This is an extraordinary book. Now I’ve finished reading The Owl Service it’s made me want to go back to Wales. I’ll begin this post with a photo taken from Wikimedia of Yr Wydffa (Snowdon) showing the beauty of Wales.
I read about the book on the Slaves of Galconda blog and remembered how much I had enjoyed Alan Garner’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, about the wizard watching over the 140 enchanted knights sleeping in the caves at Alderley Edge (another beautiful place in Cheshire). The Slaves‘ reviews made me eager to read The Owl Service and luckily the next time I visited the library there was a copy on the shelves in the children’s section.
The Owl Service is not just a children’s book – it’s for anyone who likes a good story with a mixture of mystery, adventure and history. The setting is very important – it is in Wales, that beautiful Land of My Fathers (well, in my case my mother). It’s always a mysterious, magical place, and although the sun does shine it is usually shrouded in cloud and pouring rain whenever I visit.
The basis of the story is the Welsh legend from The Mabinogion about Lleu and his wife Blodeuwedd who was made for him out of flowers. It’s a tragic story because Blodeuwedd and her lover Gronw murdered Lleu, who was then brought back to life by magic. Lleu then killed Gronw by throwing a spear, which went right through the stone behind which Gronw was hiding; Blodeuwedd was then turned into an owl.
As I’d read about the book on the Slaves blog I knew the story, but this was enhanced by the Postscript in which Alan Garner tells how he came to write it. In his words The Owl Service is ‘a kind of ghost story’ and the legend is ‘not just a magical tale, but a tragedy of three people who destroy each other through no fault of their own but just because they were forced together.’
The three people forced together, unable to get away from each other are Alison, her stepbrother Roger and Gwyn. They are all living in Wales in Alison’s house, which she inherited from her father, together with Clive, Roger’s father, Margaret, Alison’s mother and Nancy, Gwyn’s mother. Another important character is Huw Halfbacon, who lives in one of the stable rooms at the house. You are plunged into the mystery right at the beginning of the book, when Alison hears something scratching in the ceiling above her bedroom. When they find a dinner service in the loft this sets in motion a chain of events as the legend comes to life.
Alison appears to be enchanted by the pattern of flowers on the plates. She traces it and makes it into paper owls, which then disappear and so does the pattern on the plates. These events enrage Nancy and confuse everybody else, except Huw. Huw appears at first as the local half-wit, the butt of Roger who calls him all sorts of names, reflecting the antagonism between the Welsh and the English. But Huw is far from being stupid. He is the person who helps Gwyn to understand what is going on and prevents him from leaving the valley. Roger, obsessed by his discovery of the hole in the stone by the river, repeatedly takes photos of the view of the ridge above framed by the hole. He is also jealous of Alison’s friendship with Gwyn, who he reviles as ‘ intelligent: but he is not one of us and never will be. He’s a yob. An intelligent yob. That’s all there is to it.’
Then a life-size painting of a beautiful woman is discovered or rather makes its presence known in the billiard room, once the old dairy. Who painted it, who painted the design on the dinner service, why were they hidden and why have they been revived? As the tension builds around the three central characters the tragic story of Blodeuwedd is being re-enacted. Will it have the same tragic ending?
Within the story Alan Garner has also addressed various issues, such as class, racial and social distinctions, education and family relationships. The English owning houses in Wales are seen as interlopers by the Welsh. (I remember the time years ago when houses owned by English people using them as weekend cottages, were burnt in protest.) Huw says:
‘Oh their name is on the books of the law, but I own the ground, the mountain, the valley: I own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries: the dark cave is mine!’
Nancy too has her prejudices and wants Gwyn to speak in English: ‘You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.’ Gwyn has bought an elocution course to help with his pronunciation and when Roger finds out he mocks him. I didn’t like Roger much and Alison irritated me a bit with her docile acceptance of her mother’s ban on her contact with Gwyn. We never actually meet her mother, but I didn’t take to her either – she sounds such a snob.
Although much of the story and tension is revealed through the conversations between the characters Alan Garner’s descriptions of the countryside make me feel as though I was there:
‘Roger splashed through the shallows to the bank, A slab of rock stood out of the ground close by him, and he sprawled backwards into the foam of meadowsweet that grew thickly round its base. He gathered the stems in his arms and pulled the milky heads down over his face to shield him from the sun.’
Through the flowers he could see a jet trail moving across the sky, but the only sounds were the river and a farmer calling sheep somewhere up the valley.
The mountains were gentle in the heat. The ridge above the house, crowned with a grove of fir trees, looked black against the summer light. He breathed the cool sweet air of the flowers. He felt the sun drag deep in his limbs.’
However, the weather changes as the tension and panic build up. The heat intensifies:
‘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 mountains made his heart shake.’
Then the weather changes over night and the valley is ‘sealed by cloud.’ Gwyn in trying to get away goes up into the mountains and this description expresses to me Wales at its bleakest, and its most beautiful:
‘He saw mountains wherever he looked: nothing but mountains away and away and away, their tops hidden sometimes, but mountains with mountains behind them in desolation for ever. There was nowhere in the world to go.’
At the climax of the story the storm breaks, the rain falls ‘in solid rods of water.’ When it rains in Wales – it rains! ‘The mountains showed him rain a mile wide and a thousand feet high.’