The Owl Service by Alan Garner

After the full-on fantasy of his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (a trilogy to be completed later this year), Alan Garner’s subsequent two novels saw a reining in of fantastical elements, as well as a much sparser approach to writing, with description so cut back, at times we’re left with nothing but unattributed dialogue. Elidor (1965) still features a trip to another world, enchanted artefacts, and a unicorn, but in The Owl Service (1967), the fantastical is more about a force shaping earthly events into an age-old mythical pattern than explicit magic (though there are few poltergeist-like phenomena to let us know just what sort of a power we’re dealing with).

You might be forgiven for thinking, from its title, The Owl Service perhaps influenced a certain aspect of the Harry Potter novels. I certainly imagined, before I read it, that it would feature scenes of owls swooping into rooms delivering important messages about magical things to breathless teens — but the “service” of the title in fact refers to a dinner service, a set of plates patterned with a design which at first glance appears to be flowers, but which can also be seen as owls. (This is an actual dinner service Garner’s mother-in-law discovered, and which is reproduced in the book.)

A set of plates? It might sound a disappointing basis for a fantasy novel, but Garner’s book is all about the meeting of the mundane and the mystical/mythical, the way an ancient story can overwrite everyday reality, forcing it towards potentially tragic ends.

The Owl Service, cover by Alan Lee

The link between owls and flowers is the story of Blodeuwedd, a woman created out of flowers at the behest of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Although created for him, Blodeuwedd turns out to have a mind (and heart) of her own, and falls in love with Gronw Pebr instead. Gronw kills Lleu; Lleu is resurrected and kills Gronw; then Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl for her part in her husband’s murder. This is the pattern of events that, building up in a static-like charge around one particular house in an isolated Welsh valley, seeks to impose its tragedy on a trio of youngsters once every generation. The “Owl Service” of the title, the plates with the flowers/owls design, was one particular generation’s attempt to trap or divert the energy of the myth away from an actual murder. It failed, and the events of the novel are heavy with the never-to-be-spoken-of tragedy of the previous generation. And of course the very keeping of that secret only serves to make it more likely to play out again, as, in The Owl Service, we get to see how a contemporary (mid-1960s) trio of teens, two English and middle-class comfortably-off, one Welsh and poor, deal with it.

The writing style, with its cut-back descriptions and dialogue free of any sort of adjectival prompting, means you, as the reader, have a little bit more work to do than in the average novel. This quickly proves to The Owl Service‘s advantage, though, as that little bit extra work creates a great deal more emotional investment. (I could hear the voices of the characters far better than in most novels.) Garner trusts his readers to be as sensitive and intelligent as he is about the micro-politics and emotional tussles of a small household held back by a little bit too much English reserve and oppressive class-consciousness. It also means that, when something strange happens, you often end up doing a double-take — did what I think happened really just happen? — which is of course what the characters are thinking, too.

Although it’s quite a short novel, it builds its power gradually, leaving it right to the end to resolve — something I loved in Elidor, and which worked only a little bit less effectively here. The sense of the tragedies of the past — both the ancient, mythical past, and that of the previous generation — weighing in on the innocents of the present, at the very moment they lose their innocence, and the horror of their inability to see just how they’re being twisted into playing parts in an ancient tragedy, creates a tight drama using only a few characters that nevertheless feels as though it’s reaching epic depths.

Garner is, along with Robert Holdstock, one of the few writers I know to really capture the dark, barbarous, wild side of the mythical imagination, to write about the way myths and stories really can affect us to the core, modern-minded though we are. Both writers also have a strong sense of the landscape they’re writing in, how it surrounds, traps, inspires, enchants, and shapes the characters within it. Despite the sparse descriptions, something in The Owl Service made me feel that this was very much a landscape I knew, which is something that’s always made me connect with a book (or film — it’s partly why I love 70s Brit horror and Doctor Who) that much more.

Of Garner’s later work, I’ve only read Thursbitch, an adult novel which is even more cut-back in its descriptions, and even more intense in its tying together events past and present, people and the landscape they move through. I can’t work out why I haven’t read more of his work. I certainly intend to.

