The Owl Service
Returning to a book you’d enjoyed many years ago but has been unread since can be an unpredictable experience. The second time around, especially if it is after a couple of decades or more, can be discouraging. What seemed such an excellent book several years ago now seems average, even relatively uninteresting. In other cases, rereading can be more than a little surprising. Wow, what a story: it’s one you had only remembered in part, and by this point you’ve forgotten how compelling it was. There’s serendipity in this. The first time you might have been at the wrong age for the content, or perhaps the book got lost in the midst of an obsession with other very different titles – perhaps during an all-out binge on murder mysteries a small-scale fantasy is easily forgotten. If I’ve found rediscovery is uncertain, that sometimes what was exciting and fulfilling at one time can turn out to be prosaic and even rather predictable at another, it is reassuring to find some books do last!
There are several issues that seem to influence the continuing reach and relevance of books from various decades and from various genres of fiction and nonfiction. In part, this seems to reflect those times and places when writers come together and reinforce each other – deliberately, or by chance. It is difficult to know what leads to a moment when a country becomes well-known for a category of novels. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United Kingdom saw a rich vein of writing about the lives of women, especially first-person accounts of love, marriage, children and eventual disillusionment and divorce. For me, a number of women authors were at the centre of this: Brigid Brophy, A S Byatt, Angela Carter, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark come to mind. Of course, I have to acknowledge a list like this is more an indication of my age and interests: there have been so many outstanding women novelists over the years, and I just happened to pay attention to this group at one stage in my life. In that decade, they were the ‘right’ authors for me.
Another perspective on the books that seem to capture the spirit of the times has to do with the issue of setting. Fictions set in familiar places and times can be readily accessible, while others repay rereading if the arc of events is engaging and meaningful. In part this is matter of what makes up an imagined era. If I am drawn to Peter Wimsey novels, it is partly because Dorothy Sayers writes about an era I don’t know but in such a way as to make it alluring. Monocles, powerful cars, rich estates, and upper-class mannerisms. Perfect!
Others, like science fiction and fantasy, depend on being convincing about totally unfamiliar settings as much as in the storyline. Some writers excel in constructing marvellous, complex and quite believable other worlds. Then there are those ‘in between’ fantasy novels, where much of the impact comes from the fact the events are close to home, taking place in an almost familiar setting, rather than in some imagined universe quite unlike our own. There is something rather compelling about an account which is so close it could have happened next door, in another street in your town, or, in the case of The Owl Service, in one of those Welsh valleys to the east of Aberystwyth, a short distance away from where I lived in England but close enough. It is only a small step from the reality of The Railway Children, set clearly in our world, to an isolated Welsh farming community, even if the place only exists in a novel. Reading about an almost familiar town, we find we’re in an adventure involving mysterious forces just beyond our own experiences, events that are appear true to life – but not quite.
In his introduction to The Owl Service, Philip Pullman put it well when he observed “Unlike [Alan Garner’s] earlier books, and unlike The Lord of the Rings, the Owl Service is set in our world, the “real” world as we call it. The fantastical elements irrupt into everyday life: the realistic settings and characters experience and are altered by their encounters with the mythical and the other-worldly. This way of writing a story is sometimes known as “low fantasy”, in contrast to the “high fantasy” of the Tolkien sort, where everything is made up. I think it is a useful distinction, and vastly prefer the low to the high”. He also adds that The Owl Service is a children’s book, but not only for children. How true.
What makes low fantasy so appealing? For me, it is the sense that perhaps what I’m reading actually could happen, as opposed to those high fantasies that take place in a world ‘far, far away’. I like both, but I suspect I am drawn to low fantasy because it often seems on the edge of believable. I could have opened that door, I could have slipped and knocked my head, I could have touched that strange knife. In high fantasy, I find myself in a world that is completely unlike mine, a fascinating place in which to enjoy a series of amazing adventures as they unfold. In low fantasy, I know these are fictions too, but especially in those stories that draw on what appear to be real events in the past or in a neighbouring town, there is a sense of being really close to the action. As a non-visual reader, it is additionally persuasive to relate to people and places that I might have seen, actions in ‘recognisable’ settings.
If The Owl Service is set in a farming location near Aberystwyth, well, I’ve been there. Grumpy men, and old and odd Welsh speakers, sure, I’ve met their equivalent. A father who wants to make things fine, and ensure everyone enjoys themselves … yup, know all about that, too. It was like my experience of watching Hinterland, a television drama series. The places, the rain, everything echoed dark and wet days spent on Welsh mountains. In the same way, while I might have been brought up in a London suburb, Alan Garner’s story is about a place I ‘know’. It’s not just that it is ‘realistic’. The Owl Service has a timeless yet immediate character to it. First published in 1967, it could have been written in 2023.
However, like many of the classic English books of its genre, it is also deliberately uncompromising. You have to concentrate, deal with dialects and conversations where you don’t know the background. Stay alert, Alan Garner seems to be suggesting: if you don’t pay attention, you’ll get lost. If relationships seem complicated, well, sort them out, and realise that this is the way it is most of the time. If children are moody, and alliances shift and friendships stumble, don’t be surprised, but rather remember that attitudes and feelings, especially in teenagers, are volatile and uncertain. Alan Garner has produced an account that reads like the text from a documentary film about family life. He threw out a challenge to his readers and did so without compromise: this is a classic from a golden age in British writing for younger readers.
It all seems so innocuous when you start. Alison is sitting on her bed, feeling hot, with a tummy ache. Gwyn offers her a book (who is Gwyn?), and then asks if she wants company. “Don’t put yourself out” she replies, and so he happily leaves, only to be called back as he goes downstairs because Alison can hear scratching, probably a mouse, in the ceiling above her. Gwyn returns, listens to the noises, which do seem to indicate something in the ceiling, and offers to investigate. He gets a ladder and goes into the attic, where he doesn’t find any mice, but spots a dusty collection of crockery. He tells Alison there are a lot of plates there, and she asks him to bring one down. Dusty old plates? Most readers are likely to be hoping for a ghost, or a chest filled with treasure at this stage. Oh well.
Alan Garner writes brilliantly. As you read, you sense there is more going on than you can make sense of, that relationships are not just complicated, but some have a history to them that matters. Each time a scene seems to lead somewhere, unexpectedly that issue collapses, and we are back in the familiar. It is as if the fantasy world is just in the next room, or that one more step outside will take you into a place that only exists in another dimension. On top of all of that, since the characters include moody teenagers, with parents and other adults trying to deal with their silly behaviour and keep a lid on what might get out of control, this could be happening to people you know, even to your family. It is such an easily understood world. The grown-ups want everyone to be sensible, while the teenagers are driven to pursue their own, often overheated, imaginings and desires, way beyond any wish to satisfy parental demands. The pot is simmering, and we don’t know when it will boil over.
Alan Garner deftly uses two tropes in the story. First, there is the idea that life goes on normally until, by chance, a number of key factors align, and then a disaster is set in motion. Only chance can create this combination, but once established, it will work its way to an inevitable conclusion. The second, related idea is that this is process cyclical. These events have occurred before, probably several times, and the same disaster next time is unavoidable. Each cycle will leave people damaged, and yet the underlying sequence remains in place, unaffected, ready to spring into action once the necessary if fortuitous combination of people and events occurs. If all that wasn’t bad enough, as they grow older the young participants in this repetitive cycle will be around to witness a later generation caught up in the same unstoppable sequence, as if they are on a slow moving but crazy roundabout.
Pullman described this as a ‘low fantasy’ situation, one where “the realistic settings and characters’ experiences are altered by their encounters with the mythical and the other-worldly”. Welsh settings and traditional stories seem ideal as the elements for an adventure like The Owl Service. In themselves, they are already ‘fantastical’, and all it needs is an Alan Garner to get the story going. Perhaps he is just the narrator of a story that exists outside of his imagination: he is merely a vessel to reveal what is timeless and almost in our world, if not quite. Garner is adept in telling the story in such a way that what we are reading comes across as some kind of odd but subtle dislocation in the way things are.
