By Gillian Polack
Last time I wrote here, I walked blithely past a discussion of The Owl Service as if its Middle Ages were of no account. Or of less account than Evangeline Walton’s work. In fact, The Owl Service is one of the books that dragged me into becoming a medieval historian and also persuaded me that understanding who people are in relation to their culture is so very important.
Alan Garner doesn’t explore the Middle Ages deeply in The Owl Service. He uses one small legend to build a modern study of class and personality and how where you come from and what opportunities your life gives you can open and close life choices. So many things in such an apparently simple book for teenagers. It’s not a simple book. There are so many ways it can be read.
Some modern studies of the story have talked about it as a ghost story and that’s a reasonable approach to take except… the story of Blodeuwedd is not one of ghosts for me, but of otherworldly beings. The question is here one takes the interpretation from. The plot of The Owl Service is in many ways a ghost story plot, where two boys are battling a ghost trying to hurt a girl. This means that seeing it as a ghost story is a legitimate choice.
Factor in the fourth Branch of the Mabinogion and a ghost story is only one choice among several. The past might be trapped in a valley and repeating itself (supernatural fantasy) or it might be a story using those echoes to highlight current social issues. For me, whether Garner intended it or not, the difficulty that Alison has in handling the owls and flowers that come with the supernatural story she has awoken reflect very much the difficult many people have in handling the stories of the past that inhabit present places.
Its importance in relation to medievalism is that it shows how we’re not free of history. The story of Blodeuwedd and the men in her lives is echoed and built up by three teenagers. This happens however we classify the novel. The echo is part of the plot. The teenagers are not alone in their lives: they share it with the Middle Ages. They cannot be free of it and cannot make their own decisions until they understand their relationship with history.
This is not a literal view of the Middle Ages. As I said earlier, the Middle Ages in its pure historical form doesn’t appear much. It’s the shadow that history and the shadow of people that the past can leave behind.
The Middle Ages leaves a stronger shadow than many periods in history. Many of our key legal and political and even social structures were formed during the Middle Ages. When Roger and Gwyn spark over class issues in The Owl Service the sparks are caused by the roots of the society they lived in, and those roots were the Middle Ages. Gwyn has to fight for an education and Roger does not: this reflects the restricted access to more powerful social positions for those who came from particular backgrounds. It also reflects the relationship between England and Wales, with the English ownership of Welsh property being a very contentious issue in the Middle Ages.
From one aspect, these are not Medieval issues, but long term problems people living in those regions still face. There are many people from England who have holiday homes in Wales and there is still discrimination against those with Welsh accents in critical parts of British society. The Owl Service is a modern (1960s) story reflecting older patterns and showing that echoes of the past can hurt.
Garner doesn’t link the novel to the Middle Ages with any big announcement. He links it by using a portion of the Mabigonion as the tool for showing how that echo can be dark and very difficult. It’s clever and it’s subtle and it means the Middle Ages is present in every word. Most critically, the heart of the story is told through the lives of the modern teens. If they can’t break with the past, then maybe no-one can.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack