Magic spiders, magicians, mutilated horses, extra-terrestrial plants, a family in grieving and a batty grandmother. Yes, these are children’s books!
The books are all set on or near a welsh sheep farm where strange things happen. For those of you who don’t know Merlin (Myddthen) was welsh (no seriously, he came from Carmarthen! Why would the legends lie? He was not the most powerful of the legendary welsh witches and wizards either.) The books are a soup of the legends those in rural wales grow up with bleeding into the present with many supernatural goings on relating to the ancient magic folk.
So, the plot opens with Gwyn, he is related to a great magical heritage but only finds this out when he is 10. I want to be Gwyn’s gran when I grow up! She is delightfully insane. Gwyn himself is not the main focus of all the books; the subsequent two follow his friend Nay and her observations of the magical happenings going on around her.
This is far from Harry Potter; this is ancient dark magic that has a spine tingling and ghoulish history. Basically all the worst bits of the Mabinogion (first time these ancient stories were written down were many centuries later as the welsh had an oral tradition. The collection of stories was called eventually, the Mabinogian.)
I really identified with Nay, she was not the clever girl at school and almost ignored by her family due to its size. Her family also give up farming and moved to town. This had eerie echoes of my own upbringing and the culture shock of having to come down the mountain and have to live with other people when my parents moved from our farm. I hated the town and wept into my pillow for weeks. I could not sleep for the street lights and traffic. I had neighbours! I could hear them through the wall! How could people stand to live so close to each other? I adjusted eventually but never really felt a sense of ‘home’ again.
The welsh are said to suffer this terrible affliction called Hiraeth. It has no English translation, the closest English comes is homesickness. It’s the removal from a place that you felt your soul belonged, but not just the place, the time. It’s longing, nostalgia and sorrow all wrapped up in a big ball that hurts your heart. The Portuguese know what I am talking about! They have a word for it too!
I got hiraeth bad and never really got over it. My family moved around frequently after that and I never loved any house or place I have lived in since. Sad but true. Once, when we moved back into the area we used to farm I walked 6 miles in the snow up the mountain to take a peek at my old home. It was not the same anymore and the people living there had let the house fall into disrepair and our fields were very poorly maintained. I cried for almost half the way back. Home was gone and it hurt.
The third book The Chestnut Soldier is truly murky and brooding, just like the welsh weather, but my favourite is Elmyns Moon, the second book. Eerie and strange with a fractured family as the main plot theme and Nay’s friend Elmyn is left convinced his mother has left him and “gone to the moon.” Gwyn is hanging around the fringes with his mystical happenings and poor Elmyn and Nay get dragged in. It’s bitter sweet and always leaves me with a big smile at the end when Nay realises she has worth, even as the young forgotten sister.
I try not to read these books too often, like the Mabanogion reading them makes my chest ache and my eyes mist over. Even all these years later… Hiraeth is a bastard.