Welsh Legend in Susan Cooper’s The Grey King and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

A Guest Blog by Dr Dimitra Fimi

In my recent book, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) I explored children’s and young adult fantasies ranging from the 1960s to today, discussing their inspirations in “Celtic” myth, both Irish and Welsh. Among my chosen texts are two much-loved Tir na n-Og Award winners: Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (1976) and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider (1987). In this post, I’d like to share some examples of Welsh legend and folklore that inspired central elements in both novels.

Susan Cooper’s The Grey King

Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (and, later, Silver on the Tree), offers us a vision of “the Arthur of the Welsh”. One of the texts I consider central for Cooper’s re-imagining of Arthur is the Latin Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) of c. 800, often attributed to Nennius. The “mirabilia,” a list of “wonders” of Britain appended to the main text of the Historia, give us a sense of the traditions of Arthur in medieval Welsh folklore. There are two main Arthurian references in the “mirabilia”: Arthur’s dog, Cafall, and Arthur’s son. Both became central ideas in The Grey King.

In the “mirabilia”, Arthur’s son’s name is Amr, while in another medieval text, the Welsh Triads, his name is Lachau or Lacheu. Not much is known about this shadowy figure, but Bromwich (whose book on the Triads Susan Cooper read) hypothesises that “Lacheu appears to have belonged to an early stratum of Arthurian tradition in Wales.” In making Bran Davies the son of Arthur, therefore, Cooper is not quite inventing a new tradition, as breathing new life into a very old one. 

Cafall is the name of Arthur’s dog not only in the “mirabilia” section of the Historia Brittonum, but also in the tale of “Culhwch and Olwen” found in the Mabinogion. In both texts, Cafall takes part in the hunting of the legendary boar Troyt/Twrch Trwyth by Arthur and his men. Inside Craig yr Aderyn, when Will, Bran and Cafall stand before the Three Lords, the true identity of one of the Lords is revealed because he exclaims his recognition of the dog:

The lord in the sea-blue robe leaned forward a little from his throne; they glimpsed a keen, strong face and a pointed grey beard. He said, astonishingly, ‘Cafall?’
At Bran’s side the white dog stood erect and quivering. He did not move an inch forward, as if obeying some inner instruction that told him his place, but his tail waved furiously from side to side as it never waved for anyone but Bran. He gave a soft, small whine.
White teeth glinted in the hooded face. ‘He is well named. Well named.

Whether Cafall is Arthur’s own dog reborn, or he just senses the presence of his modern master’s father, is left deliberately ambiguous in this extract. Nevertheless, Bran’s persona here as a modern incarnation of Arthur, the hero who will defend Britain against the Dark once more, is strengthened by the presence of Cafall.

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

In Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider young Gwyn discovers he is a magician. As Gwyn turns nine, his Nain reveals a secret ancestry and points to a new destiny for him:

‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain… ‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

Nain’s words usher characters from Mabinogion into the text. Math is the King of Gwynedd in one of the earliest tales, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, while Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are his nephews. Nimmo’s portrayal of Gwydion erases the most disturbing elements of his mythical character, thus turning him into a benign supernatural ancestor-figure. Indeed, Gwyn soon finds out that his real name is Gwydion, and that Gwyn serves as a sort of diminutive. 

Nain enables the first flowering of Gwyn’s magical powers by offering him five unusual gifts for his birthday, which he is encouraged to “give to the wind” and get a magical response, for good or ill. Three of these gifts, a tin whistle, a piece of seaweed, and a broken horse, provide direct links with the Mabinogion. 

When Gwyn offers the tin whistle to the wind, he receives a silver pipe. When Arianwen, the eponymous snow spider, spins a cobweb image of a snow-covered city, inhabited by pale-faced children, Gwyn realises that he can hear the bells of the city and the voices of the children through the pipe. Nain exclaims: “Even when men whispered, Math could hear them; he could hear voices beyond any mortal ear! The pipe is from him!” Indeed, in the Mabinogion Math has a “special attribute,” “whatever whispering goes on between people – no matter how quiet – once the wind catches hold of it then Math will know about it.”

The next gift, and the vision Gwyn receives in return, also come directly from the Fourth Branch. Just like Gwydion fashions a ship out of seaweed, Gwyn’s piece of seaweed brings an enormous silver ship, engraved with strange shapes and floating in the sky. 

