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Alan Garner’s The Owl Service – at Fifty

posted on 10 Nov 2017

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service – at Fifty

Fifty years ago this year, Alan Garner’s groundbreaking novel The Owl Service was published. I suppose I must have read it in the early-70s. I pulled it off the shelf over the weekend, reminded of it I think by Susan Hill’s recent book about books and reading. It was only by coincidence then that I chose to reread the novel on its fiftieth anniversary.

When it was published The Owl Service introduced a new grown-up dimension to writing for young adults. While a fantasy novel of sorts – it is built on a framework of 12th and 13th century Welsh myth from The Mabinogion – it is also informed by a bitter undertow of class anger, cultural dispossession and a fierce proclamation of Welsh cultural identity. I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that when I first read it was the strange eroticism of the book and its occult dimension that captivated me and I think I almost entirely missed its social aspects.

Roger and Alison are newly step-brother and step-sister, united by the recent marriage of Roger’s father and Alison’s mother. They are holidaying in a vast but decaying mansion in the Welsh valleys – the house left to Alison by her recently deceased father, probably in order to avoid death duties. Called somewhat imperiously back to form the staff of the house are Nancy, Welsh, working class and a lone parent, and her grammar school educated son, Gwyn. Nancy agrees to work at the house not out of any fondness for the wealthy English family – quite the reverse: she loathes them – but because the money is good. It may enable Gwyn to continue his schooling rather than leave and start work in the local Co-op store in Aberystwyth.

In this isolated valley, amongst this newly formed and somewhat dysfunctional family, and in an atmosphere of febrile tension and mutual ill-will, a bizarre triangle of jealousy, thwarted love, intrigue, magic and murder – with Roger, Alison and working class outsider Gwyn at its heart – will be played out as millennia-old Welsh myth spills over into the modern world. Owls, flowers, possession, the power of an almost priestly caste of magicians doomed to re-enact this myth generation after generation – it is a heady mix.

With its occult references, myth, magic and irrationality, its class tensions and family breakdown, the book could be said to be very much of its time. But this doesn’t make it an embarrassingly hippyish novel. Garner was engaged in something altogether more serious: he was making the collision of myth and modernity his own particular territory, and this and his other novels play out increasingly complex myth-fuelled dramas in landscapes and locations which have a personal totemic power for the writer.

So how does the novel stand up on its fiftieth anniversary?

I wish I could tell you that I found the same sense of excitement and relentless, sweeping power the novel had when I first encountered it in the early-70s but I’m afraid there are two problems. One is a problem to do with me; and the other is a problem to do with the book itself. The personal problem first. When I was younger I adored Garner and devoured each of his increasingly strange novels as they were published. But with age I seem to have lost the ability to read this kind of fantasy literature – or at least, I have lost the ability to be thrilled by it. I read it but I also feel alienated from it, as if I am no longer its target audience – and perhaps that is both right and as it should be.

The central problem with the book itself – as I see it, at any rate – is that it is hugely driven by dialogue. This is a good thing. Dialogue is used to elaborate character, to propel the action, to increase the carefully calibrated tension of the book and to maintain a sense of immediacy and urgency. But the quality of that dialogue now strikes me as poor and unconvincing, at times wooden, at others simply overwrought, but worst of all dated in a way that I hadn’t expected would be the case. Some of it is frankly cringe-worthy.

Although Garner set out consistently to push the boundaries of writing for younger adults and create a genuinely genre-defying body of literary work with appeal across all age ranges, his dialogue writing of the late-60s still seems constrained by much earlier conventions of writing for young people and I think this novel at any rate suffers as a consequence.

But even so, I read The Owl Service virtually at a sitting. It still has undeniable power, a deeply strange emotional charge and depths that I had previously simply failed to acknowledge. The ending remains superb. But for this reader it now exists more comfortably in the memory than it does in the actual rereading. Some books are just like that, I suppose. We cannot recapture quite what they meant to us when we were young for the simple reason that we are no longer that same person; too much time has passed; we have changed too much. We have undergone a sort of hardening of the imaginative arteries.

So for a combination of reasons, I found my rereading tinged with a sadness I hadn’t fully expected. Nonetheless, I hope that new – and younger – readers will continue to discover both The Owl Service and Garner’s other novels too. His work is strange, powerful, challenging and – best of all – written with utter conviction. There is something of the mage about him and you feel that he has lived what he has imagined. For the right readers at the right time, Garner’s novels are an unforgettable rite of passage – and I feel sure they will continue to be for another fifty years and more.

Alun Severn

November 2017