Pretty spoiler heavy question since it involves the book's end.

Alan Garner's YA novel The Owl Service sees three characters roughly re-enacting a tragic love triangle from Welsh myth.

Alison, the only girl, is clearly Blodeuwedd. From the events of the book we can work out that Gwyn, a working class Welsh boy made good, is the trickster-hero Lleu. Roger, the snobby English prep school boy is, therefore, Gronw.

Roger and Gwyn begin as friends, but as the legend plays out, they begin to hate each other. Roger instigates this, viciously taunting Gwyn about his attempts to climb up the social ladder.

At the conclusion of the book, the two boys learn that to avert the coming tragedy, one of them must put aside their hate. Once this was clear, I had presumed Gwyn would be the one to yield, since in the sense of "justice" he is the injured party: someone who has been abused by life and by Roger's insults and by Alison's rejection.

But it seems he cannot. Instead, Roger takes the step and ends the book in the role of hero.

The only clue to Gwyn's motivation is this:

Gwyn turned his head and looked at Roger. Roger saw the question form in his eyes, and he saw that Gwyn knew.

It is not clear to me what Gwyn "knows" or why it stops him from releasing his hate of the English children. What message, then, does the redemption of the bullying snob Roger and the failure of the striving Gwyn, give to the reader in terms of the social politics of the book?


2 Answers 2


The ending is less political than it first appears but is, rather a device to push the reader to re-evaluate the themes of the book.

I had no intention of answering this myself, but since it attracted no other answers I did a little digging and found a relevant paper:

The ending of the book has been divisive among critics. One called it "right intellectually" but also "confused and not a strength", for example. Others, however, felt it is a "great strength" and "inevitable". One of the cornerstones of this opinion is that by ignoring the sentimental outcome of having the sympathetic Gwyn as the motive force, it makes the reader re-examine their assumptions about the story, leading to deeper reflection.

Significantly the author himself has said that either boy could have averted the tragedy at the heart of the myth. This could be evidence that he chose the ending purely for its shock power, as above, rather than its political significance.

Although the book ends on a positive note, there is evidence that the story is doomed to repeat itself again. Huw, the character who seems to have the most insight into previous iterations of the cycle, implies at several points that although Blodeuwedd usually comes in anger ("as owls"), it is not inevitable and that sometimes - as in the book's ending - she comes peacefully, "as flowers".

"She wants to be flowers ... but you make her owls".

"You have made her owls."

"She is coming, and will use what she finds, and you have only hate in you."

"She wants to be flowers, and you make her owls."

If this is correct, then the fact Blodeuwedd is pacified at the end of the book means it is not the end of the cycle and that she will come again. This means that Roger's victory is far less important than it first appears. He may have saved Alison or Gwyn, or he may not, but he has not laid Blodeuwedd to rest.

  • Interesting. However, I wonder about where you said "he chose the ending". I have read and heard Garner say that he writes the endings of his novels first, so it would appear that Roger was always going to be the "hero". It's a particularly jarring note at the end of the BBC tv version because I think the Roger character is even less likeable than in the book. But there he is suddenly the hero who knows the right thing to do. Love it!
    – chmollo
    Jan 20, 2020 at 4:13

Boiling down the point of a work of narrative art to a general statement can make it seem obvious to the point of being frivolous (e.g., "power corrupts" or "family is important") and we have to remember that the psychology of the work and the profundity of our experience is what's making the REAL point. Bearing that in mind, I think the ultimate point of 'The Owl Service' is something like "Love Over Hate"-- more specifically, if you allow yourself to be consumed by hate you're f*cked. That point is made to the reader more forcefully and painfully by experiencing our hero unexpectedly defeated by his hate, allowing the other guy to save the day because he is able to let go of his anger/hate for the sake of his love. Easy for him, we might say, he's middle class and has a bright future etc. And that's part of the point: Yes, Gwyn has it harder than Roger; Yes, the social forces acting on Gwyn's future are dire, his options more limited, his fate unfair. We sympathize with his anger, we appreciate it. And it's STILL his undoing, it's STILL bad. That's why he's a tragic character, why the book is so haunting.

As to your other questions: My take is, the question Roger saw Gwyn forming was "does he [Roger] love her too?" and the answer he realized was "Yes". There are few hints that Roger feels this way about his step-sister throughout the book (although the knowledge that he does allows you to reinterpret much of his behavior, especially how hard he was on Gwyn), and so Gwyn and presumably the reader, who's been confined mainly to Gwyn's thoughts and feelings the whole time, are surprised to learn it. Of course, by that point it's well established that the three kids are reenacting an ancient myth of two men who both love a woman, so the revelation might only be a half-surprise.

The real surprise is that it's Roger who is able to save her, rather than our hero Gwyn, and I personally LOVE that twist. Gwyn is already so bitter that he can't set aside his anger and hate for love. Roger can. It would be ridiculous to read the story as a simple allegory where the characters represent their "classes"-- rather, how Gwyn as an individual relates to his experience of his class is the background to his psychology. That we feel he is right to be so bitter makes it all the more tragic, and makes the message all the more poignant: however apparently justified it may be, hate will ruin you. Fans of the book should definitely read Garner's subsequent novel, 'Red Shift' which is an exploration of all the same themes.

I think it's very deliberately left unclear whether the curse is "finally over", or if a subsequent trio will find themselves in the same scenario here. The characters can't know, nor can the reader. That said, in the TV adaptation from 1969 which Garner wrote, there's a tiny dialogue-less epilogue added where you see three children (two boys and a girl, of course) playing around the Stone, and there's even a shot of them through the hole. I don't know if Garner wrote that scene in his script or whether it was his idea, but it suggests a continuation of the recurrence more than the book does. I think readers of 'Red Shift' will find it harder to accept that the recursion is over.

  • This is a great take, an angle that I hadn't previously considerer. Thanks for sharing it, and welcome to LitSE.
    – Matt Thrower
    Sep 9 at 8:14

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