Alice at R’lyeh on YouTube

MorganScorpion has put her reading of Alice at R’lyeh up on her YouTube channel. I’ve embedded the reading here, but her channel’s well worth a visit for her readings of Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Oscar Wilde, M R James, and other weird writers’ stories & poems.

Mills & Barsoom

It’s always been a problem, what to do with young men, bundles of sex and violence that they are. Each age has to come up with new ways of channelling their youthful energies, or face the consequences. The Middle Ages, all too aware of the dangers of having a bunch of steel-plated, lusty young knights roaming the countryside, developed a pair of social codes: chivalry, which said that only a fight between equals was truly honourable (so, no bashing peasants just for the hell of it), and courtly love, which said that the purest expression of a knight’s devotion was to dedicate himself to the service of a (preferably married, certainly chaste) woman, whom he could worship from afar, obey her every command, and pine for. The fiction of the times is full of honourable knights and sighingly tragic longing. Lancelot was the ideal, and though nowadays he’s most known for his massive failure to merely worship from afar, Malory, at least, was convinced of his virtue, saying that anyone who didn’t believe in it was corrupted by the cynicism of the times:

“…nowadays men cannot love seven nights but they must have all their desires… But the old love was not so; for men and women could love together seven years, and no lecherous lusts were betwixt them, and then was love truth and faithfulness. And so in like wise was used such love in King Arthur’s days.”

A Princess of Mars - Bruce Penngington cover

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is a direct descendent of the same school of fiction. I first read it when I was 19 or 20, and perhaps because it was so short and so very readable, quickly moved on to its sequels, which proved just as moreish. (I think I got as far as The Master Mind of Mars (6th in the series), or perhaps even Synthetic Men of Mars (9th) — things get a bit blurry after the first three. It’s the uber-cliffhanging ending of the second, Gods of Mars, which has stuck with me.) Even while caught up in them — and they really did have that read-it-in-a-single-sitting compulsion — I knew they were basically an endless series of riffs on a single formula. The thing was, the formula was so primal, it worked even though I was aware of it.

A Princess of Mars - Michael Whelan cover

It’s the romantic male daydream of rescuing a beautiful princess, either from death or a fate-worse-than, again and again and again, raised by the power of its exotic setting (one of Dejah Thoris’s would-be ravishers, Tal Hajus, is “the most hideous beast I had ever set eyes upon… like some huge devil-fish”), and delivered at such a breathless pace, the narrative barely gives you time to recover from one iteration before it lands you in the lap of the next. The hero, John Carter, goes from death-defying extreme to death-defying extreme, at one point having his flying machine shot down to crash in the middle of warring hordes of savage Tharks (six-limbed, twelve-foot-tall green Martians who think the death agonies of their enemies the funniest thing going), only to find himself fighting next to (and saving the life of) the one Thark on all the planet who knows him. The plot has enough holes to sink a heavier vessel (why does Carter, having just freed Kandos Kan in Zodanga, instead of going on to free his beloved Dejah Thoris in the same city, elect to fly all the way to the distant city of Helium, a place he’s never been to before and in which he will not be recognised, in order to get help?), and I felt, on this re-read, some of Carter’s actions were more barbaric than heroic (to rescue Dejah Thoris from being wed to the warlike Zodangan prince, Carter assembles a horde of Green Martians to massacre and imprison the whole city, many of whose inhabitants, it has been pointed out, are against the actions of their leader) but the whole thing stays buoyant through sheer narrative pace as it zings from one romantic peril to the next. Like a shark, it survives only because it keeps moving. But this shark moves fast.

A Princess of Mars - Frank Frazetta cover

It’s not just physical peril, though, that stands between John Carter and the beautiful Martian princess Dejah Thoris (she lays eggs, don’t you know). The exotic setting allows Burroughs to put problematic cultural barriers between the two of them, from Dejah Thoris taking insult at the culturally-ignorant Carter’s unintentional faux pas at the beginning, to her later telling him that, having promised her hand in marriage to the hated Sab Than because she thought Carter dead, honour dictates not only that she cannot go back on her word, but that, should Carter kill Sab Than, she and Carter will never be able to marry.

It’s courtly love all over again.

(Apparently there’s a film out, or something.)