Introduction

According to Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials (himself inspired in part by the landscapes of North Wales, Alan Garner is "the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien" Binding, 2003: no page. Garner's interest in myth, folklore and fantasy is due to the significance he sees in this form of storytelling. In his words, "Myth is not entertainment, but rather the crystallisation of experience, and, far from being escapist, fantasy is an intensification of reality" Garner, 1997: 62. Like Hermann Hesse (another fervent advocate of folk-lore and (fairy-) tale), Garner embodies a sensitivity to emotional truth with a scholar's investment in analytical rigour. His story telling research is exhaustive, combining the skill of a craftsman and the dedication of an academic. Like Emerson, one feels that Garner would conclude that sometimes, 'a scream is better than a thesis'; as Burnside states: for Garner "the imaginative, the magical and the creative [are] just as important as the rational, the scientific and the analytical - that the ultimate purpose of society was not money or war or conquest, but culture" 2016:31. If there was a fantastical arm wrestle between the real and the imagined, for Garner the bout would be close, but with only one winner: he states that, "if a fiction can improve on the fact, I shall always chose the fiction" Garner, 1997: 17.

Jodrell bank: Y filltir sqwâr


Landscape spoke to me before I knew what it was, but I heard Garner, 2017:1.

Garner has always sought geographical accuracy in his works: for him, the places in the fictional book had to be places in the factual world. It was important that one could visit the locations found on the page, not simply in one's imagination, but on a map, a computer screen, or in person. As Garner outlines:

It starts off as an anecdote in that in my childhood, I was so annoyed by the way that books that had enthralled me, children's art programmes that had gripped me, fiction generally which completely engaged me, either ended up as being a dream and or worse, they were not places I could go to.

Q: Can you articulate why you felt so strongly about this?
No. All I can remember is the intensity Garner, in interview.

This connection to the land led Garner to writing about the places he knew, particularly around the area he was born and was brought up, the immediate hinterland of Jodrell Bank, Cheshire. Listen to Alan Garner explain how the importance of his connections to real geographies became the roots from which his creative imagination grew.

Garner is proud of the ways the land has formed his worldview, and in turn how his words have helped form a broader understanding of the land. This constitutive coingredience of Garner and his geography is summed up by his recollection of a Welsh phrase 'a man of his square mile' ('dyn o'i filltir sgwâr'). As Garner states: "Over nearly six decades I have tried to translate feelings and thoughts through the mediation of landscape, the landscape that my family inhabited, worked and served and which enlarged and mirrored them; to serve in turn with words this piece of turf. The bond was more than metaphor" 2017: 1.

The adoption by Garner of a Welsh phrase is indicative; despite being rooted in his milltir sqwâr, Garner is – again perhaps paradoxically – equally defined by his activity as a 'boundary strider' cited in Smith, 2016: 271. The boundaries he crosses are not only geographical and temporal, but often separate the mundane and the magical. This is illustrated in The Owl Service; in this book, he left his square mile and created his only novel "that doesn't, to a large degree, if not entirely, draw on a real landscape within 15 miles of where we're sitting now [in Jodrell Bank]" in interview. In The Owl Service, Garner bestrides the boundary between Cheshire and Gwynedd, England and Wales, past and present, myth and materiality.

From Arthurian legend to The Mabinogion

Garner was the first person in his family to go into grammar education, but he also grew up with Celtic myths as part of his world; as he explains to Bunting 1999:

I grew up, as a child, with the Arthurian legend as part of my cultural background. I grew up in a rural working-class family in Alderley Edge, a hill sticking up out of the Cheshire plain just seven miles from where we're sitting now. My family were rural craftsmen. My grandfather could read, but didn't and so was virtually unlettered. The family did, however, have the last remains of a genuine oral tradition, which was the story of the King Asleep Under the Hill, being guarded by Merlin. The story is so deeply embedded in my psyche that I can't tell you when I first heard it. I've always known it, and it came to represent the whole of that rural, working-class part of my background. … I was selected by our educational system as being worthy of education. The effect of this was to remove me from my cultural background, but to enable me to understand the price that was being paid, for this removal….

