The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Looking at some blog comments on Garner's writing, I noticed one person complaining about the abrupt endings of, in particular, Elidor and The Owl Service. I agree with her, and one might add The Moon of Gomrath to the list. It's not that Garner can't write endings either: Red Shift, Tom Fobble's Day and Thursbitch all have wonderful closing paragraphs. In the case of The Moon of Gomrath, I've read - in Neil Philip's A Fine Anger? - that from the drafts it's clear that Garner was becoming bored and frustrated with the book, or at least with the characters. Allegedly, Kidnapped ends the way it does for the the same reason.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking. The ending of The Owl Service is abrupt, it's true, but a defence can be made that the story has done its job - anything more would be superfluous. Garner has often cited Aeschylus as an inspiration, or a foundation, for his work, and in H. D. F. Kitto's Greek Tragedy we find a comment on this: in the Agamemnon a herald comes to the Elders of Argos with news of the Greek victory at Troy. He then tells them that a terrible storm has destroyed the victorious fleet, as far as he knows, entirely. Having said this, he leaves. What will the chorus say now?

"What this incredible chorus does is to begin a chant about Helen, the ruin she brought to Troy, Hybris and Justice. We hear no more of the lost fleet; never again is the storm mentioned, not even by Agamemnon, one of the few survivors. [...]

"Oddly enough, readers of the play are not in the least perturbed by the failure of the chorus to be sensible at this point. Naturally; the reason is plain enough: all our attention is focused on the theme of crime and its punishment; to it, the storm makes its own immediate contribution, and that is enough; it has done its work. What the chorus deals with next, namely Helen and the Trojans, is a perfectly logical continuation, though the logic of it is that of Aeschylus' own dramatic conception, not of the story or situation. Had Aeschylus made the chorus mourn the loss of thier own sons at sea, we should feel it to be an irrelevance. His loyalty, which in turn succesfully claims ours, is not to the events but to the idea."

(pp 107 - 8)

Kitto spends a lot of time in this chapter, "The Dramatic Art of Aeschylus", defending him against critics who he claims have misapplied the expectations of 19th century psychological realism, the bread and butter of the well-made play, to work which is founded on a wholly different set of principles. In short, if you come to Aeschylus expecting one thing and you get another, don't blame Aeschylus. Kitto's defence is total - Aeschylus is a genius in complete command of his art - and I'm simply in no position to judge whether that's justified or not. Nevertheless, from the examples he cites, it seems that a fair number of academic howlers have been committed.

(I feel bound to tell you that you really need to know, love, or want to learn about, Greek tragedy to read this book; Kitto's The Greeks, on the other hand, is also still in print after 50 years and is a lively, witty introduction to the subject - I recommend it heartily.)

Given that an awful lot of people - many of them schoolchildren of the 1970s and '80s who were force-fed it - have found others' enthusiasm for The Owl Service incomprehensible, it's worth bearing in mind Kitto's comment on Agamemnon, which boils down to this: it depends how you read it. It took me three years and three readings to get past my initial reaction to the The Owl Service, which was that it was a neat but unexceptional kids' book of a kind which one might well expect to be a taught text.

Dead wrong. Reading it that way is like staring at a locked door; you have to get up close to it, so close your face is right up against it and you're looking through the keyhole. Then it all comes to you. In Garner at his best, everything is implied. Everything is there, but not all of it is shown; indeed, one of the characters, who is pivotal to the story, never appears herself but is understood by the reader from the effect she has on the people around her, who we do meet. It is the art, the concept, the idea, the myth, which comes first, and it succeeds brilliantly. The effect is to create an immediacy of the story in such a way that you feel involved, enveloped by it. It's for this reason that I have no desire to read Red Shift again, not at the moment, not for a while. I don't want to see and feel Tom and Jan going through what they do, and even thinking about it hurts.

That said, the ending of The Owl Service still seems to me to be two or three sentences too short. Even if it works, it feels ungracious.

Oh, I came across praise for Garner from John Rowe Townsend - anyone reading this know anything about him, or read his books? He's roughly contemporary with the likes of Garner, Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield, but as a kid I seem to have missed him.


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