Celtic Myth

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service has its 50th anniversary today!

One of the books I’ve worked with very closely during the last few years is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Garner’s creative re-use of the tale of Lleu, Blodeuwedd, and Gronw from the Welsh Mabinogion made it a prime candidate for inclusion in my recently published monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). In Chapter 5, I explore the way in which Garner creatively reshaped and appropriated this Welsh legend, and I argue that he created a “prototype text” in which the supernatural erupts into the mundane and intrudes into family and/or romantic relationships of teenagers. Books such as Jenny Nimmo’s The Chestnut Soldier and Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge has followed this tradition, using Welsh myth as a way of dealing with psychological traumas, internal anxieties, and the perennial problems that often concern teenagers
(romance, sexuality, intergenerational and sibling conflict, etc.).

Having been published in 1967, I knew that the book was going to be 50-years-old at some point this year, so I got in touch with HarperCollins to find out the exact date. Thanks to their archivist, Dawn Sinclair, I now know that The Owl Service was published on 21st August 1967, so it celebrates its 50th anniversary today. Dawn very kindly tracked for me the relevant page in the Collins Complete Book Catalogue, Autumn 1967:

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Archive

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Archive

To mark the 50th anniversary of The Owl Service, I contributed this article to the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) online today: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/alan-garner-owl-service-fifty/

I look forward to teaching the book again this year and to sharing its haunting qualities with my students.

How Social Media Has Helped my Research (or, the kindness of strangers!)

This is a title I never thought I’d write! But, having finished another book (submitted exactly a year ago today!) I’m in that reflective mood again, thinking back to some important moments and turning points.

Researching and writing a monograph is like going on a journey without a detailed itinerary. You sort of know where you want to go but you don’t quite know what is the best way there, or what places you absolutely must stop and visit on the way (so that your final destination becomes worth reaching). My first monograph was based on my PhD thesis – so it was, really, an act of re-writing. But my latest book, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, was a different story: I thought about it as a book, right from the beginning, and did a lot of the research (and thinking!) for it during maternity leave.

Not much writing at all happened during that time (baby in the house!), but a lot of close reading of primary sources (lots of children’s fantasy novels – quite apposite while getting used to life with a little one!) and a lot of thinking and note-taking (mostly on my phone while feeding, nap-time, etc.) Then, came the digging further into the Irish and Welsh sources my fantasy authors used (a lovely opportunity to go back to my MA in Early Celtic Studies reading and catch up with the scholarship since then). Also, a thorough read of interviews, lectures, reflective essays and blogs given/written by my selected authors (how lovely to be working with contemporary authors!), and – in many cases – a conversation with the authors, either face-to-face, or by email. In the case of the late Pat O’Shea, her partner Geoff Windle was so generous with his time in answering my emails and giving me an insight into her bookshelves and research. Also, my research on Lloyd Alexander was enriched by consulting his manuscripts at the Free Library of Philadelphia, though I never set foot there… but that is letting the cat out of the bag!!!

So during that research journey, there were times were I needed help: a quick chat with an archaeologist friend about Seahenge in Norfolk (which was part of the inspiration for Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge); a question to Welsh speaking friends and colleagues about an obscure (or imaginary?) Welsh word Alan Garner describes in The Owl Service; a telephone conversation with a former tutor about Roman helmets (for the chapter on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence). All of these friends and colleagues are thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

But there were also times when I (nearly) hit a dead end, and that’s when Facebook and Twitter came to the rescue! I was able to directly contact Jenny Nimmo because of Twitter. A series of messages there led to exchanging email addresses and a great conversation on The Snow Spider trilogy. Twitter was also the only way I managed to get hold of Marged Haycock (the editor of The Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin) and get a quick clarification on the title of the Welsh “Preideu Annwfyn” (The Spoils of Annwn).

