Calan Gaeaf

Farmhouse in the Preseli Hills

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider has been the subject of a conversation the inestimable Nick Swarbrick and I have been having on his blog and here over a number of weeks, and now we’re approaching the end with the final two questions we’ve each set ourselves to answer.

Briefly, the novel concerns young Gwyn Griffiths who has been given five gifts for his ninth birthday, four years to the day when his sister Bethan left their Welsh hill farm and disappeared in a snowstorm. The five objects — a mutilated model of a horse, a piece of seaweed, a musical pipe, a scarf, and a broach — exert an ancient magic when ‘offered’ to the wind, put in train by Gwyn’s innate talent inherited from his legendary ancestor Gwydion.

My intention is to end this series of posts with a review before I tackle the remaining two instalments of Nimmo’s trilogy, but for now we’re both looking at the novel’s Welsh contexts in an attempt to appreciate what makes The Snow Spider different from other fantasies written for children.

A snowy scene in the Black Mountains, Powys

3. The backstory and the action in the story’s ‘present’ both point to the Halloween/All Saints period as a moment of transition, Noson Galan Gaeaf leading to Calan Gaeaf, the first day of the Celtic winter. Do you think the setting in the Welsh countryside ensures this threshold moment is more rooted in the past — and perhaps more ‘authentic’ — than a ‘modern’ Halloween tale located in suburbia?

Noson Galan Gaeaf , literally ‘the eve of the first day of winter’, is the Welsh equivalent of the English term Halloween, ‘the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day’. The Welsh term (sometimes rendered as Nos Calan Gaeaf, the night before the start of winter) preserves a less Christianised tradition, All Saints Day only being gradually established as November 1st between the 7th and 9th centuries by successive popes. The feast day may have been moved to this date from a Sunday after Pentecost perhaps to supplant a long established pagan tradition honouring the dead.

We may well ask ourselves why Jenny Nimmo chose to have Gwyn Griffiths to have his birthday on All Hallows Day — though she rarely (just once, I think) uses that term or even Halloween. It boils down to the season’s associations with death: “It was believed that supernatural beings and powers became visible to mankind, that the graves opened and the dead walked again” (Ross 2001: 29). In Wales “supernatural, hostile creatures also manifested themselves, such as the Hwch Ddu Gwta (the black, short-tailed sow).” Anne Ross tells us that in parts of North Wales that the Black Sow

“would chase terrified young people, sometimes as far as their homes. I have heard that the Black Pig was particularly dangerous in the vicinity of the uneasy graveyard and the road led directly past this. The young people, and possibly some of older years, made a run for it in order to put behind them all the darkness and spectres as well as the Black Sow as soon as was humanly possible.” (Ross 2001: 30)

Davies (1992: 77) tells us that back in 1911 “Many were afraid, especially children, of going out on Allhallow’s Eve as the night among the Welsh was one of the tair nos ysprydion (three spirits’ nights) as it was supposed that the spiritis were free to roam about, and a demon at large in the form of a Hwch ddu gwta (black sow without a tail).” He quotes a saying, Nos Calan Gaea’, bwbach ar bob camfa, ‘On Allhallow’s Eve, a bogie on every stile.’

Ross also draws attention (32) to the custom of lighting candles as a prognosis of the future: if the candle were “to cease to burn before it had reached the candle holder, death within the year would certainly be the fate of the one who owned it.” Alternatively, “In Wales, anyone bold enough to wait in the church porch until midnight might hear a voice calling out the names of those who were to die during the year—but he ran the risk of hearing his own name among those of the doomed” (Rees and Rees 1973: 90).

Ross also postulates (33) a link between the Wild Horse which appears in the Antrobus Souling Play during Hallowtide and the Welsh Christmas tradition of the Mari Lwyd (“Grey Mary”) hobby horse. Now I mention all the foregoing for very good reason: I believe Nimmo wasn’t concerned with the modern Anglo-American Halloween commercialised customs of trick-or-treating, dressing up in spooky costumes and parading round houses (though such practices actually have a long tradition) but instead focused on the more sombre aspect of the season: the reality of immanent death at this liminal time.

The Snow Spider deals sympathetically with a hill farming community’s anxieties over death. This is apparent in a number of ways. Gwyn fears for his missing ewe: perhaps significantly, it’s black like the sow with the docked tail; Bethan then goes out into the blizzard to look for it as Noson Galan Gaeaf turns into Calan Gaeaf, “the light of the big torch flashing on the mountainside until it disappeared.” But she never comes back. The whole community goes out to search fruitlessly for her, or at least her body, but only a piece of yellow scarf will eventually turn up.

