As a follow-up to last week’s recommendation of `The Mabinogion’  I’m picking a classic Fantasy  novel inspired by Welsh myth. Alan Garner’s `The Owl Service’ was first published in 1967. It is still in print as a paperback and available as an audiobook. As yet, there seems to be no ebook edition. The story takes place during a hot summer in an isolated house in a valley near Aberystwyth, Wales. I first read `The Owl Service’  one summer in an isolated house on a hill near Aberystwyth and I’ve never forgotten how powerful and disturbing I found it.

`Just suppose, a long time back, hundreds and hundreds of years, someone, somehow, did something in this valley…And suppose it went wrong-got out of hand-‘  English teenager Alison is spending the summer in the Welsh house she has inherited. With Alison are her mother, Margaret, her new stepfather, Clive, and his son, Roger. Local woman, Nancy has reluctantly come back to the valley to act as housekeeper, bringing her bright teenage son, Gwyn with her. Strange things begin to happen. There are scratchings in the attic, the pattern disappears off an old plate, a wall shatters to reveal a hidden painting of a beautiful woman, screams are heard near the ancient Stone of Gronw, paper owls seem to come alive and Roger finds images which shouldn’t be there in the photographs he has taken in the valley. Gwyn becomes increasingly attracted to Alison and jealous of over-privileged Roger.

In a school copy of `The Mabinogion’  the three teenagers find the legend of Blodeuwedd, a woman made from flowers by the Enchanter Gwydion as a bride for his son Lleu. When Blodeuwedd falls in love with a man named Gronw, she helps him to kill her husband with a poisoned spear. Gwydion then kills Gronw by spearing him through a stone and punishes Blodeuwedd by turning her into an owl. As Gwyn learns more about his mother’s past, he seeks answers from the half-mad gardener, Hew Halfbacon, who claims to be a descendant of Gwidyion. Hew warns him that the legend of  Blodeuwedd is acted out in the valley over and over again by `the three who suffer every time.’ Are Gwyn, Alison and Roger doomed to repeat an ancient tragedy, or can this new generation  find a way out?

`The Owl Service’ is a beautifully constructed novel which deserves to be read with concentration. Garner plunges straight into the action, with no lengthy descriptions of his characters or explanations of their history. The reader has to work out who these people are, and how they relate to each other, from what they do and say. What they don’t say can be just as significant. Alison’s mother doesn’t even appear in any of the novel’s scenes. Yet the nature of her absences conveys a lot about how this new family is failing to gel. Suspense is built up through dark hints and small puzzling incidents. Key plot revelations are slipped into cryptic lines of dialogue. Any interpretation of what happens in the book is largely left to the individual reader. All of this makes for an unrelaxing first read but it also means that `The Owl Service’ repays any number of re-readings. Garner has taken enough elements for an epic – social commentary, family problems and secrets, mystery, horror, murder, love, ghosts and mythical archetypes – and compressed them into a short novel.

Readers of different ages will get different things out of this book. If you removed the Fantasy elements, `The Owl Service’  would still be a notable novel about class and thwarted ambition. Prickly Gwyn is the most obviously sympathetic character. He is more intelligent than Roger or Alison but doesn’t have the `background’ to succeed in life.  The two wealthy English teenagers are breath-takingly snobbish towards Welsh working-class Gwyn, who may soon be forced by his bitter mother to leave school and become a shop assistant.  Garner is too subtle a writer to go in for crude social stereotypes. He shows that Alison and Roger are also under pressure to conform to the expectations of their parents and that Roger may not be able to assert himself and choose his own career path. Gwyn, Alison and Roger form an unusual love-triangle that mirrors an ill-fated  one in the previous generation. Alison should be untouchable by both the boys since she is Roger’s step-sister and Gwyn’s employer, but she is a bored young woman just starting to realize her powers of attraction. Once `the Lady’ is released from the objects which have temporarily bound her, Alison becomes a danger to herself and others.

For me, the best things about this story  are the way the bleakly beautiful Welsh countryside becomes a character in its own right, and the haunting figure of Blodeuwedd. It doesn’t rain during `The Owl Service’ as much as it does in most novels set in Wales. The unnaturally sunny weather, which  brings out the heavy scent of meadowsweet, only makes this cursed valley seem more sinister. Blodeuwedd, Lady of the Valley manifests herself in many different ways – in the pattern on a plate, in the scent of the flowers from which she was made, in a painting of a woman holding flowers with petals made of claws and in the wounds made by those claws. Meet her if you dare. Until next week.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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