The Owl Service by Alan Garner

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The Owl Service by Alan Garner

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The Owl Service is a slightly creepy tale of the way the world of myth and legend can collide with the world of today. Amidst the magic, some political ideas are introduced. It's a vivid book, full of dialogue. A wonderful - and challenging - read for the early teens, it comes highly recommended by Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: August 2002
Publisher: CollinsVoyager
ISBN: 0007127898

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In the old time, the magician Gwydion made a bride out of flowers for his nephew, Lleu. Blodeuwedd was beautiful, beautiful. Yet she fell in love, not with Lleu, but with his mortal neighbour, Gronw Pebyr. Her mystical, magical marriage shattered, Blodeuwedd plotted with Gronw to kill Lleu. But before he died, Lleu's soul was transformed into an eagle and eventually he returned to kill Gronw, with the very same spear Gronw used to kill him. The magician Gwydion cursed Blodeuwedd, turning her into an owl, a huntress, and a bird to which no other bird will come close.

In the present time, the stone with the hole through which Lleu threw Gronw's own spear and killed him, still stands in a quiet Welsh valley. In this valley, the present is as significant as the past, legend means more than logic and Huw, a descendant of the magician Gwydion, can feel the owl lady near. In the old time it was Bloduwedd, Lleu and Gronw. In the present time, it will be Alison, Gwyn and Roger. But will the lady be owl or flowers? And will the spurned lover be lord of the valley or avenging murderer? And can anyone prevent the huntress from hunting?

In The Owl Service, Alan Garner takes this old, old story from the Welsh legends which make up the Mabinogion and blends it into the present. It's a fascinating book. There aren't any facile tricks of plot - no time travel, no spirits from the past inhabiting the pages of today. The Owl Service is about Huw, Alison, Roger and Gwyn and a summer in a Welsh valley not thousands of years ago, but in the twentieth century. Alison and Gwyn find an old dinner service in the attic of the house where Gwyn's mother is housekeeper and which Alison has inherited from her father. As Alison begins feverishly to trace and make paper owls from the flowered pattern on the plates, Gwyn and Roger join her in reliving the roles of that past drama. And yet, they are not possessed, they remain entirely themselves, with their own qualities, opinions, talents and problems. In the old time there were gods and goddesses, curses, heirs and fiefdoms. In the present time there are step-families and the class struggle. So different and yet somehow, so very much the same.

The Owl Service is thick and heavy with that Celtic notion of an Otherworld being not so much other as present in all that we see and all that we do. It draws heavily on the Ancient British cult of ancestor worship and on the idea of a past whose tendrils curl and creep around the present, unseen, but never unfelt. And so Garner suggests much, but explains little. Rather he plays with states of mind and explores the way contemporary people react with the relics of the ancients. It's very subtle, but very effective. And it's highly complicated. Yet Garner doesn't over-reach his young readers with his poetic, complex ambiguities. Much of the action in The Owl Service is expressed through dialogue - perhaps three quarters of the words are within speech marks - and this lends not only accessibility but builds familiarity with the mystical and lends tension and suspense.

The Mabinogion was first read aloud to me by my grandmother, a cultured, literary, intelligent Welshwoman. She was a fiercely independent, rational soul with a liberal conscience and radical, fiery politics. Each time I've returned to it - and those times have been many - another subtle layer of mystery and magic has opened itself up to me. Like another of my favourite children's authors, David Almond, Garner writes of magic which has its roots in everything that we do and everything that we are. It's in our very hearts and minds, and we cannot lose it. I believe in that sort of magic, don't you?

The Owl Service won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award, Alan Garner himself has won more awards for his writing than you could shake a stick at. The Owl Service is a fabulous, multi-layered book of mystery and suspense, but it's also a contemporary musing on love, class structure, and power. Perhaps its central theme is that age-old battle between good and evil, and perhaps what I like best about it is that it's written with the sure and certain knowledge that nothing is black and white, but all things - past, present and future - are in shades of grey. Think on.

For readers of ten and up. And that includes the grown ups.

Young readers who like slightly creepy tales but aren't quite ready for The Owl Service might be interested in Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. We can also recommend The White Hare by Michael Fishwick.

Booklists.jpg The Owl Service by Alan Garner is in the Top Ten Classics of Children's Literature.

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jehanine said:

'The Owl Service' is a difficult book to review - very different from the usual fantasy fare, and with a style all of its own.This, however,is an impressive review, managing to capture the force and flavour of Garner's dark vision. The review gives not only a clear synopsis of the basic plot but also its sources and the resulting prose style. I was particularly pleased that this book is recommended for adults too - it's a unique, sometimes startling book that would please any adult fantasy fans as well as children, and I'm glad the reviewer made this clear.