Nain’s fifth gift to Gwyn, the broken horse, introduces the tragic tale of Branwen from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, which later becomes the central structure of the third book in the series, The Chestnut Soldier. The broken horse is described as having no ears and tail, and bearing a tiny label around its neck that reads “Dim hon!” (“Not this!”). Despite Nain’s warning, Gwyn carelessly lets the horse be taken by the wind and a terrible power of chaos is let loose. Gwyn eventually realises that the horse has released a “demon” from the same Mabinogion tale: he turns out to be Efnisien, Branwen’s half-brother, whose outrageous act of maiming Matholwch’s horses is reflected in the state of the toy horse: “Then he went for the horses, and cut their lips to the teeth, and their ears down to their heads, and their tails to their backs; and where he could get a grip on the eyelids, he cut them to the bone.” In a way, this is the moment of “recognition” in this fantasy novel. Gwyn now knows that he needs to capture Efnisien’s demonic spirit and imprison him again, safely in the toy horse, before any further damage is done. He succeeds in taming the legendary past, and at the same time in controlling his own power and in maturing as a young boy and a magician.

Worthy Tir na n-Og Winners

Both Susan Cooper and Jenny Nimmo engage with Welsh traditions and folklore. They don’t just “borrow”, they re-invent, re-shape, and adapt. They make medieval Welsh legend relevant and enchanting for new generations of children, and – in the process – succeed in creating that all-important “authentic Welsh background” that has made them worthy winners of the Tir na n-Og Award. 

We’d like to say a big thank you to Dr Dimitra Fimi for taking the time to contribute this guest blog. We are in awe.

Dr Dimitra Fimi is a Senior Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her first monograph, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. She co-edited the first critical edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice”, in which Tolkien theorizes his language invention (A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, HarperCollins, 2016). The book won the Tolkien Society Award for Best Book. Her latest monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), was runner up for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award. She has published widely in journals and edited collections. She lectures on fantasy literature, science fiction, children’s literature, and medievalism. She contributes regularly to radio and TV programmes (BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Wales, History Channel, BBC4). You can find out more on her website.

Readers of this blog may also be interested to note that Dr Fimi will be tutoring a course at Ty Newydd with Catherine Fisher entitled ‘(Re)telling traditional narratives:myth, legend, fairy tale’ on the weekend of Friday 20 July.

Frances Thomas

Frances’ most recent winner, Finding Minerva

As part of our Tir na n-Og Award Celebrations, we are delighted to have been able to interview author Frances Thomas, winner of the Tir na n-Og Award four times! Her first children’s book, The Blindfold Track, was published in 1980 and won the 1981 Award. The Region of the Summer Stars won in 1986; Who Stole a Bloater? in 1992 and Finding Minerva in 2008.

Frances was born during the War in Aberdare, South Wales, where her mother had gone to escape the bombs. Her mother’s family was Irish and English, her father’s Welsh. She returned to the family home in London, where she grew up. A few years ago, she moved to Mid Wales where she lives very happily, she says, trying to learn Welsh, going for walks on the hills, writing and painting.

Her books have been translated into ten languages and she has been published by Bloomsbury, Macmillan, Red Fox, Gomer and Seren Books, amongst others.

You have won the Tir na n-Og Award an incredible four times. More than any other author. What does that mean to you?

I was surprised and overjoyed to win the Tir na nOg; it’s gratifying to know that people have read and appreciated my work. Otherwise writing can be a somewhat lonely existence.

You have been nominated 6 times – what draws you to write books set in Wales?

There are various reasons why I write about Wales – I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years, family holidays and travel. And for the last fifteen years we’ve lived in Mid-Wales. Partly of course because Wales is so beautiful – the view from my window inspires me every day. And there’s such a rich store of mythology and story to draw on. How could I not want to write about it?

Which other authors of Wales do you admire?

There are many writers for children in Wales whose work I admire; Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Jenny Nimmo, Paul Manship, Phil Carradice; they’re all very different writers, but full of imagination and inventiveness. I wish their books could be more widely available in the rest of the UK.

Many of your books could be classified as historical fiction. What is your favourite period in history? And why do you suppose historical fiction is so popular with readers?

As a child, Frances loved the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff

As a child I devoured historical fiction; Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease were my idols. It’s a little less popular now, I’m afraid, especially for young people’s books; publishers don’t seem to think it sells (of course it doesn’t if they don’t publish it). My most recent books are a series of four set in the period of the Trojan War – part history, part myth. I’m fascinated by all those long ago dark periods, and love trying to shine some light on them. And the dark ages aren’t really dark when you examine them…

Of more modern periods I love the seventeenth century, a kind of turning point between the old and the modern, when we suddenly find we can recognise the people and their ideas and desires, at the same time being aware of their difference from us. Many of the ideas and scientific theories that we take for granted now had their origins in the seventeenth century. And there were some marvellous poets writing then – Donne, Herbert, Traherne. I once set a story in that period (not published of course because Historical Novels Don’t Sell but I hope it might see the light of day some time.)

