Throughout 'The Dark Is Rising' series of novels Susan Cooper evokes a strong sense of place and the settings used in the books are, in many ways, as important as the characters themselves. The books are set in three distinct parts of Britain: "My places are a piece of the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills, a piece of Southern Cornwall, and more than either a piece of mid-Wales, around Cader Idris, on the southern edge of Snowdonia."
Susan Cooper describes each of these settings as 'haunted' and '...true springs of the matter of Britain.' The multi-layering of Britain's long and ancient history attached to these places provides the haunting. It is this history, and the myths and legends that have sprung from events and people blurred by the passing of time, that provide a well-spring to stimulate the imagination. Nowhere is this more evident than the evocation of Wales for the last two books of the sequence, 'The Grey King' and 'Silver on the Tree'.
The wonderful thing about reading these two books is the way one is transported to the heart of Susan Cooper's Wales. The pages of the books present a picture of the landscape to the reader as clearly as if one were looking at a photograph. But more than this the legends and myths of this part of Wales are unashamedly woven into the story and the landscape becomes malevolent and magical in turn. Important things happen here. After re-reading these two books many times on the way to adulthood, it came as no surprise when I finally visited this part of Britain and I felt a strong sense of having been there before. Of course I had, through the books and the images that had been carried around in my head for so long, vivid and alive and populated with the dealings of the Dark and the Light and ordinary mortals like you and me.
These pages carry many pictorial images of Susan Cooper's Wales to allow those of you who have not visited an opportunity to see the landscape. It seems that some visitors to the site have made the same journey as myself. So many thanks to Evan Stoner who provided most of the excellent pictures taken during his own visit and to Jane Valencia who, unknowingly, provided the push to finally complete these pages after I read of her own journey: 'An American Harper in Wales'. Each of us had been led by a desire to see, at first hand, the beauty of this part of Britain and to visit those places: Cader Idris, Tal y Llyn, Craig yr Aderyn, Llyn Barfog... So here they are in one place for you to visit.
I remember my first glimpse of Cader Idris, which means 'Chair of Arthur' in English, the mountain with the distinctive profile that dominates the southern region of the Snowdonia. It was a gloomy, grey day kept alive by the ever changing landscape that accompanied the drive through North Wales. Suddenly, and with reference to the Ordnance Survey map on my knee, I looked forward and saw the bulk of the mountain ahead, its peak hung with misty, grey-white cloud. I went silent. A tingle of the spine and snatches of a verse in my head added to my reverie: 'On the day of the dead...' Here was Cader Idris, the home of the Grey King and pivotal feature in the quest for the golden harp of the Light. Images tumbled through my head.
Will gazed out at the mountains, dark and distant, swinging into view as they drove along the road crossing the valley. Grey-white cloud hung ragged round the highest hills, their tops invisible in the mist. He said, 'The cloud's all tattered around the tops of the mountains. Perhaps its breaking up.'
Rhys looked out casually. 'The breath of the Grey King? No I am sorry to tell you, Will, that's supposed to be a bad sign.'
Will sat very still, a great rushing in his ears; he gripped at the seat edge until the metal bit into his fingers.
Susan Cooper says this of her Wales: "The Welsh setting in The Grey King and Silver on the Tree is around Aberdyfi where my grandmother was born and my parents lived. I took some liberties with the description at one point combining two valleys into one, but otherwise it's exact.... I had two ordnance survey maps pinned up in my study inside a cupboard door, so that if I wanted to check them I went to the cupboard." The two valleys she uses are the Dysynni Valley and the valley of Tal y Llyn. The two valleys lie parallel to each other and Cader Idris looms over them both. When Will arrives in Wales he has no idea that Cader Idris is important until he meets Bran on his uncle's farm and learns of the mountain's true significance.
'What is Cader?' Bran stared at him. 'Don't know much about Wales, do you? Cader Idris, over there.' He pointed to a line of blue grey peaks across the valley. ' One of the highest mountains in Wales. You should know about Cader. After all it comes in your verse.'
Will frowned. 'No it doesn't.'
'Oh yes, not by name, no - but it's important in that second part. That's where he lives you see, up on Cader. The Brenin Llwyd. The Grey King.'