Four years later Gwyn turns nine. “The number nine figures so prominently in Celtic tradition that it has been described as the ‘northern counterpart of the sacred seven’ of Near Eastern cultures” (Rees and Rees 1973: 192ff). At his birthday party with the nine Lloyds as guests, Gwyn “fetched a box of candles from the larder and began to set them up on saucers and bottles all round the room.” As Gwyn’s grandmother dances to a record she makes the candles flicker: “There was something strange, almost magical, about the tall figure spinning in the candlelight.” The birthday cake, a premonition of Gwyn’s vision of a city, is “huge and white, with chocolate windows and silver banners and, on each of the nine towers, a flaming candle.” But when the disapproving figure of Mr Griffiths enters the room “the tiny flames glowed fiercely for a moment and then died.”

Along with the mutilated model of a horse that Gwyn is given by his Nain — an echo perhaps of the Mari Lwyd hobby horse with its spectral equine skull — all the key elements of Welsh Calan Gaeaf traditions (candles, a black animal, death, along with motifs like the number nine) are emphasised again and again in the novel, to the exclusion of the mischief of trick-or-treating or witch costumes, and despite a brief mention of a pumpkin at the end of the first chapter (Cecire 2019:149).

Snowfall in the Preseli Hills in West Wales

4. Jenny Nimmo, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper have all written with a great deal of thought about the places and myths of Wales. Is there a common theme that makes their approach successful — or are they all still writing as outsiders?

My sense of Jenny Nimmo’s writing here is of her being not so much an outsider as a sympathetic incomer — after all, she’s lived in Wales for a significant number of decades, is married to a Welsh husband, and has two daughter with distinctively Welsh names. I detect no falseness and certainly no condescension in her treatment of Welsh patterns of speech, portrayals of people, or way of life.

The same holds true of the author of the Gwynedd-based novel The Owl Service. Alan Garner can be said to have a genuine affinity with Welsh culture, for his Cheshire roots place him firmly in the Welsh Marches, that liminal stretch of land which borders the principality from the Dee estuary down through Shropshire and Herefordshire to the Severn estuary.

In a 1996 talk delivered to the Welsh Academy, Garner recounts how he set his novel in the Mawddwy valley “because a friend of my wife had inherited Bryn Hall in Llanymawddwy. […] My wife’s friend wanted the house to be used, and she offered it to us for a long holiday.” And the beauty things whereof Garner speaks in this piece are as much of ideas, and memories, and stories he discovers during his stay as they are of “the junk beyond price” he’s bequeathed by his Welsh storyteller. And why is he given this miscellaneous memorabilia? “Because you hear,” he’s told by the storyteller. “And your Welsh is better than my sons.”

I can’t say that I’ve got beyond a close reading of the first two books in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence (I had to return a library copy of Greenwitch in the 1970s and never got back to it) so can’t say much relevant to The Grey King (1975) or Silver on the Tree (1977). Both of these novels are set in mid Wales around the Dyfi estuary; and both titles got Tir na n-Og awards from the Welsh Books Council as books in English with an authentic Welsh background. In itself this is unsurprising: as an online interview makes clear, Cooper’s maternal grandmother was Welsh, and summer holidays in Aberdyfi/Aberdovey when she was a teenager, along with her parents retiring there, meant she had “enough Welsh blood to fall in love with Wales” — all of which must give the two books a seal of authenticity.

So there is a definite sense of place in all three authors’ fiction, Nimmo’s somewhere in Montgomeryshire, Garner’s inland from Harlech, and Cooper’s in Aberdyfi and its hinterland. Can the same be applied to their use of Welsh myth?

There can be no doubt about that. Garner’s The Owl Service treats of the tragedy embedded in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, ‘Math, son of Mathonwy’: updated to Wales in the 1960s the terrible triangle between Gronw, Lleu and Blodeuwedd becomes embodied in three teenagers, Gwyn and the step-siblings Alison and Roger. The magic of both stories, ancient and new, is subservient to the drama once lived by three living human beings, two born of women, the third fashioned from flowers.

Nimmo’s The Snow Spider also borrows from the Mabinogi, this time the Second Branch known as the tale of ‘Branwen, daughter of Llyr’, when mischief is visited on the entourage of Branwen’s royal Irish suitor by her half-brother Efnisien. Unnamed in the novel’s pages (it’s merely “a huge black book, its leather cover scarred with age”) the ancient collection of legends is read from by Gwyn’s Nain when she chooses and translates an extract from the Fourth Branch in order to explain her grandson’s legacy:

“At dawn rose Gwydion, the magician, before the cock crowed, and he summoned to him his power and his magic, and he went to the sea and found dulse and seaweed, and he held it close and spoke to it, then he cast it our over the sea, and there appeared the most marvellous ship . . .”

Her free rendering of the passage in Old Welsh emphasises not only the magical seaweed which Gwyn will be able to turn into a ship-like UFO but also its significance as the prelude to a naming. This is when Gwydion disguises himself and his unnamed nephew, sails to the court of his sister Arianrod’s castle and tricks her into naming the boy — her bastard son — Lleu Llaw Gyffes, “the fair one with the skillful hand”. Nimmo is thus alluding to her grandson Gwyn’s previously unknown descent from Gwydion and his inherited ability to use magic.