As for Facebook, that’s where I moaned about not having a “portkey” for immediate transportation to Philadelphia, to see Lloyd Alexander’s manuscripts. I had been trying for a while to get in touch with the curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia, but my emails were bouncing back. Immediately, fellow Tolkien scholar John David Cofield (whom I had never met, but with whom I had “talked” on Facebook about Tolkien before) responded to my post to say that he knew someone working in the Free Library of Philadelphia. He put me in touch with the lovely Helen Azard who printed off my email and physically handed it to the curator! At the same time, Katherine Sas responded to let me know that she lived reasonably close to Philadelphia and that she’d be willing to go to the library for me if needed. So when a bit later I realised that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Philadelphia, but that they were happy to admit a research assistant on my behalf to photograph what I needed from the manuscripts, Kat took on that role immediately! The chapter on Lloyd Alexander would have been so much poorer without the manuscript research, and if it wasn’t for David, Helen and Kat I wouldn’t have seen the material at all! And all of this because of a moaning post on Facebook!

The second big Facebook success was related to my research on Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. I really needed to get hold of an obscure little book which shed more light on Garner’s involvement with the TV adaptation of his novel: Filming the Owl Service: A Children’s Diary. This is ostensibly the diary that Garner’s son and two daughters kept during the filming of the series (1969-70) which was then published in 1970 with contributions from Alan Garner himself, and Peter Plummer, the director. This little book has been out of print for years. Every now and then it does appear on second-hand bookshops online, usually for an extortionate price, and at that point there was just one copy on Amazon marketplace for an astronomical amount. At the same time, the few libraries that held the book had it marked as “reference only” and wouldn’t consider sending it to me as an inter-library loan.

In desperation, I went on the Alan Garner Facebook group and posted the cover of the book with this message: “Hello all, I was wondering whether anyone in this group has this book?” When a few members said they did, I explained further:

 

And, guess what? Katherine Langrish (THE Katherine Langrish, fantasist in her own right and author of the award-winning Troll Trilogy among many other novels!) responded straight away and within two days I had the book in my hands!!! And, I got to “meet” Katherine, even if only electronically!

Last but not least, I often used Facebook and Twitter just to keep awake during the many late nights I spent working on the book (well after midnight most of the time!) or motivated during the equally numerous occasions of having to work on weekends. Here’s only a selection of such posts:

And, triumphantly, the last one, posted at 05:20AM, exactly a year ago today!

 

Literary Tourism: Wales, Land of Legends

Literature Wales (http://www.literaturewales.org/) launched today their new literary tourism website: Land of Legendshttp://www.landoflegends.wales/.

This was a project funded by Visit Wales (http://www.visitwales.com/) and I was delighted to have been one of the consultants on literary connections of specific locations in Wales, now linked to the literary map available on the website for tourists to use. More information on the project can be found here: http://www.landoflegends.wales/about-land-of-legends.

My contribution was mostly on Tolkien and Wales (under the “Living Language” theme: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/living-language) and on the Welsh landscape in the works of children’s fantasists such as Alan Garner and Susan Cooper (under the “Childhood” theme: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/childhood).

I have worked with Literature Wales on literary tourism before, specifically on Tolkien’s Welsh connections, but this time I was also able to draw upon my recent research for my new monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave Macmillan): http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137552815

Here are links to the main ten themes of the Land of Legends hub:
Rebels …Outlaws, Rioters & Uprisings: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/rebels
Sacred & Spiritual …Pagans & Pilgrimages: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/sacred-and-spiritual
Childhood …Fantastic Family Tales From Wales: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/childhood
King Arthur …Merlin, Dragons & The Sword In The Stone: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/king-arthur
Boots & Bread …Industrial Heritage & Hardship: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/boots-and-bread
Living Language …Welsh & National Identity: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/living-language
Folklore & Tradition …Weird & Wonderful Welsh Myths: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/folklore-and-tradition
Watery Worlds …Waterfalls, Caves, Lakes & Waves: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/watery-worlds
Battles …Warriors, Warfare, Castles & Kingdoms: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/battles
Ghosts …Spooky Haunts & Tales Of The Otherworld: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/ghosts