Here is where I discover Alan Garner, not through the book The Owl Service but the superb television adaptation written by him for Granada Television’s Sunday tea-time children’s serial slot, watched with immense fascination. Garner later explained the astonishing and almost crippling effect of watching his book becoming ‘real’ in front of him, which sounded horrifying, and which led him into a lifetime of intense and dangerous therapy. The effect on the just-turned 14 year old me was to drive me to borrow the book from the library, to work my way back through his three books before this, and to make me a lifelong fan who has only once waited to buy a new book the moment it arrived.
The Owl Service is the first fully-formed Alan Garner book. It’s there in the writing, the careful shaping of the words, the ruthless excision of anything that isn’t necessary, the increasing reliance upon the dialogue and the dialogue alone to tell the story.
And that story alone represents an irrevocable step in Garner’s writing. It’s not the diversion from Cheshire into a (real) Welsh valley, nor the construction of the complex, deeply-involved story from a classic Welsh myth taken from The Mabinogion and applying it to the apparently mundane world of the late Sixties, it’s the fact that Garner keeps the entirety of the story within that ‘real’ world. There are no magic lands like Elidor, or alternate magic realms like Fundindelve: the magic enters the story obliquely, mystifyingly, and menacingly in a way that we only start to understand when it is too late.
As well as the legend of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebyr, Garner draws his inspiration from a dinner service, an actual dinner service, the Owl Service itself, which has been in his family now for decades, coming from the family of Griselda Greaves who became his second wife. Betty Greaves showed Garner the pattern around the rim of the plates etc., the pattern we see in the book, traced by Griselda, that can become owls or flowers according to how you see it.
This accorded too closely to the legend of Blodeuwedd to be ignored. According to The Mabinogion, she was a woman conjured into being from flowers, to marry Llew Llaw Gyffes, the magician’s nephew (another oblique Narnian touch), who had been cursed never to have a bride. But Blodeuwedd fell in love with Gronw Pebyr, lord of the valley, and conspired with him to have Lleu slain by a spear thrown by Gronw. Lleu did not die but was turned into a bird, later to be restored by his uncle. Blodeuwedd was punished by being turned into an owl and Gronw accepted having Lleu cast his spear at him. He pleaded to be allowed to set a stone before him, but the spear was cast through the stone and Gronw was killed.
Garner’s concept was that in creating Blodeuwedd from flowers, a power was unleashed in the valley, building up over time until it has to be resolved by replaying the tragedy, over and again, through the same set-up of three people, one of them the lord of the valley, in blood, so that it may be contained and prevented from destroying everything.
In this time, the three protagonists are teenagers: Alison, Roger and Gwyn.
Their relationship is awkward in every direction. Even though they’re family, the first two are thrown together by circumstance. Alison and Roger are stepsister and brother, brought together by a recent marriage between her mother, a widow, and his father, a divorcé. Their holiday home in the valley has been in her family for some time: technically it is hers, having been placed in her name, but though Alison has ownership and is proprietary, she has no control.
She and mother Margaret, who, in a stroke of genius, dominates the book but never appears, are County: they bring class and Clive, Roger’s father, easy-going to the point of being no more than a reed blowing in the wind, brings money. The children are contrasts: Alison does nothing, sings in a choir, plays tennis. Roger, for all that he expects to follow his father into the family business, is a dedicated and possibly very good photographer.
Gwyn, on the other hand, is a working class boy, from Aber(ystwith), illegitimate, we later learn, who knows all about deprivation, growing up poor and having to do everything for yourself. His mother, Nancy, housekeeper for this holiday, is tyrant, determined her boy should better himself, straining to put him through Grammar School but on the look-out for the least sign of him getting above himself, which he can only and inevitably do if he follows this course. Gwyn is cleverer than both of Alison and Roger, more clever than probably everyone else in the book, but he is looked down upon automatically by the Bradley family, for both his poverty and his lack of ‘background’.
These are the Three. It’s easy to see how each has their role in the Mabinogian story, and just how fittingly their personalities and backgrounds combine with lethal effect to repeat it, exactly as before. It’s money and class against intelligence and ambition, both set with seemingly unbreakable limitations.
The power contained in the story breaks out almost immediately but doesn’t arrive instantly. Instead, it is allowed to build, to increasing levels of menace, as the interplay between the three teenagers ebbs and flows. There is a love story in there, as befits the template. Gwyn and Alison are attracted to each other but are forced to be distant by her mother’s snobbery and her weakness. Roger is more snappish towards his stepsister than loving, but she is his ‘family’ and he collaborates in causing difficulties for Gwyn out of possessiveness and rivalry. On its surface, this can be read as an ordinary, mundane story about two families struggling with a merging, shot through with class and racial attitudes, but my, how they are a match for the original myth, and equally as dangerous for all that.
It’s not until much later in the book that it’s revealed that two of the previous Three are also present, and that the power is so much more serious on this occasion because they failed in their duty, and that at least one if not two of the previous iterations shirked things completely, seeking to bind Blodeuwedd in the painting revealed when the pebbledash cracks, and the owl service itself.
As with this generation, class, and limited horizons, and the jealousy inherent in the three-cornered relationship combined to destroy them, leaving a story that is still working itself out in the background of the present events.
And so it all comes to a head, as the truth of what happened last time tumbles out rapidly. Nancy goes off into the rain to be obliterated, Gwyn learns who was his father and how he is lord to the valley and responsible to the calming of the power in this time, but he is prepared to accept every bit of his responsibility except the part that matters, that is now urgent. Between them, for good and ill, Alison and Roger have broken him. Always she is wanting to be flowers and you make her owls.
Flowers? Flowers? Is that all it is? And in an ending of tremendous and unexpected power, it is Roger, stupid, insensitive, superior yet himself damaged Roger, who should not have any idea, who seizes upon the very simple idea that is the underpinning of everything, and draws his stepsister back from owls and into flowers. By damn.
In the Garner manner, the ending is abrupt. Anything else would be unnecessary. The release is profound, breaking the spell the book has had you in since it began with the scratching of claws that people thought was rats that could count.
It leaves you on the crest of hope that this time the cycle might have been broken, that by allowing Blodeuwedd to be flowers instead of owls as she only ever wished to be, the power may at last come to rest. But in the superb television adaptation, written by Garner himself, there was a short but painful coda that dispelled this hope. From the flowers we jump to the riverbank, and the Stone of Gronw, whose hole, made by the spear of Lleu Llaw Gyffes so exactly frames the Bryn. We look through it. We see three little children, no more than about five, two boys and a girl, wandering in the meadow. No. It’s not over. And never will be.
What an incredible book. And unlike Elidor an adaptation to match it. It was painful and draining for Garner, especially dealing with one of the young actors, who messed around, we don’t know which one. Gillian Hills, who played Alison, was one of the two girls who play with the photographer in Blow-up. Michael Holden, who played Gwyn, was killed in an unprovoked pub attack in 1977, the year before the serial was first reshown. Francis Wallis, who played Roger, was playing only his second role, and his last credit came in 1974. The actors were aged 21 (19 in Holden’s case), playing 17, whereas in the book the characters are 15. They were very good.