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.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Garner’s first book, published in 1960, and is the first of a trilogy, to be completed later this year. I first read it at the age of 8 or 9, and was totally caught up in its delirious, nightmare chase sequences (a good half of the book, if not more, is given to two long chases, one aboveground, one below); it also either introduced me to, or connected me with, a primal, archaic layer of my imagination, something I can best describe as “English mythic” — a folkloristic mix of fairy lore, Norse myth and Tolkienesque fantasy laid upon the English countryside, something which has, ever since, been one of those deep-running veins of imaginative meaning for me, and that excites me whenever I encounter hints or glimpses of it in such things as classic Doctor Who, 70s UK horror films, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising, etc., etc.

I re-read the book in my twenties, and was a bit disappointed. While no way near as derivative of Tolkien as, say, the regurgitative Sword of Shanarra, Weirdstone is certainly strongly influenced by The Lord of the Rings. It’s silly to complain that Cadellin, the white-bearded, monk-robed wizard, is like Gandalf, because Gandalf is like Odin, and all such wizards have their roots in a similar primal archetype. But other aspects of the book are surely too Tolkienesque to be anything but influence. There’s the Galadriel-like Angharad Goldenhand, for instance, a beautiful female elf-like noble who protects the travellers in her realm, giving them food and gifts to help them when they return to the fray. There are dwarfs — Tolkienesque dwarfs, not Norse myth ones. There’s a magical object (the Weirdstone of the title), which in this case needs to be recovered, not destroyed. Most Tolkienesque of all is the nightmare journey through the mines of the goblin svart-alfar, whose “Eyes! Eyes looking at me! Down there in the darkness!” made me think of Tolkien’s “Drums! Drums in the deep!”, occurring as it does at a similar moment. The best way to describe LOTR‘s impact on Weirdstone (I don’t know if Garner acknowledges this or not) is to think of it as a sort of fever dream fuelled by the late-night reading of Tolkien, with certain major events and figures emerging re-purposed, alongside a host of Norse-mythic figures bursting out as the imaginative floodgates are opened.

A recent, third read changed my mind again. Yes, Weirdstone is heavily influenced by Tolkien, but two things save it from being a derivative work. One, Garner is a powerful writer, and perhaps the only reason he relied so much on Tolkien is he responded to him (or the archetypes he employed) so powerfully. The most Tolkienesque passage — that journey through the Moria-like goblin-infested mines — is one of the most compelling sequences in the book, with the “Earldelving” chapter, in which the travellers have to squeeze through miles of narrow, often flooded passages, being genuinely claustrophobic. I found myself desperate to finish that chapter just so I could breathe again. Some of the descriptions of the underground caves have a beauty that can only have come from firsthand experience:

“Now and again they would come upon a stretch of rock over which the water had washed a delicate curtain. This was to be found where a vein of ore lay just above the roof: the water, trickling through the copper, over the years had spread a film of colours down the wall, ranging from the palest turquoise to the deepest sea-green.”

The other saving grace is evident in the above passage, too. Garner’s main purpose in writing Weirdstone seems not so much to tell a story — as I said, story-wise, Weirdstone is pretty much all chase — as to enchant a landscape he knows and loves (that of Alderley Edge) with a thick layer of myth and imagination. The second half of the book, in which the children, their dwarf companions, and the down-to-earth rustic Gowther Mossock, have to cross several miles of countryside while avoiding the thickly-ranked forces of evil, seems almost like a game children would play — “How would you get from here to there without being seen?” One thing fantasy all too often suffers from is generic landscapes — forests full of nothing but evenly-spaced trees on flat land, mountains that are bluish, rocky and snow-capped, swampy marshes, sandy deserts, etc. etc. — but Garner’s is a real landscape, tangled with all the quirks and stops and ditches and brambles of the actual English countryside, as well as being shot through with folklore, like it has a vein of imaginative silver running through it. (In fact, it is often the landscape, with all its obfuscating thickets and exposed, open spaces, that provides the real hazards and difficulties in the journey in Weirdstone, despite the hordes of evil human and inhuman creatures loose in it.)

The feel I get from Weirdstone is of a young writer, fired up with the creative freedom granted him by reading Tolkien (and a lot of the same source myths & folklore too), and connecting that with a deep, highly imaginative love of a real landscape. When I first read this book, the thing that most excited me was the feeling that the everyday world could be infused with a barely-hidden magic, in which a bothersome local woman could turn out to be the evil witch Morrigan, an ancient rock could be a hidden gateway to an underground chamber, and a family heirloom could be an ancient stone of power. And I think the reason I loved this so much about Weirdstone, and other books like it, is not that it provides an escape from “real” life, but that it captures an essence of human experience, that we not only live in a real world of mud and stones, roads and houses, but in a world of imagination, too, where the “real” things have potentially powerful connections with realms of inner meaning & magic that are just as real, even if they are only in our heads.

