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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. Which may be why I then wrote a poem about cabbages.

Cabbages are clichéd food.
They're found in fields and often stewed.
They're part of landscape, part of mood.

Who put them there, as staples, who?
Those influential writing few,
who made the cabbage One and True?

First vegetable! So Cato wrote,
who on his Sabine farm did dote
"ad omnes res salubre" - quote.

Not "first" in the sequential sense,
but rather first in consequence -
his passion for it was immense.

The market garden, in its hour,
transfigured lowly cabbage flower
enabled brassicas to power.

And yet - of sprouts one rarely hears
Nor of leafy broccoli spears.
'Cauliflower' rarely greets my ears.

Dictyledonous flowering plant!
Herbaceous, wint'ry, you enchant
from farmer down to army ant.

Unfurling flower, verdant lip,
from purpled skin to curling tip,
the cabbage keeps them in its grip.

Where faeries fly, where giants stand,
where genies dance upon the sand:
the omnipresent cabbage brand.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 16th, 2007 11:24 pm (UTC)
awww <3 poem!

and Tough Guide is one of my favouritest books _ever_!
Jun. 16th, 2007 11:26 pm (UTC)
"She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain then, when she goes hunting."

"The owls are restless, men have died here. Good men for bad reasons, better forgotten."

Nope, didn't need to get one of my three copies off the shelf to check the quotes.

I worried miramon by being able to place a one sentence quote from 'The Moon of Gomrath' telling him which character had said it - I may have read too much Garner as a kid.

Jun. 17th, 2007 10:08 pm (UTC)
So which A.G. novel should I read next?
Jun. 17th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC)
Red Shift.
Seminal book but your brain will leak out of your ears by the end of it.

The three books written before Owl Service are most obviously kids books.

Weirdstone and Gomrath are an author learning his trade, they had the most effect on me as a kid but that had more to do with one of the protagonists sharing my name and me living 10 miles from where they were set. Keep meaning to write the third book for him, since AG obviously isn't going to.

Elidor is more complex and layered than the first two, he's starting to get into some of the themes of budding female sexuality with Helen that he later goes into with Alison.

I have a great fondness for The Stone Book quartet. Very Cheshire, very strong sense of place.

Jun. 16th, 2007 11:37 pm (UTC)
I love it!

(I also like your icon.)
Jun. 17th, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you! The icon (made by curtana is an entry in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Jun. 17th, 2007 01:21 am (UTC)
I adore The Owl Service! And thank you for such a thoughtful, detailed review (see my recent post for a riff on reviewing :)
Jun. 17th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC)
Your post (and those of oursin and brisingamen) was exactly why I wrote most of the post as I did. I'm well out of practice in writing critical commentary on literary books, but there's no way I'm going to improve without practice. And there's no time like the present to start working on it. (Thank you for the incentive!)
Jun. 17th, 2007 07:38 am (UTC)
In the long-ago televised version of the Owl Service, they even managed the tour de force of not having the mother appear - even harder than in the book!

It does of course break nearly all the rules some Americans of my acquaintance try to ram down my throat - "too much talking"; "I have to work too hard to find out what is going on"; "extramarital sex in a YA book??" *successfully avoid riff on the concept of YA*; "the characters, especially Nancy, don't speak grammatically"; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Gah. Wonderful book. And it's sent huge numbers of people I know to read one of the most disturbing stories in European literature. Even if it does skip the beginning of the story.

Mind you, I've pointed someone I came across in that direction; she wants to write a Romano-Brit werewolf story and I suggested she consider the offspring of the two brothers from the year when they were transformed into wolves. That's a thought; it has been, and for all I know still is, a set text in Welsh in schools. Incestuous mpreg?
Jun. 17th, 2007 10:12 pm (UTC)
I haven't actually read the Mabinogion. Do you have a preferred translation of it?

It really is impressive to not have the mother appear in the t.v. version!
Jun. 17th, 2007 07:55 am (UTC)
I like the poem - thanks for writing it.

The Owl Service, I think, is one of the eeriest books that I've ever read. I think it's something to do with the way Garner meshes an ordinary, everyday situation (a family holiday in Wales) with a particularly sinister, ancient, mythical tragedy. There's this sense of inexorability about the way the characters get drawn into it all that makes it quietly scary in a way that overtly terrifying books (most of the horror genre) rarely manage.

I recently got hold of a copy of a 1970s BBC television adaptation - it's a bit grainy (having been transferred from old videotapes) but it still works, and captures at least some of the power of the book.

Some years ago the university mathematics society organised a talk by someone who'd been writing programs to generate tesselations of the hyperbolic plane (like MC Escher's 'Circle Limit' series of pictures). He showed us slides of various examples depicting interlocking birds, angels, fish, etc, and then put up one of tesselating penguins. He explained that this had been generated by one of his research students - he'd suggested she try something involving flowers, but instead she'd preferred to do one involving penguins instead.

I turned to my friend Michael (who is alarmingly talented and clever) and whispered, in my best Welsh accent "She wants to be flowers, but you made her penguins"

And he said "What?" - it turns out he hadn't read the book. Most disappointing.
Jun. 17th, 2007 09:29 am (UTC)
*visual imagination goes into overdrive*

The Penguin Service?
Jun. 17th, 2007 01:12 pm (UTC)
My "Tough Guide" is autographed. ;-)

Love the poem. Is it cynical to point out that it is harder to scan polysyllabic words like "broccoli" and "cauliflower" though? That could explain their absence from the literary canon.
Jun. 17th, 2007 10:07 pm (UTC)
In poetry, there's good reason not to use the other brassicas (although that's a poor excuse for avoiding kale); but my critique was really of typical fantasy prose novels, wherein cabbage seems to have a disproportionate presence compared to other veg - not just other brassicas. (Admittedly, I got carried away with the cabbage-related references and thus completely fail to actually make that point in the poem as it currently stands.)
Jun. 17th, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC)
:) I loved Alan Garner when I was a child. There's a lot of British / Australian fiction that you really don't get to see much of in the US.
Jun. 17th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC)
What others would you recommend that I may have missed thus far?
Oct. 5th, 2007 06:47 am (UTC)
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( 17 comments — Leave a comment )