A strong sense of place #TDiRS22

Cadair Idris range, Gwynedd

The last instalment of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Silver on the Tree, is set in several places – by the Thames in Buckinghamshire at the start, mythical lost lands out in Cardigan Bay – but principally in the southwest corner of Snowdonia, Gwynedd, centred on the seaside town of Aberdyfi on the edge of the Cadair Idris range.

Having spent a couple of recent breaks in Aberdyfi with relatives who had links with the area, I was in a good position to become more acquainted with the background to both Silver on the Tree and the preceding volume in the sequence, The Grey King. It reinforced the strong sense of place that Cooper embedded in these two titles.

This post then is an attempt to give a pictorial impression of some of the landscape mentioned in the final novel for those who’ve not visited here; a later post will go into some detail of the literary, legendary and mythical influences that the author drew on to give both grounding and significance to incidents in the narrative.

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Darkness in Gwynedd #TDiR22

The 9th-century monolith known as the Cadfan Stone © C A Lovegrove

When Susan Cooper was writing the fourth title in her The Dark is Rising sequence, The Grey King (1975), she was drawing from family connections with the southwestern corner of Merionethshire (now part of Gwynedd) where she had holidayed as a child, where some of her relatives lived and where her parents retired. So some of the places referenced in the novel were based on real locations, while others were inspired by places she was familiar with.

She also was inspired by local legends attached to specific sites, legends which she either borrowed wholesale or freely riffed on. In this discussion post I want to give readers some background to both the locations and the legends, drawn from a couple of recent visits to the area (one of those around Hallowmas, the time of year The Grey King is set) and my longterm interest in folklore, archaeology, and Arthurian legend.

Needless to say, if you haven’t read the novel there will be spoilers galore.

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When the year dies #TDiRS22

Llyn Mwyngil, Tal-y-llyn lake © C A Lovegrove

The Grey King by Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising sequence, Book 4.
Illustration by Julie Dillon.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1975).

“On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.”

The Grey King

The fourth book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence opens with a prophetic rhyme which, with its alliterative phrases, antonyms and allusions, reads like a riddle to be solved – which in a way it is. The day of the dead is the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain, the modern Halloween, which once upon a time marked the end of summer and the start of the new year as autumn begins ushering in winter.

Noson Galan Gaeaf – ‘the eve of the first day of winter’ – is the Welsh term for All Hallows Eve, an ysbrydnos or ‘spirit night’ when the departed walk abroad in spirit. Cooper’s The Grey King is set in Gwynedd, the northeast corner of Wales, at precisely this period, and it’s especially fitting that I completed it at the very time and in the area where the story’s action takes place, around Tywyn near Aberdyfi.

It was in 1950s Aberdyfi – where, Cooper tells us, she spent many teenage holidays – that her Welsh Uncle Llew told her about the Brenin Llwyd or “Grey King” who features at the sinister heart of this spellbinding fantasy. It’s to nearby Tywyn and its hinterland that eleven-year-old Will Stanton comes to recuperate from hepatitis and where he has to call on all his powers to combat the malign forces on the slopes of the Cadair Idris massif.

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Almost unclassifiable

Hardback illustration by Lynton Lamb

The Twelve Dancers
by William Mayne, 
illustrated by Lynton Lamb.
Hamish Hamilton 1962.

In the upper reaches of the Severn a Welsh valley bordering England retains a centuries-old tradition. A folk dance enacted annually by the village schoolchildren precedes a ritual whereby the locals use a battering-ram to force the local lord at the castle to accept their rent and to drink their mutual healths from a cup.

But Emrys ‘Plow’ Jones wants the Commons Wood for himself. If he can find the long-lost Cup he might be able to curtail the ritual and thus justifiably claim rights over the land.

Newcomer Marlene Price and her schoolmates involved in the dance think they are in a position to alter the outcome of events and save the Commons Wood, but will the tightly-knit valley community be able to sort things out amicably before matters turn sour?

