What happens in fantasy has come out of the universe of truth.Susan Cooper.¹
A large section of the final book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence is set in what she calls The Lost Land – which, incidentally, is the name of her official website, thelostland.com. In Silver on the Tree two of the protagonists, Will Stanton and Bran Davies, travel back in time to the City, the Country, and the Castle of this Lost Land to win a key object in their fight against the Dark.
A few readers feel confused by this episode. So many previous episodes in the sequence are set in real or nearly real places – Cornwall, Buckinghamshire, Wales – even if transformed by magic, and in a fictional present or past; but the Lost Land is so obviously a fantastical setting that it almost seems out of place.
In this discussion post I want to explore some of the author’s likely literary and historical inspirations for her Lost Land and suggest possible reasons for including the boys’ sojourn here in an area off the coast of Wales now covered by the sea.
Writers and poets
Susan Cooper obtained her English degree from Somerville College, Oxford in the 1950s; she returned to Oxford in 2017 to give the Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature.¹ At Oxford she’d attended lectures by Professors Tolkien and C S Lewis, who’d by then instigated a syllabus with nothing more recent than a century before, a syllabus filled with early to late medieval works from Beowulf on through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the eighteenth century.
With such a perspective her writerly sense of time developed a particular pre-modern focus, and her sense of place, though by now she was domiciled in New England, was determined by her early memories of Buckinghamshire and of holidays in Gwynedd, for which she entertained what the Welsh call hiraeth, a yearning for ‘home’ compounded of nostalgia, even homesickness.
At some stage she discovered Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, first published in 1948, and from this she was to draw many elements for her The Dark is Rising sequence. With her academic training she will have known of course that Graves had, in the words of Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams, a “cavalier indifference to historical and textual detail” — because, of course, he was concocting not an scholarly treatise but (in his words) “a historical grammar”, to serve his own purposes as a poet.
So, with her pentalogy Cooper’s intention was, in Alan Garner’s phrase, to “unriddle the world” using prophetic verses, through conjuring up magical objects (Signs, grail, book of gramarye, harp of gold, horn, and sword), and by enabling travel across time and space, all to counteract the machinations of the Dark. But in Silver on the Tree Cooper selected elements from Welsh tradition and culture which Graves had previously identified and repurposed them for her own poetic needs.
Let’s start with people. First there’s Gwion, also known as Taliesin. Taliesin was probably an historic Welsh bard from perhaps the sixth century, with verses ascribed to him as early as the ninth century.
There might have been folk legends about him but they’ve been contaminated by apocryphal tales made up by the inventive Iolo Morganwg in early modern times – tales about his connections with the witch Ceridwen, a ruler called Gwyddno Garanhir, and much else besides — some of which Lady Charlotte Guest incorporated in her translation of native Welsh tales she called The Mabinogion and around which modern speculative antiquarians like John Matthews have woven a complex mystic mythology.
In brief the tales of Gwion Bach and of Taliesin tell of little Gwion who drank from the Cauldron of Inspiration and thus became a poet; he was reborn from the witch Ceridwen, rescued from a weir near Aberystwyth by Gwyddno’s son Elffin and renamed Taliesin, which means Radiant Brow. He grew up to compose gnomic verses and to prophesy.
It made sense therefore for Cooper to take this mysterious figure, whom she variously calls Gwion or Taliesin, as the guide for Will and Bran in the Lost Land.
The Lost Land
Then there is the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod, located west of the Gwynedd coast in Cardigan Bay. The 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen seems to suggest a certain young woman called Mererid, sometimes called a “well-maiden”, was responsible for allowing the incoming tide, whipped up by a storm, to overrun the sea-defences and flood Maes Gwyddno, Gwyddno’s Plain in English (although a certain Seithenin who was drunk was also somehow to blame). By the sixteenth century the area was called Cantre’r Gwaelod or the “sunken land” because it was below sea-level, and Caer Gwyddno – Gwyddno’s Castle – was its seat of power. Local legends claim that after the netherland was inundated it was possible to occasionally hear the church bells (as in the Breton legend of Ker-Is, the City of Ys, which Debussy celebrated in his piano piece La cathédrale engloutie).
This then is the background to where Will and Bran travel to when they visit the Country, City and Castle of the Lost Land. The countryside with its fields, orchards and rose gardens is Maes Gwyddno, the castle which is Caer Gwyddno, and the city with its buildings and church, the bells of which today can now and then be faintly heard – all derive from legends recorded from the 1200s to the present day. But what of the details of the structures the boys find, too dreamlike to have ever existed in real life?
A hint can be found in the early 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who identified the Roman fort of Caerleon-on-Usk in southeast Wales as the site of King Arthur’s court. The rationale for this identification may be found in The Journey through Wales by Geoffrey’s close contemporary, Gerald of Wales. “Caerleon is of unquestioned antiquity,” Gerald wrote. “You can still see many vestiges of its one-time splendour. There are immense palaces, which, with the gilded gables of their roofs, once rivalled the magnificence of ancient Rome.” He echoed Geoffrey who had written that the inhabitants had “adorned the city with royal palaces, and by the gold-painted gables of its roofs it was a match for Rome.”
Splendour, magnificence, golden roofs, palaces — it isn’t hard to see where the inspiration for Cooper’s Caer Gwyddno and environs may have come. The occasional appearance of preserved tree stumps of pine, alder, oak and birch, exposed by storms not only on Gwynedd beaches but along the length of the Cardigan Bay coast, is evidence that forested land existed west of the present shoreline as early as three and a half millennia or more ago. But there’s more to this novel than just a mysterious physical region.
