Posted by: David Thorpe | July 2, 2010

Land and stories

Wales is a beautiful land, saturated with legends ripe for picking, that have been adopted by generations of storytellers.

As the “land of the bards” it is quintessentially a writer’s territory. But territory is always specific and crucially relevant to a tale, however universal its message may be. So this post is about the use of location in novels for children. More specifically, locations near where I live in mid Wales.

It’s been something on my mind during the writing of my last completed, but as yet unpublished, novel The Drowning. This is set very specifically where I live – the village, the coast, the mountains behind.

Bedd Taliesin - Taliesin's Grave My village is called Taliesin, named after Wales’ great bard, whose grave (right) is supposed to be on the hillside behind the village and whose discovery, in a leather bag floating on the river Dyfi by Elffin, is supposed to have happened nearby. It appeals to me that I live in a village with this mythic resonance.

Alan Garner

When I first moved to Wales over 18 years ago I lived in another village in the Dyfi Valley, further north up in the mountains. I was immediately reminded of Alan Garner’s book The Owl Service, which I read as a child and was deeply impressed by.

I re-read it, and its description of a valley in the mountains sealed in by cloud and seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, causing relationships between the characters trapped there to be intensified, made just as much an impression on me as it did before. It is said to be located “a few miles from Aberystwyth”, but actually I think it is meant to be up near Devils Bridge, rather than Corris where I lived.

Alan Garner is justly celebrated as someone who not only writes gripping stories in an essential, pared-down style, but also uses precise locations particularly importantly.

cover of Red Shift by Alan GarnerWhen I pitched the idea of The Drowning to my editor, she told me she had just been to visit Garner at his home in Alderley Edge, the setting for Red Shift. He had taken her on a walk of the locations and pointed out details as precise as the roots of a tree where the characters sit at one point in the narrative. How astonishing to be so specific in knowing the route taken by one’s characters.

When I moved to Wales from London I was struck by the proximity of the past to the present, because the surface of the landscape is not obscured by Tarmac, construction, development or the incessant rush of modernity. Therefore it is possible to see easily how people used to live and to imagine their gods striding these hills and forests and valleys. I came up with the phrase “the skin of the present is very thin here” to describe this feeling.
cover of The Owl Service by Alan Garner
It was the same feeling as that evoked by the Owl Service, where the ancient tales – in this case that of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion – can easily haunt the present, coming to life again in a new form, and being continually reinvented, as stories are by their retelling. Sometimes stories can take us over, living themselves through us.

Susan Cooper

Another important children’s book whose setting is in this area and which draws on mythology is Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (in The Dark Is Rising Sequence). Cadair IdrisThis is set nearby, around the mountain Cadair Idris (right), and takes the Arthurian legends as its starting point. A gripping fantasy story, it involves children in an epic journey, taking them deep underneath Wales’s second highest mountain.

The Grey King, Cadair Idris’ guardian, sends down clouds to keep invaders at bay. I have felt this king’s presence myself when I have tried to climb to the summit on several occasions only to be turned back by its vicarious moods. Standing on the shores of Tal-y-Llyn on a windswept day it is easy to imagine the events in this narrative taking place.

Mythology enriches us

There are many other examples of children’s books set here and I would welcome anyone’s suggestions, particularly those which involve legends and mythology. I share a belief which Candy Gourlay recently articulated so well in an interview on Nicky Schmidt’s blog, discussing her new novel Tall Story: “I think mythology enriches our perception of who we are. Think about any myth and it will reveal so much about the people who originated it – myths are all about life and death and taking the measure of where the power lies in our environment.”

Taking the measure of where the power lies in our environment. This and all of the above lay behind my thinking when I wrote The Drowning. The power of place, of belonging, of home. Some places are characters in novels. The precise description of a particular place at a particular time can be just as resonant or evocative as the precise description of a character’s mood, changing moment by moment. Landscape as theatre.

Malachy Doyle

Swap by Malachy DoyleAlthough it doesn’t use mythology, I would like to give an honorary mention here to my friend Malachy Doyle’s recent novel Swap, which is set partly in nearby Machynlleth and whose local hero actually “lived” in a flat two doors down from mine at the time he was writing it. Malachy swapped Wales for Ireland, his home, but his parable underscores the power of the Celtic connection, and how we are all linked by stories.

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Responses

  1. Very much enjoyed this post, especially as I’ve just re-read The Owl Service and The Dark Is Rising is one of my all time favourite book sequences. Marvellous to live in such an evocative landscape – though Somerset’s pretty magical too!

  2. I love writers who can convey a deep sense of place – yet without overloading the prose with description. I suppose Wuthering Heights is one of the best examples – there’s hardly any description, yet the sense of place is overwhelming.

  3. I’d add Frank Cottrell Boyce’s ‘Framed’ too. It isn’t based on mythology, but it is about how our interaction with art and the artists of the past can move and enrich our lives. And it’s also set in a North Welsh village. It was a book that I really enjoyed.

  4. “the skin of the present is very thin here” – love it! i’ll quote that someday! that is one of the things that struck me about moving from the Far East to London (despite what you said about cities) … the present is just a veneer. In the Philippines and China and other Asian countries there is a relentless sense of forward movement, old being erased by the new and living in Europe taught me how to cherish what came before.

  5. Loved the post, David. I’d love to live in a place called Taliesin (as opposed to Newport) . I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read “The Owl Service” or “The Grey King”, although I recognise their classic stature and they both sit on my shelves. I’ll have to remedy that. Summer holidays are beckoning…
    I can remember reading “Tess…” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” as a teenager and feeling totally immersed in the scenery described by Hardy.
    Nowadays,I become impatient with long passages of description (but that’s just my preference!).
    I agree with Frances that we should strive for a sense of place without subjecting the reader to paragraph upon paragraph of description.
    I suppose it depends on the kind of story you’re writing

  6. What a great post, and what evocative landscapes. Reminds me of how much I love Wales… (And had a Welsh grandmother, so perhaps I count as an honorary grandaughter of Cymru?)

  7. I think the landscape we love is bound to resonate with us: the endless, clean stretch of Penbryn beach in the early morning, before the crowds arrive: the view across the bay from Portmeirion, even some bits of Cardiff ~ Victoria Park, which was my (totally unsupervised) happy hunting ground as a child, the wonderful echoing vastness of the Museum, the paddle-steamer crossing from Pier Head to Weston for our annual day trip (couldn’t afford holidays!). And as for books, the biggest influence on me was T H White’s “The Once and Future King” ~ and as for Susan Cooper, I even wrote a fan letter to her (when I was quite old, too!) and got a reply. The trouble with writing about Wales from her in Brittany is that it only makes me more homesick!

  8. I’ve been watching The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell recently. He thinks things are moving too quickly for us to have myths for today, but that as writers artists and poets we are responsible for making them.

  9. is The Power of Myth on TV? am i missing something important?

  10. […] the Road I would love to write a piece as beautiful and thoughtful as Frances’ and David’s, but unfortunately, my brain is mince and I think that the last beautiful thought I had whipped out […]

  11. Thanks for the honorary mention, David. I mapped out and walked Susan Cooper’s landscape, all around Aberdyfi (where her aunt lived), Tywyn and inland thereof. She wrote a wonderful picture book retelling of the legend of Llyn Barfog (the Bearded Lake), up in the hills at the very end of the road I lived on in Aberdyfi. It’s one of my very favourite places in Wales.
    Funny you should choose the one book of mine set in Wales that doesn’t draw on mythology! It’s a powerful land, and the voices of the past still speak loudly and clearly to us, if we only listen.

  12. Yes, absolutely. ‘The Owl Service’ is so beautiful I have to stop myself from thinking about it. It would need a vampire in it somewhere to get published today.


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