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A small but pretty town

Crickhowell, St Edmunds and the Vale of Usk from an old print by Henry Gastineau (1830-1). This view is taken from the top of the Norman motte looking northwest

Crickhowell
through the eyes of the visitor 1740-1910
by Robert Gant, William Gibbs and Elizabeth Siberry.
Crickhowell District Archive Centre 2021

Crickhowel [sic] is a small but pretty town … very close to the river, which looking upwards from the bridge, is truly picturesque in its windings and the character of the landscape on either side. It is a charming ‘bit’ for the painter.

Miles Birket Foster, 1864

This handsome and profusely illustrated booklet of some hundred pages has a history of its own, revised in 2009 after its first appearance in 1981 and now expanded from its previous 1780-1870 range to include new images from as early as 1740 and as late as 1910.

Along with reproductions of maps, prints, engravings, paintings and sketches is an informed and informative text, drawing on material in the Crickhowell District Archive Centre as well as that found online and in collections including the National Libraries of Wales and of Scotland, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and institutions in New Zealand and Canada.

But this publication has more than merely local interest: it could serve as a template for how such historical guides focused on visitor experience may be successfully produced, and it shows how even an apparently out of the way small town may feature in national or even international consciousness when figures such as Lord John Wesley, Nelson, the Duke of Clarence and Compton Mackenzie stayed locally, and aristocrats fled here escaping the French Revolution.

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A dead man’s chest

Bartholomew Roberts, known as Barti Ddu or Black Bart

Welsh Pirates and Privateers
by Terry Breverton.
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2018.

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…

Who does not thrill to very mention of pirates? I do, for sure, and for all the usual reasons — the smell of open sea, the ship in full sail, the thrill of the chase, the bustle of action as other ships are sighted. I’m less enamoured of the usual clichés though — the pirate talk, the romantic notion of the sea thief with a heart of gold beneath their bluff exterior, the stereotyped clothing — though I blame that on an early addiction to documented history.

So you can imagine my delight in spotting this pocket-sized volume: over fifty named Welsh pirates, a profusely illustrated text on quality paper, a discussion on how Welsh seamen were a key element in the history of piracy and privateering, all by a writer who had already authored seven books on the subject, with this volume a revised and updated version of his 2003 title The Book of Welsh Pirates and Buccaneers.

But I was to discover there were two sides to my reaction to this acquisition: genuine delight mixed with some frustration.

The good bits first.

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Five fowl vignettes

Image: WordPress Free Photo Library

1. A foul fowl

Our son came to visit us at our former Welsh farmhouse, at a time when we kept hens and a cockerel. We were out at the time, but when we returned he told us how entertained he’d been by a particular hen we’d recently acquired: she’d been strutting around on her own, as was her habit, ejaculating what sounded like a sneezed obscenity at intervals, and that had had him in stitches. Oh, we said, that’ll be Fuckit!

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The price of having

Maesglase by Velela, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

The Life of Rebecca Jones: A Novel
(originally O! Tyn y Gorchudd)
by Angharad Price,
translated by Lloyd Jones,
afterword by Jane Aaron.
MacLehose Press 2014 (2002)

I was given a long life. It has spanned the whole of the twentieth century and has been full of experience. I have felt the rough fist of misfortune and the soft palm of joy. I have spent many hours in darkness. Yet light came anew. I learned that the price of having is losing.

The life of upland farming communities has never been an easy one. In southern Snowdonia one such farmstead has survived a millennium on the flanks of Maesglase mountain between Dolgellau and Dinas Mawddwy, but one may wonder for how much longer, especially with the rapid changes wrought from the 20th century onwards into the present.

The Life of Rebecca Jones recounts the deeds and experiences of the Jones family from Tynybraich farm over the course of that century, told as by Rebecca herself. Only, this being a nonfiction novel, it’s actually told by Angharad Price, Rebecca’s great-niece, and so could be called a recreated autobiography or memoir. That doesn’t detract from its utter authenticity though, nor from its poetic power nor its emotional impact.

