There are a number of stories about stories so powerful that they echo through time. Such tales speak to our belief in the power of myth, and our willingness to believe that a tale closely associated with a place, or events rooted in the distant past, can keep a hold that influences the present. Alan Garner’s ‘The Owl Service’ is one such tale, where Welsh myths keep replaying themselves in the same valley, drawing in new people to take on the three leading roles, usually with tragic consequences.
Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Castle D’Or’ does something similar with the Tristan and Isolde myth, capturing two young people in the same story, such that it overpowers their lives, and destroys them. These tales are distinctly different from updates and retellings, which play out the themes in different contexts. What’s important here is the way landscape and story combined are able to recreate themselves – perhaps because the original protagonists are fated to reincarnate in the same spot and keep playing it out, or because the story and place draw new players in.
Elen Sentier’s new novel – Owl Woman – makes a fascinating addition to this kind of tale. The characters in her story live in a village that is both protected and defined by some rather curious stories about where the water comes from. Here, the people are aware of their story, and are, for the greater part, active participants in a process of keeping the myth happy and well behaved. When that balance is lost, some of the darker and more dangerous parts of the story start to replay themselves, and there’s a real risk that it will take a number of deaths to restore the balance. Despite what the title may suggest, this is not a Blodeuwedd related myth, but something unique to the landscape in which it is set.
There’s a power in stories that are tied to landscapes in this way. What Elen’s novel suggests to me is that these stories exist because they represent something of how we are supposed to interact with the land. If we remember the stories about how to live in a place, we can live peacefully there. If we forget those stories, or ignore them, we can set off the cascade of bad things that happen when you don’t respect the place.
As a relevant aside, I listened to Neil Gaiman talking (on youtube) about experts trying to figure out how we could keep nuclear waste sites safe for the tens of thousands of years it would take for them to stop being dangerous. The verdict, was myths. The most enduring thing we might use to help distant descendants whose culture and language is not the same as ours, to deal with the dangers we leave, is to leave them stories. That said, given the total disinterest most modern humans have in stories about what it is a really bad idea to do, I’m not sure this would work.
Owl Woman is a really engaging tale with a large cast of characters, both heroic and less so. I greatly enjoyed it. On one level it’s a mug of cocoa and cold winter’s afternoon sort of book. On another level, it’s a passionate case for ancestral wisdom, for respecting what’s handed down and respecting the land you live on.