The best teller of tales

Nick Swarbrick’s recent survey has established that young Gwyn Griffiths, in Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, follows the model of young wizards and witches in children’s fantasy getting a call — a vocation — setting them on the path of a magical career and gradual maturation.

Remember, Nick reminds us, Hagrid’s revelation: “Yer a wizard, Harry.” And it’s Gwyn’s turn, on his ninth birthday, to be told by his grandmother (in the novel’s opening pages) that he is fated to be a magician. The reason this is his destiny is because he is directly descended from Gwydion, the legendary Welsh wizard out of time immemorial.

In this, my latest post, anticipating the eventual penning of a review, I want to explore the mythic background of Gwyn’s assumption of the magician’s mantle; it may take us into some quite psychologically dark yet enchanted realms.

Finding the story

In Nimmo’s novel the collection of medieval Welsh tales known as The Mabinogion is alluded to but never named (as Dimitra Fimi has pointed out in her 2017 study). But it’s from an old Welsh copy rather than a modern English translation that Gwyn’s Nain draws out his links with ancient wizards and their stories. In addition Gwyn has to find his own entry point into the essence of these narratives; this he does by ‘giving’ his magic objects to the wind whilst intoning an invocation to Gwydion, Gilfaethwy and Math, the magicians he is heir to.

In one of my previous wanderings among words I explored how magic is invoked through the spoken or sung word: words like spell, enchantment, charm, incantation, recitation, even intonation, all indicate that vocalisation is crucial to magic that effects change or transformation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself with ‘finding the story’ which for Gwyn will come about both through theory and practice. The theory comes initially from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, the plot of which Nain reads to Gwyn. This is when Gwyn hears about Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy of the House of Dôn, and of their maternal uncle Math, son of Mathonwy. Nearly all the English translations distinguish Gwydion as ‘the best teller of tales in the world’, and that as ‘the chief of song’ he offers to recite tales to the court of Pryderi in Rhuddlan. ‘Recite’ is good: meaning to read aloud, repeat from memory or declaim, it derives from Latin citare ‘to summon or call out’ which, as a description of drawing out the spirit or essence of a tale out of thin air, is very, well, evocative.

Yet take care what you commit to that thin air. “Thou knowest,” says Gilfaethwy to his brother, “that Math the son of Mathonwy has this property, that if men whisper together, in a tone how low soever, if the wind meet it, it becomes known unto him.” It’s clear that Gwyn’s invocation of Math and Math’s nephews, together with the giving of the gifts to the wind, is all done — as it were — according to the book: the three magicians will hear Gwyn’s call ar y gwynt, on the wind.

What also emerges from the Fourth Branch narrative is that Gwydion, and to a lesser extent his brother, is one conniving trickster: he exchanges magnificent horses and greyhounds (fashioned magically from fungus) for Pryderi’s herd of pigs, causing a war in which Pryderi is slain; he also arranges his brother’s rape of Math’s footbearer (a treacherous act, for which both are punished) and bespells himself and his sister Arianrhod’s son Lleu (possibly incestuously conceived) in order to obtain a name and warrior status for Lleu. He also, with his uncle Math, creates a woman Blodeuwedd (from Welsh blodau, ‘flowers’) as a wife for Lleu. Lying, concealing, creating illusions all come as naturally to him as telling stories.

Warriors and sacrifice, Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark

Telling the tale

So Gwydion’s boast as the best teller of tales seems well justified: when somebody narrates a story so well that you can believe it true it may well seem like magic, the illusion — even in your mind’s eye — somehow becoming real. And this is the legacy that young Gwyn inherits. But with this inheritance come consequences, and consequences that prove more dangerous than he can imagine.

When he calls on Gwydion and Gilfaethwy and Math and transforms his Nain’s gifts and conjures up the snow spider and a silver ship and a snowdrop and an earpiece to voices on the wind he has been opening up his heart. But when he invokes the mutilated wooden horse he does it in anger and despair, letting loose a far more dangerous trickster than wily Gwydion, a potential foe from the Second Branch and the House of Llŷr.

If Gwydion is like Odysseus — or even Odin, as Robert Graves would have us believe — then Efnisien (from efnys, Welsh for ‘hostile’, thus an enemy or adversary) is a trouble maker in the mould of Loki in the Norse myths or Hagen in the Nibelungenlied. In rage Efnisien had mutilated the Irish king’s horses in retaliation for an imagined insult, and had thrown his half-sister’s son into the fire. Though he had partly redeemed himself by an act of self-sacrifice (throwing himself into a cauldron designed to regenerate dead warriors) in this modern fiction his spirit was nevertheless imprisoned in the small wooden horse which has come down to Gwyn. Like the djinni in the bottle from The Thousand and One Nights his release doesn’t bring him joy and gratitude, rather the reverse.