Scaling the mountain is not for the faint-hearted. During a couple of my visits I climbed the peak of Cader following a walkers route called the Mynfordd Path. A five hour walk which involves the immediate ascent of the mountain skirting Llyn Cau, a lake which is supposed to be bottomless. Legend has it that Arthur cast the Afanc from Llyn Barfog and into Llyn Cau where it sits bounded by cliff-like faces of the mountain. The route takes one high up over the cliffs, several hundred feet above the lake and as one climbs even higher there are stunning views of Tal y Llyn in the valley below. The climb is long and hard, through rocky landscapes, lush green and into the swirling breath of the Brenin Llwyd. Starting out in sunshine, it was hard to imagine the summit of the mountain could be so inhospitable. As I neared the top, the wind battered the mountainside and from nowhere a creeping, swirling mist obscured almost everything from view. The Grey King was awake and I stood in his domain. Was he watching me now? I was sure he was. I shivered and thought of the spectral Milgwyn appearing from the mist...
In contrast to the sometimes inhospitable peak of Cader Idris, the Dysynni Valley is a calm and quiet place. It is green and lush with a flat valley floor and the Afon Dysynni meanders from the base of Cader to the sea. There are two unusual outcroppings of rock in the valley. One of these is capped by the ruins of Castell y Bere, a castle built in the thirteenth century by Llewellyn. The ruin provides a wonderful vantage point for the two exciting landmarks of this place - Craig yr Aderyn and Cader Idris.
Standing on the ruin with my back to the sea, I could sea the bulk of Cader Idris at the head of the valley. Exposed in this place I was truly in the shadow of the Brenin Llwyd, the Grey King. This was his domain and the setting for Will's first quest, alone. And inside my head I remembered Susan Cooper's preface to the book and a line of text I read over and over again, I vividly recalled the shiver that it produced: "The Brenin Llwyd," she said. "I did not invent."
Looking seaward my gaze was held by the magnificent Craig yr Aderyn. A bulk of rock which juts out irregularly from the valley side, it is the only place in Britain where cormorants nest inland and was once, in an earlier time, lapped by the sea. But of course the images in my mind were not of cormorants but of the quest for the golden harp of the Light. As Will and Bran battle with the fire on the mountain they find themselves isolated on the rock, cut off by fire on both sides. It is only then they realise that this is the place referred to in the prophetic rhyme, written centuries before, to guide them in their quest.
But Will was standing very still, looking at him.
'That's right,' Bran said, surprised. 'Bird Rock. Craig yr Aderyn, rock of the birds. I thought you knew that.'
Will said softly, reflectively:
'On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks...'
Bran stared at him. 'You mean...the door of the birds...here?'
Craig yr Aderyn is the key to the finding of the harp. The boys venture into the rock to a place governed by neither the Light or Dark. As they journey deeper into the hillside, they are judged by the High Magic as they stand on the edge of the world beneath the stars. After passing the test they earn the right to face the three lords of the high magic who are guardians of the Golden Harp of the Light. Solving the riddles posed to them, they retrieve the harp and begin the next step of the quest - to wake the sleepers from their rest on the shores of the Pleasant Lake, Tal y Llyn.
I had longed for many years to see Tal y Llyn. I was not prepared for my first glimpse as the car I was travelling in meandered to-and-fro following the A470 from Dolgellau to Machynlleth. Somewhat hopeless with maps, I knew that the lake lay ahead somewhere and then the road began to climb insistently. Sign-posts at the side of the road hinted at what lay ahead until a final sign said "View point - 800m". The landscape had changed and the tiny road was dwarfed by steep sided mountains; we drove on. And then - it was like a light suddenly being switched on - the valley opened up in front of us.
A huge sky, a V-shaped valley and nestling beneath the bulk of Cader Idris was Tal y Llyn. The Lake in the pleasant retreat. It was a beautiful and dramatic sight. It was here that the finale to 'The Grey King' is played out, the resting place of the sleepers, mentioned in the words of the prophetic rhyme that guides Will and Bran in their quest:
By the pleasant lake the sleepers lie,
On Cadfan's Way where the kestrels call;
Though grim from the Grey King shadows fall,
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.
I had entered the valley through the pass of Tal y Llyn. Little was I to know that the view from the seaward end of the lake would be even more dramatic as the steep mountain slopes criss-crossed behind the head of the lake providing a grand backdrop to this most beautiful of places.
