Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Something about Alan Garner’s Owl Service

The Owl Service (1967) by Alan Garner OBE FRSL is an award-winning fantasy novel for young adults that affected me very strongly the first time I read it. 

The Owl Service is a story of the supernatural. It involves something that has been called in other articles a scripted scenario.

The story is set in modern Wales.  The plotline is based on a story from Welsh mythology, a story about betrayal and destruction involving a triangle of two men and a woman.

Three teenagers, Alison the English girl, Roger the English boy and Gwyn the Welsh boy, re-enact the story - or rather the story re-enacts itself through them as it has been doing down the years and through the generations. 

The girl is once again the betrayer, and the two boys hit each other where it hurts most. 

Some of the witty remarks that various characters make have a positive effect when read; there are also some very cruel and hurtful comments that are painful to read and have a very negative effect. This article highlights some of the best and worst of these comments.

Parents and step-parents
Alison’s mother is a terrible emotional blackmailer and Gwyn’s bitter mother seems sadistically determined to sabotage his life, not just for personal reasons but because of unfinished business from the past. 

Alison’s class-conscious mother tries to interfere with her daughter’s friendship with Gwyn because he is only the housekeeper’s son: he is not ‘one of us’; he hasn’t got the right background.

Gwyn makes some amusing comments when Alison tells him about this:

“Mummy'll be so angry if she finds out, and I hate upsetting her.”

“That's the all-year-round cultural pursuit in your family,” said Gwyn. “Not Upsetting Mummy.”

“Don't talk like that.”

“You're not having much luck with it, though, are you? Mummy was upset yesterday, and Mummy was upset the day before, and I bet you anything Mummy will be upset today. I wonder what pleasures tomorrow will bring...”

Roger’s father is well-meaning, but he has no idea what he is dealing with:

“You should know Dad by now,” said Roger. “Anything for a quiet life: that's why he never gets one.

Alison’s father died; Roger’s mother was unfaithful and walked out; Alison’s widowed mother married Clive, Roger’s divorced father.

Alison and Roger make spiteful comments to each other about their respective step-parents:

“I don't know why you're so thin-skinned about your parents,” said Alison. “You've done pretty well out of it.”

“Meaning what?” said Roger.

“Or your father has,” said Alison. “Clive's sweet, but he's a bit of a rough diamond, isn't he? Mummy's people were very surprised when she married him.”

“Yes, she was pretty damned quick off the mark, for a widow,” said Roger. “Does she always home on to the nearest bank book?”

Roger and Gwyn
Roger is jealous of Alison’s friendship with Gwyn. He takes his revenge by attacking Gwyn with cutting comments about sensitive subjects. He sees that Gwyn has no money, boasts that he gets plenty and makes fun of Gwyn’s shabby clothes:

I say, that's a smart mackintosh you're wearing,” said Roger. “Those trend-setting short sleeves, and up-to-the-minute peep-toe plimsolls-”

“Be quiet, Roger,” said Alison.

In an attempt at self-improvement, Gwyn buys an elocution course on gramophone records. He tells Alison this in confidence but she betrays him by telling Roger, who says:

Ali didn't say much. I mean, I don't know whether you're using the complete Improva-Prole set, or the shorter course of Oiks' Exercises for getting by in the Shop. She didn't say really.”

Gwyn in turn asks awkward questions and makes nasty remarks about Roger’s mother, a very sensitive subject. 

History repeats itself
Gwyn runs away. He decides to leave the valley but is forced to take refuge in a tree in a place called The Black Hiding when in danger from various animals. He doesn’t realise that all the avenues are closed except for the one that his destiny has arranged for him.

He refuses to listen to a character called Huw who tells him that this is where they all come. He had a difficult and dangerous climb to reach the safe place and thinks that it was his own decision and efforts that got him there.

The scenario in The Owl Service is unusual in that it is a result of the bloodline and the possession by mythological characters, but the principle is the same: some people are pawns and puppets, speaking, thinking, feeling and acting as if from a script. They are not operating as individuals even though they may think that they are. 

Huw tells Gwyn to look inside a hole in the root of the tree. He finds many objects left by people who had fled to the Black Hiding over the centuries. 

Gwyn is convinced. He accepts that he is playing a predestined role involving betrayal and flight. 

Among the objects he brings out of the tree are some brake blocks from a motorbike; he knows the story behind them.

The brake blocks: not funny, but...
The previous triangle involved Huw, Gwyn’s mother Nancy and someone known to Alison as Cousin Bertram. 

Gwyn learns from his mother that Cousin Bertram died in a motorbike accident when going through a mountain pass - Huw had removed his brake blocks in revenge for losing Nancy to the rich Englishman.

Gwyn tells Alison what happened in his typical witty way:

He had this vintage motorbike, see. Done it up himself. Then one day he's coming over the pass - one-in-four just there - and he failed to negotiate a bend, as they say. He'd left his brakes at home. The bike jammed itself on some slate, but he went three hundred feet - kerchoom, kerchoom, aaaaargh, splat!”

Although Gwyn is describing a tragedy, I find this really funny.

The special 50th anniversary edition of this unforgettable book:

The TV series
The Owl Service was made into an eight-part TV series, which can be found on YouTube. The first episode was shown in December 1969.

Alan Garner wrote the script, so the series is true to the book. I still prefer to read rather than watch, the clothes are dated, I find Alison annoying and Roger too old-looking, but the film adds another dimension to the story and makes the complicated plot easier to understand.

Many of the actors said that they felt that they were personally living the whole thing; the effects of taking part were long-lasting.

Gwyn was played by an actor called Michael Holden, who was murdered in an unprovoked attack in a London pub in 1977.

The episodes can be found on YouTube. 

In this picture of the young actors, Gwyn is on the right and Roger is in the background:

The Owl Service has a dedicated website: