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on 15 August 2009
Alison and Roger, newly-step-brother and -sister, are in Wales staying in an old house left to Alison by her father. Nancy, an irascible Welsh housekeeper, has also brought her son Gwyn and a strange triangle is formed between the three teenagers. The discovery of a dinner set patterned with owls sets off a series of haunting events in the house which replay a murderous event from Welsh myth and time merges so that past and present are inextricably intertwined with each other.

I first read this as a child and it has stayed with me since then. While it's not as frightening now as I remember, it is wonderfully eerie book while at the same time being quite beautiful. The final image as the book ends (which I'm not going to give away here) has something wonderfully timeless and poignant about it and it has certainly lingered in my mind in a memorable fashion.

The interplay of past and present, and the overlay of myth is handled masterfully. But Garner also makes this a very modern book (it was first published in 1967) as he simultaneously makes it about class tensions and Welsh nationalism, and the problems of re-forming a broken family.

With a delicate and almost tender lyricism this is far more than a children's book: imaginative, moving, funny and scary by turns it deserves the prizes it has won.
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on 5 February 2013
I have just finished THE OWL SERVICE by Alan Garner. I have to say that I was very disappointed with it. One of the most boring, dull books I have ever read in my whole life.

Horror Stories
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VINE VOICEon 1 January 2007
Some books go beyond being mere stories, tales with which to while away the hours, and become far more central within one's life. The Owl Service, which I first read at the age of about ten, is one such book for me. In my youth I was only concerned with the story of Alison, Gwyn and Roger and how the mythical past of a Welsh legend was reaching out to play itself out once again in the present day world, but with each successive reading, and there have been several, new meanings and layers of thought have revealed themselves. Around the age old tale of rivalries in love Garner has managed to weave comments on class (for example Gwyn's attempts to conform and lose his working-class Welsh roots, which he sees as a hinderance, are set against Roger's smug superiority, safe in his comfortable position as heir to the family firm); ambition (how far do we set our own parameters for what we can achieve, simply by settling for what is expected for us rather than holding out for what we really want) and the way the events of the real, everyday world run parallel with a much older world of imagination, myth and legend.

I probably discovered more about the possibilities of well-written fiction from this book than I did from any other. There are beautiful, haunting, descriptions such as Gwyn's nocturnal walk through the wood, spooked by phantom flames which he unconvincingly tries to reason away as marsh gas; there are moments of intense drama such as the attempt to escape from the valley during a torrential downpour and there are beautifully deft character descriptions: Gwyn's mother Nancy's fear and panic as she sees the past inevitably reaching out to the present for example, or the way Alison unknowingly plays the coquette. Above all perhaps it's the way Garner leaves the reader to work out the patterns and connections for themselves that impressed me. What you discover for yourself has a much greater dramatic impact than anything the author bluntly spoonfeeds into your mouth.

