Flowers, Feathers & Fate
Alan Garner’s The Owl Service
A tormented tangle of feathers, flowers and fate: Johnny Restall investigates the possessing patterns of Alan Garner's The Owl Service...
Patterns, appearing and disappearing; always recurring, repeating compulsively. Phantom lights dancing through the woodlands. Inanimate objects moving on their own. Unexplained, powerful forces. Possession. Perhaps mindful of these elements, Alan Garner has described his novel The Owl Service (1967) as ‘a kind of ghost story’[i]. The ambiguity of his words is however more revealing than the description itself; his rich, strange book defies easy classification.
Garner was born in Congleton, Cheshire, in 1934, and still lives in the county. His work is generally characterised by a powerful sense of place, emphasising the complex relationship between people and the landscape around them, overlaid with a delicate and eerily permeable skein of history and legend.
His early works, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen (1960), its sequel The Moon Of Gomrath (1963), and the separate Elidor (1965), established his increasingly inaccurate reputation as a children’s fantasy author. These three books are arguably his most traditional, but while they share certain mythological aspects with the works of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, Garner largely dispenses with their relatively conservative ideologies and high fantasy. He chooses to anchor his magical worlds in starkly realistic settings, accessible to all – perhaps most clearly expressed in Elidor, with its group of working-class children finding the doorway to the titular kingdom in a ruined Manchester church.
In some ways, his later books anticipate aspects of the hauntology movement, with the phantoms of a kind of ‘folk past’ seeping from the margins of contemporary life, as well as the ghostly palimpsest travelogues of writers like WG Sebald. Yet even at its most demanding, Garner’s fiction retains a sense of fraught emotional urgency and humanity, a quality beyond simply recycling vintage cultural references or reciting tenuously linked historical anecdotes.
The Owl Service was something of a transitional novel in Garner’s career, marking the balancing point between the atmospheric but direct approach of his previous books and the more abstract, enigmatic style of later works, beginning with 1973’s remarkable Red Shift, which surely remains one of the most challenging and despairing books ever filed in the children’s section. Unusually, The Owl Service is not set in his native North West England (the location for almost all of his other novels, bar sections of 1996’s Stranloper). Due in large part to the tale’s mythic inspiration, the book is set in an isolated Welsh valley.
Opening with mysterious scratchings in the ceiling, the story revolves around three teenage protagonists. Alison and Roger have become step-siblings, following the marriage of Alison’s mother Margaret to Roger’s father, Clive. The new family have gone on holiday together to try and bond, staying in a holiday cottage which Alison has inherited from her deceased father. Also in residence in the servant’s quarters is Gwyn, whose mother Nancy has been hired as a housekeeper by the family.
Investigating the strange noises in the loft at Alison’s request, Gwyn discovers an old dinner set, decorated with a floral pattern resembling a series of owls. Alison becomes obsessed with the design, tracing the pattern to create tiny figurines which mysteriously disappear along with the original glazed decoration on the plates themselves, as though the birds have somehow been released. Meanwhile, Gwyn’s mother, who used to live in the valley before moving away to Aberystwyth, is inexplicably enraged by her son’s find, and the tormented gardener Huw begins to issue strange warnings and predictions, which seem to be connected to an old legend…
Garner has always fully acknowledged his story’s basis in The Mabinogion, a volume of Welsh folk tales first published in medieval times. He even goes so far as to incorporate it into his text as a book Gwyn is studying at school, which later physically attacks him during an apparent episode of telekinesis; it is a credit to Garner’s skilfully understated style that he gets away with literally hitting a protagonist in the face with his inspiration.
The specific Mabinogion story used, ‘Math ap Mathonwy’, tells of a chieftain, Lleu, who has been cursed never to take a human wife. Allied to powerful magicians, a wife is conjured for him from the flowers, named Blodeuwedd. However, she falls in love with another man, Gronw, who ‘kills’ Lleu with a spear. One year later, Lleu is magically returned to life, and he then kills Gronw with the same spear as he shelters behind a rock. For her betrayal, the tormented Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl, condemned to the night and scorned by the other birds.
These ancient events still resonate through the valley in The Owl Service, recurring over and over again, with each generation seemingly doomed to repeat this bitter, brutal triangle. Following the discovery of the plates, Alison, Gwyn, and Roger appear fated to claim these roles themselves, unless they can overcome their differences and break the terrible spell.