There was one way way to contain him and it seems to have been down to Arianwen, the Snow Spider, spinning a web of ice around the physical body of Efnisien until the husk faded, leaving the wooden horse again. And we remember that the name Arianwen, ‘Silver White’ in Welsh, is close to the Latin aranea, ‘spider’ and to the French araignée, and we recall that Theseus, trapped in the Cretan labyrinth, was released by following the thread of Ariadne.

Finally, we are also reminded of the mysterious city of children that Gwyn sees in the web Arianwen spins in his bedroom. Was this a city of youngsters plucked from life before their time, like Bethan? Or were they the fair folk, the tylwyth teg of Welsh folklore, living in a city or on an island like that reputed to exist to the west: Gwales, where lived the plant yr Is-Ddwfn, the Children of the Otherworld Island? Nimmo’s narrative web incorporates many traditional themes.

Teller of Tales

Gwyn, like his ancestors, is not just a magician but also a teller of tales. How? Because he makes stories through his imaginings of what may happen and through his spoken words, thus anticipating the future by creating it. And it follows that The Snow Spider being told by Jenny Nimmo — in North Walian turns of phrase, with its evident love of landscape and its evocation of ancient legends — is also a work of magic. The very word poetry comes from the Greek ποιεῖν, ‘to make’: is that not the very essence of magic?

Along with the novel I consulted a number of translations and a select few studies:

Jenny Nimmo. The Snow Spider Trilogy. Egmont, 2005

Lady Charlotte E Guest. The Mabinogion. Dover, 1997 (1848)
Gwyn Jones, Thomas Jones. The Mabinogion. Everyman No 97, 1949
Patrick K Ford. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. University of California Press, 1977
Sioned Davies. The Mabinogion. OUP 2007

Proinsias Mac Cana. Branwen, Daughter of Llyr. A study of the Irish affinities and of the composition of the Scond Branch of the Mabinogi. University of Wales Press, 1958
Robert Graves. The White Goddess. Faber, 1961
Dimitra Fimi. ‘Welsh Heritage for Teenagers: Alan Garner, Jenny Nimmo, Catherine Fisher’ in Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Literature. Idealization, Identity, Ideology. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2017: 177-195

8 thoughts on “The best teller of tales

  1. A great analysis, Chris. I love how you’ve drawn out magic’s reliance on words and story telling. There’s something significant there, that wonderful idea that words create magic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think as a writer yourself, Lynn, you must be aware of your magical skills, witness the many positive comments and expressions of wonderment on your posts (Where does she get her ideas from? — How does she manage to make her characters feel real? — I wonder what will happen to these people when the short story ends? ).

      Even when internalised, words like your have a power that can move us to tears, gasp, laugh, or feel we’ve had a punch to the gut — and all without you lifting a finger in the reader’s presence!


  2. Excellent! I shall definitely have to seek out this trilogy. These posts have reminded me of a series of Mabinogion-retellings I read as a student by Evangeline Walton – Sadly, I no longer have them, and they’re very out of print/expensive now. Have you read those? (The Mabinogian Tetralogy: Prince of Annwn/the Children of Llyr/the Song of Rhiannon/the Island of the Mighty)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard of the Walton series, certainly, Annabel — even think I’ve glanced at a copy though I can’t remember when or where, possibly Seattle — but have always had too much else to read; also, I had a phase of not reading Celtic-inspired fiction when I was into mundane Dark Age archaeology and history, regarding it as being too wishy-washy or airy-fairy! Now I am older I have picked up those ‘childish things’ I put aside once upon a time.

      Right now, though, I’ve got Celtic fiction aplenty to keep me occupied — Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Jenny Nimmo, Rosemary Sutcliff — so Evangeline will have to wait a bit longer. By the way, have you noticed that her surname, Walton, means settlement of the wealh or wēalas, the Old English for foreigner or Welsh person, even slave? The theory is that such settlements were originally enclaves of non-English speakers, or people regarded as somehow different, though this is often disputed. (Puts a novel interpretation on The Walton of Walton Mountain, right?)

      Liked by 1 person

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