Will does not immediately realise that Tal y Llyn is referred to in the prophetic rhyme that guides his quest. As the Dark begins to work its power in the valley, events conspire to inform Will of the nature of this place. The sheep injured and then taken away by the Milgwyn when Will first arrives in the valley, is found on the slope of Cader Idris above Tal y Llyn. When Idris Jones, Will and John Rowlands go to check that it is the lost sheep, the mountain 'shrugs' and Will falls towards a sheer drop from the mountainside to the lake. Hitting a granite outcrop his fall is broken and he is lucky to escape with a bruised arm which could easily have been broken. "And the boy at the bottom of Llyn Mwyngil." remarks Idris Jones.
Will said, 'Llyn Mwyngil, what does it mean in English?'
'Well... the lake in the pleasant place. Pleasant retreat. Whatever.'
'The pleasant lake,' Will said. 'No wonder I fell. The pleasant lake.'
The quest for Will is to play the golden harp and wake the sleepers from their rest in the slopes of Cader Idris. This final part of the quest is hazardous as the Dark, fully awake and filling the valley with its malevolence, works though the human form of Caradog Pritchard and its warestones in an attempt to prevent Will and Bran from succeeding. Finally Will arrives at the Lake with the harp and the sleepers are awakened.
And through the luminescence that held the valley suspended in daylit, moonlit half-light, Will saw six figures take shape.
They were horsemen, riding. They came out of the mountain, out of the lowest slopes of Cader Idris that reached upwards from the lake into the fortress of the Grey King. They were silvery grey, glinting figures riding horses of the same strange half-colour, and they rode over the lake without touching the water, without making a sound.
During my first visit to Tal y Llyn I sat, on an idyllic day, outside a pub on the edge of the lake; drink in hand I looked at the green slopes of Cader Idris rising from the waters of the lake. It was an odd journey that had brought me to this place as an adult. Through the books and images in my head I had been drawn to this part of Britain and as I sat on the shore of Tal y Llyn, those long carried images tumbled uncontrolled through my head - an involuntary shiver ran down my spine... I was finally seeing the landscape with my own eyes, but of course I had been there before, each time I read of the quest for the golden harp and the waking of the sleepers.
In 'Silver on the Tree' Jane and Will meet on a hillside above the village of Aberdyfi. Jane is drawn by the sound of Will blowing the hunting horn received at the end of 'The Dark Is Rising'. He is staying once more with his Aunt Jen and the Drews are on holiday in Aberdyfi, the village in which their great-grandmother had lived. There they meet Bran and Will explains the nature of this the final quest. Seeking the Lady, they decide to visit the local places that have a connection with King Arthur and on their first morning together the group leave Aberdyfi and begin their ascent into the surrounding hills:
Silent for want of breath, they toiled up the long winding lane that led from Aberdyfi into the hills. The road rose very steeply, climbing out of the valley of the Dyfi estuary, so that whenever they paused to look back they could see, spread beneath them, a widening sweep of the coast and hills and broad sea, with the silver ribbon of the Dyfi river snaking through the gleaming acres of gold-brown sand left by the falling tide.
This is a beautiful walk on a fine day. From the shores of the Dyfi estuary at Aberdyfi, it is a steep walk out of the valley. There is then a choice to walk to Llyn Barfog via the Panorama Walk or via the quiet and beautiful Cwm Maethlon, renamed Happy Valley by delighted Victorian visitors. The group walk along the panoramic ridge walk which allows views over the vast sweep of Cardigan Bay, the Dyfi estuary and Cwm Maethlon.
They were on the rim of a magnificent valley. At their feet on the hillside dropped away in a sweep of waving green bracken, where a few sheep precariously grazed on scattered patches of grass. Far, far, below among the green and golden fields of the valley floor, a road ran like a wavering thread, past a toy church and a tiny farm. And across the valley, beyond its further side patched blue with cloud-shadows and dark with close planted fir, there rolled line after line the massing ancient hills of Wales.
'Oh!' Jane said softly.
'Cwm Maethlon,' Bran said.
'Happy Valley,' said Will.
The Panorama Walk is over 2 miles long and leads, after a walk of nearly an hour, to Carn March Arthur. It is here that Will, Bran and the Drews begin their quest. Carn March Arthur is a small outcropping of rock, etched into which are impressions in the shape of a horse's hoof. The rock sits at the side of a grassy track and out of view of Llyn Barfog which is a ten-minute walk away. I did not know what to expect as I approached this place, it is quite unremarkable until one attaches the ancient legends of the place to it. Looking around on this windswept hillside one can begin to imagine the magical clash with Arthur riding his horse as he battles with the Afanc, the monster from Llyn Barfog; his horse's hoof crashing into the rock as it seeks to gain a footing during the fight.
