I must have first read Alan Garner’s The Owl Service some forty years ago when I was interested in all things concerning Welsh mythology. I wanted a hardcover first edition which cost a pretty penny at the time. I mention this because it’s now been at least twenty years since I last read this novel, which is long enough that when Naxos kindly sent the audiobook, I had pretty much forgotten the story, beyond remembering that I was very impressed by the story Garner told.
A work suitable for being an audiobook must have strong characters and a believable story with a fair amount of dialogue. Though this novel is considered a classic English children’s story, it is really for anyone who likes a good story well told.
Now we here at the Kinrowan Estate consider Alan Garner to be one of the most interesting mythopoeic writers currently among us. Certainly he is the equal of Charles de Lint, Robert Holdstock, and Jane Yolen (the latter particularly in The Wild Hunt novel which uses Welsh myth), in terms of his use of language in creative ways. Indeed The Owl Service has more than a passing resemblance in what happens here to what happens in Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood series, which also draws from Welsh myths.
The legend that Alan Garner riffs off concerns Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers by a Welsh wizard. She betrays her husband, Lleu, in favour of another, Gronw, and is turned into an owl as punishment for inducing Gronw to kill Lleu. In Garner’s telling of this story, three teenagers find themselves tragically reenacting the story as they first awaken the legend by finding a dinner service with an owl pattern on the plates. Robert Graves tells her story in The White Goddess and her story of course is in The Mabinogion, a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts.
Listening to The Owl Service as told by Wayne Forester, who handles both the narration and voicing of each character amazingly well, one is impressed by his ability to handle both Welsh accents and the Welsh language, given the difficulty of that tongue, which make Gaelic look easy as peas to pronounce by comparison.
That The Owl Service is, as the Naxos website notes, ‘a fabulous, multi-layered book of mystery and suspense, but also a contemporary musing on love, class structure and power.’ That is indeed correct but I will confess that these matters, particularly the intertwined matter of class and power, were far more evident to me when voiced through the voices of each character as the narration brings to life them as individuals. Just consider this piece of dialogue:
‘But none of them is all to blame,’ said Huw. ‘It is only together they are destroying each other.’
‘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.’
Roger is English and is openly contemptuous of the Welsh people; Huw Half-Bacon is Welsh to the bone and both terrifying and silly at the same time. Wayne voices both characters to perfection as he does Nancy, Roger’s mother, who amply shows the contempt and anger the native-born Welsh had (and have now) for their English occupiers. All other characters, be they minor or major, are equally fleshed out by the unique voices they are given.
I must mention the use of music of a Classical nature, which was drawn from the ever impressive Naxos music library. It is light when need be, dark when need be, and used with a touch that shows the sound folk knew that music must be used sparingly.
I recommend The Owl Service to anyone who appreciates a well-told story that combines matters of myth and society in a tale you won’t soon forget. Bravo to all involved in creating this audiobook!