Garner went on to study the classics in Magdalen College, Oxford, but wanted to write. As he explains:

As I turned toward writing, which is partially intellectual in its function, but is primarily intuitive and emotional in its execution, I turned towards that which was numinous and emotional in me, and that was the legend of King Arthur Asleep Under the Hill. It stood for all that I'd had to give up in order to understand what I'd had to give up. …My education enabled me to understand the landscape in a way that my family did not. I understood it as a member of my family; but I also knew that Alderley Edge was a faulted Triassic scarp. You see, I could appreciate the geology of it as well. I tended to switch away from people, and to direct my emotions into the land and the legend. I did not initially approach the legend with any Arthurian thoughts. It was totally intuitive in Thompson, 1999.

Garner combined the investigative and the intuitive that became his modus operandi:

I approached … legend[s] as if I had never known [them], and as if [they] were factual. The original function of legend and myth is not to entertain, but to explain - to come to terms with that which is. Therefore, I said to myself, what is it that my grandfather knew that was so important that he had to make sure I knew the[se] stories as well? What is it that my grandfather did not know he knew? What is it in the myth that is materially and objectively true? So I examined it, not as a creation, but as a report, and I applied it to my knowledge, my intimate knowledge, of the ground in Thompson, 1999.
When, three years later, I began to write my first book, which is about that hill and those knights, I knew that the personal names of my other-worldly characters could not be synthetic and had to pre-date the English. So I came upon Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales, and on something called The Mabinogion. And I was angry. Why had I been filled with so many alien tongues and made especially proficient in Latin and Greek, whose sounds were wondrous, but whose tales were, for me, then, as bloodless and as cold as their marble? Why had I been kept from a language that not only sounded to be 'mine', but also told its stories as I dreamed my dreams? I read that the material was obscure. But, even in translation, it was not obscure to me. Why should something be called 'obscure' because it spoke fact as poetry, history as legend, sound as sense? The boon list in 'Culhwch ac Olwen' changed me for ever in my heart. When I read Preiddeu Annwfn (The Spoils of the Otherworld), the hairs of my neck rose, as they do to this day Garner, 1997: 196.

Thus Garner's love for ancient lore includes The Mabinogion specifically; as he states:

The Mabinogion, at first glance, is a rag-bag of Celtic genius … The result is a masterpiece, mesmeric in its cultural imagination, its gods euhemerised, yet, since it is composed of archetype and metaphor, it is universal and timeless. Where some may see the rubble of a demolition site, I see the perfection of a beaver's dam: heterogeneous in detail, yet whole 1997: 198.

From Suez to Service

Garner's literacy in myth and legend converged with twentieth century geopolitics in the guise of the Suez crisis and the effects this had on his wife's family's personal circumstances. Listen to Alan Garner explain how this created the conditions for writing The Owl Service.

Owl plate
Owl plate
Paper owls
Paper owls. Photo courtesy of Darkling Room

In the book, the three teenagers Alison, Roger, and Gwyn, find a fictionalised version of Griselda's owl-patterned plates – or The Owl Service - when they are searching for the source of a scratching sound in the attic of the holiday home. Listen to Literary Atlas read extracts from The Owl Service in which the three characters find the plates and notice the owl pattern.

The plates captivate the teenagers, and become a conduit for a curse reminiscent of the Blodeuwedd story; Roger and Gwyn begin set on a path where their emotions for Alison are increasingly complex and their own friendship becomes intense and strained, whilst Alison's sanity and perhaps even her existence is threatened as the myth comes to life; will she become a modern day Blodeuwedd and be reduced to flowers and owls? We explore further in the next plotline.

Bryn Hall, Mawddwy Valley


when you travel the third side of the Aran triangle on the narrow road that snakes through the hills from Dinas Mawddwy… you begin to be stirred…. Fearsome hills hover ominously, even threateningly, over the pretty little village of Llanymawddwy. Further n[orth], where the road curls round Cwm Croes, black cliffs fleetingly arc the sky from Hermon, 2006.