For this is a novel about continuity; or rather continuance, when a lack of disconnection or interruption cannot be taken for granted. “Continuance is painful,” Rebecca tells us. “It is the cross onto which we are tied: its beams pulling us this way and that. A longing for continuance lies at the heart of our nature.” And yet, “we are born to die. And we spend our lives coming to terms with that paradox.”

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Monoliths: myths and legends

Sacred Stones.
The standing stones of West Wales:
their history and traditions
by Terry John. Gomer 1994

Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire [November 2014] it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach.

If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire.

Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.

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A wondrous web

Snowfall in the Preseli Hills in West Wales

This review is the final instalment of a series of posts of Jenny Nimmo’s fantasy, all part of an online discussion between Nick Swarbrick and me.


Jenny Nimmo: The Snow Spider (1986)
in The Snow Spider Trilogy
Egmont (2004)

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.

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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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A magical landscape

Foel Cwm Cerwyn, Mynyddoedd y Preseli

Over a few posts Nick Swarbrick and I have been discussing the first instalment of Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, The Snow Spider. Nick began with a fine piece entitled Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis and I followed with Motifs, emotions and myth. Next I discussed Loss in the novel to which Nick responded with
Need Called Knowledge Out, an analysis concerning young magic-users coming into their powers.

We now come to four questions we set ourselves to answer about the novel’s setting, in culture, landscape and time — we’ll each look at two today on our respective blogs, with the remaining pair given our consideration on another day.

We hope that you will appreciate and respond to our comments, whether or not you’ve read The Snow Spider. And if you haven’t read it yet maybe you’ll be persuaded to by these posts!

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The best teller of tales

Nick Swarbrick’s recent survey has established that young Gwyn Griffiths, in Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, follows the model of young wizards and witches in children’s fantasy getting a call — a vocation — setting them on the path of a magical career and gradual maturation.

Remember, Nick reminds us, Hagrid’s revelation: “Yer a wizard, Harry.” And it’s Gwyn’s turn, on his ninth birthday, to be told by his grandmother (in the novel’s opening pages) that he is fated to be a magician. The reason this is his destiny is because he is directly descended from Gwydion, the legendary Welsh wizard out of time immemorial.

In this, my latest post, anticipating the eventual penning of a review, I want to explore the mythic background of Gwyn’s assumption of the magician’s mantle; it may take us into some quite psychologically dark yet enchanted realms.

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Loss

Somewhere in Wales © CL

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider continues to weave its magic in the recesses of my brain. In this, the second of a short series of posts (and part of a dialogue with Nick Swarbrick) I want to discuss the pain that comes with loss, and how the ache of pain may be partly assuaged with a compensatory gain.

That we are currently in a time of loss — when a pandemic is taking away many loved ones prematurely and leaving huge swathes of the world’s population with a sense of powerlessness — only heightens the theme I’ve chosen and allows us to appreciate the emotional undercurrents in the novel.

While the losses in The Snow Spider may be fictional they reflect the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever, and may account for how the novel seems to have a power that transcends what may be superficially ascribed to a piece of escapist fiction inspired by myth.

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Good tales well told

Daniel Morden:
Secret Tales from Wales
Illustrated by Brett Breckon
Gomer Press 2017

Enough for one,
Too much for two,
Nothing for three.
What is it?
— epigraph to Secret Tales from Wales

I always smile to myself when I see journalistic headlines like The Top Ten Secret Beaches or The Secrets Only Locals Know, because once those details are screamed out at you and tens of thousands other readers, whether in hard copy or online, by definition it’s no longer a secret. They become the Top Ten Best Known Beaches or Famous Local Facts All the World Knows.

So the title of this book doesn’t refer to tales never ever revealed before but to stories about secrets. And the tales are from Wales because the writer is Welsh, not because they are unique to Welsh tradition.

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