A magical landscape

Foel Cwm Cerwyn, Mynyddoedd y Preseli

Over a few posts Nick Swarbrick and I have been discussing the first instalment of Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, The Snow Spider. Nick began with a fine piece entitled Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis and I followed with Motifs, emotions and myth. Next I discussed Loss in the novel to which Nick responded with
Need Called Knowledge Out, an analysis concerning young magic-users coming into their powers.

We now come to four questions we set ourselves to answer about the novel’s setting, in culture, landscape and time — we’ll each look at two today on our respective blogs, with the remaining pair given our consideration on another day.

We hope that you will appreciate and respond to our comments, whether or not you’ve read The Snow Spider. And if you haven’t read it yet maybe you’ll be persuaded to by these posts!

Glacier-scarred Preseli Hills

1. The Snow Spider is very much set in the Welsh landscape, not just by the language and the myths but also by the descriptions — the hills and the sheep farming, for example, and the apparent proximity of the sea (which Gwyn is able to smell after a short tramp through over the hills). Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting or does it work equally well in a mythic setting (as it has to for those unfamiliar with The Snow Spider‘s cultural matrix)?

I have to come clean: having lived for ten years on the southern slopes of the Preseli Hills in the far west of Wales, a mile and a half from the nearest village and surrounded by hill farms, I had a twinge of recognition when reading about Gwyn’s family farm, with neighbours’ dwellings almost practising a form of social distancing. Hardy upland sheep, localised climate conditions, seasonal calendars, communities where people know not just each other but also each other’s business, and where nearly everyone is — however distantly — related.

Not only that, but the land is intimately bound up with, even infused with, myth and legend. The Preselis are bristling with standing stones and cromlechs, wells and cairns, some named after local saints, others associated with King Arthur, who chased a giant boar across the length of the range.

Reading about the Griffiths sheep farm in, I assume, North Walian uplands (Gwydion’s extended family in the Mabinogion are located in Gwynedd, with sites in the Llŷn peninsula and the island of Anglesey, Môn, specifically mentioned) I can not only see the parallels with the Pembrokeshire upland farms, landscape and legends but also enter even more vicariously into Gwyn’s fictional world.

But this of course isn’t a prerequisite for appreciating Nimmo’s story — because of course there are several ways to enter into a fictional world, as many as there are readers and, even more, age ranges when we get absorbed in books or read about them. For instance, the first of Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore, Gifts, reminded me of the upland environment of Wales, unsurprising as descriptions of the subsistence economy were familiar as also was the configuration of the west-facing lands on her map. But my own experience of the novel wouldn’t be any more valid or authentic than someone who’d lived all their life in, say, an urban environment or a contrasting geographical location.

And so I have answered my own question. Each reading will be different and draw out varying responses depending on each reader’s experience and capacity, but it will never be able to encompass the whole essence of the narrative.

Old farmhouse, Rhosfach, Mynachlog-ddu

2. The tight-knit community of The Snow Spider allows for powerful reactions between a limited range of characters: Gwyn’s family, his friends, the neighbours. In a more widely connected world — mobile ‘phones, internet etc (shown in the new TV version) — the world is a wider place. Does this date the plot unduly? And if not, why not?

Yes and no. (Well, of course!) Though the English language is now ubiquitous, thanks to radio and access to a multiplicity of TV channels, so is Welsh — due, after long official neglect and discouragement, to a legal requirement for it to be taught in schools and appear in bilingual documents and signage. In the mean time upland farming has always been a precarious business, and whether farmers have been limited in their personal encounters because of geography (as was the case even in the 1980s) or more interconnected with the outside world (because official forms have to be filled in electronically, for example) makes little difference to their physical existence.

