Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider continues to weave its magic in the recesses of my brain. In this, the second of a short series of posts (and part of a dialogue with Nick Swarbrick) I want to discuss the pain that comes with loss, and how the ache of pain may be partly assuaged with a compensatory gain.
That we are currently in a time of loss — when a pandemic is taking away many loved ones prematurely and leaving huge swathes of the world’s population with a sense of powerlessness — only heightens the theme I’ve chosen and allows us to appreciate the emotional undercurrents in the novel.
While the losses in The Snow Spider may be fictional they reflect the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever, and may account for how the novel seems to have a power that transcends what may be superficially ascribed to a piece of escapist fiction inspired by myth.
Four years previously Gwyn Griffiths, who was about to turn five, had become concerned about his adopted black ewe out on the Welsh hills in a stormstorm. His sister Bethan went out from Tŷ Bryn — Hill House in Welsh — to look for it but was never to return, despite a widespread but fruitless search. For the Griffiths on their upland farm her disappeance without a trace was almost impossible to bear. A devastating blow to the small family, it naturally continued to affect Gwyn and his parents four years later, especially on the eve of Gwyn’s birthday (which fell on All Saints or All Hallows Day).
His father, blaming Gwyn, was sustained by anger when he wasn’t merely ‘remote and silent’; his ‘anxious’ mother coped by keeping Bethan’s bedroom as a shrine. And young Gwyn, burdened by the double loss — of ewe as well as sister — has buried his emotions deep. Yet, as with his father, those emotions can emerge as anger, and here is the added danger: because his destiny is to be a magician his response to persistent bullying at school manifests as a physical ‘lashing out’ that paradoxically requires no actual physical contact. Naturally this lands him further trouble and is another burden to add to his confused state of mind. Here, therefore, is another ‘loss’ — his loss of temper.
The five gifts he receives from his Nain, his father’s mother, could be seen as more ‘losses’ and yet are not. She tells Gwyn he should ‘give them to the wind’ and, when they are thus taken, they come back in enhanced form: as Arianwen the snow spider, distant voices he can hear close at hand, a ‘spaceship’ and as Eirlys, the spitting image of Bethan except that compared to Gwyn’s sister she has neither any older nor is her hair dark.
(There is an additional pun here, incidentally. Not only does Gwyn, the family’s shortening of Gwydion, mean ‘white’ and therefore very apt for the season, but the Welsh for ‘wind’, gwynt, is very close in sound, which I suspect is deliberate.)
The next loss, however, precipitates the events that lead to the story’s shocking climax. Gwyn’s anxiety-prone mother, obsessive about tidiness, has almost gleefully consigned Arianwen to the septic tank. In absolute despair Gwyn makes a further ill-judged decision and gives the broken horse ‘to the wind’, thus bringing on a blizzard with high winds, drifting snow, destruction of property, and a further loss: Alun Lloyd, his closest friend, whom he has pushed away in anger.
Thus far the narrative has featured a series of losses: the black ewe, Bethan, Gwyn’s temper, Arianwen, the fifth of the gifts in the form of the legendary Efnisien, and Alun. Gwyn has to learn how to control his innate gifts as a magician in order to make good as many of the losses as he can, a very tall order for a nine-year-old but one which has to somehow be accomplished.
When some restitution comes about it won’t be total, for the ewe cannot be brought back from the dead, and there will be one particular loss which, though to us it may seem as tragic as any, will actually start the process of healing for the Griffiths family.
That it leaves many other questions unanswered is undeniable, some to be doubtless resolved in the sequels; but that the family had found a peace it hadn’t known for years is clear, for when Gwyn and his father return home it was to ‘a house that was not empty any more’.
Loss results in many different, often conflicting, emotions, exhibited by several characters in these pages, among them anger, anxiety, self-righteousness, false certainty, confusion; we can see them now in the world at large as much as in fiction.
There are a couple of further themes in this novel I want to explore, notably the use of myth, but those shall have to wait till a further instalment in this conversation