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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?

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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.

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  • 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 '20 at 4:13

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