The Owl Service

by Alan Garner

This is a strange story. It’s based on a Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd, about a woman magically made from flowers to be one man’s wife, while falling in love with another- murder results, and a curse, and she gets turned into an owl. In The Owl Service, this legend is perpetually re-enacted (in a way) by further generations. Three children get involved when one of them discovers some plates hidden in the rafters- a “dinner service” patterned with flowers. The girl sees owls in the pattern, and when she traces them, paper owls flit about, later mysteriously disappearing. She gets obsessed with obtaining more plates to trace from, while the housekeeper is just as adamant about keeping the children from getting ahold of the plates, or finding out more about them. There’s a lot more going on- mysterious lights in the woods, odd noises, people acting strangely. It’s all rather creepy, really.

But hard to follow. In the first place, it’s nearly all told in dialogue, without any explanation of who’s who, so it took a while for me to figure out how the children were related to each other- two are step-siblings, the third is the housekeeper’s son, and why certain ones felt superior to, or resentful towards, the others. The same kind of interactions occur among the adults, with just as little explanation. The dialog is crafty, feels very real, but at the same time has gaps. For instance, some characters speak Welsh, others English, but there’s never any indication of that until you realize one person didn’t understand what someone else said- halfway through the conversation! Aside from that, even once I’d figured out the myth that was being re-lived by these kids, it still didn’t make much sense, and the ending was a muddle. It does have a very vivid feel, though- I at once thought of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, and of National Velvet (not sure why) and overall it leaves the reader with a very unsettling feeling. I enjoyed reading the book while I was still trying to figure out what was going on, but then it got tiresome. I’m wondering now if Alan Garner’s other books are just as eerie, and inexplicable? Anyone read more?

I got this book at a library sale, it caught my eye because I remembered seeing a review at Things Mean a Lot. The second image is what my book looks like without its dust jacket- silver pattern on the cover (of the plate). I can see the owl’s face, but not how the rest of the image would fit together…

Rating: 3/5
201 pages, 1967

6 Responses

  1. I tried this one because I'd heard such great things about Alan Garner, and it got tedious for me too. I've never tried another of his books, though maybe I should, just to see if he's always this confusing.

  2. The idea sounds fascinating, but the dialogue seems confusing. I'm not sure whether I'd enjoy it or not.

  3. This IS a strange book, and almost everyone I know who's read it diddn0t get on with the writing. But someone it all really clicked for me. Go figure 😛

  4. I've just found your blog and was browsing through it when this post caught my eye, because I'm one of those odd people who love The Owl Service. I read it when it was first published, and I must have been 14 or 15 and I thought it was one of the most exciting books I'd ever read, because it brought legends into everyday life. Since then, of course, lots of other authors like Diana Wynne Jones have done similar things, which makes me very happy. I think there are two earlier Garner books you might like: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. They are most like The Dark is Rising and not at all opaque. You might like Elidor too, though that's grittier although it has a similar feel to Fire and Hemlock in places. I don't think you'd like anything later than The Owl Service – his next book, Red Shift, is really opaque, and quite depressing.

  5. Thanks, Geraniumcat, for the recommendations! I think it didn't help that I wasn't familiar with the legend at all. If I'd heard of it before, it probably would have made this easier and more exciting reading for me.

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