phrased pronouncements. (Big Hint: Huw is not the fool he seems. Or at least not in the conventional sense.)

Nancy seems normal enough, if a bit high-strung. She is very much wound up about class distinctions, and warns her son Gwyn about a.) fraternizing with lowly Huw, and b.) getting chummy with upper-class Roger and Alison.

Gwyn pays this no mind, being attracted to all three of the forbidden ones for vastly different reasons, though he is about to run afoul of Roger. (And Roger’s dad. And Alison’s mother. And his own mother. Well, pretty well everybody, really. Except for Huw. This is another Big Hint.)

Shortly after the newly blended family’s arrival at the Welsh country house Alison, in bed with a minor ailment, hears persistent scratching in the ceiling of her room. Gwyn investigates, going up into the attic through a hatch in the ceiling. ThereĀ  is evidence of rodent activity, but more intriguingly, Gwyn finds a complete set of elaborately decorated china dishes stacked in a corner. He brings a plate down with him to show Alison, and hey, presto! – we’re off.

The plate depicts an arrangement of flowers, but Alison immediately sees that the pattern also forms an owl, and she is mesmerized by it. She decides to trace the pattern onto paper, matching up body and head, and when done cuts the completed paper owl out. Over and over she does this, with some mysterious results: the paper owls disappear overnight, as does the pattern from the plate. Hmm…

Here’s the plate. For real. Seeing this pattern is what set folklorist Alan Garner off on the plot of this novel.

This is where Garner steps in with his retelling of the tragic Blodeuwedd story from the medieval Celtic folklore epic The Mabinogion. In this story, a man is cursed to never have a human wife. His wizard uncle then creates a maiden out of flowers for his nephew; the two wed, but the maiden falls in love with another man, and the two plot to murder the husband. This sets off another curse in which the flower maiden is turned into an owl, doomed to spend eternity replaying the story in each new generation. (Or something to that effect.)

So here we have Alison being possessed by the shade of Blodeuwedd, with Roger and Gwyn taking on the roles of her two lovers. Metaphorically speaking, that is. No actual lovemaking takes place, not on the page, anyway. And not really out of scene, either, from what hints Garner gives us. Though there is no doubt that everyone is thinking about it.

All. The. Time. Teenagers, raging hormones, the whole supernatural replaying of a tragic love triangle. Yeah, it’s a hot, hot summer, in more ways than one.

There’s a load of other stuff all going on concurrently. Alison’s confliction with her attraction to Gwyn (and maybe to Roger?) which her mother fears and forbids. (Interesting side note on the mother: she drives the story from the background; we never see her, though all of the characters refer to her and appear to view her as one who must not be upset or disappointed or crossed in any way.)

Roger’s father, though wealthy, is of a lower social status than his new wife, which is good for some malicious digs from here and there. Also, his divorced wife is notoriously promiscuous, going from man to man (or so rumour has it) with the result that son Roger is a prickly mass of resentment and fear that anyone will mention her to him.

Gwyn is feeling stuck between two worlds himself. Brought up by his mother, father unknown, he has managed to attain a scholarship to a prestigious school, and has flourished there and surpassed his own mother in social standing, which she bitterly resents, though she has wished this for him.

Roger and Gwyn bristle at each other, swapping insult for insult. In between times they go about together in relative harmony. Alison floats about, never committing to anything, tracing and cutting out her paper owls with increasing intensity, and giving by her very presence – all unawakened virginity – a generous dose of sexual tension to the scene.

As the summer goes on, the supernatural echoes from the awakened curse grow louder and louder until things come at last to a dramatic head. The climax is cut short by an unlikely saviour, in a much-too-simple way, and we are left at the end of this sketchy sort of tale wondering what the heck just happened, really.

An interesting novel, this. It really shouldn’t work, but for the most part it does. The ending is utterly inconclusive; the spell is laid much too easily; we know this can’t possibly be the final solution to Blodeuwedd’s reawakening.

Or is it?

This is a tough one to define a numerical rating for. As a novel, it’s hard to really get into, hard to find a conventional narrative thread; it’s all muddled up.

But on the other hand, one can’t quite look away. If you have the background knowlege of the Bloedeuwedd story, things click a lot more readily; later editions have all sorts of forewords and afterwords and author’s notes, but to read it cold (as it were) must have been a bit mind-bending when the book first came out.

Promoted as a “young adult” book, this one is indeed that. Older adults will find it intriguing, too. As might younger readers, though it might well induce a few nightmares. Those claws scratching in the ceiling, those clover flowers made of claws, those vanishing owls…

Brrr.

Okay, then.

7/10.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »