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”.  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.” 
Condensed from my thesis;
I started reading this when I was 13, and I put it down after a few chapters - because I found it very slow-moving, and it wasn't a fantasy story in the vein of "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen."
Reading it again as an adult, I still found it very slow-moving and it took a long time to start firing for me. Once it did, I could appreciate that it really is more of a ghost story than a fantasy story. Three murderously jealous characters from the ancient Welsh Lady of Flowers legend in "The Mabinogion" start haunting three 1960s teenagers who are staying in a Welsh valley for the summer: Alison and Roger, English step-siblings who are a bit superficial and spoilt, and Gwyn, the hard-working Welsh grammar school boy who is the son of their housekeeper. And the supernatural forces, who are never explicitly seen, trap them in the valley without escape until a resolution is achieved.
I'm still not sure a modern 13+ years reader would go for it. But it is beautifully and sparsely written, with a lot of subtle power games. Incidentally, Mr Garner was a grammar school boy from a low-income Cheshire family, and I'm wondering how much of Gwyn's frustration and anger with his circumstances is autobiographical? (Mr Garner's former grammar school now has a library named after him.)
on 10 April 2010
This is certainly a book one needs to re-read for the depth of the story to sink in! On my first read through at 8 or 9 I was terrified by this book and didn't really enjoy it (though I absolutely loved the other 3 Alan Garner books in the same set: Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Moon of Gomrath and Elidor). I then went back to the story at 16 and all of a sudden a lot of things became clear. Finally, after my 5th or so time through, I have finally set aside my dislike of the ending and realised that it is actually the perfect finish to the book: it needs to be Roger, who has been tormenting Gwyn all this time, to be the one who repents and restores the balance. I also realised that in the allegory of the ancient Blodeuwedd myth I had been mixing up the 2 characters: Gwyn is meant to be Lleu, and Roger Gronw, and then everything makes a lot more sense.
'The Owl Service' is a gripping and terribly chilling read, one which will stay with you long after you have closed the final page. Everything seems to vividly come to life through the descriptions, and you feel the pain and jealousy of the characters. It is also an interesting social commentary, which has hints of some of the struggles Garner went through early in his life. Overall I would say that this is definitely a book for more mature children and adults, with more to discover every time it is opened.
As a final note, there is a 1969 TV series which is incredibly faithful to the book, especially with the story, atmosphere and casting. If you like the book I would give it a watch.
I have been reading and re-reading this book on and off since I was a child and I am now a middle aged woman with three children of my own. Despite you thinking I might know better by now, I still find this book absolutely terrifying, albeit in a compulsively readable kind of way.
Garner's books have been consistently in print for years, which says a lot about their popularity. It does however seem to be a quiet kind of popularity and I don't think they are treated with the respect and adulation they deserve. His works are always beautifully written, very well researched (he deals in folklore and myth) and have a tense, haunting quality that will scare your socks off.
This story settles around the discovery of a set of plates which are decorated with ornate owl faces. The family who discover them soon find that owls are cropping up everywhere in their lives, and in their isolated country retreat things get very menacing, very quickly. Garner writes exceptionally well to create that creeping sense of intense isolation, fear and mounting dread that make this book work so well, and make the idea of being menaced by what is effectively a dinner service really work. Read this and then read all his other books. He also writes for adults as well, so you might want to check that out too.
on 3 October 2002
I don't use the word genius lightly. Alan Garner has to be one of the most underrated writers of our times. Here he spins a disturbing yarn of love, treachery and jealously which would challenge any adult reader, let alone an 8 to 10 year old.
I fondly remember the TV series, surely one of the scariest, most atmospheric and sensual programmes ever broadcast for children.
This book is far too good for kids and beats most so-called "adult fiction" hands down.