Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967) is a classic of young adult literature, published before YA was really a thing. I was, apparently, supposed to have read it for my Children’s Literature course in my last year of university (was that really almost two years ago now?), despite the reading list saying “all texts below this point are optional”. I didn’t read it because I took this pronouncement at face value.
I recently read the first volume of The Sandman, which was also on that list. And while I very much wish I had read The Sandman two years ago when all the considerable resources of the Bodleian Library were at my disposal to get my hands on the next few volumes, I can’t say my life has been diminished because of not reading The Owl Service before now.
It’s a retelling, sort of, of one of the blood-soaked Mabinogion‘s choicer stories: that of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers to be the unlucky bride of a man who was unable to find a wife any other way. Inevitably, Blodeuwedd betrayed her husband with another man; her lover murdered her husband, and she was transformed into an owl.
So our story begins with another trio, this one of teenagers, who find themselves reenacting the whole terrible myth. Alison and her stepbrother Roger are staying in a Welsh valley, in a house Alison has inherited from her English father. Gwyn is the Welsh son of the house’s cook. When Alison hears mysterious scratchings in her ceiling, the three discover an old dinner service in the attic, patterned with owls; Alison quickly becomes obsessed, and various strange things happen throughout the house.
I think one of the reasons I couldn’t really engage with The Owl Service, despite its promising premise, was personal: I like my magic Gothic and hypnotic and ostentatious, concealing and revealing all at once, and there’s not much chance of that in Garner’s sparse realist prose.
Another reason, though, is that it feels very much like an Issues Book: which is to say, one of those books you are saddled with at school that teaches you about something Important under a thin disguise of story. The Owl Service is about class, and how the cultural appropriation of Welshness by the English and the gradual pricing out of Welsh tenants from Welsh lands is a Bad Thing, and, yes, the revolutionary socialist in my heart is very happy to agree with Garner on these subjects but it all seems to be wearing a slight veneer of didactic obviousness.
Which sort of brings me to the third reason, which is that although I’m fairly sure there are other things going on here I just can’t put my finger on what they are. In truth, The Owl Service is about more than class; it has to be, because the Mabinogion myth is not really a myth about class. In fact, it’s the theme of social and generational entrapment that seems to wind its way through the novel. The three parties of the Blodeuwedd myth are trapped from the moment Blodeuwedd is created (what, the book seems to ask, can you expect but bitterness when a woman is literally created for a man, without her say so?) and that entrapment perpetuates in a thousand ways: in the endless reenactment of the myth by the valley’s inhabitants, down the generations; in the locking away of the owl service to try to block Blodeuwedd’s power from returning; in Alison’s inability to escape the power of her stepmother; in Gwyn’s entrapment in the realities of poverty and English disdain for Welshness; in everyone’s inability to escape the roles dictated to them by their social contexts. If anything, The Owl Service feels intensely claustrophobic, as tensions rise in the valley; that terse prose binds us to the reality of events, unable to escape into fancy or metaphor. It’s quite a horrific novel, in its way.
And so we never quite see anything beyond this complex network of social pressures. The ending offers some hope of escape – but we leave the trio right on the ambivalent edge of escape, forever on the boundary into something else and never exactly reaching it; always, potentially, cycling back into the trap.
If it isn’t already obvious, I don’t have a thesis for this review. I don’t really know what to take from The Owl Service, though I think my respect for it has grown since I’ve been thinking about it. For someone, it’s likely a hugely powerful novel; and though I can see that potential, I’m not that someone.
TL;DR: your mileage may vary.