On Re-reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service

‘She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.’

I was thinking as I filed away some new fiction in the Estate Library what makes a work of fiction worth re-reading. And the novel that came to mind was one by Alan Garner, The Owl Service to be precise.

(Go read our review. I’ll have a wee dram of metheglin while I wait.)

The first requirement be that the novel be short enough to finish in the span of an evening which leaves out (though I adore both of them) Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings or any of Martins’ A Song of Ice and Fire novels. It also leaves out the novels in Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood series as they are best savoured over a number of nights.

The second requirement be that it has strong characters and a believable story. Though this novel is considered a classic English children’s story, it does not fall into the all too common trap of treating the young adult characters as miniature adults but rather plays them true to their age. Now we here at this Estate consider Alan Garner to be one of the most interesting mythopoeic writers currently among us. Certainly he is the equal of de Lint, Bear, and Kushner in terms of his use of language in creative ways.

The legend that Garner riffs on concerns Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers by a Welsh wizard. She betrays her husband, Lleu, in favour of another, Gronw, and is turned into an owl as punishment for inducing Gronw to kill Lleu. In Garner’s telling of this story, three teenagers find themselves tragically reenacting the story as they first awaken the legend by finding a dinner service with an owl pattern on the plates.

And Garner tells the story so well that even on what I think is my fifth or sixth reading I find something that surprises. The prose is not tricky, just elegant. Think the opposite of the language in the Ryhope Wood series where complexity is intrinsic to the story and the telling of the story.

I discovered in writing up these notes that the BBC filmed The Owl Service just a few years after it was published. I will offer you a review of that and the BBC radio series based on this novel after I have experienced them.

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