"Many 20th century fantasies for children explore the
journey from childhood to adulthood in metaphoric terms."
"Fantasy is literature for teenagers"
Brian Aldiss (quoted in Alternate Worlds in Fantasy Fiction, 2001)
In Alternate Worlds in Fantasy Fiction, Peter Hunt questions the credibility of fantasy fiction within the literary world, and suggests it is a marginalized literary form. Although opinions vary on the subject, many are of the consensus that fantasy is "formulaic, childish and escapist", without giving credit to its invaluable scope as a device to covertly reach adolescents. (Hunt: 2)
The above quote from Brian Aldiss' may well have been derogatory in intent, yet it should also be interpreted as a complement. As adolescent literature plays such an important role to young adults, an accomplished writer can incorporate constructive metaphors with which to reach out to teens by addressing the painful journey form childhood to adulthood.
Alan Garner's The Owl Service is one such low fantasy text which metaphorically depicts the difficulties of making the transition to adulthood. Garner manages to cleverly disguise this notion under the mythology of the Welsh myth of The Mabinogion. The tales of The Mabinogion are a celebration of Welsh pagan ancestry and Celtic roots, and roughly translate as `a story for children'. Garner's take on what is the fourth branch of The Mabinogion - "Math, Son of Mathonwy" - ingeniously changes the original tale of unrequited love into a metaphor for the heartache of adolescence.
In the original myth of Math, Son of Mathonwy, a woman is made for the powerful Leu out of flowers of meadowsweet and broom - creating the ill-fated Blodeuwedd:
Math and Gwydyon took the flowers of oak and broom and meadowsweet and from these they conjured up the loveliest and most beautiful girl anyone had seen. ( The Mabinogion: 111)
When her love for him is not returned, she is changed into an owl for all eternity:
I will not kill you, but I will do what is worse: I will let you go in the form of a bird. Because of the shame you have bought on Leu Skillful Hand, you shall never again show your face to the light of day...( The Mabinogion:116)
To this day, Blodeuwedd means `owl' in Welsh, and it is from here that Garner's unusual `owls' or `flowers' choice is derived, which he instead uses as a metaphorical lesson of the tribulations of adolescence.
This owls/flowers ideal that permeates the story can be viewed as a metaphor for the choices one faces when growing up. The choice of the violent, painful and turbulent adolescence of `owls' - one where the youngster is at battle with the emergence of his new feelings, experiences and self. Or the `flowers' path - to accept, be forgiving to oneself and to others, and to embrace the physical and psychological changes that are occurring around them. Here Garner leads adolescents to the understanding that the choice is...