Will came slowly down the path, his senses open and alert as the ears of a hunting dog, but he felt nothing. Glancing across he saw the same blankness on Bran's face.
'There's a sort of carved out circle that's supposed to be where the hoof of Arthur's horse trod - look it's marked.' Barney measured the hollow in the rock with his hand.
As Will immediately sensed, it is not Carn March Arthur that provides the springboard for this quest. It is to the next and the most special of places that the group travel. A short walk takes one to the mysterious Llyn Barfog - the Bearded Lake - where it sits quietly brooding at the head of the valley.
It was a strange small reed-edged lake, little larger than a pond; its dark surface seemed curiously patched and patterned. Then Will saw that its open surface was rippled by the wind., but that only a small part of it was open, a triangle at the closest end of the lake. All the rest of its surface, from the end of the valley to a trailing V-shape in the centre, was covered with the leaves and stems and creamy white bloom of waterlilies. And from a singing in his ears like the sudden rise waves on a loud sea, he knew too that somewhere up here, after all, was the place to which they had to come.
Llyn Barfog is totally unlike the other lake used in Susan's books, Tal y Llyn, and it is truly a special place. It is also the setting for one of the most magical scenes in the whole of The Dark Is Rising series. It is here that Jane learns from the Lady of the quest that Will and Bran must undertake in the Lost Land.
A small footpath skirts around a third of the lake's shore and, at one point, it splits into two and a wooden marker, simply stating 'Echo Point', directs one over a small hillock to a place at the head of the valley where the land drops away. It is here that Will begins to sing. As I stood at his point I felt a whole range of images tumble through my mind. 'The mountains are singing and the lady comes....' Gosh, how I wish I had the temerity to sing at this place! 'The mountains are singing....' and would The Lady come? I turned around and scrambled up to the crest of the hill to look over the water of the lake and from this vantage point I imagined Jane standing at the waters edge:
The voice soared up on the wind, from behind the hill, distant but clear, in a strange lovely line of melody, and with it and behind it very faint in a following descant came the echo of the song, a ghostly second voice twining with the first.
It was as if the mountains were singing.
And as Jane gazed unseeing at the clouds blowing low over the lake, someone came.
The Lady. It was intended from the beginning that Jane should carry the message, the Lady explains, and she is to tell Will that he and Bran must go to the Lost Land at the moment "when it shall show itself between the land and the sea." When the Lady is gone, Jane is confronted with the nightmarish Afanc as it rears from Llyn Barfog demanding to know the information she carries. Bran commands the monster back to the depths of the lake in the name of his father, King Arthur. Jane recounts the message to the two boys and they set off to look for the Lost Land.
During my visit, I too looked for the Lost Land. Standing on the mountainside above the Dyfi estuary I looked out over the vast expanse of Cardigan Bay, the Dyfi meandering through the sand flats on its journey to the sea. Through misty eyes, stung by the wind whipping in from the sea, I stared at the grey estuary backed by the green hillsides. The land is haunted by the legend of the Lowland Hundred, the fertile reclaimed land of King Gwyddno Garanhir. His kingdom was lost, drowned, when the sea-wall broke. Standing alone on this hillside, the images of the Lost Land flashed in and out of my mind and I knew I was standing at the very place that had inspired Susan:
In [Silver on the Tree] Will and Bran are on a mountaintop on one side of the estuary of the River Dyfi, and there appears a magical arching bridge that takes them down into a timeless place called the Lost Land. When I was writing that passage I had them on the mountaintop and didn't know what happened next. Then I remembered, the last time I was home - being up on that particular mountain, looking out over the estuary of the River Dyfi. Ever since I was a child I had known the legend about the drowned country, and I could almost see it. As I recalled the moment I thought, that's what they do! That's what happens.
As Bran and Will and the Drews stand on the very spot, the Lost Land appears in a magical moment: a wondrous city, the land and a glass tower. It is a magical moment indeed, one that Bran and Will must seize so that they may continue their quest.
Will and Bran journey into the Lost Land and the Drews make their way alone to Aberdyfi. Alas, the Lost Land did not show itself to me and like Simon Jane and Barney I made my way back into Aberdyfi to lie under now glorious sunshine on the beach. Looking up at the bright sky, I was safe in the knowledge that I would visit this magical part of Wales again. I hope you enjoyed your visit.