1968 – “The Owl Service” by Alan Garner

When I was a child we lived for a while in Cheshire. At this time the books of Alan Garner were very popular locally because he set many of them at Alderly Edge which was reasonably local to us. I remember some of the books being read to us at school and I think that it is possible that we might have visited the area in which they were set. Recently I revisited two of those books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. These are about two children who come into contact with an ancient supernatural world of wizards and magic. They are quite heavy going, I think, for children aged 11 and upwards for whom they were written. The characters are complex and the magic is often evil and the children are in real peril. These were the only two books I had read by this author but I am using the opportunity of my 60 Books from 60 Years challenge to read what is probably his best known title, The Owl Service – I think that there may have been a BBC dramatization of this at some point although I have never seen it.

This story is set in Wales where Alison and her stepbrother Roger are on holiday with their parents. In addition to the four of them the cottage is also inhabited by their cook/housekeeper and her son Gwyn. Living next door is an older man, Huw Halfbacon, who does odd jobs. They valley that they are staying in has no other houses.

Alison hears scratching in the attic of the cottage and when Roger investigates he finds a dinner service of plates with a pattern. Alison traces the pattern and shows how it can be made into owls but when the owls appear on paper the plates become blank. Then in one room of the cottage a painting of a woman appears on the wall only to vanish again. The children become aware of an old story about the valley involving a woman who has two admirers and how one kills the other. Gwyn realises that some of these events may also relate to his family and their history.

This is quite a creepy book and I am absolutely sure it would have given me nightmares had I read it as a child. The tension is very effective and as it builds relationships between the characters begin to break down. The valley seems claustrophobic and there appears to be no escape.

I enjoyed this book because it was very well written and I liked the intrusion into the present of very ancient magic and stories being lived again with new people in a new time. Lots of it was very similar to the two Alan Garner books I had read recently but I was also very reminded of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay and especially his novel Ysabel which is also about a love triangle in the past being relived by modern characters (although this is an adult book and set in France). I suspect that both authors have taken their inspiration from similar folklore.

I don’t imagine that they still read Alan Garner in schools and nor do I think that today’s children would immediately connect with the stories but this book can definitely be read and enjoyed by adults. It’s a powerful, imaginative and atmospheric piece of writing.

2 thoughts on “1968 – “The Owl Service” by Alan Garner

  1. I saw the TV series, which I couldn’t follow very well, and I think we read the book at school. Possibly I read it later. Whichever way round it was, I don’t think I was keen, having failed to understand the TC series. I was so young that I didn’t know what was meant by ‘service’. The story is supposed to be based on a story in the Mabinogion.


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