The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner

The Moon of Gomrath is Alan Garner’s second novel, and his sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Like the first, I read it when I was 8 or 9 but, of the two, it’s the one that lingered most in my memory. It’s also the book where Garner’s authentic imagination begins to show through the influence of Tolkien, like outcrops of ancient rock, dark, slaty and sharp, poking through the otherwise green Middle Earth-ish meadows.

On the surface, The Moon of Gomrath is very much a continuation of Weirdstone. The child protagonists of the first book, Colin and Susan, find themselves tangled once more in the world of magic that exists like a ghost layer, or a nighttime fog, on the otherwise real world of Alderley Edge. With the Weirdstone of the first book secure, there may seem less urgency to this novel, but the background story matters less in the Alderley Edge books than the rush of nightmare chases, encounters with goblins and other semi-mythic folk, and the welter of magical-sounding ancient names. The focus of this book is the Mark of Fohla, the silver bracelet given to Susan by Angharad Goldenhand in the first book. This, it turns out, is not of the wizard Cadellin’s type of magic, but belongs to an Old Magic, a deeper mythic magic, weirder and wilder by far than the Tolkienesque world of goblins and warlocks that made up the first book. The Old Magic is the magic of folklore, of olden times; not of elves and wizards, but of half-wild men and half-gods. It’s this part that I remembered most from the book on my first reading: the image of an ancient pathway that appears only in the light of the moon, and of riders summoned by lighting a fire on a certain hill on a certain night. These riders are part of the Wild Hunt, and don’t come to help or to hinder, but are a chaotic force who do what their wild hearts lead them to do. Their leader is a man with stag’s horns:

“Susan looked at him, and was not afraid. Her mind could not accept him, but something deeper could. She knew what made the horses kneel. Here was the heart of all wild things. Here were thunder, lightning, storm; the slow beat of tides and seasons, birth and death, the need to kill and the need to make…”

The Old Magic is linked with all the primal forces:

“For the Old Magic is sun magic and moon magic, and it is blood magic… it is woman’s magic, too…”

Although much of the book is a series of close-packed chases and encounters with the evil forces led by the Morrigan from the previous novel, there’s a secondary story which begins to emerge, and which could well have become the central plot strand, had this been one of Garner’s later books. At first it may sound a bit like an echo of yet another part of The Lord of the Rings, as we learn that the silver bracelet given to Susan is a mixed blessing:

“She was saved, and is protected, only by the Mark of Fohla — her blessing and her curse. For it guards her against the evil that would crush her, and it leads her ever further from the ways of human life. The more she wears it, the more need there is to do so. And it is too late now to take it off.”

It sounds a bit like Tolkien’s One Ring — a minor magical artefact from a previous book suddenly revealing hidden powers, and hidden dangers. Only, here, the Mark of Fohla isn’t an evil thing (as the One Ring was), but belongs, as it were, to a world outside good and evil — the world of the Old Magic. The danger is that, by wearing it, and using it, Susan will become separated from the human world, and be lost in that other world, as she almost is at one point, after falling into a coma. Woken, she initially calls out to the nine maidens of that other world (which has all the danger of Tolkien’s Faerie, as well as something of the realm of death), not wanting to leave them. So, it may sound like an element of Tolkien’s work repurposed & reimagined as in the first book , but I think it’s when Garner starts to write about this double-edged aspect of contact with the world of magic that he connects with a vital seam in his own imagination, something which will drive the stories of later novels (in particular The Owl Service), about how contact with the world of Old Magic, of myth, is dangerous, and can make you lose yourself, be subsumed by it.

So, although its story isn’t about saving the world (as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was), I find The Moon of Gomrath a more powerful, and more memorable, book. It still suffers somewhat from having to live in the same world as the heavily Tolkienesque Weirdstone, but the connection Garner makes with “the Old Magic” — and with, I think, his own more authentic imagination — makes it somehow more vital, more dark, more truly a part of the folkish-magic tradition I love so much in fantasy (Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, being a prime example, Jo Walton’s Among Others, too).

Now I’m really looking forward to what Garner’s going to do in his forthcoming third Alderley Edge book, Boneland.

Elidor by Alan Garner

Elidor, cover by Stephen Lavis

Reading Alan Garner’s early novels, I can’t help feeling I’m tracing the development of the twin strands that would combine, in The Owl Service (his fourth book), to truly capture, for the first time, what was driving him as a writer. (And, from the essays in his non-fiction collection, The Voice That Thunders, it’s obvious Garner is a driven writer.) Perhaps the reason he set aside the completion of his Alderley Edge trilogy at the time was the need for a clean start to better pursue that drive beyond the bounds allowed by a sequel. Certainly Elidor, a standalone novel, sees him take a decisive step towards the sort of cut-back, dialogue-driven storytelling technique of The Owl Service, and (the other strand), a step further in encapsulating the complex, fraught, dangerous and potentially tragic world his teen protagonists enter when they become involved with the mythic & fantastic.

Taking its inspiration from several folk tales (see the Wikipedia article on Elidor), the novel begins without any character introductions or scene-setting, straight into a conversation between four children. Named, but not described, it’s left to the reader to work out, from the clues of how they talk and interact, who’s older than whom, as well as where they are and what they’re doing. The four Watson children, Nicholas, David, Helen and Roland, are killing time in Manchester, riding department store lifts and roaming the streets. Roland (the youngest, and most imaginative of the four) suggests selecting a random street from a map and finding it. It turns out to be in a section of the city partway through demolition. They find an abandoned church, Roland kicks a football through its window, then loses his siblings as, one by one, they go to find first the ball then each other, and don’t come back. Finally, Roland follows them into the church, where he meets the slightly scary fiddle player whose music has been haunting their little quest, and who proceeds to send Roland to another world.

The other world is Elidor, a land of four golden castles, now eclipsed by rising forces of darkness, but preserved from total engulfment by four Treasures — a sword, a spear, a goblet and a stone — which, it is prophesied, four children will claim and protect in the land’s time of need. Roland’s powers of imagination turn to real powers in this world (“The power you know fleetingly in your world is here as real as swords,” he’s told), as he saves his three siblings from the power that holds the Treasures. Fleeing back to our world to protect the Treasures, the children find themselves holding mundane variants — two wooden laths nailed together for the sword, a rusty iron railing for the spear, a cracked cup for the goblet, and a dull lump of stone. Forced to bury them because of the wild, weird electrical effects these objects produce, the children forget or dismiss their adventures, apart from Roland, who soon realises the forces of darkness are still working to capture the Treasures.

The children with the four Treasures. Internal illustration from Elidor by Charles Keeping.

In a book that seems to start out as a slightly updated version of a C S Lewis or E Nesbit-style fantasy adventure, Elidor soon centres on the sort of thing Garner was to write about much more in later work — difficult dramas in which fantastic or strange experiences are troubling influences, things you want to forget or dismiss, but are compelled to face when they simply won’t go away. Roland’s status as “the imaginative one” means he’s generally disbelieved and mocked by the others, even though he’s the one who has the best idea of what’s going on. Nicholas, the eldest, finds the phrase “mass hallucination” in a book, and clings to that as an explanation for what they experienced; Helen, the peacemaker, just wants things to return to normal; David, more scientific, clings to reason, but is the first to be convinced when the evidence that something strange is happening is undeniable. But, like anything repressed in the unconscious, the fantastic forces of Elidor only gain in strength the more they’re ignored, and finally break through. The one thing that can save Elidor from its enemies is that the unicorn Findhorn must sing, and when he’s hunted into our world, the children find him in the wasteland where they first entered Elidor (“Wasteland and boundaries: places that are neither one thing nor the other, neither here nor there — these are the gates of Elidor” — just like the children, who are on the boundary between childhood and adulthood, and, at the beginning of the novel, are between homes). At the end, there’s a sense that, having finally faced the difficult work demanded of them, and witnessed its resultant tragedy, the children are left bereft, not enlightened or comforted by their contact with magic, but exposed to a more troubling, if true, version of reality. Where before, when it had need of them, David has to say:

“You may have finished with Elidor, but Elidor’s not finished with us.”

At the end, their task completed, there’s a sense of a sudden, almost bleak, withdrawal of the fantastic from our world. The last lines of the novel are:

“The song faded.

The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.”

Tellingly, there’s no wizard like Cadellin of the Alderley Edge books to provide wisdom and a few helpful magic spells. The Watson children’s knowledge of Elidor comes from Malebron, a desperate Elidorian man acting on the utterances of a perhaps mad prophet, but who has as little understanding of what they mean as the children. The magic itself is more like the Old Magic of The Moon of Gomrath — a chaotic thing, not good or bad, just powerful, difficult, not understandable.

But this is what gives Garner’s books their edge, their sense of honesty. You really feel he’s writing about genuine imaginative experiences — not daydreams, not nightmares, but things emerging from the unconscious which must be dealt with, fought, faced, and which are therefore as real as anything else in our world. This is the stuff of initiations and rites of passage, not escapism. The battle is not for good, but for sanity, balance, selfhood in the face of encroaching darkness. The land of Elidor, at the end, is healed, but only at the cost of a tragedy played out with the four children as unwilling actors, the sort of thing more likely to leave them disillusioned than enchanted. You get the sense that, for Garner, it is not the fantastic that offers escape, but the real world, with its certainties and solidities; nevertheless, the fantastic — the imaginative, the mythic — has to be dealt with.