Finally, there is Cooper’s evocation of Arthurian legend and pseudohistory in The Grey King and Silver on the Tree. Dimitra Fimi has written extensively about Cooper’s indebtedness to scholarly authors such as E K Chambers and creative theorists such as Robert Graves in her use of Arthurian material, and Maria Sachiko Cecire includes Cooper in what she calls the Oxford School of Children’s Fantasy Literature (a loose group that also includes Tolkien and Lewis and other students influenced by their English syllabus, namely Diana Wynne Jones, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Philip Pullman). But Cooper isn’t writing from the vantage point of an ivory tower scholar: her intimate connection with Wales, and particularly that part in which she sets the final novels of her The Dark is Rising sequence, gives them the authenticity that the Welsh Books Council recognised, and which has helped win her legions of fans.

In summary, then, I believe that all three authors — Nimmo, Garner, and Cooper — write less as non-native outsiders but more as privileged incomers:  authors who have immersed themselves through family connections or empathic intimacy in Welsh culture and traditions, reverently telling the old tales anew.

A 17th-century piece, Gosteg yr Halen (literally “the silence of the salt” or perhaps “silence for the salt”) referenced by Garner in ‘The Beauty Things’, a harp solo which is claimed was played at a salt ceremony in King Arthur’s court.

  • Maria Sachiko Cecire, Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2019).
  • Jonathan Caredig Davies, Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales (Llanerch Publishers, Lampeter, 1992).
  • Dimitra Fimi, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2017), 157-218, 219-262.
  • Alan Garner, ‘The Beauty Things’, in Alan Garner, The Voice That Thunders (The Harvill Press, London, 1997), 193-207.
  • Jenny Nimmo, The Snow Spider Trilogy (Egmont, London, 2005).
  • Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales (Thames and Hudson, London, 1973), 90f.
  • Anne Ross, Folklore of Wales (Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2001).

A photo gallery of Welsh places from The Dark is Rising:

Interview with Susan Cooper:

The landscape that inspired Garner’s The Owl Service:

4 thoughts on “Calan Gaeaf

  1. Thank you for the “inestimable,” Chris – but I have to say this blog has a richness of connection and scholarship that puts my musings in the shade!

    Your deeper delve into the Mabinogion is particularly enlightening: I think I really must revisit that fourth Branch in the light of what you present here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m resisting as hard as I can us becoming a mutual admiration society but I really feel your and my respective responses to our questions complement each other well, each visiting different facets of Nimmo’s fine novel. And I stick by ‘inestimable’, you bring me back to the quintessential human aspects when I go wafting off on planes of fantasy.

      As for scholarship, you’re as always too kind: I merely dragged down from my shelves some dusty titles I acquired years ago after dragging up some memories from the cabinet of curiosities that is my brain and which desperately need curating.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad I saved this piece for the opportunity to read it at a more leisurely pace. So much to absorb here, Chris, all absolutely fascinating. Certainly, when I read The Snow Spider I instinctively assumed that Gwyn’s birth date was chosen with intent but that the modern associations with Halloween were peripheral. Much more to do with the traditions and superstitions of centuries. I also pondered the decision – clearly significant – to have Bethan disappear on the night of her brother’s birthday. Statistically to have these two significant family dates coincide would be stretching coincidence. To have Bethan disappear that particular night seemed reasonable but why attach it to Gwyn’s birthday? Now I understand!

    In the last few years I’ve now read The Owl Service, the Snow Spider Trilogy and the Dark is Rising Sequence. I do recommend you finish Susan Cooper’s series – for me the best of the three you consider here, and for what it’s worth in my opinion the books get better as you work through the sequence. (Possibly dipping slightly with the final book.) I should certainly post my own thoughts on Cooper’s books; there’s always hope! But for now I’ll mention that I found her sense of place when writing about the welsh locations was superb.

    Thanks for this piece. I’m catching up slowly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My guesses about why Bethan disappeared on that particular night are just that, Sandra, but the folklore seemed very suggestive to me. Jenny Nimmo tweeted a response to my review by saying she was “so impressed by your perceptive and interesting discussion of ‘The Snow Spider’. You understood so much. Your words have made me wander back thirty years – and ponder,” so I take some heart that I may have been on the right lines — at least with the Childe Rowland parallels, if not necessarily the Noson Galan Gaeaf beliefs.

      And yes please, do post your thoughts on Cooper’s TDIR books: I do hope to continue the series when lockdown properly starts to ease, but at the moment I have enough books at home to sink if not a ship than at least a dinghy! Anyway, thanks for enjoying these posts: the next Nimmo beckons soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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