As stated, Garner was literate of The Mabinogion and knew its original locations, however he chose to relate the story to a different context in Gwynedd, in a location where 'fearsome hills hover ominously' over the human settlements below. As he explains in The Voice that Thunders, and then in interview in detail:

I set The Owl Service in the Mawddwy valley. This was because a friend of my wife had inherited Bryn Hall in Llanymawddwy. It had not been used as anything other than a holiday house since 1898, yet it was still looked on by the valley as the place where the people of power came. My wife's friend wanted the house to be used, and she offered it to us for a long holiday. The concept of The Owl Service had been with me for three years, but it had no context, until I saw the Bryn. I had to do the research, but here was the place 1997: 103.
As I entered the valley, it just fell into place. I have never claimed that this is the original site of the [Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi]. It is not. But my other argument is that there is an acceptable site, but I think it was a case of that site being adaptable to a pre-existing myth, but the myth is almost omnipresent. And there was enough stuff in that landscape, that immediate landscape of that immediate part of that immediate valley that says, this is it.

"I'm a deep mapper" or "Oh, the solid geography of a map is a work of art"

Once Garner has located his story, he set about researching the area.

…As soon as I'd got the place and the idea, I knew from experience, I had to let it gestate and just be miserable until [the story grew]… and in the meantime, the other part, I got the 25 inch map. And there were some marvellous 25 inch maps of that area where there's nothing except little tufts [laughs], [basically] nothing. So, I read the maps. I just sank into the maps, and I've always loved maps and I had the ability, even if I hadn't been to the place, to interpret it, but having been there, all I really needed was the map and I could recreate it. I'd also taken enormous amount of photographs and the room where I work, I printed them up on black paper and just lined the room with them and Griselda found that very oppressive [laughs] as I did!
And I did the geography, I did the geology, I did the hydrology, I did the climatology, I did the history, I did the history social and political so that I could understand the patterns of the land and the fields and so on and so forth and I just immersed myself in it. …[this] took five years.

Alan Garner did not simply rely on 'academic' knowledge to gain an insight into the culture and history of the community. Once at Bryn Hall, he was befriended by Dafydd Rees Clocydd whose family had been in the area for 150 years, and had been keeping the Hall and its grounds since 1898. Listen to Alan Garner explain how Dafydd 'gave' Garner 'the valley' as a result of their friendship.

Through his friendship with Dafydd, Garner met a range of families in the village and began to gain insights into how the community worked and what the lived experience of the area was like. This afforded a perspective beyond and beneath the beauty of the cartographies he had been studying to date.

The Valley

When I first read The Owl Service, in my teens, it seemed to be all about barriers. The story takes place in a valley hemmed in by mountains. To leave the valley is difficult, dangerous, sometimes impossible. … There is a brilliantly airless quality to the opening of The Owl Service Dunmore, 2016: 65.

The valley in which The Owl Service is set is at once beautiful, but also isolated; it is only abstractly connected to the outside world. For the characters, the valley itself became the only world that mattered and the cultural claustrophobia could be sensed, creeping up on them.

There's something in this valley," said Gwyn, "and my Mam's on to it. She's been like the kiss of death since she saw them plates. That clover: them plates: it's owls and flowers, and it's dangerous 2002: 50.
The valley at Llanymawddwy
The valley at Llanymawddwy.

The sense of something uncanny in the valley led Roger to begin hearing and seeing things he could not explain. Listen to Literary Atlas read an extract from The Owl Service that describes Roger's reaction.

In The Owl Service, Garner inserts Dafydd Rees Clocydd – and his longstanding knowledge of the community, language and geography – through the character of Huw Halfbacon; in Garner's words, "[Dafydd] he is Huw Halfbacon" (Garner's emphasis). This character is vital to the plot of The Owl Service. Huw reminds the teenagers of the story of The Mabinogion, and that it all happened in this valley:

'We're right where all this Ku Klux Klan is supposed to have happened, as Professor Halfbacon claims,' said Roger. 'Very interesting.' 2002:65.

It is through Huw that the threat integral to the story is hinted at, to both the characters, and the reader:

'You do know,' said Huw.' Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebyr. They are the three who suffer every time, for in them the power of this valley is contained, and through them the power is loosed.'
'What's this power?' said Gwyn.
Huw did not answer 2002: 102.

