SUGGESTIONS FOR WEEKEND READING
Review: The Owl Service by Alan Garner
Of the various origins of popular mythology in today’s culture, I think it is safe to say that tales from the Welsh tradition are relatively obscure. However, Alan Garner incorporates the medieval Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd, from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, in his popular novel The Owl Service. First published in 1967, The Owl Service is what Garner refers to as an “expression of the myth” and has since gone on to win numerous awards. Garner explores the theme of ancient but living legend, which three children stumble into during a summer vacation in Wales.
In the preface to The Folio Society’s edition, Susan Cooper (author of
the classic five-book series The Dark is Rising) writes, “I don’t think anybody but Alan Garner could have written a book which is at the same time a portrait of the mutual cruelty and betrayal and anguish of adolescents, and a fantasy filled with the dangerous archetypes of myth. The Owl Service deals not with images of good and evil but with human emotions, ancient and modern: love, hate, revenge—and in the end, compassion.”
The ancient myth that still lives on through magic in the valley –and which entangles each passing generation in the web of its destruction– is that of a woman made of flowers, Blodeuwedd, for a man cursed to never have a human wife, Lleu. She instead, however, falls in love with a chieftain named Gronw and together they discover the secret of the only way Lleu can be killed. When Gronw finally spears him after lengthy preparation, instead of dying Lleu turns into an eagle. He is eventually able to return as a man, and Blodeuwedd is then turned into an owl, punished by her treachery to flee daylight as all other foul will “mob and molest thee wherever they may find thee.” Lleu then seeks revenge on Gronw and has the opportunity to throw a spear at him from the exact same place that Gronw killed him. Gronw begs to stand with a stone between him and Lleu, arguing that “it was through woman’s wiles that I did to thee that which I did.” Lleu’s spear, nonetheless, penetrates the stone and Gronw as well.
In Garner’s novel, the three children awaken the magic bound up in a china service with a flower pattern… but which can easily be reshaped into an owl pattern. Just as all who have lived the story before them, they have the opportunity to break the chain that keeps passing tragedy through the generations. Garner’s gift for absorbing old tales and retransmitting them emerges also with a strong grasp of the inward emotions of the various characters.
This book was unique from any other that I have ever read. While a rather dark story in general, it is not overly creepy for children yet would probably be best categorized as a YA novel. For one who loves myth and folklore, this work has certainly sparked an interest in me to read more mythology originating from the mysterious mountains of Wales.