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It’s been something on my mind during the writing of my last completed, but as yet unpublished, novel The Drowning.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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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). This 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.
Although 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.