The Owl Service touches on a number of themes with delicacy and sensitivity. Many contemporary novels, especially those aimed at teenagers, put gender relationships, emerging passions, shyness and stupidity central. Some are written in such a way that they seem to have sidebars pointing out that ‘this is about sex, got it’ or ‘she’s confused about her feelings’ or even ‘this is about class differences’. All these issues run through The Owl Service, but they aren’t spelled out: Garner expects you to think, to assume, and sometimes just to guess. He is a master at not making everything explicit. The muddles and uncertainties in dialogue are uncomfortably realistic as we try to make sense of various comments. We aren’t privileged observers of the inner thoughts of the participants; we have to infer what the youngsters see and what influences them by unpicking conversations and actions.
Let me be clear. To me, this was one of the strengths of The Owl Service. I was about to say that this might make it a harder book for teenagers (lacking in the older reader’s world-weary knowledge of life!?), but I stopped. I don’t think that’s true. Rather, I think any teenage reader might find it all too close to the life they’re experiencing. Garner has an ear for the messy dialogue that characterises everyday interactions. Things unsaid, issues confused, and the occasional slapping down by adults, all this runs through story, and there were times when, on rereading, I groaned at a father’s remark or a mother’s decision. Dramatic things are happening, but they are doing so in a world where people communicate as inadequately as they do in our own daily lives. This isn’t some clever plot device, but more the author reminding the reader that these characters are just like you and me.
Alan Garner knows how to tease you. Enough is going on to draw you into the story, but events are unclear, incomplete, always leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling you’re missing something. It’s almost a relief when one of the key characters doesn’t understand what another person means or is unable to adequately respond to what’s been happening. They’re confused, too! It’s also frustrating as the pages flip past, and you sense the end is coming. How is this going to be resolved? You have an unsettled sense that it won’t be clear and settled, that you’ll be left with some issues sorted out, but others not, only to be resolved in a follow-up book (but there isn’t one), just because that is the way of ‘real life’ too: stuff happens, some things are resolved, some aren’t.
Alan Garner writes ‘crescendo’ style. The story begins with little action, odd comments and moments of unexpected behaviour, easily passed over. Slowly but surely, the growing number of odd situations become more important, and the pace starts to pick up. Towards the latter part of the book, things are happening at high speed, and the eventual and dramatic end comes in the final few pages. It’s a style that draws you in, and you are almost unwittingly speeding up along with the story. There’s an explosive culmination of the forces involved, and then the book ends. He doesn’t bother to explain everything, or even sort out the consequences of the that dramatic finish. No concessions to readers who can’t keep up, and none for those who can’t work things out for themselves. Can’t follow everything? Too bad, ask a friend, or, even better, do a bit of thinking for yourself.
Are you surprised to learn that I enjoyed reading The Owl Service again! It was surprisingly fresh, even though I could remember the overall story. I decided to read it a third time. That second recent reading of The Owl Service revealed how much richer the writing was than I’d appreciated the first time around. I’d grabbed all the key points and action, but in that additional read I recognised it was like a piece of clockwork, each part carefully, even ingeniously, linked in with others. Garner’s a fine writer, especially with his ear for real and sometimes confusing dialogue. Some statements float past the characters, while at other times they recognise they’re missing the point, only to have their response ignored .
It reminded me of some television serials. Some offer a complete sequence, from opening events to a final conclusion where everything is resolved. Others end but leave you in the air: sometimes there’s a trailer for a second series and another ten episodes. Sometimes it is a device to make you think. What do you know about these people? Did you miss some clues earlier which would have allowed you to see how the future was unfolding? Some television series that end suddenly because the writer couldn’t see a clever way to wind the story up after the big bang. That’s a kind of resolution, where just about everything is left to you!
A final attraction of The Owl Service is that it’s very visual. Gwyn going up into the attic, finding the crockery. I felt I was just behind him on the step ladder. If the reactions of people are often hard to read, it’s deliberately so. We are being given a lesson in how we experience the world: even though we know what someone has said, we often aren’t able to delve into why they said what they did. This is life as we know it. Often circumstances mean we can’t check with how another person is reacting or analysing. Instead we make assumptions. Later on, we realise their behaviour wasn’t for the reason we had thought.
Philip Pullman was right. This was low fantasy, all the more compelling as it is set in a Welsh house where you might have stayed on holiday. A great story? Maybe. Tangible, yet involving fantasy, happening just around the corner: certainly. Loved it – again!