Dipping for Meanings

I presented the work of Geoffrey Bache Smith earlier this week, and I was wondering about who I might look at among other poets and writers of various kinds that explore their environment. Other poets? OK: I was browsing Mary Oliver’s second volume I came across this poem. No less plangent than Bache Smith in many ways, and with a great, straightforward look at a little bird she saw so long ago. Some thoughts follow, but the poem really does say it without my squawking.

Dipper

Once I saw

in a quick-falling, white-veined stream,

among the leafed islands of the wet rocks,

a small bird, and knew it

from the pages of a book; it was

the dipper, and dipping he was,

as well as, sometimes, on a rock-peak, starting up

the clear, strong pipe of his voice; at this,

there being no words to transcribe, I had to

bend forward, as it were,

into his frame of mind, catching

everything I could in the tone,

cadence, sweetness, and briskness

of his affirmative report.

Though not by words, it was

more than satisfactory way to the

bridge of understanding.  This happened

in Colorado

more than half a century ago –

more certainly, than half my lifetime ago –

and, just as certainly, he has been sleeping for decades

in the leaves besides the stream,

his crumble of white bones, his curl of flesh

comfortable even so.

And still I hear him –  

and whenever I open the ponderous book of riddles

he sits with his black feet hooked to the page,

his eyes cheerful, still burning with water-love –

and thus the world is full of leaves and feathers,

and comfort, and instruction. I do not even remember

your name, great river,

but since that hour I have lived

simply,

in the joy of the body as full and clear

as falling water; the pleasures of the mind

like a dark bird dipping in and out, tasting and singing.

And the first thing I wanted to note was that WordPress – measuring characters and words alone – says that this poem will take a minute to read. Scan down that, highlight a bit, move on. If I’m honest, Morning Prayer was a lot like that today. Did I actually say the Benedictus? I remember when I was seventeen (in the 70s) assisting at an old rite Mass – what would now be called the Extraordinary Form – where the priest got through the whole liturgy in ten minutes: a liturgical patter song I found it hard to keep up with. Such, perhaps, is familiarity, or maybe such is reading until we fine-tune that as something that is reading for the deepest meanings possible.

And with Dipper there are two I want to think about.

The first is MO’s choices of image and words. She is a writer who is wildly in love with each day’s inventions (“Of What Surrounds Me”) and who looks – as in Dipper – for the moment that excites the human response: gratefulness, compassion. One of her most popular poems, “Why I Wake Early” is, like Dipper, of this kind: a noticing of a something; a realisation of the importance of that event; an answer from the writer, and similarly the poem “Wild Geese” – with the line You do not have to be good which first brought her to my scattered attention – and “Landscape,” quoted here, where the crows as seen as realsiing thier dreams as they break off from the rest of the darkness/ and burst up into the sky. She challenges with these perceptions of natural events; the reader is confronted with the suggestion, the question sometimes, of how to seize the world with the same freshness as a grasshopper, or a bird.

Even this cannot be read quickly, or if it is skimmed through – I find I cannot read more than a couple before I “feel full” – I find I miss the impact of these sermons from nature, even from lines like these, from “When Death Comes.”:

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

The second is an occurrence which suggests why this poem appeals to me. Visiting my daughter Lizzie in Edinburgh we went on a bus trip to Penicuik and off into the Pentlands. We saw a Dipper. I had known them since I took the Tell Me Why magazine in the 60s; I had seen them in Scotland once before. This, however, was a chance to sit and watch as the little bird zipped about and hopped in and out of a little burn just below the reservoir. I now recognise, having read the Mary Oliver poem above, those attributes of sweetness, and briskness she writes about. Slow watching of a bird – slow reading of a poem – the appreciation of the poem having observed the bird – the reading of the poem enlightening the memory of the bird: a virtuous circle in which understanding of the natural event and the reading of the poem are mutually supportive.

And then what about these Mary Oliver challenges to live life to the full? How does this first yes not negate a whole load of other choices? How do we distentangle “what comes with the package” from other choices we just let happen when we make a choice for A rather than B? Choices I made in my teens or twenties have implications even today, and life in my sixties seems just as precious but carries with it the ache of mistaken choices, baggage of all sorts. Hard not to feel like this at the moment: all those pre-lockdown times I went to a Garden Centre rather than out onto the hills – but then how would the allotment have been dug? I suspect Mary Oliver would suggest we look over the shoulder of such anxieties to the dippers and heron and crickets, or the jay as I dig, or Mat’s discovery on our trip of a Bloody Nosed Beetle?

Another final set of lines, then, from Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day:”

Doesn’t everything die and last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

But it is a Summer morning, and maybe I need to do more than write about it.

Two final questions

This blog post forms the final part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. I have really enjoyed working with someone of Chris’ studiousness and perspicacity, revisiting a book my children loved, and looking (at least in part) at how Jenny Nimmo’s work has transferred to TV, and where she sits in the circle of British fantasy writers. Here I hope to look at tradition and folklore and at Jenny Nimmo as a re-presenter of Welsh culture – not so much as a summary, more as further lines of enquiry. As before, Chris will be responding to the same questions on his own site, but, beyond shaping the questions and agreeing when we should post, we have not colluded….

So the first question (our third in the series), and posed by Chris is:

3. The backstory and the action in the story’s ‘present’ both point to the Halloween/All Saints period as a moment of transition, Noson Galan Gaeaf leading to Calan Gaeaf, the first day of the Celtic winter. Do you think the setting in the Welsh countryside ensures this threshold moment is more rooted in the past — and perhaps more ‘authentic’ — than a ‘modern’ Halloween tale located in suburbia? 

Hmmmmm. I am not the greatest fan of Hallowe’en in its present format, in part because the patterns of play and trickery have been overlaid by material from US fim and TV and an ensuing rush for tacky costumes and upstaging neighbours: a sort of full-circle, I suppose. I wrote about it here, so I won’t go on moaning, but I will pick up on a fascinating point in Chris’ question: Hallowe’en as a threshold moment.

I’ve written about Hallowe’en as smiling at the shadows – and when I worked in Nursery, this was how we approached it – but in The Snow Spider we encounter a different set of thresholds. Gwyn, coming (at his birthday) to the end of the first part of his childhood, with his models for adulthood skewed, missing, off-script; he stands on the threshold between an older way of life in the Welsh hills and a set of outlooks in a more modern world (with all its faults it is what he is growing into); he stands – as part of this, perhaps – on the threshold between “our” world and another. And here, as the Autumn blasts fold the farms of Pendewi into Winter, we stand with him at Hallowe’en.

Nimmo manages this well. On All Saints’ Night – the “night after Hallowe’en'” as Nimmo tellingly has it – Bethan, doomed big sister to Gwyn, had gone out looking for Gwyn’s ewe. The pumpkin from Hallowe’en stared out at her as she went, “grimacing with its dark gaping mouth and sorrowful eyes.” It is as if the folk-horror is to be underplayed on purpose: just a pumpkin represents the play Hallowe’en, when, the night after, things take a sudden plummet and we are into the main action of the book. Gwyn’s black ewe and Bethan are never seen again. Gwyn’s years as a sunny little boy are at an end. “Shut the door tight, when I am gone,” Bethan says as she leaves, and that is just what the family do. They plunge into a wintry landscape of anger and loss – and confusion, too – the end of which is presaged by the arrival of Eirlys, whose name means snow-drop in Welsh. It is a slow and an emotional version of the melting of the long winter in Narnia.

It is up to Gwyn to challenge his father – and he can, it seems, only do this by finding a link to the mythic past, by the magic gifts from his grandmother, by the help of the mysterious girl from another world: by stepping over the threshold of his father’s expectations. Gwyn leaves the house (like his sister), crosses the threshold to call the names of his ancestors, to meet the dark. This is as about as far from Trick or Treat as we can go in today’s Hallowe’en, where we – or our urban gangs of children, or maybe even before the start of the story Bethan and her little brother – go from house to house, half-joking, half-threatening, jolly tricksters.

A suburban telling would have been different in so many ways: street lamps and the ease of access to transport. Not that it would have been worse – think of the desolation of the children in Garner’s Elidor, all chill wastelands, alienating buses and dark demolition sites – but it would have had a hard time taking a lone boy out to meet something as monstrous as the anger of prince Efnisien. Which brings us (back, maybe?) to the question of Nimmo and Welsh myth – and other fantasy writers who have crossed a border into Wales.

4. (The final question: mine), thinking about Nimmo as writer. Jenny Nimmo and Alan Garner and Susan Cooper have all written with a great deal of thought about the places and myths of Wales. Is there a common theme that makes their approach successful – or are they all still writing as outsiders?

Perhaps I am over-ambitious here. Catherine Butler’s work on Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, after all, takes over seventy pages on Myth and Magic alone. This is, therefore, a quick set of side thoughts.

There is a wonderful and inspirationally broad sweep in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence in which various combinations of protagonists meet the story of Arthur, the ancient trackways of England, Cornish folklore, and the struggle between good and evil in Gwynedd. Cooper magpies her way through a range of historical traditions to bring us to the conclusion and the departure of the Old Ones, the curtain falling on the transcendental drama of good and evil. I have already mentioned Alan Garner’s Gwyn, another descendant of ancient rivalries and magic, and Garner has immersed himself in the Welsh language, is respectful of its history and legend. In contrast to Nimmo’s Gwyn, whose delve into his past is primarily about self-identity and a distant legend, or Susan Cooper’s children whose task is the Matter of Britain, the Garner version is made up of claustrophobia and recent history as well as repeating magic. Big images, big motifs in all three are brought down to recognisable characters: Will, from the hills above the Thames, a disaffected Gwyn sulking in a valley where he should be Lord, a nine-year-old Gwyn playing with his watch and with tasks to do on the farm. When myth works, it works through concrete images – that is through story, Catherine Butler asserts, and then suggests that story functions like a repeated ritual such as the Mass… as providing access to that event’s reality. In other words, we have the great themes of myth and legend made flesh.

Whose myth, however? Whose legends, whose culture are these authors writing?

In The Snow Spider, The Owl Service and The Grey King all three English authors have come over the border into a world that is not wholly their own. Why have they done this? Without referring to any critical writers or biographers (very possibly there are statements of intent from any of these three: but the texts have to stand on their own, I think) I would want to see the three bodies of writing as needing Welshness to give a freshness and a detail to the mythic landscape. It is as if the Celtic – twilight or no – adds something vital that the English corpus of story cannot. Cooper visits, and finds a theme that excites, engages and carries her sequence further; Garner watches, strikes up relationships, ponders and then produces an anxious and hemmed-in story in which the figures of legend are uncomfortably close; Nimmo lives in Wales, celebrates her family’s roots, asks her protagonist to do magic for us to see. In The Snow Spider, she gets a boy, his friends, his farm, his village to show us the stories that in part define them. The relationship between the three authors and Wales is as different as the authors themselves, and as different as their individual reasons for looking at the myths of legends of the Mabinogion.

And there, for me, is the nub of the reason why a fantasy writer might look to Wales. English magic, English beginning-myths have little in the way of consistent telling of stories – we have Hobberdy Dick and the local goblins, ghosts and fairies. Apart from Arthur (Two points, however: yes, I know “Arthur” and “English” may not sit together too happily, although I am mindful that Henry VII – Henry Tudor, descendant of Owain Tudur – called his eldest son Arthur to try and give us another king with that name; and there are genealogies linking the Royal family back to Woden) we do not really have anything of the power, of the rich seam of story that we get in Wales. English history might be heroic – but it is prosaic, too.

Puck, for example, in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, has a hard time bringing English myth to life – in fact Kipling really uses Puck as a doorway into English heritage rather than a discussion point in his own right (there is an exception to this: the shadowy relationship between Old Hobden and his mysterious visitor Tom in Dymchurch Flit). For Kipling there was an inspiration other than his own at work, perhaps (I cite it here): but the genius loci in the brook by Kipling’s house is a sense of Englishness more than a sense of English magic, which is portrayed as passing and fading. He can write with resonance about the magic that has gone – but Puck/Kipling is clear that the glory has departed.

What then attracts, if the English Twilight of the Gods is long past? Again, I have thought before about the persisting fairy tales, and maybe another way of seeing them is that these are the little flowers that grow where a big tree has been cleared: we have local place stories; we have the intense locality of Alan Garner but no grand narrative of what Englishness means. Fantasy writers look for something to inspire, and find it – Nimmo certainly does – in the wildness and energy of the mountains of Gwynedd more than the Sussex Weald or the Woods of Warwickshire.

Only a Story

Only a story gathered from the hills
And the wind crying of forgotten days,
A story that shall whisper, “All things change-
For friends do grow indifferent, and loves
Die like a dream at morning: bitterness
Is the sure heritage of all men born…

In that this post presents a melancholy young poet, this is a sadder blog than many – and less of a sermon than many of my posts too, I hope.

Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s small collection of poetry, A Spring Harvest (which forms a pivotal sequence at the end of the Tolkein biopic) suggests that GBS was lonely, frustrated, but aware of the power of language to conjure emotion and fantasy. A clever depiction of a friend, a tentative exploration of sexuality before WWI, and love and religion and class, and… and… and a lens for the film to show the ways in which some people can delight and fascinate: almost, it seems, an explanation of the ways in which the writer of Lord of the Rings (and so much more) learned to charm. A film of the student Tolkien learning Icelandic would have been less likely to win over an audience (I would have gone), or to explain how a boy with an unhappy childhood grew and blossomed into such a creative influence in C20th literature.

Just like his poem of the Downs – not Uffington although for me it evokes those memories, and I can hear Chesterton’s poem in Bache Smith’s – the young man is himself a track half lost in the green hills. It is a sad shame – a tragedy, a waste, a horror – that Geoffrey Bache Smith did not live and grow: maybe he might have blossomed into a greater poet, or a thoughtful adult scholar, or whatever. These poems, and a footnote in the young adult life of a great writer, are what we have left : a voice heard once, and heard no more, as GBS himself suggests in a Commemoration poem. For us Only a Story is hardly a story at all, and we pass on.

This sense of sic transit, of the fragility of life and fame and love runs through so many of his poems, made all the more poignant by his death in 1916. And here we are, not at war (despite the rhetoric) but in trouble in a world where sickness and greed and neglect and politics have combined to bring about a major crisis, the aftermath of which I doubt I shall live to see wholly resolved, where the call to compassion has to be repeated over and again. We look daily at death as though numbers are all we can make of tragedy. Media vita in morte sumus. It is therefore a bittersweet thing to look at these poems – I first read them in the cellars of the Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian, but now find them online – and wonder about all the missed opportunities and times of sadness that GBS explores. Here, in his poem The Last Meeting, he preceded a very similar idea from Yeats, and tells us something that Oxford was imbued with for me as an undergraduate: that many things fade, but that some are more than transitory, loves that shall break the teeth of Time:

We who are young, and have caught the splendour oflife,
Hunting it down the forested ways of the world,
Do we not wear our hearts like a banner unfurled
(Crowned with a chaplet of love, shod with the sandals of strife)?
Now not a lustre of pain, nor an ocean of tears
Nor pangs of death, nor any other thing
That the old tristful gods on our heads may bring
Can rob us of this one hour in the midst of the years.

The poem I cite at the top of this blog almost stands as a rebuke to Tolkien, suggesting that GBS is writing about love, not the great deeds of history or legend. The one that follows, while still with a melancholy feel, is at least a seasonal celebration

Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung

so here is Geoffrey Bache Smith’s Sonnet:

There is a wind that takes the heart of a man,
A fresh wind in the latter days of spring,
When hate and war and every evil thing
That the wide arches of high Heaven span
Seems dust, and less to be accounted than
The omened touches of a passing wing:
When Destiny, that calls himself a king,
Goes all forgotten for the song of Pan:
For why? Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung,
Because the voice of trees finds better words
Than ever poet from his heartstrings wrung:
Because all wisdom and all gramarye
Are writ in fields, O very plain to see.

Confusions

To reflect on the moving Corey’s Rock by Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray has required a number of shifts in my thinking. I’ve had to screen out some of the praise for the book as well as the discomfort I feel at a personal level for a subject that – in part at least – touches my own life. There are already confusions here, and what I want to do is to return to the questions of ambiguity I’ve looked at before (in fact just over a year ago in my post Understanding).

Corey’s Rock tells an uncomfortable story. Isla, the young first -person narrator, has returned to the island where her mother’s family have roots. In the aftermath of the death of Corey, Isla’s younger brother, the family of four – Mum, Dad, girl and dog – are a family seeking, in Auden’s words, locality and peace. The narrative at its simplest is about the weeks in which Isla begins to settle into her new life while mourning her brother.

But I see that I have already strayed away from the simple into the complex, and in referring to Auden I have returned to my own confusions, and a post in which I look at the

the cramped frustration of attempting

the jigsaw with pieces missing

And if the posts from that time are about a lost me, this book is a story of a lost family.

So I think there are three sets of confusions to be addressed here: the ambiguities of the text and illustrations; the complexity and detail of narrative and art work; the twinges and uncertainties of the reader.

They are not all things we should fight shy of: life is confused; endings are uncertain. If the current crises in health, society and the economy (insofar as they can be disentangled) can teach us, we are an uncertain bunch: too reflective to suffer dumbly, but unable to make much sense of sudden changes, sudden downturns in our fortune. This is not always to the advantage of the writer, who has to contend with issues of clarity. Jenny Nimmo writes a piecemeal and sometimes unclear narrative when she looks to set out the relationship between the magic world and our world in The Snow Spider; Sita Brahmachari does the same with a similar brief: how to look at a child’s grief through myth and landscape. The issue, it seems to me, is connected with the genuine confusions in the minds of Isla and Gwyn – and the pain of their adults. Ivor, Gwyn’s father, is the more confused of the two dads, lost in his anger as much as Bethan was lost on the mountain; Isla’s father (and some cost to himself, I think), sighs as he tells his daughter “You know Corey can’t come back, don’t you?”

The truth does not make him any less beautiful or eloquent: Jane Ray’s luminous artwork gives him soulful eyes and a deep connection to his children and Sita Brahmachari gives him the best lines:

“How deep does the colour go?” I ask Dad.

How deep is the sea,” he answers.

He is an archaeologist with the soul of a poet. Kathleen Jamie, meeting him on a beach in the bleak north of Scotland, would have found a friend.

Back to my three confusions: I suppose I am trying to distinguish in my own mind between what seems the author’s deliberate blurring of edges (which is as much at the heart of this as it is David Thomson’s classic People of the Sea and the film Song of the Sea) and the fact that I am not (or not yet) at ease with the rich complexity of the story Brahmachari is telling. Shapes shift, roles move, tragedy and freedom walk hand in hand, and in this story we trace other themes, too, besides myth and landscape: race, disability, belonging, refugee children washed up on the shores of Europe; the roles of incomers in an island community; a mother coping with grief and a father’s efforts to keep his family whole; and the big question of little Isla:

Do you think this island will make us happy again?

Have the author and artist been over ambitious, or is it, perhaps, that I don’t feel able to embrace this complexity? I struggled with this on my first two readings, but then was struck by the Celtic knotwork on one of the double-page spreads, and thought of those complex interweavings that are part of so many pre-conquest crosses, ornaments (like this from a Viking grave in Orkney) and tombs and manuscripts – and I honestly think this was my misreading. This is an ambitious book, but look at Sendak (link here to the haunting and complex My Brother’s Book, again a richly illustrated and complex text about death); Foreman; look, even at the stories of Katie Morag and her own island life. I know picture books and richly illustrated texts aren’t always easy. Of course I know that.

So what was my problem here? My third confusion. It is possible for a story to be poorly written, badly drawn: in my teaching on a module called Becoming a Reader we would look at texts with ideologies long dead, books with clumsy pictures or inconsequential, often derivative stories. Corey’s Rock is not one of those, although the threads of detail take some following. The third confusion is where the reader looks but does not see how those threads might go.

Because in the end there are more and more threads to follow: where author and artist brings their research, their pasts (including their past work: the dad in Corey’s Island recalls – although not exactly – the beautiful, caring father in A Balloon for Grandad)… or where a reader’s own reading past or visits to a place or similar sadnesses lead off in the wrong direction.

So to end, not in any way to try and trump the painful story at the heart of Corey’s Rock, but maybe to explain part of my confusion as I read and re-read it, joining in the sea song of all those times Isla’s family walk along the beach or look out for the bobbing head of a seal, is one of my twenty-year old poems for our son Theo.

Recalling you is a daily conjuration.  In solitude

I know my sadness, know your face, but you appear

where least expected: at the corners of sleep;

at the bruise of unkindness; in a flower

unlooked-for, by a cliff’s edge.

Today I called you,

throwing a stone

into the receding tide,

trying to write your name in the wet sand;

but as I made the first stroke, crossbar of your T,

the wave returned,

unbidden, sudden –

And the mark my writing didn’t leave was you.

Landscape and Community

Chris Lovegrove and I have been trying to explore aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider together: this blog post forms part of the concluding dialogue between me and Chris. In this week’s blogs we are answering the same questions, but doing so, to some extnent “blind:’ we have agreed our two questions and then we are posting our blogs on the same day.

Here’s the first, posed by Chris:

1. The Snow Spider is very much set in the Welsh landscape, not just by the language and the myths but also by the descriptions — the hills and the sheep farming, for example, and the apparent proximity of the sea (which Gwyn is able to smell after a short tramp through over the hills). Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting or does it work equally well in a mythic setting (as it has to for those unfamiliar with The Snow Spider’s cultural matrix)? 

My response: I’ve been to Wales four times: once to Conwy and Betws-y-Coed on a coach trip with a pile of nuns when I was nineteen;  once, in 2000, to the Brecon Beacons to get soaking wet while training as a Forest School Leader in the pouring rain; once to stay in a cottage at the foot of the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny. My  last visit, rather later in my life, was to help at a Quality Assurance event in Carmarthen. My understanding of Wales is therefore built on brief and specific visits – and at no time have a stayed in a claustrophobic valley like in The Owl Service, nor really had any dealings with Welsh hill farmers beyond being told a footpath was no longer in use. So what, therefore, is my response to the landscape in The Snow Spider? How realistic do I need it to be?

It was not a high mountain, nor a dangerous one. Some might even call it a hill. It was wide and grassy, a series of gentle slops that rose, one after another, patterned with drystone walls and windblown bushes. The plateau at the top was a lonely place, however. From here only the empty fields and surrounding mountains could be seen and, far out to the west, the distant grey line of the sea.

This is Nimmo’s early setting the scene. Gwyn ascends the mountain to practise his powers, but here we are being told simply what the upland looks like. There is a lot, of course, that a reader (particularly, perhaps a reader of Gwyn’s age) might want to disentangle in the language and topology: How can a hill be a mountain? What’s a plateau? As we sort out the vocabulary of place in a possibly unfamiliar place at the start of the narrative, we are on the cusp of a deeper understanding, almost a curtain-raiser for the mythic and developmental battles young Gwyn is beginning to engage in.

But in order to come close to Chris’ enquiry I feel I need to distinguish between the everyday depiction and the descriptions that that move the story along. Michael Bonnett and certainly Michael Farrelly seem to suggest that “human-environmental interrelationships” are aided by powerful storytelling. We have that here, in Jenny Nimmo’s three Magician Trilogy novels. In the Snow Spider it seems to me that the author chooses weather as a way of inviting her readers into the hill farms, rather than more explicit topography. Here, for example, in Chapter Eight the young magician is poised to fight in the face of a snowstorm:

There was a sudden stillness and the mountain held its breath. Clouds of snow began to gather on the summit; they intensified and rolled downwards in a vast, ever-thickening ice-cold wave.

It is atmospheric writing of a high order. Nimmo has brought us to this point by vivid and intensifying descriptions of weather in a hill country. From much earlier in the story, this is the arrival of a November gale, the first major encounter with wind as an elemental, magical force:

Then, one Sunday, the wind came; so quietly at first that you hardly noticed it. By the time the midday roast had been consumed, however, twigs were flying, the barn door banging, and the howling in the chimney loud enough to drive the dog away from the stove.

The storm, a dominant motif – and an important factor when anyone is up in a mountainous region – will come to provide the wintry arena for a final conflict . Even Gwyn’s prosaic father Ivor has to admit it is “a damn peculiar kind of wind” ; by doing so we come to understand that this is a hard life, and see quite how the tragedy of Gwyn’s older sister being lost on the mountain might have occurred. In these earlier sections, however, Nimmo is also careful to give us little domestic details: the barn door, the dog, the stove… So I come (finally) to Chris’ question: Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting?

I think it does. Part of the power of the depiction of Gwyn’s father (see below) is that he is ordinary; the ambiguities of learning to be a wizard are all the more painful for Gwyn than the flamoyant Owls from Hogwarts and cartoon familial abuse are for Harry Potter because in Gwyn’s story they are depicted as taking places in a believable world. Nimmo leads her readers through the fields with open gates, cows that need milking, the circle of trees where the septic tank lies… and into a world of magic spiders and a past full of ancient tales. It’s a clever way of convincing the reader of the reality of the Gwyn’s challenge as he grows – but for a little more of this, see below.

The second is posed by me:

2: The tight-knit community of The Snow Spider allows for powerful reactions between a limited range of characters: Gwyn’s family, his friends, the neighbours. In a more widely connected world – mobile ‘phones, internet & c (shown in the new TV version) the world is a wider place. Does this date the plot unduly? And if not, why not?

I started by wanting to consider the Hui Clos of Pendewi, the village in the Snow Spider, but of course the most famous line from Sartre’s play is L’enfer c’est les autres, and the more I ponder the community the less sure I am of this. There are family tensions here, and the neighbourly relationships of a small village, but these are not people trapped in Hell together, but a Pobol y Cwm, a people of the valley. When Alun, Gwyn’s friend, is lost in the storm, the ‘grapevine” works fast to rustle up a search party. When Bryn and Gladys Davis confront Gwyn’s family about Gwyn injuring their son Dewi it is uncomfortable – but not on an epic scale. Gwyn is like many a child who needs to make sense of his family as he grows: what does his family history tie him to? Does he like being with them? As with landscape (above), it is the ordinariness that provides the power to the scene and to the magic that interrupts it.

The new TV version gives some nod to the passing of time since the original publication of the Nimmo books, starting in 1986, in that there is some mention of the internet, and the watch Gwyn gets as a birthday present in the book has become a tablet (with remarkably good connection). This in turn allows some further plot exposition, some idea of the past which Gwyn is inheriting. It also serves to underline that very odd nature of the old Welsh manuscript the young magician reads. As a reflection on the updates in the series it works well.

Does this make the actual text creak at all in retrospect? I didn’t think so. The IPad/tablet would have been no further use in the story than the rewrite has allowed it. (In pondering updates I did think of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where for the tragic failures of communication to take their toll, the modern audience needs not to think how simple a quick couple of texts or emails could have sorted everything). Gwyn’s father’s quad bike was a nice touch, too: this was a family more like Emmerdale (or God’s Own Country) than Cold Comfort.

But what of magic in the modern world? Where might the Tylwyth Teg live now? For Alice Thomas Ellis the uncomfortable magic of the Welsh tradition in Fairy Tale suggests they live where they have always lived: in edgelands, woods, odd meadows and lanes with a strange feel to them, very much alive in the affairs of humans. In Pendewi, the stories live on by being reenacted (more explicitly in the later books in the trilogy), and the parallels with Garner’s The Owl Service are many, from common roots in the Mabinogi to the recurrence of tensions dating back into myth and legend. Where is the magic? In both books (“all the books,” if we count the Ellis, the Garner, all three by Nimmo and Susan Cooper [who will come into my next post]) it is frighteningly close: it exhibits in the fallible humans who cross its path. (Just as it would be amusing to think up how M R James’ stories could be updated effectively, it would also be a challenge to think quite where his ghosts might reside now: in mobile numbers that link to conspiracy theories long dead, catalogues whose URL summon destruction, internet stalkers whose only real presence is to hunt the curious through the pdfs of manuscripts…) But Nimmo’s Gwyn, it seems to me does not needs this. It is his ordinariness that saves him. Tensions between generations, Ivor Griffiths’ incoherent anger at his family’s loss, the petty rivalries of the playground: these are universal enough to contain the introduction of the internet, while a small village up in the hills (Chris may take a different view) may not be able to rely on mobile signal quite as much as I do for sustaining its relationships.

Chris and I are planning to post our blogs on 4th May, having not seen one another’s responses. Do please visit https://calmgrove.wordpress.com to see what Chris has made of these two questions.

Next year in…

The wish for restoration in the Passover Seder “Next year in Jerusalem” was poignant this year. Where will we be when the words are next used at the end of September? There is a great desire for a new dawn, a new day, but looking at the political landscape I can see bigotry and mauvaise foi, and I cannot see the wide spread of justice like an everflowing stream that so many of us desire. Utopias are precisely that: places that are ou-topoi, no-places. The British Library, in its excellent trail through the literature, explores a possible play on words between eutopia, a good place, and utopia, asking “Can a perfect world ever be realised?”

If, as Kathleen Jamie suggests of St Kilda, “their way of life broke on the wheel of the modern world,” it may be that this also signals how little validity there is in the harking-back of current political rhetoric. The eutopias of the past are Ealing Studio films (Comedies?) only: ou-topias. However, it’s possible to find personal places in a “when and where were you happiest?” sort of way. In Looking in the Distance, Richard Holloway is at his most plangent as he describes his “fierce and sorrowful anger” on a return to his old theological college: We know that nothing lasts yet the sudden awareness of our own finitude can surprise us into grief… But not always grief: they can be places of beauty and joy. The woods in Spring and Autumn above Nettlebed with Maggie might be such a place for me. Iconic for me (as anyone who has read back in my posts) is the visit just before we were were asked to stay home when Mat Tobin and I went to Uffington, the memory of which has sustained me when I have felt miserable during lockdown. Aberlady, Gradbach, Wychwood, Nettlebed… all sorts of places can do this, and can be the cloud of witnesses that surround us on a grey day or in a time of confinement. Here is a collage of photos of such places – places that are some of my eutopoi:

I notice how selective I am when choosing these photos: the hill of Ludchurch, Aberlady Bay, Uffington, the Lye Valley: outdoors places rather than, say, the churches of Rosslyn, Cordoba or Durham, or the Bodleian, or Magdalen.

These eutopoi suggest something about where I feel wholeness. However, I look at these airy, quiet places and see they are not the places I am regularly: the kitchen; the allotment; my preferred social media platforms… They are outdoors, rural or semirural heterotopias, where difference is key. I am often accompanied by people dear to me: I experience both the Kaplan’s notion of escape and a social aspect that I think is connected – for me – to their idea of fascination (the link here takes you to one of my explorations of their work). These good places might be a delight of solitude, but often for me have a human presence, a human perspective to them – but it is easy (maybe – under normal circumstances, at least), to pick a friend and go somewhere like this. The “human aspect” of fascination is about a compatible voice, a hand to hold.

So when I look to wholeness, wellness, I have to ask what the human aspect actually is. It’s a tough question when dealing with mental health, not just because, thrown on our own resources I come back time and again to my own mental health, but to a bigger question about “When This Is All Over:” what will wellbeing be like? I hope it will include pubs, hugs, time together, as well as all the bigger societal things, but thinking personally (and irrespective of the broader political machinations particularly) here I am struck by a suggestion from Jon Reid on Twitter today that has brought me right back to the present, a brilliantly simple humanistic examen that asks us to identify:

  • Three ways I have looked after and cared for myself and
  • Three ways I have looked after and cared for others

It is really tempting to see September (or January or 2022 or even the next scheduled General Election) as a time when everyone will vote for a humanity-based society where peace and justice take into account the needs of the most vulnerable, where society is a seen as a whole entity, full of interconnections and mutual dependencies, where truth is embedded in politics more than vote-grabbing, where care workers are paid properly… and yet I don’t believe it will come. So let’s take the “next year” wish and (to nick an idea wholesale from William Blake – but he is not alone in wishing it) build our own places of wellbeing and belonging, around three daily occurrences of self care and three of care for others. It will be up to us to kindle that hope into something bigger.

It is a start at least. Each pool of light might connect with others.

Edgelands

Uffington is a glorious sweep of downland, a sleeping body under wide skies.

The path between Cat’s Tor and Shining Tor is a magical place, with suns’ rising tattoed into the outlines of the escarpment, and in the hills beyond, Ludchurch, that thin place.

Santorini, Monreale, the arena in the ruins of Salona above Split… Hemingford Grey, Malham…

These have been “event spaces” for me, places where even going there means something.

Lockdown means that Uffington remains the event place that I last visited, unreachable except in my mind’s eye; Thoon is as beyond me as Monreale. And as for those big, bold holiday destinations, well, I wonder whether, as I ponder the urgencies beyond the virus attack, I will ever see these tourist places again. Maybe as “events” we see them, glory in them, and carry them with us.

And then there’s Boundary Brook.

I could, at the moment, call it Rat City: plenty of lively inhabitants of the Rattus Norvegicus kind scurrying around, and I wonder when the fox population will move in, or the badgers and hawks and owls step up…. and this is part of the problem with Edgelands: they are a stark mixture of human-stuff-we-like and animal-stuff-we-like with human-stuff-we-don’t-want and animal-stuff-we-don’t-want. Stark? Or vibrant?

If we are looking for writing that conveys the vibrancy of such spaces, then Rob Cowen can give it to us: at one point in Common Ground he writes that

the edges provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature… We all still go to edges to get perspective…

and elsewhere

The ebb and flow of birdsong, the rise and fall of the sun, such things became my world. The slow spinning of the earth, the circadian rhythm is of the solar day, the life and death of the flowers and fruits, these whirred the mechanisms of my mended biological clock.

But the great Annie Dillard can also add to this vision.

Now [she is writing of late June] things are popping outside. Creatures extrude or vent eggs; larvae fatten, split their shells and eat them; spores dissolve or explode; root hairs multiply, corn puffs on the stalk, grass yields seed, shoots erupt from the earth turgid and sheathed… and everywhere watery cells divide and swell, swell and divide. I can like it and call it birth and regeneration, or I can play the devil’s advocate and call it rank fecundity-and say that it’s hell that’s a-poppin.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. 10: Fecundity

Cowen and Dillard give me two quite different views that I can take with me into the wildlife corridor that leads from by my house down to Boundary Brook and then extends onto Warneford Meadow. Despite its grandiose name, this is a strip – or a plait of interwoven strips – of self-seeded trees, wild clematis, ivy, Wild Garlic, squirrels, a pair of sparrowhawks, old fences demarking a different pattern of land use, an electricity substation, and (as is very obvious in a night time ramble) the street lights from Old Road and the car park lights from the labs and libraries of the campus buildings. So to make sense of this edgeland, I have to turn to two further sources: the book by Michael Symmonds Roberts and Paul Farley that gave me (and lots of other people, I suspect) the word Edgelands, and Richard Mabey.

First of these concluding words, then, are an extract from Richard Mabey and his Unofficial Countryside:

…It’s not often that the scrubland stage is reached. Where it is, it is in those awkward-shaped parcels of ground – left over like a hem when the surrounding areas have been sewn up – often called ‘marginal land.’ These seem to be multiplying with the piecemeal extension of built-up areas: a sliver of land left over between two strictly rectangular factories, a disused car dump, the surrounds of an electicity substation. Nothing can be done with these patches. They are too small or misshapen to build on, too expensive to landscape. So they are simply ignored – at least until the bushes start shutting out the light from the machine-shop. For that spell of ten or twenty years they form some of the richest and most unpredictable habitats for wildlife to be found in urban areas…

The Unofficial Countryside: Bearings

and (almost) last words to Symmonds Roberts and Farley:

It’s always a surprise… To find a gap in the shiny advertising boardings or a bent back sheet of corrugated iron which affords a few onto an open wasteland carpeted with flowers in summer… The city suddenly has a new scale and underness and an overness. 

The journey to a high moor or heath in search of wilderness and communing with nature involves a slow readjustment in terms of scale and space, but a city wasteland is all the more mysterious for the manner of our encounter with it: the imagination does the travelling.

This is what the Edgelands represent, an No mans land between the two sides…

I wrote “almost” because the typing of that quotation was initially overridden by the computer, unexpectedly throwing up a very different (and much more dramatic) touchstone on the constantly shifting border: Rob Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood’s disturbing meditation Ness – in that my text at one point read “and under Ness and an over Ness.” So I turn to this shattering prose-poem about the fall of a Babylon to the greater Principalities of wood and water and lichen, and find similarities with the rotting stumps and rusting gateways of where I run.

The encounter in the poem of the Powers of Nature with the grim purposes of humanity is exposed in an “environmental takeover,” and the willow-boned, hagstone-eyed entities that possess the nuclear defence site do so in their own time:

& time to them is not deep, not deep at all, for time is only ever overlapping tumbling versions of the now.

It has about it the bitter vision of triumph after oppression of the Book of Revelation; ruination; shattering; repossession. In the same way in the Edgelands, the everyday submits to the unbounded potential of weed sycamore and umbel and the run of the brook as the spring puts out, in Robert Macfarlane’s words, the green where shadow meets leaf.

Post dies octo

There were whispers in that night too,

When, the doors locked out of fear,

Oil lamps guttered and men talked anxiously

Of trust, hope, faith: the certainties that die so easily.

Shadows on anxious faces, shadows

In corners, like deep points in pools

Catching the unwary come to bathe.

For what improbability lurks there ready

To drag the overtrusting from the half-lit place

Into a depth where hope chokes in the dark?

And what might these men see, straining

Weary eyes and wary minds to scry

For vision, comfort, revelation shining

In the shade beyond the reach of light?

NS Wednesday, 06 April 2005

At Sea

When Moominpapa leads his little tribe away from Moominvalley he is trying to negotiate a new way of being the Father. In Moominpappa at Sea he has left his study and gone back to his childhood wanderings as depicted in his memoirs – except that this time he has family to deal with, and instead of hilarious annoyances like the Hemulen Aunt and Edward the Booble, settles on an island and is concerned with keys to the lighthouse, protecting his family, and the fact that – as we maybe all discover in some ways – that our shadows follow us when we make changes to our lives. Change in purpose, in attitude, in relationship (to one another, to the landscape we inhabit, to our selves) is at the heart of the story.

Following them in her inexorable, inexplicable, icy rage is the worst Nemesis in any book for children: the Groke. Symbol of crushing depression, she kills everything in any place she sits. This is perhaps the most terrifying illustration of the creature in all of Jansson‘s depictions (I am even fond of the darkening paper of my soon-to-fall-apart copy). She frightens me like the revenant in the final sections of Michelle Paver‘s terrifying Dark Matter.

The Moomin family have been described as “surprisingly complex and plausible.” Part of me wants to jump up and down at that “suprisingly,” but it does reflect something of my own disquiet when I first read this book – and I read it as an adult. In fact I did remark to one of my children that “I didn’t think it was a book for children.” I think my opinions about “for children” have changed now – but it reflects some of the themes Tove Jansson presents. These are characters with depth, full of love, sadness, frustration, loneliness: capable of wrong decisions, reconciliation, fear and delight – and because they are Jansson’s characters, able to worry too about the lack of paraffin and to enjoy a birthday tea.

Reviews on Goodreads go from a five-star “poignant and empathetic” to “a deeply distasteful story of toxic masculinity.” It is worth remembering this is a book from 1965, of course, but in the way that Moominpappa is trying to restart his life, and the ways Moomintroll is trying to make sense of the haunting chill of the Groke that has pursued him and the beauty of the seahorses he encounters, we are looking at an exploration of growing that goes way beyond the anachronism of “toxic masculinity.” If anything, these two male characters are asking for ways to make sense of their place in family and society: how can I be a “family man” when so much is beyond my control? asks the father. How do I tame the depression that seems to negate my inner need for beauty and transcendence? asks the son. Or perhaps I read the two characters like this because in some way those are my own questions… Let’s return to the text. (NB: It would take a lot longer than a blog post to bring in here a discussion of Little My, or Moominmamma or the sea horses – they need looking at in their own right. This post will have to be about Moomintroll and Moominpappa, and revisists/revises some of my thinking from an earlier post.)

The way Moomintroll and his father interact in Moominpappa at Sea appears to me to be an indicator of both characters growing. With his comfortable self-assurance, Moominpappa in Ch 4 (“The North-Easter”) starts off in control when he and his son go to bring in a haul of fish: Now you can see I know something about the sea, he says, but he is panicky, unable to direct Moomintroll effectively, and the nets are full of seaweed rather than fish. All the father’s expertise temporarily ebbs away – and their boat capsizes. Tove Jansson knows her boats, and takes us through this disaster assuredly – but even though father and son come through the crisis, here, in this brief interchange, her characters show they are less sure of themselves:

“Well, we managed that all right,” said Moomintroll, looking cautiously at his father.

“Do you think so?” said Moominpappa doubtfully.

It is a revealing little scene: the self-assured, bungling dad loses face with his growing son, and when Moomintroll looks cautiously for reassurance, it is at this point that Moominpappa expresses his doubt. Simply told, but in an effective few words.

The chaos of the botched fishing trip is a metaphor for frustration (as Keith Negley describes his pirate in an interview with Mat Tobin), and is followed by the usually imperturbable Moominmamma’s sighs as Moomintroll’s obsession with the lantern (and the demands of the Groke) interrupt her plans. It is as if in this landscape of frustration, nothing can come right.

Moominpappa is contending with his island, his family, his worries. Instead of a study where the family interrupt him, he has a crag on which to sit: this life change has not been the success he had expected.

The ending is ambiguous, Moomin Valley is (maybe) lost, the characters (certainly) challenged, and if their issue around the custodianship of the lighthouse are resolved, I still feel a chill when reading

The thought of the Groke crossed Moomintroll’s mind. But he didn’t feel that he must think about her. He would see her later as usual, but he didn’t have to.

It now reminds me (with important distinctions, of course) of the final of Dark Matter. The narrator, Jack, having been menaced and haunted (“It can open doors“) in Gruhuken in the blackness of an arctic winter where his friend has drowned, now lives in balmy Jamaica, and once a year visits the sea:

When I’ve mustered my courage, I can just bring myself to crouch at the water’s edge and di[ in my hand, and hold it there while I talk to Gus. It’s a kind of communion. But it’s a dangerous one, for I know that I’m also communing with Gruhuken, and with what walks there in the dark…

The worst is not knowing if you’re still there.

What has Moomintroll’s repeated encounters in the dark with the Groke, this vengeful granddaughter of Nordic Frost Giants, brought him? An appreciation of his father’s ennui? There is a significant change in understanding between Moomintroll and the Groke so that she

…started to sing. Her skirts fluttered as she swayed to and fro, stamping on the sand and doing her best to show him that she was pleased to see him…

and I would – maybe even ought to be – happy with that, but what is the Groke’s new relationship with the Moomins? Is she in some way healed? Changed? She appears to me a figure of terror, but gradually Jansson introduces other ideas: her sadness; loneliness the coldest thing that ever was… Why do I come back to her as something to be scared of negotium perambulans in tenebris, Scaduhelma…wan under wolcnum? Is it, maybe, that these frustrated monsters are for me like the thursen of our research – and that what I am looking for is the very opportunity to grow? Moomintroll himself has grown, it seems – but what of Moominpappa?

The title in English gives us the “at sea” of this blog post: lost, aimless, adrift. The title in Swedish translates as “Moominpappa and the Sea,” reminiscent of Hemingway. Moominpappa has uprooted his family, tried to rewrite their relationships, and come adrift from the way his family works. Who lives in the lighthouse – who controls this important part of the environment? Most crucially: whose job is it to do these things? Who is using all the paraffin (it is his son’s night time meetings with the Groke herself). In the dialogue with the raging sea – which parallels his son’s gradual reconciliation with the Groke – Moominpappa rebukes the sea which in turn gives him a sign that the family should stay. It is not the task Moominpappa envisaged, but it is a mission nonetheless, to settle down there and enjoy themsleves, although they were surrounded by a vast, never-changing horizon closing in on them. Settle into this new life, and accept what is offered: re-invent this landscape not as one of frustration but as one of change. Just as it is not Moomintroll’s job to tame the Groke, but to live with her, to accept her, it is not for Moominpappa to control his environment, but to live with its ambiguities. The crucial symbolic action for Pappa is therefore much closer to home (for him and me? – and do I wear a hat so much because he does?):

[The lighthouse keeper] completed the puzzle. It was a picture of birds flying round a lighthouse. He turned round and looked at Moominpappa.