Garner ensures that these differences are firmly rooted in reality, using fantasy to explore and exacerbate very earthly tensions, rather than as an escape or an allegory. He also steadfastly refuses to neatly categorise anybody in the book as good or evil, taking care in his recreation to balance the light and shade inherent in characters who must ‘interact so lethally and yet be harmless in themselves.’[ii]
Although an exact age is never given for any of the three protagonists, it seems likely that they are around fifteen or sixteen, and the intensities, shifting loyalties, and petty cruelties that can make teenage life so miserable are observed with a sharp but compassionate eye. The uncertain step-family dynamic establishes that the ‘grown-up’ world is a different but no less troubled place. Alison’s upper-class mother Margaret is present in name only, appearing solely in the conversations of other characters. They speak of her as though she must be appeased at all costs, too rarefied to actually become involved in the emotional whirlpool around her. Roger remains deeply sensitive about his own adored mother walking out on the family, while his ineffectual father Clive tries to smooth things over with a show of wealthy nonchalance that fools nobody; Alison describes him as ‘a rough diamond…Mummy’s people were very surprised when she married him.’[iii]
If class tensions smoulder beneath the surface for the parents, they constitute the main force dividing the teenagers, alongside the aching sexual tensions inherent in their approach to adulthood. Roger echoes the superficial snobbery of his father, driven to assert his superiority over working-class Gwyn all the more firmly as a result of his own precarious position below his new step-family’s social standing. In turn, Alison struggles to understand her own place, drawn to Gwyn but unwilling to risk losing the advantages her mother’s status entitles her to. Gwyn is separated not just by his class but his Welsh nationality. Like his mother and Huw, he ‘belongs’ in the valley far more than the uncomfortable English family, but this is a pyrrhic victory. The rich outsiders rule the valley financially, and the locals can only afford to stay in relative servitude, as he bitterly observes: ‘Who’s going to rent to us when stuffed shirts from Birmingham pay eight quid a week so they can swank about?’
The latent resentful energies in Alison, Roger, and Gwyn provide the necessary charge for the waiting supernatural forces, like the three wires required for an electrical plug. Gwyn identifies the valley as ‘a kind of reservoir…I think the power is there and always will be.’ This power seems to manifest itself everywhere in their environment: in impossible sounds that echo previous incarnations of the doomed triangle; in ghostly visions that defy physics; in confusions of exterior and internal spaces – pebble-dash is used inside to conceal an old painting, and flowers and feathers erupt within closed rooms. Time appears to be caught in a loop, with the past not passed at all. Gwyn describes the events as ‘Not haunted…More like – still happening,’ while an increasingly possessed Alison exclaims: ‘’Yesterday’, ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’ – they don’t mean anything. I feel they’re here at the same time: waiting.’
With its notion of a place retaining a kind of physic charge or record, forever rewinding, replaying and re-recording, The Owl Service is in some ways a precursor to Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (BBC, Peter Sasdy, 1972), despite their very different locations. Like Kneale’s sound engineers, Roger tries to use technology (in his case a camera) to interpret the phenomena, but his photographs only deepen the mystery. Both also focus their ‘hauntings’ on a female lead surrounded by somewhat ineffective males, although nobody in The Owl Service approaches the selfish, chauvinistic horror of The Stone Tape’s Peter Brock.
Garner adapted his own work for an ambitious, eight-part TV series based on his novel (Granada, Peter Plummer, 1969-70). The series takes a strikingly abstract and unsettling approach to the material, with extensive use of unusual angles and abrupt jump cuts. The older ages of the actors playing the teenage leads (including cult actress and pop star Gillian Hills) brings the more sexual elements of the triangle to the fore. Combined with the exaggerated sound work of Harry Brookes and Phil Smith, full of startling rips, flutters, and uncanny noises, it is often unnervingly and boldly adult for a television programme ostensibly made for children.
With the author’s clear, concise style conveying volumes beneath his words, The Owl Service won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize when first published. Aided by Peter Caldwell’s iconic design work for the TV series, the book and its adaptation retain a significant following today. Formed in 2006, the alternative folk group The Owl Service are named after the novel, and it inspired a song of the same title by the post-rock group Pram in 2000. Its influence can be seen on many acts on the Ghost Box record label, both in song titles (Owls And Flowers by Belbury Poly) and in Julian House’s artwork (for As The Crow Flies by The Advisory Circle and The Owl’s Map by Belbury Poly). Clearly, I am far from being the only person still haunted by those fateful words: ‘She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting…’
[i] Author’s Introduction to The Owl Service 2007 reissue.
[ii] As above.
[iii] All quotations from the text taken from the 2013 Folio Society edition of The Owl Service by Alan Garner.