Primitive catastrophe

Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd (image credit: © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Alan Garner: The Owl Service
Postscript by the author
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (1967)

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”
— 1965 quote from Radio Times used as an epitaph for The Owl Service

We often unconsciously live our lives according to a script, seeing ourselves acting out a tragedy or a quest, a journey or overcoming major obstacles, human or otherwise. Sometimes those scripts follow a fairytale trope, such as the arc of the Cinderella story. More rarely do we mirror an ancient myth, but in The Owl Service that’s exactly what Gwyn, Alison and Roger do, aided and abetted by the mysterious Huw.

The three youngsters, unwittingly at first, take the parts of Gronw, Blodeuwedd and Lleu from the Mabinogion tale of Math, the son of Mathonwy, but even when they become aware of the parallels they seem almost powerless to avoid a descent into darkness. And yet this is not just a simple updating of a medieval plot for modern times: the author also offers insights into psychology, family dynamics and social mobility, all contained within a strong sense of place, in North Wales.

The full Mabinogion story of Math includes a particularly troubling sub-narrative: a woman fashioned out of flowers to satisfy a man who’s cursed not to know a human-born female; the woman has an affair with a third party; out of this come violent murders and magical transformations into an eagle, in one case, and an owl, in the other.

Garner locates his tale in a particular area of northwest Wales. Into it he places his three main protagonists: two English children, step-siblings, along with the father of one and the mother of the other (whose possessive presence is felt but never witnessed); then there is the Welsh boy, Gwyn, and the cook — his troubled and troubling mother — and the mysterious Huw whose job description at Bryn Hall is rather vague. The scene is set for misunderstandings and conflicts arising from distrust, past histories, cultural differences, social standings and personal chemistries. And we mustn’t forget the landscape and house as major players in the plot.

This is an intense novel of personal relationships and psychologies. Garner’s text is largely made up of dialogue and action in a show-don’t-tell fashion, which must have made it easier for him to adapt it as a TV script. However, his presence on set and on location for the ensuing production proved difficult, an uncomfortable experience he recounted in detail for a 1975 lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and published as ‘Inner Time’ in his essay collection The Voice that Thunders (The Harvill Press 1997). One of the keys to understanding Garner’s upset during the filming came in a psychiatric session when he was simply asked:

“Was The Owl Service written in the past tense and the third person or in the present and the first?”

The author’s strong identification with at least one of the characters–I suspect it was Gwyn, a local boy with academic aspirations and a searching mind–had given the narrative an authenticity arising from what Garner called a “primitive catastrophic process” which led to a kind of breakdown.

This is a complex tale, as intricate as any example of Celtic interlace, but to me it perfectly illustrates the psychic disruption that can grow out of adolescence. The author’s use of traditional motifs from the original — the owl, flowers, the pierced stone, the hunt, divine and semi-divine figures — and their transformations within a contemporary setting made this a powerful piece of juvenile writing that continues to have a strong resonance half a century later.

A further post for Dewithon19, the Wales Readathon

19 thoughts on “Primitive catastrophe

  1. Pingback: Primitive catastrophe — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. Wow, I didn’t know Garner himself was psychologically unsettled by / while writing this book. It makes sense though – the mythic undercurrents are very powerful and must have been challenging to wrestle with as an artist.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the character Gwyn is most like him — both from families with no academic ambitions, both passionate about language and the land and yet struggling with being demeaned by those who assumed they were their betters. The book I mentioned, The Voice that Thunders, is worth having a look at to see the range of Garner’s interests and preoccupations, while Boneland is the powerful yet disturbing culmination of the Alderley Edge trilogy begun earlier in the 60s.

      I ought to revisit Garner’s Red Shift as I could make neither head nor tail of it when it first came out; but first I need to tackle the first of Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you liked this, Paula, even if I have gone rather overboard with Wales-related titles this month! I think you’d find this a stimulating read.


      1. You’ve played a blinder, Chris! I’m extremely grateful to you for producing so many superb posts. Your support has been so much appreciated – especially as I’ve been unable to commit as fully as I would have liked to Dewithon. It simply hasn’t been possible. Hopefully it will be a different story next March. Rydych chi’n wych! 🤗

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I found this a difficult title to review, Dale, it’s so complex and even rather profound to summarise in a short review, and I really should have spent more time allowing it to settle in my consciousness, maybe even reread it as you did.

      As it is I meant to say more about the role of the possessive parents, as alluded to in his epitaph. But I hope what I said about the rest of the novel made some sense and rang a few bells for you! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. piotrek

    Oh, interesting, I only knew Garner as a teller of English fairy tales, bought a tome after reading Gaiman’s praises.
    I’ve been writing about Kay recently and this reminds me of the concept behind his Fionavar Tapestry, where protagonists take roles from King’s Arthur tale. I’ll write this title down 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been tempted by the Fionavar books for many years but somehow never got round to them—maybe your recommendation will be enough to push me to do something about it! Anyway, do hope you try this sometime, it’s not that long and, in its favour, not part of an umpteen-part series!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review, Chris! There are so many layers to this novel, I think it’s one that almost needs to be read more than once. I read it focusing on the myth, but, there is a lot going on in all of the relationships as well…and often that was super confusing, like with Gwyn’s mother. I’m surprised this was a children’s book because it was so complicated.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, BJ, a novel to keep and reread (maybe a bit like my scattergun review). Pleased you liked the review, so many thoughts to squeeze into a review, though I’m not sure it makes as much sense as I thought. Gwyn’s mother, Nancy, now there’s an interesting creation, one a reread might help me to get more of a handle on.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow! This ties back it DWJ that said this? That when the fantasy is too difficult for adults to understand, you write for children? This level of drama sounds fit for any mainstream adult lit fic, but considering how children need to navigate through a chaotic world of Real and Unreal, Garner made the right call to write through a child…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pretty sure that this is was DWJ wrote, Jean, and it reaffirms my belief that age-related categories like YA, adult, teen and children’s fiction are so fluid as to be almost meaningless. Good fiction finds its level according to the capacity of its readers, and the best fiction repays rereading because our capacity to understand and appreciate the writing will vary according to personal maturity, circumstances and experience.

      I think you’d enjoy this, it works on so many levels.

      Liked by 2 people

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