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