Hilary Mantel has proved that historical fiction can be both well written and popular; she manages to shine a light on the politics and political machinations of the present day, and also to delve into the strangeness and difference of the past in a way that makes it accessible to her readers and highly enjoyable.

Your books are well-known for their vivid, evocative descriptions. Do you have any advice for budding writers wanting to improve their descriptions?

The Region of the Summer Stars won the Tir na n-Og in 1986

I think the only way to write successful descriptions is just to observe and observe. You turn yourself into a perpetually open eye, looking hard at what you see, even if what you’re looking at seems banal and everyday, and trying to pin down the exact words. And keep those words as simple as you can; you don’t want to be overladen with flowery elaborate language. I might be wrong but I have a feeling that today’s school pupils are being encouraged to fish out fancy words, rather than using the simple. strong, expressive words that make our language so rich and subtle. And if you can’t be present at a scene, set your imagination to work on it – as a child I believed that Rosemary Sutcliffe must have travelled extensively to write the descriptions that brought her historical backgrounds so vividly to life – it wasn’t until I was older than I realised she was almost completely crippled, and that many of those descriptions came from her imagination. Everyone has imagination – it just needs to be switched on.

Taliesin, The Blindfold Track and Regions of the Summer Stars include elements of Welsh legend / Mabinogion – as do other Tir na n-Og winners – Jenny Nimmo, Susan Cooper and Catherine Fisher. Why do you think the reimagining of these stories has had such widespread appeal?

The Welsh legends are just so exciting, so mysterious and so full of stories. And there must be many others which were never written down or which haven’t survived – who, for example, was Dylan, Son of the Sea, mentioned so tantalisingly in the Mabinogion? This gives writers a chance to poke about in those murky areas and find out stuff that they can set their imaginations to work on.

Which Welsh character from folklore do you most identify with and why?

Morgan le Fay, a bewitching character from Arthurian legend

I’m rather fascinated by Morgan Le Fay, a clever, talented girl maligned by being seen as a witch by male interpreters of her story. I did start a story about her some years ago, but my Welsh publisher at the time said they didn’t want any more stories about mythology and legends, so I shelved it. I think the reasoning was that they wanted more emphasis on contemporary themes. But it did seem that some perfectly good babies were being thrown out with the bathwater. Hmmn – I’ve thought about that story since, and wondered how it was going to work out (curiosity about how your own story is going to end is one of the motives that impels writers to keep going). So I think I might just take it off the shelf and dust it down. We’ll see.

 

We are delighted that Frances Thomas took the time to answer our questions and allowed us to celebrate her achievement in being the most crowned author of the Tir na n-Og Awards. You can find out more about Frances at her website, and you could also follow her on Twitter. Her most recent novels can be found here. The links to her Tir na n-Og winning books are shown below.

The Blindfold Track (1981)

Region of the Summer Stars (1986)

Who Stole a Bloater? (1992), Seren Books

Finding Minerva (2008), Gwasg Gomer

Ariki and the Giant Shark

Ariki and the Giant Shark

Nicola Davies (illustrated by Nicola Kinnear)

Walker Books

Review by Daddy and Nina

Any book that starts with a map gets a thumbs up from us. You know you’re in for a fantastic adventure, and Nina heartily approves.

In this new short chapter book (142pp) from Nicola Davies we are introduced to the feisty and compassionate Ariki; a heroine of the Pacific Ocean, more at home diving through coral and swimming with the fish than playing on land with other children.

This is a wonderful story that educates as it entertains. As we have come to expect from the zoologist storyteller, Davies’ narrative is informative with descriptions of the reef, the wildlife and geography of the island rooting the story in fact. Helpful analogies allow us to picture the exotic creatures – Nina particularly enjoyed the one about each shark’s tooth being as big as a man’s hand.

And so we learn about malu, nihui and the giant shark of the title, Wahine (a Hawaiian and Mãori word for woman); but we are never distracted from the absorbing tale of how Ariki strives to protect and shelter the creature that the majority of the island fears.

It is through this human story that we are given hope. Because when the adults are running scared, reaching for their spears and gathering armies of men, the children of the island are the ones who demonstrate true humanity and compassion.

Illustrations by Nicola Kinnear adorn the pages inside and out adding real character to the host of island inhabitants, lovingly framing the text and adding to the drama.

This is the first in a series for Ariki and we can’t wait to dive in to the next one!

 

Thanks to Nicola Davies for sending a copy of Ariki and the Giant Shark. You can buy it from Hive or better still, from your local bookshop.

You can follow Nicola Davies on Twitter, as well as the illustrator Nicola Kinnear.