Jenny Nimmo’s haunting children’s fantasy The Snow Spider was first published in 1986.
Nine-year-old Gwyn, son of a Welsh hill farming family still reeling from the loss of his older sister, is charged with taking up his role as descendent of the ancient magicians of the Mabinogi, the collection of Welsh myths and legends.
Through his growing understanding of his magical powers, and with the guidance of his grandmother, the eponymous Snow Spider, and a mysterious girl who joins the family, Gwyn becomes involved in the beauty and danger of a world normally just beyond mortal grasp, and has to confront rage and pain from centuries ago.
In a short series of posts fellow blogger Nick Swarbrick and I will be conversing on a range of topics which will have occurred to us while reading The Snow Spider; I then plan to follow them with a spoiler-free review. Here, to start, are some initial thoughts in response to Nick’s first post here, which I found insightful and thought-provoking.
Nick’s focus in ‘Anger and a Family in Crisis’ is on the powerful emotional undercurrents that swirl below the first instalment of the trilogy, not just anger but also destructive hatred.
When, four years before, the Griffiths daughter Bethan disappears almost without trace on the eve of her brother Gwyn’s fifth birthday, the family is naturally devastated. In the psychogeography of the novel the parents and Gwyn are “trapped by trauma” despite being free to move around their mountain farm in Gwynedd.
Nick identifies the father Ivor as “frozen in the grief and anger at the loss of his daughter”; the mother keeps a tight lid on everything, whether keeping Bethan’s bedroom frozen in time or obsessively tidying everything away. Gwyn’s anger is also trapped: inarticulate, because he’s unable to adequately voice any guilt over allowing his sister to search for his favourite black lamb in a snowstorm.
My reactions to reading this novel for the first time are many. First of all it made me cry, twice: initially at Gwyn’s fierce all-consuming anger after the senseless death of Long John, the three-legged family cat (and what deeper mythic significance must that have? I thought of the Isle of Man’s triskele device as well as Manx cats); and then later at the novel’s end, this time not only for the sense of loss but also for the mix of isolation and acceptance that came with Gwyn’s friend Alun’s survival and sister Bethan-Eirlys’ going.
It may be that I’m feeling hyper-emotional with the global crises facing the world now. But a lot of it is due to Nimmo’s beautiful writing and evocative descriptions. Having lived for ten years in a farmhouse on the slopes of the Preseli Hills, with livestock farmers all around and situated a mile and a half to the nearest village, I recognised parallels with the Gwynedd landscape the Griffiths inhabited. There’s a sense of precariousness in hill farming, partly from the environment and weather, partly from the vagaries of market forces, and that underlying uncertainty feeds in an understated way into the narrative.
I’ve also been assimilating what’s explicit in the narrative and appreciating its rootedness in Welsh culture and tradition, along with Nimmo’s sympathetic handling of Gwyn. And that’s what I’d like to move on to now.
Maria Sachiko Cecire’s 2019 study Re-Enchanted is starting to reorientate my thinking towards how myth is used in children’s fantasy. Her focus on what she calls the Oxford School of fantasy, with its magic, medievalism and childhood leanings, points to how writers like Tolkien and Lewis and a younger generation of Oxford-educated writers, like Diana Wynne Jones and Alan Garner, were heavily influenced by insular magic, pan-European myth and a certain anti-modernist attitude.
Jenny Nimmo, though not of that ‘school’ — her background was in theatre and the BBC — nevertheless made her home in Wales where she immersed herself in the principality’s culture and traditions; her daughters’ names (Myfanwy and Gwenhwyfar) are firmly rooted in Welsh myth and history (there’s a son called Ianto, a diminutive of Ioan). Despite the different trajectory Nimmo’s life took, her approach to incorporating insular traditions is similar to the Oxford School’s. Let me give a couple of examples.
Diana Wynne Jones’s The Homeward Bounders and the earlier Eight Days of Luke both feature a figure punished by the gods for a transgression. Jones’s lifelong railing against Rules meant she turns the transgressors (Prometheus and Loki, respectively) into sympathetic figures. In The Snow Spider, in contrast, the transgressor Efnisien (from the Mabinogion‘s Second Branch, Branwen daughter of Llyr) — who is also imprisoned — is not treated sympathetically; instead his malevolent anger and rage are manifested at the terrifying climax of the story, whereas Prometheus and Loki are raised to a kind of heroic status. Efnisien is, as Nick suggests, an outward symbol of the suppressed emotions that dominate the Griffiths family after the disappearance of Eirlys, and which jeopardise Gwyn’s easy assumption of his ancestors’ magician’s mantle.
Nick also compares Nimmo’s reworking of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion with that of The Owl Service, an updating of the tragic triangular relationship in Math of Lleu, Gronw and Blodeuwedd; the author of The Owl Service, Alan Garner, is also claimed as part of the Oxford School (though he studied classics and not English, and didn’t complete his degree). In both Nimmo’s and Garner’s novels there is acknowledgement by the protagonists that they are following mythic patterns but in The Snow Spider the modern catalyst is not a set of patterned plates but the gift of five objects by Gwyn’s grandmother.
I want to finish this part of the discussion with a short consideration of the five gifts. These are a broach, a scarf, a piece of dried seaweed, a damaged wooden carving in the shape of a horse, and a musical pipe. Nimmo carefully links all these to overlapping ideas of whiteness, snow, coldness after the gifts are themselves ‘given up to the wind’.
The broach is linked to the wonderful titular spider: she is called Arianwen, ‘silver-white’ in Welsh. The scarf is associated with the missing sister Bethan and with her appearance as the fair-haired, white-faced Eirlys, whose name means snowdrop. The seaweed conjures up a ghostly silvery ship, though more prosaically described by Gwyn’s friend as a UFO. In the mutilated horse is the discarnate Efnisien of the Fourth Branch, who can only be imprisoned in an icy cage. Finally, the pipe allows Gwyn to hear the breathy sounds which emanate from the ethereal cityscape appearing in the magical web which Arianwen spins in Gwyn’s bedroom.
In that vision of a many-towered and domed city, associated with whiteness and iciness, do we not recall the vision featured in the fantasy novel of another putative member of Cecire’s Oxford School? I am thinking here of Cittàgazze, the city seen in the Arctic sky by Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and later visited by her in The Subtle Knife.
Cittàgazze translates as ‘city of magpies’ — but of course ragazzi/-e means ‘children’ in Italian, as Pullman would have known and which I think he’s obliquely referring to.
And the city streets that Gwyn sees in Arianwen’s web are in fact filled only with children.