Farming is hard work, and the burden of responsibilities heavy; unlike lowland farms which, in many cases, have been swallowed up by faceless agribusiness ventures, sheep-farming in Wales is still largely a family concern. As grown-up dependents move away, and farmhouses are bought by outsiders (such as me) or are turned into holiday homes, shepherding becomes an even more isolated occupation. The novel’s farmhouses, such as Tŷ Bryn and Tŷ Llŷr, are part of a ‘dispersed settlement’ pattern that will always obtain in such unforgiving environments.

If anything, the virtual world of phones and i-pads and laptops are merely a subsidiary form of ‘magic’ which has little to add or subtract to the magic which Gwyn is heir to, the ancient magic that — whatever the cultural milieu — provides the mainspring of Nimmo’s story and will be a primary focus of its target readers.

A discussion which fits in with my participation in Wyrd & Wonder‘s celebration of the fantastic

8 thoughts on “A magical landscape

  1. You’re right, Chris: we have come at these questions and shown a remarkable similarity as well as some interesting divergent thinking! I love your phrase “several ways to enter into a fictional world” which suggests to me a parallel between the engagement of the reader and what I called the vocation event of the young magician.

    The discussion of realism in fantasy makes me wonder about Ivor Griffiths a bit more: his attention to the detail of farm tasks isn’t only a way of criticising his son; it expresses his worry about the future that you touch on: who will run the farm now that capable Bethan is gone? Dreamy yet sociable young Gwyn?

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    1. Where we lived, between Maenclochog (‘mine-khlo-khog’) and Mynachlogddu (‘mun-ahk-khlog-thee’) there were two or more dwellings which had been saved for offspring by farmers, but the grown-up youngsters had married and moved away to Carmarthen, Cardigan or Cardiff, leaving the houses empty, likely to become derelict. And understandably they weren’t going to be sold to incomers, just in case those family members returned ‘home’ (as might well have been the case, given time). So if Ivor Griffiths had fears on that score they would’ve been well founded.

      Your comparison of parallels for varying entry points to magical worlds by readers and young magicians alike is well made. Precisely when it happens — when the opportunity and means are taken up — has a certain fascination, I think!

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  2. Yes, that question of whether children can still identify with a world that doesn’t include technology is interesting, and perhaps answered by what seems to be the continuing interest in Harry Potter. I’m told JK Rowling is still a popular choice in junior school libraries, though I’ve heard the age-range of the readers is younger, now.

    It’s such a relief to hear that the magic of stories, well told, continues to hold the attention.

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    1. I wonder if truly bookish children are as involved with social media and computer games as those whose attentions aren’t on the printed page? Mind you, I have to say I’m on social media far too much during the day (mostly blogs!) and it’s only in bed when the phone’s downstairs and switched off that I do the bulk of my reading. Twenty-eight books so far this year!

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      1. I’ve not kept count of my reading, but I’m fairly certain I’ve not reached 20, so far. No wonder your social media time is high with that much reviewing to do. I’m clearly lagging behind on my blog-browsing, too.

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        1. We do what we can in these times, I think, Cath — I use blogging as a welcome distraction from the rolling news and the lack of physical social contact, as well as to stop me throwing objects (metaphorically, you understand) at the TV screen when politicians utter prevarications and lies and pundits deliver platitudes. I’m sure you’ve found alternative means to counter distancing and Isolating in order to save your sanity!

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  3. I found the landscape in this first of the trilogy compelling, more so than in the later books. I’m certainly familiar with the geographical elements of the area and could easily immerse myself in the treacherous weather and the borderline existence of the Welsh hill farmer. But that’s a long way from considering the question of whether a child today could so easily navigate such a world. I would like to think so. The strength and fragilities of children’s friendships are universals, I think. And the mythic, fantastical themes are enduring.

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    1. Gwyn’s relationship with his contemporaries isn’t one Nick and I have much touched on in this discussion, Sandra, though I’d planned to say something in an eventual review — so thanks for the reminder! I think that notion of weather conditions / season / landscape paralleling Gwyn’s emotions (a reflex of John Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’ meme) is intrinsic to this first instalment and, I fancy, to many another fantasy too!

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