100 Ghosts: The Owl Service by Alan Garner
Updated: Aug 15
“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.” Garner’s story, set in the 1960s, weaves folklore, class and adolescent angst and burgeoning sexuality into a slightly bewildering almost hallucinatory retelling of the Welsh legend of Bloduewedd, a woman made of flowers but transformed into an owl as a punishment for her part in the murder, along with her lover Gronw, of the husband for whom she was created. Posh Alison is spending the Summer with her mother, stepfather and stepbrother Roger, in the house in the Valleys she has inherited from a relative of her dead father. Alison, nouveau riche Roger and the housekeeper’s bright as a button but common as muck son Gwyn sort of replay this love triangle, unaware that they are under a curse which compels the inhabitants of the valley to reenact the tragedy of Bloduewedd in perpetuity, which Gwyn will discover has had a direct impact on his very existence. It’s a claustrophobic, weird read, that crackles with ancient, sometimes malevolent energy. The strange goings on in the house are triggered by a stash of plates with an ambiguous pattern (owls? Flowers? Both?) that Gwyn finds in an attic, much to the inexplicable rage of his terrifying mum. Almost immediately Alison becomes obsessed with them, almost possessed by them, and things just get odder from there on in, the teenagers carried along on an inexorable mystical current of fate they have almost no chance of resisting.
The injustices of the still rigid class saturated attitudes are startling: grammar school boy Gwyn is constantly threatened with the prospect of a shop job in town by his bitter, harried mother and is mocked by Roger for saving up to buy elocution records, which he can’t even play because he can’t afford a record player. He has no options, and the prospect of escaping his mother’s world of perpetual servitude seems all but impossible. Less sympathetically, Alison and Roger’s choices are limited by their upbringings too. Alison is forbidden by her snooty mother from seeing Gwyn (pretty difficult when they live in the same house) because he’s, to use Roger’s woefully inaccurate epithet, a ‘yobbo’. Buttoned up Roger expects to follow his father into the family business even though Alison thinks he really wants to be a photographer. But there’s no money in that…
I’m mildly obsessed with the Owl Service, on just about every level. Before I even knew what it meant I loved the baffling nature of the title, and when I found out it referred to a stack of dusty magical plates, that just seemed to make it even better. It reminds me a lot of another favourite book, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, which is another coming of age fantasy based on folklore (in this case the Scottish ballads Tam Lin and Tom the Rhymer) with an even more incomprehensible ending. Both novels are moving, gripping and so humane in their otherworldliness, that I still completely love them despite the head scratching and can only revel in their occasional utter bonkersness, to mangle a Mallettism.
My copy of the book has about 20 pages missing in the middle, so I listened to a really good audiobook of it to fill in the gaps. Finally I watched the 1968 TV series, adapted by Garner himself, and very of its time which is entirely as it should be. Alison, played by Gillian Hills, looks to have trotted in straight from swinging London probably because she has (discovered in 1959, aged 14, by Roger ‘Barbarella’ Vadim, she had already starred in Antonioni’s Blow Up and went on to be one of the teenagers Alex picks up in a record shop in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), the filming style is experimental, and the three main characters were dressed consistently in shades of red (Alison), brown (Gwyn) and green (Roger) to imitate the colours of electrical wiring as a reflection of the volatile nature of their intertwined relationships. It’s not really a children’s series at all, especially as the characters are aged by a few years making them pretty much adults. It’s such a vivid retelling and it’s almost shocking to think that some of the young actors are now in their seventies, though not as shocking as the fact that one of them, Michael Holden (Gwyn), died in 1978 following an unprovoked attack in a Mayfair pub at the age of just 31.
As far as the drawing is concerned, I waver with this one from thinking it’s a right old pig’s breakfast to quite liking its hazy confusion of images, which I think suits the nature of the book. Fun fact: The trees espied through the Stone of Gronw (in the story, the hole through the stone is made by the spear thrown by Gronw that killed Bloduewedd’s husband Lleu) are a digital manipulation of a linocut I did of Kirkcarrion, a plantation of pines on an elevated Bronze Age burial site in Teesdale.