Treasures and trees
For this we must look not to the Ystoria or Hanes Taliesin in the Mabinogion but to the 14th-century Llyvyr Taliesin, the Book of Taliesin. The contents of this codex can be divided into early medieval poems praising heroes, later prophetic and devotional verses, and the legendary poems that Robert Graves focused on, chiefly ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’ and ‘The Battle of the Trees’.
‘The Spoils of Annwfn’ describes a quest by Arthur and the crew of his ship Prydwen to various castles of the Otherworld (Annwn or Annwfn) to retrieve treasures, and it’s the names and natures of a couple or so castles that find some correspondences in Silver on the Tree. Caer Siddi can mean Fairies’ Castle, though Graves preferred the interpretation of Spiral Castle, accounting for the labyrinth which Will and Bran have to negotiate in the Lost Land. Another structure, Caer Wydr – the Glass Castle – had inspired Cooper’s description of Gwyddno’s Castle, and may have owed its appearance to memories of icebergs: the silent figures on its ramparts (which find their counterparts in the City’s silent inhabitants) could have alluded to seal or walrus colonies on the ice, as it may have done in a similar incident in the 10th-century History of the Britons. Finally, a flashing sword in the depths of a pearl-rimmed cauldron reminds us of the crystal weapon that Bran will wield, Pendragon’s sword, and of course the cauldron may be the equivalent of the chalice called a grail which first appeared in Over Sea, Under Stone and was recovered in Greenwitch.
Graves suggested ‘The Battle of the Trees’ was the source of a Tree Alphabet and calendar which he then postulated was in use in Wales, but Cooper preferred to select certain trees to surround Gwyddno’s Castle. The poem mentions various trees, shrubs and plants (such as alder, willow, rowan, blackthorn, medlar, rosewood, bramble, privet, honeysuckle and much else) all in contention, from which Graves, as did Cooper, selected what suited his purposes. Sprays plucked from the trees were to aid Bran and Will in acquiring Pendragon’s sword in Gwyddno’s Castle.
I’ve indicated at some length the literary sources that Cooper sought inspiration from for Siver on the Tree, but I’ve left no space for a discussion of the folklore that fed into the conclusion of the sequence. That will have to be for another time. But it arises from a rich tradition, one that is worth investigating.
• John B Coe and Simon Young, transl. 1995. The Sources for the Arthurian Legend. Llanerch Publishers.
• Susan Cooper. 1977. Silver on the Tree. Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013.
• Patrick K Ford, transl. 1977. The Mabinogi, and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. University of California.
• Robert Graves. 1948. The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth. Faber and Faber, amended and enlarged edition 1961.
• Lady Charlotte E Guest, transl. 1877. The Mabinogion. Dover Publications, 1977.
• Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams, transl. 2020. The Book of Taliesin. Poems of warfare and praise in an enchanted Britain. Penguin Classics, 2019.
• John Matthews. 1991. Taliesin. Shamanism and the bardic mysteries in Britain and Ireland. Aquarius Press, 1991.
• Malcolm Smith, and W Probert, transl. 1977. The Triads of Britain, compiled by Iolo Morganwg. Wildwood House.
• Sir Ifor Williams, editor, and J E Caerwyn Williams, transl. 1968. The Poems of Taliesin. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. 1975.
¹ Susan Cooper, ‘A Catch in the Breath’. https://youtu.be/gBt_iFTbiK0
9 thoughts on “#TDiRS22: The Lost Land”
I’ve always been fascinated by the Lost Land as a liminal space between past and future, real and unreal, everyday and mythological experience. I knew it had a basis in tradition, but not the details, so thanks for elucidating. I can see how the dreamlike quality might have jarred some readers but for me it was just my cup of tea!
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I’m glad my ramblings have helped, Lory! The dreamlike travel sequences in Greenwitch (when Will meets Thetis in the deep ocean chasm) and Silver on the Tree (to meet Gwion in the Lost Land) have always puzzled me, their being very different from other time travelling and Otherworldly sequences in the novel series.
I suppose seeing them as excursions into deep myth (Greek, Welsh) is how I eventually conceptualised them, but they’re also, as you rightly point out, liminal spaces; but unlike, for example, the cave within Bird Rock or the Hall where the Lady resides – they’re vast almost limitless exterior spaces. Perhaps they’re aspects of some Collective Unconscious that the Light and the Dark both are able to inhabit?
Something like that. The lost land under the sea is a perfect symbol there.
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It’s a wonderfully polyvalent metaphor and, because somehow amorphous, perfect!
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Pingback: #TDiRS22: The Lost Land – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me
I’m stunned as always by all the references and influences you’re able to pull together. I must admit, the Lost Land didn’t work for me on the first reading (although the visit under the sea in Greenwitch did!) but I really enjoyed your post, finding much to muse upon.
Then I had a slight disconnect and had to track down another Arthurian/Mabinogi pair of novels I read back in around 1980 – all I had to go on was a swan on the cover and a lead character that could have been called Gwydion…. some time later, I found out I was close-ish – it was Gwalchmai and the book was Merlin’s Ring and its sequel by H Warner Munn, but I don’t have my copies any more, so this was rather a useless diversion! Have you read those books?
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The name rang a bell, and a quick check confirmed that I remember seeing the US paperbacks (especially the one with the fire-breathing swan) back in the mid 70s, though I never felt inclined to pick them up – I must’ve had my fill of pseudomedieval fantasies by then after struggling through titles like William Morris’s The Well at World’s End in US editions where the copies fell apart after one read!
But I’m pleased you found my post enlightening, Annabel. 🙂 I hope to eventually round out my TDiR posts with the promised consideration of the folklore and the legends Cooper refurbished for this final volume. Soon, anyway!
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Another wonderful post. You could make a book of these!
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That’s kind of you to say so, Liz, I’m glad you’re enjoying them!
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