It's a clever, fabulous, wonderful book. Beautiful narrative drive, clever observations about themes which affect many children (being in a single-parent family for example and feeling that you don't quite belong, but being unsure whether that makes you special and clever or else something of a misfit) and haunting descriptive, subtle writing. It's glorious.
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on 2 April 2016
In A fine Anger Neil Phillip says that this book “is not a Fantasy, but a novel about human relationships, a tripartite examination of the destructive power of possessive love”. [24] Yet it tells a contemporary story within the framework of a myth, in order to bring out at once the timeless relevance of the myth and the symbolic significance of the events of "ordinary" lives, a fair definition of Fantasy Fiction. Timelessness, the sense in which the basic realities of human life remain unaltered by time and surface conditions, is one of Garner’s pervasive themes. In this book, Alison says to Gwyn;
‘ “I don’t know where I am. “Yesterday”, “today”, “tomorrow” – they don’t mean anything. I feel they’re here at the same time: waiting.”’
To this sense of the insignificance of time, Garner adds his strong sense of the significance of place. The Welsh valley of Llanymawddwy is a kind of reservoir for the trapped emotions of the original mythic protagonists, Lleu, Gronwy and Blodeuwedd. Huw tells Gwyn;
“Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronwy Pebyre. They are the three who suffer every time, for in them the power of this valley is contained, and through them the power is loosed”.
The possessive love of Arianrhod, mother of Lleu, forces him into the relationship with Blodeuwedd, which is a failure and leads to his death and later to that of his rival, Gronwy. in the contemporary story this is repeated in the brooding presence off-stage of Margaret, the mother of Alison, whose dominance and need to control her daughter’s life and relationships trigger the resentments of class, education and sexual jealousy in Gwyn, the modern embodiment of Gronwy. So on the realistic level, the story is one of three teenagers who are each in difficult relationships with their respective mothers; but on the mythic level, represented by the Mabinogion theme and its intrusion into modern life, it is one of the male personality struggling to emerge into a state of autonomy and integration but thwarted by its inability to cope with the feminine.
The male protagonist is wholly externalised in Gwyn and Roger, and to a lesser extent in Huw and Clive. The need is for integration; control; acceptance and awareness of the powers within the self – the valley – and how they may be channelled for good rather than for destructiveness. The young male’s own capacity for love may be either a giving or a taking force. Until someone is willing to give, the pattern cannot be broken. Huw voices the fear that it never will, that the spirit of Blodeuwedd will be compelled always to manifest itself in the destructive owl embodiment rather than in the gentleness of flowers.
“ ‘She is coming, and will use what she finds, and you have only hate in you.’ Said Huw. ‘Always and always and always.’”
Although the release of hatred does at least purge the valley of its sickness, until next time, it cannot prevent the repetition of the tragedy, whereby each time one of the males involved is killed. It cannot finally heal the valley – the inner self. Blodeuwedd “wants to be flowers”; the female principle tends towards beneficence, towards caring; but she needs a self-giving response to meet her efforts. Roger provides it and breaks the pattern. Where his original, Lleu, hid behind a stone to try to avoid the spear of Gronwy – the symbol of the suffering consequent upon Lleu’s own actions – Roger stands humbly before the taunting of Gwyn, accepting by implication his own guilt and his awareness of the consequences of his own destructive attitude towards Gwyn. He breaks out of what has been a state of extreme self-absorption to reach out to Alison and save her from destructiveness; the owl manifestations give way to flowers.
In Garner, the cost of growth is always tremendous pain, damage that can never truly be healed. Something dies so that something else in the psyche can live. The image is of overcoming and striving to leave behind what is too immature to be of service to the new self, than one of integration of all the elements of the self. Nevertheless, Garner’s tragically painful image of triumph won at great cost, still sounds a note of victory; Roger’s self-conquest is allowed to result in the moving beauty of the end of The Owl Service;
“And the room was full of petals from skylight and rafter, and all about them a fragrance, and petals, flowers falling, broom, meadowsweet, falling, flowers of the oak.” [38]

Condensed from my thesis;
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on 10 October 2016
I've had The Owl Service on my bookshelf for a long time. My writers' group told me to read it years ago. This is no exaggeration. I think it's been on my shelf for almost four years. So on a bookless free Saturday, I decided to pick it up.

The first issue I had with this book was its age. I rarely read books that are over ten years old, and this one's almost 50 years old. I didn't think this would matter, but even in the first chapter it felt very strange as it's so old-fashioned and dated. The dialogue especially suffered from this. I'm fairly certain children don't speak this way to one another in the 21st Century. By the end of chapter one, I wondered what I'd got myself in for as I struggled onwards.

The characters were bi-polar a lot of the time. One minute they'd be happy chatting to each other, and then they'd be arguing or fighting and hating each other. A lot of the time none of the characters liked each other at all, and I found it very strange. I could hardly keep up with their emotions they changed so fast. I also didn't feel like I got to know them very well. I wanted to know their fears and hopes and dreams, and I felt I only got a little snippet of that.

As for the plot, I'm not sure what was going on a lot of the time. I followed it, sure, but nothing seemed to happen.

It might be because this is aimed at younger readers than I'm used to, but this felt more like a short story than a novel. It seemed to end quickly, and I was left wondering what I was supposed to have taken away.

I'm not sure if I totally followed it. It's very bizarre and strange. I put it down thinking, what did I just read? I wasn't really sure what to think. I didn't particularly enjoy it or know what to say.

Just a very, very bizarre, old-fashioned book.

The Owl Service may have been great once, but today it's strange and old-fashioned.

First Blogged Here: [...]
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on 21 March 2018
Alan Garner is a brilliant writer. His technical ability and fluency is sound etc, however his storytelling... is disjointed and strectched. Most of the novel seemed to just be dialouge. Hardly ever mentioned what character was speaking, there wasn't much linking of key ideas, plot points, or the themes themselves weren't obvious. It was just really hard to follow overall. Just wasn't enjoyable. Didn't emphathise or invest in the story, characters were very wooden and unpredictable. I didn't get them at all. Why they did what they did etc. Or the relevance of the myth itself to what the work was exploring...? E.g understood there was an element of racial tension and marginalisation, but what really did that have to do with the myth, the central focus of the story, asides from being to do with Wales?? I get that the focus was on the triangular relationship, but there wasn't any bond between the three of them in the first place? So it didn't seem genuine or believable. The idea was fab and digging out our ancient Welsh myths is brilliant, but it's just not handled well... Didn't feel the author was passionate about anything to do with the book really, apart from the myth and the floral plates! Can imagine children would find it harder to follow. It felt like a lot of telling the story, rather than showing it and generating enjoyment... So I gave up!!
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on 7 February 2014
"She walked backwards up the road, shouting, and the rain washed the air clean of her words and dissolved her haunted face, broke the line of her into webs that left no stain, and Gwyn watched for a while the unmarked place where she had been..." Like ELIDOR, this Garner book packs a lot into less than 200 pages. And like ELIDOR - it has been nearly 30 years since I last read this story. It has held up beautifully. That said, I think it's a better told story than ELIDOR presents even though both are very different. The propelling movement in "Owl Service" toward the past - a past that has repeated in the valley for centuries is handled in a taffy-pull manner. It's stretched out, bunched up and looped over itself. And it works - it takes a little bit to see where or if Gwyn, Allison or Roger are aspects of this repetition, but the results are teased out nicely. I love the bluntness of the characters of Gwyn and his mother, Nancy, as the household help and the thump of the realities that create the dumbest divides between the help and the householders. Even better when heavy reliance of the householders on the help actually gives the help the controlling position: "Nancy went about in silence and did her work with a perfection that made the house unbearable." Gwyn and his Oliver Twist nature is my favorite character here. I've seen some criticism of the datedness of language: I don't agree - there are expressions or turns of phrase here that may be quaint, unfamiliar - but they belong in their time and place and only require a bit of reader participation to move through or possibly bring to life again. This is not a dead language lesson. The real winner is the buildup of the legend of a woman trapped between two loves - and a reintroduction for me to Blodeuwedd - the flower bride, the hunting owl. I'd first met her very recently in A.A. Attanasio's "Killing with the Edge of the Moon" which I enjoyed, too. This book also calls to mind Margaret J. Anderson's "In the Keep of Time." And now, on to the next book.
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VINE VOICEon 16 April 2009
I'm not sure how it is that I have waited almost 40 years to read this book after seeing some episodes of the televised version, programs that I was really too young to understand properly at the time, but which I still remember as being peculiarly disturbing and uncomfortable viewing. The TV series is now regarded as a landmark in Children's television and is available on DVD. I had high hopes of this book, but have to say I was slightly disappointed.

The story, set in a remote house in Wales centres on three teenagers, Alison and her new step-brother Roger, and Gwyn, the son of the housekeeper Nancy. In fact the only other characters with more than a walk-on role are Clive (Roger's father), Nancy (the house-keeper), and Huw "half-bacon" (the seemingly half-witted gardener). After the discovery of an old dinner service in the loft, of which the plates are decorated with a floral pattern that can also be seen as an owl, a series of strange supernatural events begins to unfold, and it seems the children will be destined to re-enact an old Welsh legend from the Mabinogion.

There is a great deal of tension in the book: Gwyn and his mother have a very difficult relationship, the English characters are conscious of being interlopers, but patronise and look down on the Welsh, and are very class-conscious, while Nancy regards Clive as not being a "proper gentleman" (he does not know how to eat a pear with a knife and fork). This is potentially very interesting but I couldn't help feeling that it makes much of the dialogue rather unnatural, and the characters less than three-dimensional.

Although the book is easy to read at just over 200 pages, all the way through I felt that I was not been given enough information: we don't find out much about what characters look like or how old they are, and there is very little in the way of scene-setting. There are often odd jumps from one incident to the next, and quite a lot of the action is "off camera". For example, Alison avoids Gwyn on the orders of her mother, but the mother never appears in the book at all.
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on 11 August 2014
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 April 2011
I am a great admirer of Alan Garner's work, and share his fascination with certain themes - an almost obsessive sense of place, in which locations and geography assume lives of their own; a feeling of the past threatening to overwhelm the present; the 'Stone Tape' theory; English rural folklore. The Owl Service is at once tragic, beautiful, difficult, touching and brutal, and I can't help wondering if, were a children's writer to attempt to publish a book like this today, any publisher would have the guts to take it on. These days, we seem scared to challenge children with books like this - books that are exquisitely written, uncompromising and ambiguous. Thank god for the 60s...
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