Motifs, emotions and myth

Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire

Jenny Nimmo’s haunting children’s fantasy The Snow Spider was first published in 1986.

Nine-year-old Gwyn, son of a Welsh hill farming family still reeling from the loss of his older sister, is charged with taking up his role as descendent of the ancient magicians of the Mabinogi, the collection of Welsh myths and legends.

Through his growing understanding of his magical powers, and with the guidance of his grandmother, the eponymous Snow Spider, and a mysterious girl who joins the family, Gwyn becomes involved in the beauty and danger of a world normally just beyond mortal grasp, and has to confront rage and pain from centuries ago.

In a short series of posts fellow blogger Nick Swarbrick and I will be conversing on a range of topics which will have occurred to us while reading The Snow Spider; I then plan to follow them with a spoiler-free review. Here, to start, are some initial thoughts in response to Nick’s first post here, which I found insightful and thought-provoking.

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A better world

Inverted Commas 14: A better world

… leaving the world better than we found it …

I spotted this neon sign in a Cardiff café. Cynical me thought this might be a spurious claim for a city business — a way of selling themselves as ethical — but I’d reckoned without it being a rather special establishment: Bigmoose Coffee Company.

It aims, as it says, to ensure that “all profits are reinvested into good causes.” After a close friend died the owners decided to make a difference in the world:

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Beating the Bounds

Physics building, Royal Fort House and Gardens, Bristol (photo: Ben Mills)

Even if your patience hasn’t worn too thin you may nevertheless be glad I’m planning to make this a last discussion post about Diana Wynne Jones’s novel The Homeward Bounders (1981).

If you’ve arrived new to the wider discussion, my review of the fantasy is here, some observations about the author’s intentions here, and possible links with another novel, Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, can be found here.

But (as usual) my thoughts may well be rather too eclectic, so I humbly apologise if my speculations prove a tad over-enthusiastic. If you’ve read the novel you may more easily follow my line of argument; if not then just enjoy the ride! (But beware, there are massive spoilers.)

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Gossamer thin

Isis knot or tyet amulet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET DP109370)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.

But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.

However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.

But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.

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Deluge

Crickhowell Bridge after the Usk overflowed its banks

Storms across Northern Europe are becoming more frequent and more violent. The most recent, Storm Dennis, affected not only Ireland and the UK but continued to wreak havoc on Denmark, Germany, Estonia and around the Baltic.

Global warming puts more moisture into the air which then has no choice but to precipitate in torrents, saturating the earth and causing flooding, landslips, environmental damage and, of course, severe disruption to human activity and distress to communities.

Ever since the floods associated with the Sumerian Utnapashtim, the Greek Deucalion and the Biblical Noah we have all been familiar with tales of ‘universal’ deluges and their survivors — not just the who but the how and the why — and my mind drifts to how modern writers have depicted similar disasters in fiction.

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Requiem

Cropped image from the Daily Express

Just a final visual comment for today, a requiem for Britain’s enforced exit from the EU. This involves the fascist Daily Express, one of the many rabidly rightwing tabloids who’ve stoked up anti-EU feelings for many years with malicious and mendacious headlines and op-eds.

Here the populist rag proudly bleats about the ‘totemic’ blue passport, which you can see in the mock-up is in fact a royal blue shade. This is actually a lot lighter than the pre-EU passports which ranged from a dark navy blue to — as near as dammit — black.

Sceptics of the fantatical Brexiter line have cynically noted that the new passport will actually be manufactured in France. So much for a newly ‘independent’ UK, freed from the perfidious ‘unelected bureaucrats’ of Europe. (Don’t get me started.)

But a particular detail of the image, which the paper has credited to the Press Association, was quickly spotted by the eagle-eyed.

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Male gaze

The Pianist (c 1900) by Eugène Carrière

As some of you know, I’m a pianist. Not a very good one, you understand, but good enough to accompany choirs and soloists and occasionally play in amateur orchestras and ensembles. Plus, armed with a piano teaching diploma (a licenciate, no less!) from the Royal Academy of Music, I taught piano for several years.

So it was that I was drawn to a painting — yet another in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery — entitled The Pianist. Painted around 1900 by Eugène Carrière (1849–1906), a noted symbolist artist, it practically dared me to throw my professional musician’s and arty amateur’s eye over it.

For good measure, I want to also discuss it in conjunction with a couple of other paintings in this gallery, partly to include some thoughts in the perennial debate about what’s known as the male gaze.

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