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The Owl Service: reading and culture

25 October 2016

The Owl ServiceThe Owl Service by Alan Garner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read this 2 or 3 times before but never liked it as much as Alan Garner‘s first three books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor. I’ve read those several times, and enjoyed them each time. But The Owl Service has always seemed unsatisfactory, and made little sense.

This time, however, I read “Math son of Mathonwy” from The Mabinogion first, and that helped to make a little more sense of the plot. The story of Math, and his nephew Gwydyon, and grandnephew Lleu is frequently referred to in The Owl Service, but in a fragmentary and disjointed way. So reading the story of Math helps to put it in context. But I still didn’t like it as much as Garner’s earlier books.

But this raises the interesting question of dependency in literature, and how much knowledge can be assumed in readers. In quite a lot of English fiction before the mid-20th century, some knowledge of the Bible on the part of the readers could be assumed, and biblical allusions could be understood by most readers with little difficulty.

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories have an underlying biblical theme, but are not dependent on that. It is quite possible to enjoy the stories without familiarity with the Bible, though familiarity with the Bible will reveal deeper levels of meaning. The same applies to Lewis’s science fiction stories. Knowledge of the Bible can enhance one’s understanding of the stories, but it is not a necessary precondition of understanding. This also applies, mutatis mutandis to Garner’s earlier books too. There are references to Celtic or British mythology (even recent modern mythology, like the notion of the “old straight track”), which one doesw not need to be familiar with to enjoy the books, because it is all sufficiently explained in the stories themselves.

But the reader of The Owl Service misses a great deal if not familiar with The Mabinogion, or at least the story of Math.

Quite a lot of earlier English literature, however does depends on familiarity with other literature, such as the Bible, or the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, and other works. There was a time when this foundational literature was regarded as a normal part of education, but it seems to be becoming less so. I’m sure my knowledge of classical mythology lacks a great deal, but I’m sometimes surprised at the apparent lack of such knowledge in quiz show contestants.

I suspect that I may have missed quite a lot in reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, because of my unfamiliarity with Milton.

So reading The Owl Service is quite salutary, because it shows how it can be difficult to translate books from one culture to another, quite apart from the difficulties in translation from one language to another. The differences between the British and American editions of the Harry Potter books are a case in point, and I’ve been reading a thesis about the difficulty  of translating them into SePedi, in a culture in which people who are suspected of witchcraft are still sometimes lynched.

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