The Owl Service by Alan Garner was first published in 1968 and was transformed a year later into a much loved 8-part children’s TV series by Granada Television. The low fantasy novel is set in a contemporary setting within a Welsh Valley and is an adaptation of Welsh Mythology surrounding the woman Blodeuwedd. Blodeuwedd was created from flowers for the man Lleu who has been cursed to never have a human wife; however, she betrays him for another man, Gronw, and is subsequently turned into an Owl (which are considered evil/sinister) for inducing Gronw to kill Lleu.
This myth haunts the main story which focusses around the teenagers Roger and Alison, who are stepbrother and sister and are spending a summer in Wales with their new parents in order to bond with each other. The house they are staying in was inherited by Alison when her father died and is looked after by Huw Halfbacon who has seemingly worked or had an association with the property for the whole of his life. During the stay of the family the former cook, Nancy, and her son Gwyn, are employed as domestic staff at the house. Gwyn soon forms friendships with both Roger and Alison with Alison garnering a substantial amount of his affection causing ever greater vexation to Roger. Together they unknowingly awake the legend of Blodeuwedd when they discover a dinner service hidden in the loft featuring a distinctive owl pattern. Together they soon find themselves repeating the Blodeuwedd myth and as the tention mounts they eventually are left with no option but to have to face it head on.
I really enjoyed the book which is a quick read but bursting with ideas. It would, I believe, still very much appeal to today’s (post)modern teenagers even with its splashes of parlance which we today would now consider antiquated, personally I found it charming. In my mind the book can certainly been seen as a allegory of growing up as it is soon discovered that the myth at the heart of the story has been replayed seemingly by every generation since the original. The children’s simple metanarrative of life is broken when puberty is reached, the teenagers must now craft their own lives, their own stories. But the problem is, how free are they really to shape there own lives? They will be, like we all are, forever haunted by the past. The juggling of time and fate is questioned and probed throughout which is a theme teenagers today should surely, I believe, still resonate with, even more than its late 60s audience perhaps seeing as 21st century teens have always lived in a non-linear world; time has for them always been dyschronous, or in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet their world has always been lived with “…time out of joint”
It is this clever questioning of time, fate and indeed place that has allowed The Owl Service to still be in print today because while it was published with the young adult audience in mind it is a story which surely resonates with us all, particularly in the world today which is overrun with ghosts of the past which are growing at a rate unseen before. Today only a few traditional myths continue to live on, this is due to part to the vocal culture in which many were conceived as they of course relied on them being re-told and stored in living memory, unlike today. Today everything is saved remotely due to a proliferation in storage technology, as a result we suffer from too many ghosts as we now have too much history from which to refer. The Owl Service, while questioning our relation to history, feels as a result of modern technology, distinctly quaint and is therefore a comforting entry point into questioning our relation with history. Its simplification without degradation of a complex idea is the core as to why, I believe, the story is a firm favourite of those who are interested in the theory of Hauntology, as it is, as previously said, a good starting point.
“Yesterday, today, tomorrow – they don’t mean anything. I feel they’re here at the same time: waiting. How long have you felt this? I don’t know. Since yesterday? I don’t know. I don’t know what ‘yesterday’ was. And that’s what’s frightening you? Not just that, said Alison. All of me’s confused the same way. I keep wanting to laugh and cry. Sounds dead metaphysical to me, said Gwyn”
As I post more on this blog you will begin to notice hauntology popping up more and more often. It is through hauntology that I discovered The Owl Service, and it is a concept which I am currently enthralled with and will be reading heavily on over the coming months as I intend to use it as the basis of my upcoming Popular Culture Dissertation. The Owl Service popped up more and more as I’ve been researching hauntology online, it features on many of the hauntologically focussed blogs and I even got a tweet from someone who’s interested in the subject recommending that I read it. Ultimately I’m glad I did and it is indeed a good entry point into the topic as it does seemingly lay a good foundation of the core concepts.
“…all his talk is something he can’t quite remember, or can’t quite forget”