Jenny Nimmo: The Snow Spider (1986)
in The Snow Spider Trilogy
Child Rowland to the dark tower came.
His word was still “Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
— King Lear, Act III Scene 4
Such a curious title: can spiders be active and survive in the outside temperatures that allow snow to fall? Of course, being cold-blooded creatures, this isn’t the case, which may be what makes the concept so appealing. Once, however, you can accept the premise that at least one special spider can survive it makes it easier to suspend disbelief about the other things that happen in this story.
This paradox will be the first of many, for Jenny Nimmo’s novel, the first title in a trilogy, is often underrated as a fantasy because there is so much under the surface of the narrative that may not be evident to the casual reader.
On Gwyn’s ninth birthday he is given five curious gifts by his Nain, his father’s mother: a broach, a musical pipe, a piece of seaweed, a scarf and a model of a horse. Each will conjure up wondrous things: the snow spider, the ability to hear sounds from the Otherworld, a sailing ship, his missing sister’s double, and a trickster from out of legend. And how is it he can achieve these conjurations? It’s because he is the descendent of the Welsh magician Gwydion and has thus inherited his powers.
Meanwhile there are strong emotions in Gwyn’s family — loss, anger, confusion — arising from the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister Bethan exactly four years previously, and Gwyn is made to feel responsible for Bethan never returning. Gwyn is hypersensitive, feeling guilty that his sister had gone out looking for his favourite ewe, but he is also recognised as being odd and therefore bullied at school.
Then there is the setting on the Welsh uplands, where sheepfarming was ever a parlous activity. In these hills legend and history are ever slumbering in the landscape, ready to erupt into the present, especially at times that represent the threshold of a new season, as happened with Gwyn being born as the Celtic winter started, the day after Hallowe’en.
Now the legends that are specifically referenced come from the collection of Welsh native tales known as the Mabinogi or Mabinogion, with characters such as Gwydion, the trickster Efnisien, and Branwen the bride of the Irish king. But the theme that comes to my mind, and one that may be a pattern for this tale, is the story of Childe Rowland, whose sister Burd Ellen was abducted by the King of Elfland after going widdershins round a church to fetch a lost ball.
Now this typical of a widespread folktale type: the maiden captured by fairies for an unwitting transgression, whose brother (usually it’s the youngest of three) goes off to rescue her from a ‘Dark Tower’ like that mentioned in passing in Shakespeare’s King Lear. There is a hint of all this in The Snow Spider, I sense: Gwyn, thrice three years old, uses his magical resources to locate his long-lost sister Bethan, who went missing on the first day of the Celtic winter, her presumed sin being to leave the house in a snow storm to find and rescue Gwyn’s black ewe. It’s not an exact parallel, and it may all turn out differently, but I fancy the paradigm is behind Nimmo’s novel nevertheless.
But I return to the spider of the title, which Gwyn conjures from the intricate broach and which he calls Arianwen, a compound of silver and white in Welsh. No passive creature this, for she weaves glittering webs in which Gwyn can spy, for example, a fairy castle filled with children. So often storytelling is described in terms of weaving a tale, in which strands of narrative are interwoven to produce patterns that show off motifs, characters and actions, perhaps even trapping us willing victims in its threads. There are echoes here of the Greek Fates weaving their tapestry, and of course Ariadne (a near homonym for Arianwen) with her clew or thread to lead Theseus through the Cretan labyrinth.*
So it seems that Gwyn tries to read the significance of what is presented to him; but adrift on a raft of emotions it proves hard for him to make the right choices, jeopardising those around him, family, friends and enemies alike.
But there is hope. The mysterious girl Eirlys may prove to be a clue — her name, meaning snowdrop, indicates a flower which is a harbinger of spring, appearing early February around Candlemas, the pagan Irish festival of Imbolc. But she may also represent a danger to Gwyn if he isn’t careful, a temptation such as Childe Roland was warned not to succumb to.
My enthusiasm for this novel’s mix of human psychology and ancient mythology is more than evident, I’m certain, and part of it comes from a knowledge of and instinct for the deep resonances embedded in its text. Without those many have found this a slight, even confusing tale which leaves them cold. But the more I consider The Snow Spider the more I warm to it.
Oh, and it made me cry. For all the right reasons.
* I’m also reminded of Charlotte Brontë’s line of poetry which described her sisters and brother creating their imaginary worlds, “We wove a web in childhood” — itself perhaps an inspiration for E B White’s novel Charlotte’s Web?
Another review for Wyrd and Wonder