Chosen by myth

Mow Cop Castle (built 1754)

Red Shift
by Alan Garner.
Collins Lion Track 1975 (1973).

I see in my mind’s eye an exposed cliff which has been riven by some past cataclysm: strata from different periods composed of contrasting materials now sit side by side, yet they belong to the same cliff face. In such a way Alan Garner’s Red Shift presents to my imagination: three stories from different eras cleaving together in one extraordinary narrative.

Shifting from the present (Cheshire in the seventies) to the English Civil War in the same part of the world, or to a remnant of the Ninth Legion trying to go native among the Cornovii tribe in the second century CE, the novel slowly reveals how different people in different timelines can somehow be linked by a number of strands: topographical sites, artefact, geology, astronomy, a mythic tale.

As with many Garner novels the book is intensely personal. A native of Cheshire with local family roots stretching back centuries, he sets great store by a sense of place and by objects suffused with age, tradition or ritual. But he also features troubled characters in protagonist roles, a reflection of his own mental struggles over the years, all of which go towards ensuring his narratives have a firm substratum of authenticity and truth.

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A dangerous time of year

moon NASA
Moon (NASA image)

The Moon of Gomrath
by Alan Garner.
Endpaper maps by Charles Green,
jacket design by George Adamson.
Collins 1970 (1963).

“… the world of Magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow…”

This tale picks up soon after the events in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when 12-year-old twins Colin and Susan are still staying in Cheshire whilst their parents are abroad. Evil witch the Morrigan has, along with her allies, finally been defeated, but Susan no longer has the teardrop heirloom, the weirdstone of the title. In its place is a curious silver bracelet, its shape echoing the young moon, and it is the moon — from the title of this sequel to Susan’s crucial role — which runs as one of the leitmotivs throughout this dark tale.

It’s hard to tell, but I’m guessing that these events take place sometime in the late 1950s; the date is immaterial but helps to get a handle on the narrative. Air pollution has driven a group of travellers from North Wales to Alderley Edge in Cheshire. No ordinary travellers these: they are lios-alfar, what we would call elves, and they are resting in the caves underneath the Edge before going on to the Northlands, where they hope to defeat whatever is destroying their kin there. They are let into the heart of the Edge by Cadellin, the wizard who befriended Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone and who still guards the sleeping knights under the hill.

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The teardrop expounded

sunset

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
by Alan Garner.
Puffin Books revised edition 1963 (1960).

Reading this at the end of the sixties, fresh from the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, I felt confused and slightly underwhelmed. Despite its nod to Arthurian legend (sleeping king, Wild Hunt, sage wizard) and genuine sense of menace I missed the complexity of Tolkien’s saga, with its multiple locations, characters and interweave of plots. Nor did it share the light touch of The Hobbit despite featuring two youngsters in their early teens.

Perhaps the book’s misfortune was to be of its time, partly satisfying a hunger for epic fantasy but appearing, in contrast, as a pale imitation of The Lord of the Rings. Garner, whose first novel this was – he wrote it in his mid-twenties – recognised such weaknesses by first providing a revised edition for Puffin Books and later virtually disavowing it as “a fairly bad book”.

To dismiss it, especially now, would be unfair. For all the similarity of motifs – dwarfs, elves, underground mines, wizard, evil lord, powerful talisman, trolls, a final near-hopeless battle – what strikes me more on this re-reading four decades on are the differences. This is set in a corner of Garner’s native Cheshire, not in a secondary world like Middle Earth; the names and figures draw not on an invented mythology but directly from native traditions and languages, from Welsh, Manx, Irish and Norse folklore and literature (for example Angharad, Fenodyree, Morrigan and Grimnir, respectively); the main protagonists are not adult halflings but two, as it turns out, not-so-ordinary children; and the story is set not in some faraway land many millennia ago but in a here-and-now mid-twentieth century, with trains, waterproof macs, bikes, electric torches and ramblers. Even if the past is never far away, beginning with the milk-white steeds of the legendary but unnamed king…

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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.

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Primitive catastrophe

Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd (image credit: © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Alan Garner: The Owl Service
Postscript by the author
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (1967)

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”
— 1965 quote from Radio Times used as an epitaph for The Owl Service

We often unconsciously live our lives according to a script, seeing ourselves acting out a tragedy or a quest, a journey or overcoming major obstacles, human or otherwise. Sometimes those scripts follow a fairytale trope, such as the arc of the Cinderella story. More rarely do we mirror an ancient myth, but in The Owl Service that’s exactly what Gwyn, Alison and Roger do, aided and abetted by the mysterious Huw.

The three youngsters, unwittingly at first, take the parts of Gronw, Blodeuwedd and Lleu from the Mabinogion tale of Math, the son of Mathonwy, but even when they become aware of the parallels they seem almost powerless to avoid a descent into darkness. And yet this is not just a simple updating of a medieval plot for modern times: the author also offers insights into psychology, family dynamics and social mobility, all contained within a strong sense of place, in North Wales.

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Reading about Wales

As I’ve previously posted here, Paula Bardell-Hedley of Book Jotter is introducing the first Wales Readathon, Dewithon19 for the month of March. The first day of March is of course the feast day of Wales’ patron St David, also familiarly known as Dewi. With just one month to go, I’ve been giving thought to how I shall approach the readathon.

Firstly, I’ve been drawing up a list of books to consider reading (and subsequently review); this include titles by Welsh authors and books set in or about Wales and about Welsh culture. Here is my initial shortlist, though I may add to or remove some of these works:

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My top ten mazes

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto in Bartolomeo Veneto, l’opera completa, Firenze: Centro Di, 1997. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).

I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.

And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.

Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).

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Gawain and the jolly green giant

Winter's journey
Winter’s journey (Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, some years back)

Bernard O’Donoghue transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Penguin 2006

Simon Armitage transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Faber and Faber 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most magical of Arthurian tales: a jolly green giant who intrudes into King Arthur’s Christmas court at Camelot invites Gawain to chop off his head on condition that Gawain allows the return blow one year hence; the year up, Gawain then travels through Wales to northwest England to face his doom. Has he bitten off more than he can chew or will he acquit himself well and bring honour to king and court? Continue reading “Gawain and the jolly green giant”