Huw Half Bacon

Huw Half Bacon plays an important, if unusual role in the plot. Huw is the primary link the characters and readers have to the myth that appears to be reawakening in the valley. Indeed, it seems that Huw is not simply connected to the myth, but has become part of it. Living the valley all his life, breathing in its claustrophobic air – air that makes Gwyn feel queasy p. 20 – has led Huw to feel as if the myth is no longer just a story, but rather a destiny that cannot be escaped.

'Why's he called Halfbacon, anyway?''
'It's the Welsh: Huw Hannerhob', said Gwyn. 'Huw Halfbacon: Huw the Flitch: he's called both'
'It suits him'
'It's a nickname' said Gwyn.
'What's his real name?'
'I don't think he knows…' 2002: 18

The myth has become so integral to Huw's existence that he – and we – are no longer certain that Huw is his real name. It is tempting to suggest that the nickname 'half-bacon' means that Huw is a 'half –wit', especially as the teenagers find it hard to come to terms with his warnings and references to owls and flowers, perhaps seeing him perfectly cast in the role of village idiot. An example of this occurs when Huw is attempting to explain the origins of the Stone of Gronw:

"Funny rock you have in the meadow, Halfbacon. Who drilled the hole in it?"
"It is the Stone of Gronw," said Huw.
"Oh? What's that when it's at home, eh? Ha ha."
"There is a man being killed at that place;' said Huw: "old time."
"Was there now!"
"Yes," said Huw. "He has been taking the other man's wife."
"That's a bit off, I must say," said Clive. "I suppose the stone's a kind of memorial, eh? But who made the hole? You can see those trees through it at the top of the ridge."
"Yes, sir," said Huw. "He is standing on the bank of the river, see, and the husband is up there on the Bryn with a spear: and he is putting the stone between himself and the spear, and the spear is going right through the stone and him."
"Oho," said Clive.
"Why did he stand there and let it happen?" said Roger.
"Because he killed the husband the same way earlier to take the wife."
"Tit for tat," said Clive. "These old yarns, eh? Well, I must be off."
"Yes, sir, that is how it is happening, old time." 2002: 44.
The Stone of Gronw
The Stone of Gronw.

The interpretation of Huw as a village idiot is problematic given the class and nationality of the author and Clocydd in real life, and these relations reflected in the fictional English teenagers and the Welsh Huw. Yet Hannerbob, rather than Halfbacon, also refers to a husbandry role in village life, a role which tends for animals and pigs especially, the latter being a valued and valuable commodity (indeed at the start of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, pigs were the prize that Math went to war over in the south of the country). It can be suggested then that those who look after pigs are charged with a key role, it would not be left to the village idiot to ensure their welfare and security. Indeed, in Anne Szumigalski's poem, Hanner Hwch, Hanner Hob (The Flitch), the Hanner Hob would be an individual – like Huw - who has an instinct for the landscape and its lore. These would be individuals 'from the mountain', so much so that they have a keen understanding of the animals themselves, and in this sense 'the Flitch' meaning a side of pork, refers not only to the husbandry then harvesting of meat from the pig, but also to someone who lives side by side with them so that they have almost become naturalized as one. Huw Halfbacon, therefore, is far from being the village idiot. Due to his connection to the land throughout his life, he can feel the power of the myth in this area, and is struggling to convey the damage he knows it can cause.

"…Huw's trying to deal with it."
"Huw? Why him?"
"He's a descendant of Gwydion, or of Lleu Llaw Gyffes: it comes to the same thing. You wouldn't credit it, but it must be true. And all his talk is something he can't quite remember, or can't quite forget. He doesn't understand it, mind: it's more of an instinct with him, it's that deep" 2002: 141

Reservoirs and Batteries: geology and the circuit of myth

Without Huw being able to take on the Gwydion role and fully narrate the power of the myth that appears to be controlling the teenagers, the young people attempt to explain their experiences themselves. Two metaphors are used to this end: reservoirs and batteries.

"I can see why these valleys make good reservoirs," said Alison. "All you have to do is put a dam across the bottom end." "Not the most tactful remark," said Gwyn. "But you're dead right" 2002: 139.

