Don't knock our National Heritage, girlie. Them old tales is all we got Garner, The Owl Service, 2002 edition: 63
Every culture has its myths; many share ingredients with each other. Stir the pot, retell the tale and you draw out something new, a new flavour, a new meaning maybe. There's no one right version Lewis, 2010: 9.
The Owl Service retells an ancient Welsh myth. As Gwyneth Lewis suggests, myths were – and are - "a way of describing our place in the world, of putting people and their search for meaning in a bigger picture" 2010: 9. As a consequence, ancient myths from a range of story-telling cultures, including Greek and Roman civilisations, remain integral to many contemporary cultures; they are re-told, re-worked, and re-booted in an array of media, including the novel. Alan Garner's The Owl Service is a novel which re-interprets the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, a set of ancient and multi-layered Welsh myths. This Fourth Branch has many elements (a synopsis of this Branch can be found here) and The Owl Service retells a section of this complex story centred on Blodeuwedd – a girl made from meadowsweet flowers. Blodeuwedd's destiny was to be part of a destructive love triangle, and be eventually transformed into an owl.
As each generation reworks and retells different myths, the geographical and temporal context in which they are set are often changed. For example, in the modern retellings of the Mabinogion, Tishani Doshi relocates the story of The Lady of the Fountain in Asia 2013, whilst Lewis transports the Fourth Branch into a spaceship circulating in the black beyond 2010. According to the original tale, Blodeuwedd lived in Tomen y Mur Castle in Gwynedd, North Wales, whilst a key landmark in Blodeuwedd's story – the Stone of Gronw (Stone of Goronwy) – is located on the Afon Bryn Saeth tributary, close to Llan Ffestiniog. Garner chose to locate his retelling of Blodeuwedd's story approximately 20 miles to the south east of Tomen y Mur in Llanymawddwy, a settlement surrounded by the Aran mountain range.
In this 20th century setting, The Owl Service centres around three teenagers who appear to be caught within a Blodeuwedd-style love triangle. Alison and her stepbrother Roger visit the area from England with their family on holiday; they meet Gwyn, a local youth, whose mother keeps the holiday home in which Alison and Roger are staying. Together they discover a set of plates with an owl insignia on them: could the discovery of this Owl Service ensnare the valley once again within an ancient curse? Garner wrote and set The Owl Service in the 1960s, and such was its popularity, became serialised as a TV drama, the first series to be broadcast in colour in the UK.
Including The Owl Service in a Literary Atlas
Careful consideration went into selecting The Owl Service for Literary Atlas. Due to the important cultural heritage and value of the combined stories of the Mabinogion – these myths are as important to Welsh culture as Homer is to early Greek, or Chaucer to English storytelling - it seemed an omission too far to not include these myths in some shape or form. Yet due to their history, the origins of the stories are difficult to pin down; the stories were first told (rather than written) in the oral tradition, and later transcribed into the Middle Welsh language in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Mabinogion were translated and compiled into English. From then on, they have proved to be fertile terrain for a range of re-workings and re-tellings. As Literary Atlas opted not to include first language Welsh, or translation-based source material, we looked to these modern re-workings in order to acknowledge the importance of the original mythologies, and include a novel that has sustained appeal to a range of audiences.
We include The Owl Service therefore with the intention to continue the important discussion about the importance of myth in modern society, as well as the cultural ownership of these traditional stories. Are myths timeless in their meaning, and how well do their lessons and limitations translate into different periods and societies? What is the role of place in these myths, and does it matter if these stories are translocated elsewhere and elsewhen? More politically, who has the right to re-tell stories from a particular culture, and what consequences do these appropriations have? For example, how well do modern re-interpretations keep alive ancient stories, or act as portals to new generations discovering folklore? Are such appropriations acts of colonisation that, in the context of systematic annexation of Welsh society by English-speaking cultures, are not simply isolated incidents but part of a 'culture war' in which everyone may have to take a side?
In the accompanying plotlines we begin to explore these questions, specifically in relation to The Owl Service. How did Alan Garner go about gaining literacy about The Mabinogion and why did he choose to relocate the story to a valley in the Aran mountains? What role does the place play in contextualising and adding new layers to the power of the original story, and its modern re-interpretation? Let's find out.
There are four plotlines to explore The Owl Service: