“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls…

…You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.” The Owl Service (1967), by Alan Garner.

From Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service” at fifty by Dimitra Fimi, writing in the Times Literary Supplement:

“…What makes The Owl Service intriguing, situated in that space between fantasy and the Gothic, is the ambiguous relationship between the modern plot of the novel and the medieval tale that inspired it. On the one hand, Gwyn, Alison and Roger seem to (involuntarily) re-enact the story of Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw. But on the other, it is perhaps the way their lives (and their very different national, cultural, social and economic backgrounds) are intertwined in a claustrophobic Welsh valley that has attracted these mythical forces in the first place.

And yet in refusing to provide an unequivocal resolution to the story, Garner breaks the rules of fantasy. At the end of the novel, we are left suspended, as it were, at the moment of “healing”. Rather than Gwyn, the hero we’ve been rooting for, it is Roger who manages to stop Alison’s metamorphosis into the menacing owl-Blodeuwedd. So Alison is saved, but has the curse been broken? Will Blodeuwedd stop haunting the valley? The television adaptation of The Owl Service by Granada Television (aired in 1969–70) contains an additional scene, scripted by Garner, which gives a rather chilling answer.

The Owl Service broke new ground in fantasy literature. Its haunting quality was unlike anything seen before in a young adult novel. Its focus on class conflict and ethnic and cultural identities (Welsh vs English) made its link with the mythological past complex, relevant to its time and memorable. The novel’s writing style, which relied heavily on dialogue (exploiting Garner’s earlier experience as a freelance television reporter), gave it a feverish energy. The Owl Service deservedly won both the prestigious Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. It has featured continuously in school and university curricula, and remains a firm favourite in the fantasy canon. At its fiftieth anniversary, it remains fresh, complex and subversive.”

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