‘But none of them is all to blame,’ said Huw. ‘It is only together they are destroying each other.’The Owl Service is a partial retelling of a Welsh myth from The Mabinogion—the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd. A brief summary: Lleu had been placed under a curse, according to which he could never have a human bride. So his uncle, the wizard Gwydion, creates Blodeuwedd out of flowers to be his bride. But she falls in love with another man, and the story has a tragic ending.
‘That Blod-woman was pretty poor,’ said Roger, ‘however you look at it.’
‘No,’ said Huw. ‘She was made for her lord. Nobody is asking her if she wants him. It is bitter twisting to be shut up with a person you are not liking very much. I think she is often longing for the time when she was flowers on the mountain, and it is making her cruel, as the rose is growing thorns.”
What The Owl Service does is reenact this story in modern times. Alison and Roger are spending their holidays in Wales. They are not brother and sister, but their parents are married. Alison befriends Gwyn, the son of the housekeeper, but her mother looks down on their spending time together. The story begins when they discover a set of old dinner plates in the cottages’ loft, with a strange pattern that Alison copies and cuts into owls. By doing so, she releases a power that none of them quite understands. The story of Blodeuwedd is trapped in this Welsh valley, and those who come across this power and doomed to repeat its destructive pattern again and again.
The Owl Service is a short book, but it’s very rich, very subtle and somewhat enigmatic. There’s a lot that’s only hinted at, and I have the feeling I’ll enjoy it even more on a second read. One of my favourite things about it was the sense of place. The Welsh valley the story takes place in sounds beautiful, but also somewhat unsettling. There’s this sense of…confinement, which is part of what the story is going for: a trapped power, an unbreakable pattern repeating itself again and again over centuries, unchanging old stories from an old, old land.
The mood of the book is dark, haunting and eerie, and some chapters are just downright creepy. The feel of the book reminded me a little of Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist, and most of all of The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. These are all based on Celtic myth, and I love them because more than borrowing plot elements, they draw from the heart of these old stories; they capture what is both so frightening and so compelling about them: a sense of awe and helplessness and wonder before the immensity of nature, of time.
There was a scene in the book that made me very sad: Nancy is telling her son Gwyn that she doesn’t want him speaking Welsh and “sounding like a peasant”. The book was first published in 1967, and from what I hear this kind of attitude is fortunately now rarer. Nowadays, an effort is made to conserve Welsh, and I dearly hope the language doesn’t disappear. But the prejudice shown by Nancy is one of the themes of the book—along with the rage and cruelty often displayed when people feel hopelessly confined.
The myth of Blodeuwedd has a sad ending, and The Owl Service has a tone of inevitability and tragedy from the very start. But the actual ending is an open one, with a note of hope. We cannot tell for sure, but we sense that the pattern might have been broken—broken through kindness, through patience, through the act of putting pride aside.
Other Blog Reviews:
A Work in Progress
Lynda’s Book Blog
(Let me know if I missed yours.)