Fantasy Literature

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.

George MacDonald and one of Tolkien’s most quotable lines

I’ve been re-reading many of the works of George MacDonald recently, in preparation for my keynote lecture at the George MacDonald’s Scotland conference at the University of Aberdeen next week (https://gmdscotland.wordpress.com/). My lecture is titled “George MacDonald and Celticity”, and – among other works – I’ve just finished re-reading Sir Gibbie, one of MacDonald’s “realistic” novels with a Scottish setting (and extensive use of Scotch in the dialogue).

Just as I was about to start wrapping up my notes, I was struck again by these few lines, towards the end of the novel:

The one secret of life and development, is not to devise and plan, but to fall in with the forces at work—to do every moment’s duty aright—that being the part in the process allotted to us;…

Well, this time round, I know what it was that made these lines stand out for me the first time I read them! They brought to mind this exchange:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Though I know the emphasis of each extract is rather different (and so is the context!) the argument seems to me ostensibly the same. And knowing that Tolkien (and C.S. Lewis) read George MacDonald, one of the two main “grandfathers” of modern fantasy literature (the other is William Morris) makes the link even stronger in my mind.

I’ll leave this small observation here for you to ponder!

 

Beren and Lúthien: Some First Thoughts (and radio interview)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, was published yesterday. The book is an attempt by Christopher Tolkien to extract one of the most beautiful, moving, and personal stories of his father’s ‘legendarium’ into a standalone book, allowing the story to shine on its own, as well as showing its development over time. The books is accompanied by stunning illustrations by Alan Lee.

I was interviewed about this new book on BBC Radio Wales this morning by Felicity Evans, on Good Morning Wales. I first talked about the personal significance of the story for Tolkien: seeing his young wife, Edith, dancing in a woodland among white flowers near Roos in East Yorkshire became the heart of the tale of the mortal Beren falling in love with the immortal Lúthien. Michael Flowers’ research has added a lot to our understanding of this personal connection and the imagery of this scene – see here for his excellent blog post, including photographs from the location where Edith danced.

I actually found it very moving that Christopher Tolkien dedicates this book to his own wife, Baillie Tolkien, especially as he says in the preface that – at 93 – this may well be the last book of his father’s work he will edit. He also mentions hearing the story of Beren and Lúthien orally from his father in the early 1930s and refers to the famous letter his father sent him a year after Edith’s death, saying that his wife “was (and knew she was) my Lúthien” (Letter #340). Famously, the names Beren and Lúthien are inscribed on the gravestone where Tolkien and Edith are buried (Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford).

In my interview I also referred briefly to the creative reshaping of myth and legend in this tale: the union of a fairy woman with a mortal man (a widespread motif in European folklore), and the reversal of the Orpheus myth (Lúthien wins back Beren from the Halls of Mandos, as opposed to Orpheus getting back Eurydice from the Underworld). But there are, of course, many more such examples: Lúthien’s imprisonment in the tree-house brings to mind the tale of Rapunzel, and the hunt of Carcharoth resembles the hunt for the giant boar Twrch Trwyth in the Welsh Mabinogion. The interview then moved towards Tolkien’s popularity and the reasons why fantasy literature is flourishing recently.

You can listen to the interview here: