In Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, nine-year-old Gwyn Griffiths, 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.
Chris Lovegrove who blogs here as Calmgrove and I will be discussing a range of topics that have occurred to us while reading Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. It falls to me to start, and I’ve chosen to think briefly about one aspect of Griffiths family’s emotional landscape.
Gwyn is given five odd birthday gifts by his Nain, his Grandmother, who suggests he remember his roots, in part his connection to ancient Welsh magicians. This explicit link to a magical past is one not many in Gwyn’s family ever have, and increases the tensions and distance between the boy and his father.
The mountain Gwyn lives on is also the place he has to challenge the negative forces of the past, whose rage and hatred are contained in a broken model of a horse, symbol and remnant of a jealousy and anger that should have resolved but has not. In this respect we are on the same turf as another Gwyn, the haunted heir of past mistakes and ancient jealousies from The Owl Service – but Jenny Nimmo’s young protagonist, while he feels similar tensions, is also more of an agent: not just an inheritor, Gwyn Griffiths is growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician.
The opening crisis – the boy’s ninth birthday party which his father, Ivor, breaks up with implacable rage – is a disturbing plunge into the family dynamics of the farm: Gwyn’s sister went missing in a snow storm on the boy’s birthday when he was five. It would have been straightforward, I imagine, to write about Gwyn’s struggle with his family and his own loss of his sister in terms of his own anger: trapped by his past, he could rail against circumstance and either come to terms with it or be broken by it. It bubbles through the relationships he has at school, his burgeoning realisations of his magic, the personification of anger in the broken horse (I’m coming to this); yet a quick search for “angry” in the text reveals that Gwyn is not always the one to be angry. In the tensions of his mother, his father, the magic around him and his past, Gwyn is buffeted by the anger of others like the wintry winds of his hillside.
Gwyn is curiously forgiving, to the extreme that suggests a cautious painting by the author of a family in crisis, on the edge, maybe, of emotional abuse. Gwyn’s father cannot detach from the loss of his daughter, Bethan, and is left only with negativity to his son. Gwyn knew his father could not help the bitterness that burst out of him every now and then, and he had acquired a habit of distancing himself from the ugly words. It is noteworthy that the new Television version (currently airing) seems to present the father in terms of his inner pain, rather than his distance and anger. He is frozen in the grief and anger at the loss of his daughter.
Jenny Nimmo plays skillfully with the psychogeography of the farm. The family are at once free to move around – across the mountain, despite its danger; down into the village, over to see Gwyn’s Nain – and yet, like a real farming family, have an eye to the windy, snowy weather than can pin them down and that four years ago took Bethan from them. Gwyn’s father cannot let go of his anguish; Gwyn and his mother cannot discuss the pain they feel: they are trapped by their trauma.
The broken horse – a deliberate harking-back to the maiming of horses in the Mabinogion which retells mythic past of the area – is a terrifying symbol of this destructive hatred. It is “grotesque:” earless, tailless, lidless like the ones maimed by the prince Efnisien. Nain expresses her fear of it, “a dreadful thing” in which long-ago hatreds are stored, all too ready to be released. It symbolises a powerful anger that Gwyn has to name and conquer: but Gwyn’s anger is itself trapped, not allowed a voice. It is only as he comes into his power that Gwyn realises that he can use it, and when he does, in his confrontation with a boy at school, it is clumsy and ill-timed, and Gwyn comes off the worst. Like his father, Gwyn is suffering and inarticulate; unlike his father, he has resources of language and magic – or perhaps the magic of language – to help him. But the fight with Dewi and his gang is a turning point for Gwyn and his father; Ivor Griffiths musters his anger to defend his son, and the influence of the mysterious girl Eirlys is felt as the father’s mood softens. She is there to mark the thaw, like the snowdrop her name signifies.
“It seems to me,” advises Eirlys, ”that if you are to stop the thing, you have to get its name, discover what it is.” This is the task of the young magician – and, at one level it is of any young person as they grow: to recognise and to name emotions. This language is what Gwyn brings to his family crisis, to the healing of his family that start as trapped and inarticulate. At the end Gwyn’s parents are healed but “too old” to express how they feel as the story resolves, except in the plainest of terms, the words Gwyn has missed for four long years of growing: “I’m glad.”