The Owl Service, regarded by many as Garner's best work, is set in Wales rather than his customary Alderley Edge in Cheshire. It draws heavily on Welsh myth and Welsh rhythms and Welsh thought processes: notably, Garner spent four years teaching himself Welsh in order not to write stereotypical “Welshish” dialogue, the sort ending in “boyo” and “is it” and other such lazy imitations.
In particular, the novel is a retelling of a tale from the Mabinogion, the famous Welsh myth cycle, telling the story of Blodeuwedd, Lleu and Gronw. Blodeuwedd is a beautiful woman created from flowers. She is married to Lleu but cuckolds him with Gronw, whom she subsequently persuades to kill her husband. She is punished for this by being turned into an owl. The complex structure of The Owl Service essentially tells this same story three times over and, in so doing, we are introduced to mythological notions of time.
Time is an elusive element for Alan Garner. Time, age, myth, the tale and its telling, all are linked in most peculiar ways. Time is a fluid thing, not linear. It presses back on itself, it bulges, it pulses short and long, hard and soft, here and there, in and out. It cannot be understood by man, because we can have no conception of what comes before or after it, and so we invent myths with which to approach it.
Accordingly, his stories tend to operate at multiple levels simultaneously. His characters are, at once, real and archetypes, his plots literal and metaphorical. Things that happen happen once in the story, but what they represent is at the same time an eternal. Eric Voegelin, the German philosopher, adapting Plato, describes this as the time of the tale: the only way that the symbolisation of time and before-time and after-time can be understood is through the presentation of myth in which time is eternal and includes creation and transcendence, that is, what came before and comes after time itself. Within such myths, then, there is a time of the tale, which “combine[s] human, cosmic and divine elements into one story.”
What we have in The Owl Service, then, is the time of the tale, a time immanent to the story itself, such that the three narrative strands, each of which in strict temporal scales must have occurred at different times, happen simultaneously and severally. They present an everywhen, and the myth which bestrides them becomes so overwhelming it exists not as a single thread of history but as a revolving and recurring pattern of existence. This is the way myth works, from the dreamtime of aboriginal cultures of Australia through to the modern myth-making of Cormac McCarthy’s succession of blind prophets in his western novels. It tells a story, but it also, through the time of the tale, points to some greater truth. It forms an archetype, a universal way of living, as opposed to an individual life lived. Thus, it is not in the least unusual that, in The Owl Service, the myth of Blodeuwedd should replay itself through succeeding generations in the way it does. Alison, the central character, says at one point: 'Nothing's safe any more. I don't know where I am. "Yesterday", "today", "tomorrow" - they don't mean anything. I feel they're here at the same time: waiting.'
It can be seen, then, that there is a remarkably complex structure to the novel. Garner makes no allowances for his young audience because, he understands, they need none. However, this thematic complexity is, at once, the major strength and the major weakness of the novel.
It is a strength because it opens up a rich area of philosophical debate. For millennia, man has used the establishment of mythic figures and mythic events to find a way to understand the mysteries that surround our existence in this universe. Consequently, as it progresses the novel grows thematically denser. The philosophical tension expands relentlessly. It wraps itself around the reader and forces him to confront those issues of time and honour and love and betrayal and jealousy and guilt.
But, at the same time, in strictly literary terms, that is, in terms of plot development, the structure becomes problematic. Specifically, it becomes predictable. There is nowhere for the characters to go except an inevitable and pre-ordained denouement. So, in terms of literary tension, by the end it has become almost non-existent. For a story to work in dramatic terms, protagonists must be offered a series of choices and they must be forced to make those choices. This is where the tension comes from, this is where character development comes from, ultimately this is where theme comes from. The choices must be clear and they must be stark. They must be genuine choices, with genuine – and differing – consequences. As The Owl Service moves to its conclusion, however, those choices begin to disappear: the archetypal elements of the characters come to the fore and they can only respond in the way the myth dictates. Thus, while the philosophical tension is almost unbearable, the literary tension is all but lost. The ending becomes strangely flat.
Nonetheless, that Garner still manages to make the novel readable to the end is testament to his genius as a writer. Because the structure he has devised for himself is such a straightjacket it should be almost impossible to lift the narrative in story terms. But The Owl Service is and remains a towering work of fiction, something to cherish and something to return to over and again.