Today we tackled the "myths and legends" genre with Alan Garner's 1967 Carnegie award-winning classic, The Owl Service. In 2007 this was a contender for the public's all-time favourite Carnegie winner, and was eventually voted as one of the ten most important children's books published in the last seventy years. Children's book critic Julia Eccleshare credits Garner with having invented the young-adult fiction genre with this book. Quite a reputation, then.
One of our group had met Garner in 1974 during a school visit, and had brought along her signed copy of The Owl Service. Describing herself as an Alan Garner fan, she remembered him as somewhat grumpy and rather intense, but with a strong aura and a definite sense of place. Several amongst us had read and enjoyed The Owl Service previously and preferred it to his The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
A real sense of mythology and magic dominate the story of Roger, Alison and Gwyn - three hormonal, class-bound and somewhat prejudiced teenagers sharing an uncomfortable summer who become entangled in a human conflict with its roots in the ancient Welsh legend of Bloudewedd, a woman created from flowers who was turned into an owl for inciting her lover to kill her husband.
There is an almost tangible atmosphere of claustrophobia and suspense, with lots of dark mutterings, rather strange locals and a dominant mother/step-mother who is only ever experienced off-stage, like a secondary character in The Archers. The ancient Welsh/English hostility runs just below the surface, personified by Roger and Gwyn's tetchy relationship, while Alison is drawn terrifyingly into the myth, like Alice into a very dark looking glass, as she desperately cuts out paper owls from the template she has found on a set of plates.
Garner does not believe in spoonfeeding his young readers; this is a book which could easily be a novel for adults. It demands you go away and research the Welsh myth on which it is based. Only then do all the pieces of the story finally fall into place. We took time to read through the story in the Mabinogion, a collection of ancient Celtic prose stories that were translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest during the 19th century. So that left us asking the question: is Garner writing for his own pleasure, or to educate? The plates on which the story is based belonged to Garner's mother-in-law: the valley is real; this is a very personal tale.
Some described the structure as flawless and compulsive in its opacity; others said the story tailed off rather disappointingly. It feels a little outdated now, with its class and race distinctions, but its position as a children's classic seems assured.