“Now I remember,” he said.”We’re both wearing the wrong hat.”

He took off the hat he was wearing and offered it to Moominpappa. They exchanged hats without saying a word.”

The lighthouse keeper, the lost Ben Gunn-like fisherman, gets his old hat back, along with his role as lighthouse keeper – and Moominpappa, who had said he didn’t need his top hat any more, has his iconic hat returned to him.

The blurb at the start of the Puffin edition (1974) tells me it is “for readers of eight and over,” and describes it as a “haunting, moving, beautiful book…perhaps the most satisfying of all the Moomin stories.” But just as I take issue with the word “surprising” from the Guardian, I wonder quite what “satisfying” really means here. So many unanswered questions remain – not least whether they will stay in the end – and for me, the psychodrama of Moomin and the Groke, and his father’s loss of faith in his role, pound at my reading like the breakers on the rocks.

Need Called Knowledge Out

This blog post forms part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. This was my post on anger; this was his exploring the Myths and the Gifts that Gwyn receives, and this is Chris on Loss, which I will cite below.

Many stories take off at the point where a protagonist realises something about their place in the narrative. The variations are worth a quick look. The title of this post comes from the complex beginnings of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged discovers, little by little, the power of magic, and it is this particular sequence from LeGuin that for me embodies the best of these understandings of who these young heroes are – or might become. Will Stanton has a more dramatic set of encounters in the Dark is Rising; the growing menace that threatens Martha and the other children of a quiet Oxfordshire village in The Whispering Knights shows another way of introducing the dilemma at the heart of fantasy. Caspian, Eustace and Polly in various of the Narnia stories have similar vocational events; the children in Elidor fall into their task by accident and are all, in various ways, unwilling heroes. The two most famous (at the moment) are where Harry Potter is told that he’s a wizard and where Frodo takes up the task of destroying the Ring. Here, as a shortcut, is the film version of the Harry Potter interchange; likewise here is Frodo at the Council of Elrond. It is debatable whether this is the moment at which Frodo decides, of course, and there could be various readings of this. It would make an interesting task to take these narratives of self-realisation and tabulate them: gender (What happens when Lyra is given the alethiometer? Is this her “vocational event”? Is Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the same in terms of “vocation” and belief [a theme repeated in Prince Caspian] as her brothers here? What about Susan?); does it come about by self-discovery or an external message; how does use of past histories explain the state the hero is entering (what does Miss Hepplewhite’s back story do to help the children along?); age of the young hero (nine? ten? thirteen?); pace of discovery, point of self-realisation…

Ah yes: the point at which the hero accepts the quest makes for an interesting point*. In Harry Potter, this is a surprise, almost comic, as the boy discovers (by being told) something about who he “really is” in the teeth of opposition from his oppressive family; in Lord of the Rings this is an unwelcome realisation on the part of Frodo Baggins – that his part in the story is not over, a culmination of a whole load of plot development, near-death adventure and background in-fill: while Harry is described as unhappy, abused and lost, with his inchoate powers hinting at him that there is more to come, Frodo (not a magician any more than his Sam) has learned of the peril of the Ring, the need to get it secretly away from the terrors that are seeking it, and has experienced its addictive and destructive power. Such is the pace of Rowling and Tolkien in a nutshell: Tolkien is creating his world, while Rowling throws us in medias res. In a story written with children in mind the choice for a sudden exposition is also connected to a desire to get on with the plot – so that when Gwyn is given the news he is (or may be) a magician in The Snow Spider it is abrupt like the news Hagrid gives Harry:

“‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain.

‘A magician?’ Gwyn inquired.

‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

‘Who?’ ‘

The magicians, boy!”

and just in the same way as Harry Potter and Ged will take time to find their place in the world they are entering – one might argue that Ged struggles all his life, after his early (literally schoolboy) errors – Gwyn takes all three books of The Snow Spider to realise his power, his place in Nimmo’s grand continuum of myth and location.

Vocational Event: self-realisation. When a story takes off like this, somewhere along the line there is a task to take up, a burden to shoulder.

Frodo becomes the hero (and maybe even more so, Sam) by his involvement in the story, whereas Harry’s status goes before him. Gwyn, Ged and Will are an uncomfortable mixture of the two, which makes these stories have an undertow of Bildungsroman to them: their growth into their magic is what makes them interesting protagonists. While Will is looking for his place among the Old Ones as their mission reaches its conclusion, Ged is literally (and figuratively) at sea, looking, as the books progress, at the encircling gloom he has, in part, released. Gwyn, however, is a new creation of the mythic past – less an inheritor than (as I said before) “growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician.” The demons he encounters are therefore not just the spirit of Efnisien but what Chris Lovegrove calls “the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever -” the thousand natural shocks.

The need that calls out his knowledge is not just the immediate – to find Bethan his lost sister – but to stand in the breach of his family’s pain. As Chris explains it “Gwyn has to learn how to control his innate gifts as a magician in order to make good as many of the losses as he can.” He needs to contain, to hold, to heal. The symbolism of the gate not shut is subtle – but insistent throughout the first book of the trilogy, and the clumsiness of Gwyn’s attempts at healing recurs in the third.

Gwyn (or young reader of The Snow Spider), please note: no-one – apart, perhaps, from your imperfect parents – expects you to be perfect, and if Nain looks like she wants to rest the whole weight of the history of early medieval Wales on your shoulder, she, too, is over ambitious.

This is where the reader’s identification with a questing protagonist is key. We ride alongside Gringolet to earn, with Gawain, the true value of knighthood; we learn to deal with adults with Harry Potter, with belief and faith in Narnia: we negotiate family dynamics in a time of transitions with Roland in Elidor and in a time of pain and loss with Gwyn in The Snow Spider… Growing up in not without pain, struggle –

And as Will concludes in the final words of the Dark is Rising books “I think it’s time we were starting out…We’ve got a long way to go.”

*There are parallels here with many Biblical (and non-Biblical) narratives: the call of Abram/Abraham; the vocational encounter of Moses; the desert experience and Baptism of Jesus – the questioning about suffering of Siddhārtha Gautama, the call of St Francis, the Sword in the Stone… I might then want to explore the lines between the sacrificial journey of Abraham and Isaac, the journey to Calvary, and the sacrifice of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse… There isn’t really space in this post to do any exploration of these justice. But at least that thought gives me an excuse to finish with the view from Uffington.