(Read as part of Dewithon 19 and for The Classics Club.)
I opened my reading for the Welsh readathon, hosted by Paula at Book Jotter, with a trio of children’s books, the first of which I knew well. Although I came to it as an adult, it left a haunting and hard-hitting impression of loss and loneliness. I’ve wanted to read the remaining books in the series for some while; they were readily available on my Kindle and a well-written children’s book involving Welsh magic seemed an excellent place to start.
Jenny Nimmo has lived in Wales for over forty years and has written many books for children since The Snow Spider was published, but it was that original book in this trilogy which brought her name to wider audiences. The series is officially named The Magician’s Trilogy, but seems better known (and has recently been published in omnibus form) using just the name of the first book. Book one, The Snow Spider, was published in 1986. It won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and also the Tir na n-Og Award from the Welsh Books Council, recognising the year’s best English-language children’s book with an authentic Welsh background. It was followed by Emlyn’s Moon (1987) and The Chestnut Soldier (1989).
[An unnecessary digression: when the arrival of my first grandchild was imminent and the important task of deciding what I would be called came under discussion, I suggested “Nain”, after the Welsh grandmother in The Snow Spider. (We already had Nanas and Grannys etc.) Nain is a tall, flamboyant and independent lady who lived in a chaotic house piled high with tottering old books. Housework didn’t seem high on her list of priorities; she spent her time more profitably in gardening, cooking and other more esoteric pursuits. She was certainly eccentric and regarded as mad by many but – most importantly – she was devoted to her grandson. In the tv adaptation, Nain was played by the Welsh actress Siân Phillips, whom I’ve always admired. Although there are no Welsh connections on either side of his family that I know of, my first grandson has a Welsh name. I rather fancied being a wacky, devoted grandmother who resembled Siân Phillips and brought magic into the life of her grandson. Everything seemed to fit. Sadly, I haven’t evolved into Siân Phillips and I’m not (yet) as eccentric as Nain in the books, but the story retains its magic for me.]
The inside of her house was like a bright bowl. All the corners had been rounded off with cupboards and bookcases, and upon every item of furniture there was heaped a jumble of books, bright clothes and exotic plants. The fronds of shawls, trailing leaves and garlands of beads festooned the furniture … the whole place had a wild and mystical air about it. Somewhere, through the jumble, a kettle lurked, and soon this was whistling merrily, while Nain sang from behind a screen embroidered with butterflies, and a canary chattered in its cage.
Back to the books. Nain is an important character, but the central figure is Gwyn Griffiths, her grandson, who as The Snow Spider opens is approaching his ninth birthday. His home life is strained. Four years previous, again on Gwyn’s birthday, his elder sister Bethan disappeared. No trace of her was found. Gwyn’s father, Nain’s son, blames Gwyn for her disappearance. Nain gives Gwyn a strange collection of gifts for his ninth birthday, with the instruction to ‘give them to the wind’. One is a model of a maimed horse with a label attached which reads: ‘Dim hon!’ – ‘Not this!’ Thus begins a series of events which continue with the arrival of a tiny silver spider that Gwyn names ‘Arianwen’: the snow spider.
It was a snowflake; the most beautiful he had ever seen, for it was magnified into an exquisite and intricate pattern: a star glistening like crystal in the soft light. And then the most extraordinary thing happened. The star began to move…
The second and third books, both of which were new to me, again feature Gwyn and his family. In the second book, two years later, the focus is on Gwyn’s cousin Emlyn, and his fractured family. Two years after that, with Gwyn now almost thirteen, the main family in the final book is the sprawling Lloyds, of which there are many including Gwyn’s best friend, Alun and his younger sister Nia. Both were strong characters in the earlier books but in the final book, ‘The Chestnut Soldier’, the whole family takes centre stage with the unexpected arrival of Mrs Lloyd’s nephew, Evan, a soldier in Northern Ireland who comes to stay with them as part of his recovery after a peculiar incident in which he was hailed as a hero.
Evan Llŷr regarded him eagerly, intrigued and puzzled and, for a moment, Gwyn was thrown off guard because the soldier’s smile was so truly welcoming. And then he remembered the voice that had snaked through the air, repelling the same three people who now found its owner so irresistible. And Gwyn sensed a terrible contradiction. He was in the presence of something utterly unfamiliar. There was an emptiness about Evan Llŷr, a fearlessness that had nothing to do with courage, and it betrayed the kind and gentle smile.
Does he know who I am? Gwyn wondered.
Each book features Gwyn’s attempts to master his own mysterious powers, for Nain’s birthday gifts are presented in order that he can discover whether he carries the magician blood of his ancestors. The books also explore themes more grounded in modern life. Family dynamics; childhood friendships; growing up different; reconciliation after tragedy all play a part, as does mental health. There are references to characters struggling with mental health issues in each of the books. This isn’t laboured and is presented in an accepting and constructive way as something which happens to some people at some points in their lives.
Gwyn knew he would help. They were as close and comfortable as brothers, even if Emlyn did not always understand how his cousin could sometimes ache with apprehension on a sunny day…
These are not ‘adventure books’ in which the adults are conveniently busy elsewhere leaving the children free to engage in their adventures without parental constraints. The parents have their own struggles and are very present in all the books. I liked the realism that ran throughout. The contemporary storylines had parity with – and at times felt stronger than – the fantasy elements.
[Another digression: I found myself wondering if the ending of the final book would be written in the same way today. The suggestion of a deepening relationship between a young girl and an older man rang warning bells in a way that perhaps it wouldn’t have thirty years ago. An indictment of our times rather than a criticism of the book.]
She forgot about Fly and her broken promise. Her mind was filled with the colour and complexion of the world about her; the intensity of shadows, shades of the sky, the brilliance of flowers and the curving shape of trees.
Does the trilogy have a place in Dewithon? Most definitely. The fantasy element is rooted in Welsh myth. Jenny Nimmo draws on the Mabinogion, compiled in Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries – weaving the stories of Branwen and Efnisien into Gwyn’s burgeoning discovery of his powers. But alongside this, life in rural Wales ripples through the pages. Nimmo’s writing is flowing and lyrical and vividly invokes the Welsh landscape, the weather and the rhythm of the seasons.
Every day, after school, the boys would migrate to the river, trying to prolong the sensation of a never-ending summer. And the evening mist would close about them, settling softly into the brittle, bronze fields; a warm mist, scented with ripening fruit.
I thoroughly enjoyed these books. Reading as an adult, they are quick and easy and I’m guessing that they lack the complexity of other children’s fantasy classics (such as The Owl Service, which I’ll read soon). But that’s not a criticism: these are books for children after all. The language is rich, ambitious and compelling; the characters rounded and engaging; the stories a blend of magic and realism rather than magical realism. As my hors d’oeuvre to a Welsh literary banquet, they were ideal.
I’m now thinking again of my grandson. He will be nine in a few months’ time and is a voracious reader. I’m very tempted to buy these books for him despite knowing that his taste in reading matter is much more in Captain Underpants territory than the Mabinogion. But he told me this weekend that he wants to be a writer when he grows up. Perhaps I should encourage him to broaden his reading horizons…
No, Nia thought, you are not from Out There, and neither are you from Here. She began to think of the gods and princes who inhabited the Celtic Otherworld, sometimes leaping out to breathe real mountain air before slipping back into their misty legends. ‘Perhaps you’re from the Otherworld,’ she murmured.