Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Owl Service

When I was asked to make suggestions for the current Slaves of Golconda choice I was hesitant about offering a selection of Young Adult novels, not because I think there is any paucity of excellent material available but because I know that I can’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for the field. Reading round people’s blogs over the past few weeks, I’m aware that the book that was eventually chosen has not found favour everywhere, but nevertheless, I am going to stick my neck out and say that I think Alan Garner’s novel, 'The Owl Service', is one of the great books of its time and still stands up today as a work in which not a word is wasted and not an idea explored that isn’t fully and precisely worked through.

Garner is not a prolific writer, indeed there have been only a handful of books in the forty years since 'The Owl Service' was published. His central concerns, however, never alter: a passion for the cultural memory held by the land and the communities that have lived in a particular place through the ages; a vision of the landscape itself as a living being actively involved in the shaping of those communities’ lives; and the importance of language and the cadences that belong to a particular area and the peoples who have worked the land there for generation after generation.

In 'The Owl Service' these general concerns find a specific voice in the centuries old and still continuing conflict between the disparate peoples of the British Isles, those of Celtic origin and those with Anglo-Saxon or Norman forebears. At the moment this is showing itself most strongly in debate about Scottish devolution, at the time the book was written the area of contention was the infiltration of the Welsh valleys by incoming English, buying up properties for holiday homes and destroying the countryside by damning the rivers to build reservoirs that would supply Midlands’ cities with water.

The novel is built around a legend that forms part of Welsh literary heritage collected as the 'Mabinogian'. In this legend the wizard, Gwydion, makes a woman, Blodeuwedd, out of the flowers of the oak, the broom and the meadowsweet and she is given in marriage to a local lord, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. However, Blodeuwedd falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebyr, and together they conspire to kill Lleu Llaw Gyffes. While the plot is successful Lleu Llaw Gyffes returns and not only kills Grinw Pebyr but also turns Blodeuwedd into an owl forced to hunt by night because rejected for her perfidy by all the other birds. One version of the legend can be found here.

Garner’s conceit, totally in accord with his belief in the power of the land to hold the tribal memory of the people who inhabit it, is that the anger unleashed by the actions of the the three protagonists still permeates the valley in which the events took place and that within each generation three young people will be forced to re-enact the tragedy until Blodeuwedd is able to find the peace of returning to her flower form instead of having to hunt as the owl. In this generation that means Gwyn, the descendant of Gwydion/Lleu Llaw, Gyffes, Alison, a teenager who has just inherited a house in the valley and her stepbrother, Roger. Try as they might to avoid the force of nature that they find themselves being controlled by they are brought to the point where Alison has to chose and Roger and Gwyn have to help her. I find Garner’s resolution of the story very interesting indeed, but more of that later.

There are so many things that I think exceptional about this book that I hardly know where to start. From the very earliest pages you can’t help but be aware of the land and the weather as a living being, exerting pressure on the actions of the humans caught up in its domain. After Roger’s encounter with the replaying of the first death, Garner tells us that '[t]he mountains hung over him, ready to fill the valley.' And it isn’t long before the landscape and the weather begin to work together to echo the growing tension.

'There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white towards the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountain made his heart shake.'

As the story comes to its climax, so the combined forces of the weather and the mountainous countryside collude to keep the main players enclosed in the valley until the final moment when Alison must make her choice. For something else that Garner is concerned with here is the need for us to take responsibility for our actions and the last three generations have shied away from facing up to the choice, trying to channel the destructive force elsewhere. '[W]e gave this power a thinking mind. We must bear that mind, leash it, yet set it free, through us, in us, so that no one else may suffer.'

The valley has acted as a reservoir for that power, the actions of the previous generations having damned it and held the destructive force in. The metaphor for the destruction of those Welsh valleys used for English purposes is strong and the ancient animosity between the two peoples manifest in the relationships amongst the novels main characters. This is most often played out through the language, the easiest and most common source of mockery. Garner picks up and emphasises the patterns of the two tongues and yet at the same time he shows the dilemma of the Welsh, who in order to find a place in the world of work and education at that time, needed to speak English and preferably in a way that didn’t belie their origins. They needed to turn traitor to the very thing that held them fast and strong, their roots, their land, their language.

There are so many other things that I could discuss here: Garner’s interest in class; the issue of the role of women; the exploitation of a people’s heritage through the tourist market; the question of observer perspective - do you see owls or flowers? But this is becoming a very long post and so I’ll save those for the discussion. The one thing I do want to pick up on, however, is the ending, because I think it is significant and to some extent disheartening. Ultimately, it is not Gwyn who helps Alison to see flowers rather than owls, but Roger. Gwyn’s anger is so strong that he simply cannot overcome his own hurt, the hurt of generations, and reach out to help someone else. Forty years ago that may have been a reflection of the anger in the Valleys against the incomers, anger that lead to such acts as fire-bombing people out of their houses. Today, it brings to mind the development in Nationalism in all parts of the British Isles. While there is not the same transparent anger in the very air, there is a growing feeling that the various nations that make up Greater Britain, with their very different cultural memories, are going eventually to have to go their separate ways. I find that tragic, that we cannot share flowers but must once again be hunting as owls.

This post can also be found at:

which is where I am now blogging.


Danielle said...

I probably won't be able to post on this until the weekend as I just finished reading it, but I did like it. It is certainly a book that needs time to sink in. I feel like just reading it once isn't enough to really get everything out of the story that Garner has put into it. This is definitely a book that will be good for discussion! The ending was very curious, and maybe it's best to leave questions for discussion, but did the fact that Ali saw the flowers mean the tragedy won't be enacted again? And I am not clear why Gwyn found it so hard to comfort her. I guess his pain was too deep? Well, lots of questions to discuss in any case.

litlove said...

Wow - fabulous review, Ann. I learned so much more about the book from reading this, so thank you. I'll be posting my own review soon.

Imani said...

I second the necessity for a reread, at least on my part. The book became clearer for me a second time around. I'm still ambivalent but I can't pin it on Garner's craft really -- it's an ambitiously written book considering the targeted audience.

I'll be typing out my own post soon. I must declare my allegiance to Gwyn (:D). In that situation soddy ol' Roger didn't have nearly as much angst with the people involved in that trio, as Gwyn did.

Rebecca H. said...

Thank you for the great post Ann -- all the context helps me understand what's going on. I appreciate the complexity of what Garner is doing -- I particularly liked the parts about class and language, and your point about landscape makes perfect sense.

Stefanie said...

Nice post Ann. One of the parts of the book that stood out most for me was Gwyn talking about the river and how it is always there.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everyone who has said that this is a book that needs at least a second read. I also think it's a book that benefits from knowing something of Garner's mindset and the themes that run throughout all his work. He is a very interesting character who has a reputation for being extremely touchy and non-communicative. I suspect that there might be a bi-polar issue here, but I don't know that with any certainty. What I do know, having has the privilege of meeting him and being 'approved' is that he totally believes in this concept of the need for people to respect and understand the land that has birthed them and the consequences inherent in not doing so.

Iliana said...

I really appreciated reading your post on the book Ann. It's helped me look at the book in a different light. I think for me I got too caught up in the characters (I didn't like most of them) and that took away from me enjoying the some of the book. I definitely agree with what some have said that this is a book that would be worthy of a re-read to understand more the symbolism.

Imani said...

Now that I know he's not the chatty type I'm even more suspicious of the "Alan Garner" that commented on an earlier post. It definitely came off a bit touchy but why would he even bother the respond to lil' ol me?