June 16th, 2007

Eternal Quest


At fjm's recommendation, I read Alan Garner's The Owl Service. He's a staple writer of the fantasy genre, so it was something of a surprise to me to realize that I'd never read any of his works before. It's a powerful work, a retelling of the Mabinogion tale of Blodeuwedd, who wants to be the flowers from which she was made, but keeps being turned into owls. Garner casts the tale in the form of three modern teenagers stuck reliving the tale in a rural Welsh valley.

Much of the tale's power lies in the way Garner uses dialogue instead of action. Much of the action is implied when there is discourse. The dialogue is a tight interchange without dressing, the speakers identified by sequence and speaking style. Distinct personalities and agendas keep the interchanges distinct. We cannot know what the characters are thinking, what their facial expressions are, only what they say and how the other participants in the drama react. That inbuilt ambiguity means the reader must discover what reactions are through subsequent physical and verbal reactions rather than by having the author spell it out for them.

The exclusion of unnecessary information - such as expressions during dialogue - keeps the story tightly focused. The character of the mother, for example, is background information. Although her presence and attitudes affects several of the decisions made in the story, she never actually appears in the text because she is not necessary to it. She is background, not a pivot of narrative structure.

Most of the fantastic elements in the book are likewise ambiguous. Almost everything which happens can be explained as happening due to some other cause. The world hovers on the edge of realism and on the edge of the fantastic.

Whether it was because of that divide between worlds or because of the physical nature of the edition, after I finished, I found myself thinking of works by Diana Wynne Jones. The Homeward Bounders, Archer's Goon, and The Time of the Ghost, for example, all operate on the edge between the probable and improbable, to varying degrees. In each, the main character is caught up in a master plot, and which can only be resolved happily if the main character can twist the plot's predictable course into an alternate resolution.

Thinking about DWJ, my mind wandered back to The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which which includes descriptions of Fantasyland stews and farms, although without mentioning specific vegetables. Collapse )