Here Alison is invoking the real life experience of the area which involved Welsh communities being displaced and destroyed as the valleys were dammed to service English cities' need for water. Footage from the BBC shows Capel Celyn before it was flooded and records the views of Tryweryn locals on the flooding. Gwyn feels the insensitivity of Alison's comparison, but nevertheless agrees that the valley could hold, if not water, than the drowning capacity of myth:

"I don't think it can be finished," said Gwyn. "I think this valley really is a kind of reservoir. The house, look, smack in the middle, with the mountains all round, shutting it in, guarding the house. I think the power is always there and always will be. It builds up and builds up until it has to be let loose - like filling and emptying a dam" (2002: 141).

Gwyn goes on to compare their experiences to a battery circuit.

"And it works though people. I said to Roger that I thought the plates were batteries and you were the wires."
"If the force was in the plates," said Alison, "I've let it out, and everything's right again. Oh, Gwyn, is it?"
"No. This is what frightens me. It's not as quick as that. The force was in the plates, and in the painting, but it's in us now" 2002: 142.

In this interpretation, the valley (or battery) has filled up with mythological charge, and this is channeled through the Owl Service (the plates) into the teenagers (the wires) to make a circuit. In order to survive this charge, the power of this circuit needs to be broken, the water to be let out of the dam so to speak, but none of the characters know how this can be done. Although Gwyn tries to literally escape his fate by leaving the valley and hitching to Aberystwyth, the locals in the village shop in Dinas Mawddwy know that there is no escape:

"I'll have two thin-sliced," said Mrs Lewis-Jones.
"We've no bread yet," said Mrs Richards. "The postman hasn't been."
"To think we shall see it in our time, Mrs Richards!"
"Is it certain?"
"It is. Mister Huw came to tell us last night. He was going to all the farms. He says she is coming, and it's owls."
"The poor things!" said Mrs Richards, and she looked sideways at Roger and Gwyn. "Could we have--" said Roger.
"One minute, if you please," said Mrs Richards. She cut a lump of butter from a block on the windowsill. "Is it to be the three of them again, Mrs Lewis-Jones?"
"Yes.There's the girl, too. Mister Huw says she's made it owls."
"We must bear it," said Mrs Richards. "There's no escaping, is there? Aberystwyth isn't far enough..."
"You've said a true word there, Mrs Richards. ''I'll have a packet of soap flakes" 2002: 55.

Conclusion

As Gwyneth Lewis suggests, myths – like maps - remain "a way of describing our place in the world, of putting people and their search for meaning in a bigger picture" 2010: 9. If this is the case, then what meanings can we take from the retelling of the Blodeuwedd story in The Owl Service? Is it that a novel published in the 1960s does little to challenge patriarchal relations, with women often reduced to chattels by and for men? Is it that although one's square mile can root and empower one's identity, that also living within the physical limits of one place, or one valley, for too long can create concomitant limits to one's world view and attitude? Or beyond all this, perhaps it simply reminds us of the power of stories, about how they can offer us a version of reality that mesmerises and beguiles, so much so that, as Dunmore suggests, they "become actual for the people and for their place" 2016: 205.

"Grandfather and uncle were great men, and they thought they could …end the sorrow of this valley. But they made her owls, and she went hunting. They rid themselves at last by locking her in plate and wall - and then they sought a quiet grave. …When I took the powers of the oak and the broom and the meadowsweet, and made them woman, that was a great wrong -to give those powers a thinking mind."
"You didn't do that," said Gwyn. "You're mixed up. It's a story, Huw, in books - about the old days, long ago, and it was a man called Gwydion who made Blodeuwedd: not you. You've got to straighten yourself out over what you know and what you've read or been told. It's a muddle inside you. You didn't make anybody out of flowers, and your uncle didn't paint that picture, for a start."
"What do I know?" said Huw, and Gwyn was frightened by the fear in Huw eyes. "What do I know? ... I know more than I know ... I don't know what I know ... The weight, the weight of it!"
"You don't own the place, man."
"Don't I?" said Huw. "Oh, their name is on the books of the law, but I own the ground, the mountain, the valley: 1 own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries: the dark cave is mine!" 2002: 104
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: THIS LOCALITY INFORMATION IS FOR REFERENCE PURPOSES ONLY. UNLESS THERE IS A PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY, YOU SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT TO VISIT ANY SITES LISTED WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE LAND HOLDERS.