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 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.