Friday, April 16, 2010

The Owl Killers - Karen Maitland

The medieval period in Europe serves as an inspiration to many a fantasy novel. Apparently there is something very appealing to imagining oneself living in such an environment, so much so that our perception of the period has become more than a bit romanticized. In sharp contrast, history books tell us just how miserable and brutal life could be for a large part of the population. Historical fiction does not entirely escape the romanticizing of this period but quite a few novels attempt to paint a more realistic picture. Like Maitland's previous book Company of Liars, The Owl Killers does not shy away form the harshness of life. Hunger, disease, natural disasters, oppressive taxation and unbridled religious madness, very little is spared the 14th century village the book depicts. It makes The Owl Killers in a very dark book. Fear is a main ingredient an the author makes sure the reader knows it.

The Owl Killers is set in the year 1321 in the fictious village of Ulewic, located somewhere near Norwich. The church and a minor noble rule the village but below the surface old superstitions linger. Besides being caught between these two pillars of medieval life, the mysterious Owl Masters terrorize the village with their harsh brand of justice. Their presence appears to be a remnant from pre-Christian times, going back to pagan gods like Anu and Cernunnos. The cult has been slowly fading away since a last outburst a century ago. Their Aodh is not content to let this happen, he means to force the village to return to the old ways.

A recent development plays right into his hand. A group of Flemish Beguines, a recently established lay-religious order has acquired land near the village and built a beguinage. Their community appears to be thriving despite the difficult times. Hunger and disease seem to pass them by, raising suspicious of witchcraft. The actions of their stern, rather stubborn and sharp-tongued leader, a woman known as Servant Martha, doesn't do much to increase their popularity in the village. When she takes in a villager cast out of the community because he developed leprosy, a head-on collision with the local community seems inevitable.

Part of the inspiration for this novel comes from the author's interest in the Beguine movement, a lay-order that was mostly active in the Low Countries, Germany and France from the thirteenth century on. They never seem to have established themselves in England, although the author mentions in her historical note that there are hints that they did try. It reminded me of one of the major landmarks in the city of Amsterdam, het Begijnenhof. Although I was born in that city I've never actually been there. Considering the events that took place in the low countries during the reformation it is a miracle a community of Beguines survived into the 20th century. A more of less independent community of women, taking care of their own affairs in a time when women generally had little say over their lives. I can see the appeal of such a community.

Life in the Beguine community revolves around religion but the author also stresses the importance of the Catholic church in other parts of the novel. The chapters are named after the day they depict and these are referred to by the name day of a particular saint or martyr or a catholic feast. The reckoning of time and the habits, traditions and customs associated with that day are some of the many historical details of everyday life the author uses to draw the reader into the medieval setting. This focus on the life of ordinary people is also one of the major strength of Company of Liars. Little and not so little acts of faith and superstition drive the story.

Although the church is a dominating force in the community the real fear that permeates the book is caused by the Owlman. A demon summoned by the Owl Masters that has not been seen for over a century. This supernatural force plays an important part in the eventual conclusion to the novel and is also the reason why I didn't particularly like the ending. As one of the characters says in the final chapters, people create their own gods and demons. Given the minor presence of the demon early on in the book, and the horrific acts the people themselves are clearly capable of, the story doesn't need this symbol of fear and superstition to take a physical form. The author makes it quite clear what the power of faith can do to people and it is more than enough to drive the story.

As with Maitland's previous book I loved the historical component of the story, the well researched look into everyday life, the details on taxation by the church and landowners and the speculation about what might have happened to an attempt by the Beguine movement to gain a foothold in England in particular. The supernatural element is the book is used in a bit too literal a fashion I suppose. Do we really need a flesh and blood monster to create a sense of dread in a time that gave rise to some of the strangest cults and where the most absurd acts of faith (I really don't have another word for starving yourself to death to get closer to god) were accepted as truly pious? The Owl Killers could have been a great examination to one of the darker sides of the human psyche but in the final chapters the balance tips to the unbelievable. It was a very interesting read but also something of a missed opportunity.

Book Details
Title: The Owl Killers
Author: Karen Maitland
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 563
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-141-03189-7
First published: 2009


  1. I enjoyed this book for the reason you state - an attention to period detail that really convinces: the centrality of religion in people's lives, the fear of the ordinary of random acts of violence, whether inflicted by nature or by the ruling classes, the marginality of life. It was also a good story and introduced me to aspects of 14th century life that I had not come across, not least the Beguines.

    The letdown, as you state, is to make the supernatural element 'real', to actually allow the manifestation of the demon rather than keep it as a product of religion, fear and superstition. It is similar to a favorite film of mine, 'Night of the Demon' which is brilliant when the demon is offscreen and left to the viewer's imagination. Once we see the demon in all its 1950's special effects glory, the spell, if not broken, is certainly dented.

    Still, a good read that I would recommend to others.

  2. Have you by any chance read her previous book Company of Liars as well? I thought the historical part of that novel was every bit as interesting as in The Owl Killers.

  3. Hi Val,

    Yes, I'd read The Company of Liars and really enjoyed it - that is what attracted me to The Owl Killers. Again, a real melding of period detail with a good story and all delivered within the fascinating (and terrifying) context of the Black Death. I liked the nod to the Canterbury Tales too, with the stories of each member of the company being revealed over the course of the story.