The Owl Service by Alan Garner

It’s here! The first-ever, Wales Readathon! The event is hosted by Paula Bardell-Hedley at Book Jotter. The focus for this reading event is to read and blog about Welsh writers and their works: fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry or any other form of writing with a connection to Wales. Her official 2019 Dewithon book is The Autobiography of a Super-tramp by W.H. Davies. You are welcome to read along with her and others or choose something else. Be sure to stop by her blog throughout the month to read more and to see what others are contributing to this event. The master post for link ups and comments is here.

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The book I selected for the event is The Owl Service by Alan Garner.

The Owl Service

Alison hears scratching in the attic and the assumption is that it’s rats, but when her friend Gwyn goes to investigate he finds only a set of dinner dishes. He brings one down to Alison who cleans it and notices an owl pattern behind the floral pattern. She traces the owl pattern from the plate and makes cut–out owls. Later, the pattern has vanished, leaving behind a white plate and the cut–outs have disappeared, too! So begins the mystery of the plates, the pattern and the story behind it.

This book is a retelling / re–enactment of the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd: a woman made from flowers for Lleu Llaw Gyffes who was cursed that he would not marry a human woman. Later, when Bloeuwedd falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebr, she is turned into an owl as a punishment.

I had never heard of this story before. This story of Blodeuwedd comes from The Mabinogion, which is a collection of stories from Welsh mythology (some of the stories feature an Arthur before the King Arthur we know and love today). If you wanted to read about Welsh Mythology, The Mabinogion is the place to start. This story of Blodeuwedd may very well be one of the oldest stories in Welsh mythology coming to us from oral tradition.

The Owl Service, however, was a very unusual book. It’s is a children’s book, or young adult book, written in 1967. And, let me just say that this is not a straight forward retelling of a legend. It is very unusual and even a bit creepy. There is a supernatural element at work and at various times I was reminded of The Yellow Wallpaper.

There are three teenagers who are trying to figure out the mystery and are pulled into the story so that they become a part of it. Alison, her step–brother Roger and friend Gwyn whose mother runs the house and knows things about the plates–and possibly more– that she won’t share. Why? Is there a secret everyone is in on but the kids? This book is filled with mystery, and when not focused on what is happening with the plates, you are still drawn into the story of Blodeuwedd through the lives of these three people and the constant wondering of who–knows–what–that–they–are–not–telling. Everything points to the legend but it’s unfolding today!

Aside from the story of Blodeuwedd, in the present day, the book taps into the differences in social class. Alison is surprised by the choices Gwyn has to make; the sacrifices he has planned to make in order to continue his education. Alison realizes how easy everything is for her and the options that are available to her are simply not there for Gwyn. Roger, on the other hand, can be rude and insensitive; he doesn’t seem to consider Gwyn’s struggles. Then again, Alison and Roger plan to do what is expected of them and don’t really consider what they want to do where Gwyn is making choices and plans to make sacrifices to pursue what he wants. Gwyn is Welsh, but his mother doesn’t want him speaking Welsh which she considers the language of a laborer (but then, she has her own unique story). Gwyn is smart and is the primary one of the three who puts the pieces of the mystery together. All of this tension and conflict between these three characters though ties into the unfolding story of Blodeuwedd.

I don’t think I would have gotten much out of this book had I read it as a kid. It is a complex novel with many layers. In many ways I feel like I need to read it again so I can dig in a little deeper. I’m glad I read this book, though, and I’m glad to now know about this story of Blodeuwedd: a woman made of flowers who was turned into an owl. There is a lot that can be explored in this myth and the book touches briefly on some of this, but the book is primarily a retelling of the story in the lives of three modern (at that time) teenagers. For me, it will always be this book that introduced me to the story of Bloeuwedd.

Thank you, Paula, for hosting this event! I’ve enjoyed reading and becoming acquainted with some Welsh Mythology. I don’t think I have read anything specifically about Welsh Mythology prior to this and I plan to read one more book about women in Celtic myth for this event. It is just another example of the way the book blogging community encourages one another to read more widely and to have fun in the process. 🙂

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18 thoughts on “The Owl Service by Alan Garner

  1. I found this book baffling when I read it as a young adult. I can appreciate its complexity much better now (and I still need to read it a couple more times to gather what I missed). I’m glad you enjoyed it this time around. Great choice for the readathon!

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  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

  3. Thanks, Lory! It is definitely a complex novel with a lot going on. It was interesting to learn about this myth though because I had never heard of it before.

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  4. As with Lory I didn’t quite ‘get’ this the first time I read it in the 70s, BJ, probably because even as a twenty-something I had the emotional intelligence of a fruit-fly! Oh, I knew the outline of the Mabinogion story because I was reasonably au fait with Celtic mythology at the time, but the love triangle and other emotional entanglements were really beyond my me.

    So, that said, and sppeded on by your review, I’m really looking forward to this reread later this month, hoping I’ve matured a bit and, now living in Wales, understanding any undercurrents that escaped my radar all those years ago.

    And then I need to reread and review his recent Boneland, which I really enjoyed while again not appreciating its psychological depths. (It’s the concluding sequel to his YA fantasies from the 60s,The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.)

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  5. I would love to read your thoughts on this book! I didn’t “get” everything this book was addressing either– there was so much going on. A reread would be beneficial at a later for me as well. But I liked learning about a story that I was brand new to me.

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  6. I almost avoided reading your post because I intend to read this one for Paula’s Dewithon too. But I’m glad I’ve skimmed it: enough to really whet my appetite! It may also explain why I’ve known about this book for ever yet can’t recall anything about it properly. I would have been 10 when it first came out – maybe I was just too young!

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  7. I’m glad it whet your appetite! I would be interested in reading what others think about this book. I would say 10 is too young for this book. Now may be the right time– I hope you enjoy it for Dewithon! 🙂

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  8. I tried to read this in my primary school years, but didn’t get very far, I confess. Sounds like I’m not the only one. But I do have the Mobinogion on my #dewithon tbr for when I finish How Green Was My Valley (I had no idea about any of the controversies/dissent surrounding the author and this book before I started, but some hints from other bloggers and google are revealing a whole other story).

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  9. Interesting! When I was looking for books for dewithon I saw How Green Was My Valley and considered it, but then went in a different direction. I must admit, I don’t know anything about the author or controversy surrounding​ the book– I hope it didn’t ruin the book for you!

    It seems like a lot of people had difficulty with The Owl Service when they read it as young adults. I can understand why… It was definitely a very unusual and complicated book. If/when I reread this I know I will see more, but right now, I guess I had a mindset to learn more about a myth I had never heard of before… And what an interesting story it was!

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  10. I enjoyed your thoughts, BJ. I considered this against The Grey King, but I couldn’t find it locally. It sounds complex, but maybe I have an edge in reading it for the first time as an adult? At any rate I am interested, but when I get to it is another story altogether!

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  11. I think you definitely have an edge in reading The Owl Service as an adult. I don’t think I would have understood it at all had I read it when I was younger. It is complex and I think I may re read it again sometime

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  12. Oops, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to hit send mid-sentence… But, I think I will reread this sometime in the future because there is a lot going on in the book and I think I would benefit from another reading.

    On a separate note, my library only had this available electronically but I’m glad at least that was available… and, wow, downloading library books is so convenient! 🙂

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