As a side effect of blogging through Howl’s Moving Castle, I get that strange attraction that from time to time pulls me towards all things Welsh. To my regret I never learned to speak Cymraeg, though I did learn, in a class in ancient British and Germanic mythology, how to pronounce those sweet melodious names. (It’s merely a happy coincidence that my own dad was the professor.)
It added another layer to my interest when I finally got to read a 1955 essay by Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” which was impossible to get hold of before Lord of the Rings became a perma-seller and the Jackson films were so successful; this and other treasures such as JRRT’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters And The Critics” were collected and reissued in an affordable edition in 2006.
Tolkien makes a point that’s obvious enough now that I think of it, but of course I didn’t think of it before: with Welsh we have the closest surviving relative of the original British language. (Cornish, alas, is extinct; I’m not sure about the old language of Scotland. Gaelic evolved separately apart from the British “mainland” in Ireland.) English, derived from Anglo-Saxon, arrived later; English and Welsh are related members of the Indo-European language family, but they came from widely divergent branches.
I should add that all this about Welsh is pertinent to Howl’s Moving Castle, which if you have read it already you will know, but which you will not have got even a glimmer of if all you’ve experienced is the anime.
Anyway, you can open The White Goddess practically anywhere and discover all kinds of quoted Welsh goodness, with Graves merrily spinning away at all sorts of it-could-have-happeneds. The material is so cryptic, so fragmentary, and so old that it seems to invite just that.
Did Diana Wynne Jones have any of this in mind when she wrote HMC? I have no doubt of it. Between a love for Story, a splendid Oxford education, and a Welsh grandfather, she was bound to have internalized the matter of Wales. Those fish plop up out of the dark water and onto the pages of The Merlin Conspiracy in particular. In fact I’m willing to bet DWJ owned a copy of White Goddess, which along with Frazer’s The Golden Bough is a mythopoet’s dream. I had forgotten, until I recently reread Fire and Hemlock, that Tom Lynn sends Polly a copy of The Golden Bough just to try to get across to her the kind of horrible situation he’s in.
Which brings me fully around whatever circle this is. (It’s the week before Easter and my brain is consumed by music-think. Word-think, which is my usual mode, has been pushed aside and is not working too well. This will soon pass.)
Anyway, in Fire and Hemlock Tom, critiquing Polly’s fantasy novel, chides her that she’s letting Tolkien influence her in the wrong way: she imitating him blindly, in other words. If you want to explore Tolkienian themes, there is a better way. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Jones shows us how to do it right. And gives us a nice spin on some ancient Welsh themes as well.