Though classified as young adult fiction, this magical retelling of a Welsh legend has much to teach older readers.
Readers of fiction (and by “readers” I mean those people who choose to read a book, not those who are forced to) tend to read for pleasure. That was how I first encountered Alan Garner’s The Owl Service at the age of 15 – 15 years before I’d sold my first short story. My mother was taking a university course in children’s literature. She was in the habit of passing the books on her “required reading” list to me after she’d read them. I’m not sure why The Owl Service is classified as young adult fiction. Beyond the ages of its protagonists, there’s nothing “young” about it. It stretched my 15-year-old brain.
The basic premise was simple enough: three modern-day teenagers find themselves reliving an ancient legend in which a woman, magically created from flowers, is forced into marriage with the man she was made for, but then falls in love with a second man. The man who created her then turns her into an owl as punishment. I was mature enough to know that I didn’t understand most of the book – especially the baffling ending – and immature enough that it kept me awake at night listening for the scratching of owls and rats in the attic.
A few years later, I read the book again. This was after I’d tackled the The Mabinogion, a book of old Welsh legends, one of which The Owl Service was based on. At this point I understood where the book was coming from, but I still couldn’t see how Garner had gotten from point A to point B. Apart from the premise, Garner’s retelling of the legend was completely original. The magic I’d felt when I first read it was still there. By “magic” I don’t mean wizards and wands and cauldrons. I mean the ineffable property of a story that transcends its pages and changes the landscape of the reader’s dreams. I’ve read only three books that had that property, and one of them was The Owl Service.
As I learned to write publishable fiction, I appreciated more and more what Alan Garner had accomplished. The Owl Service taught me that you can add to a book by editing things out. The Owl Service is a short book, but it’s a big book. Garner implies much more than he says, and he puts a lot of trust in the reader’s ability to read between the lines. For a short-story writer like me, this was an invaluable lesson. It was clear to me that to write a piece of fiction that stands up to (and even improves with) multiple readings. the writer has to choose every single word, writing and rewriting the story over and over again until all the false notes are gone.
I still re-read The Owl Service, and I’m still learning from it.