Sarah Mussi: In a land of myth

Dragons King Arthur Merlin Mount Snowdon Sarah Mussi Snowdonia Wales

In a land of myth, and a time of the magic…  brilliant opening words from BBC’s immortal series:MERLIN.
Once upon a time… classic line from every fairy story going…
What better way to start your story than with a time and a place?

Once upon a time, in a land of myth, I set out to find the most inspirational time and place where I could tell a story that would touch every storytelling nerve I’d ever had. I didn’t have to go far. For me, born on the Cotswold hills, the mountains of North Wales are just a Golden Valley away. 
If any of you have ever been to Snowdonia, or have the good fortune to live there, you will know, only too well, that the Mountains of the West - as well as being the most beautiful things on earth - are the birth place of bards and the home of some of the oldest stories ever told.
HERE BE DRAGONS, my story about Snowdonia, starts on the slopes of Mount Snowdon itself.  One cold winter’s morning, when a serious weather alert has snow locked everybody into their cottages…
And as I spun the story out from that beginning - like the metaphorical little Welsh lady in her tall black hat at her spinning wheel – spinning out the stuff of fairy story and myth – I thought of other metaphors for the magical, for the mysterious and for the myths of the mountains.
I imagined the snow perhaps as a symbol for something else - bigger and much more dangerous, but just as intangible.  I imagined the mountains as a symbol too, as the manifestation of the tangible – huge and perilous. 
And I searched wider and deeper to find out just what that something might be… and I found the Dragons.
In Welsh mythology underneath the rocks of Mount Snowdon lie two fighting dragons, interred, entombed and locked away from mankind, because they are so dangerous. These dragons are – perhaps themselves - a huge metaphor in their turn for that deep, dark, dangerous, locked-away subconscious – often at war with itself - that lies in everyone of us.
The Welsh word for ‘Snowdon’ is ‘Yr Wyddfa’ – which some translate as Snowhill - but others, those who know the older, deeper Welsh translate it as The Burial, or the Snow Den. 
When I discovered this a tingle went down my spine, and I knew I had found the heart of my story.
Through peeling back these layers of metaphor, I got to what I wanted to write about. I began to understand the pull and call of mountains: why people put on their hiking boots, go out, climb, buy expensive mountaineering equipment, set out to conquer cliffs, beat mountains, bankrupt themselves, risk death to stand on summits – to be on the roof of the world… and why I tried at age 9 to climb my very own Devil’s Chimney.
I understood why somebody decided to build a tower of stones right on the very summit of Snowdon, a marker that it would stand forever, a symbol that mankind had conquered the mountain.  
The more I thought about this idea, though, the more I realised how hopeless it was to think that mankind can ever conquer nature, can ever chart it by erecting some kind of flag or marker. And conversely how futile it is for mankind too, to ever hope to map the depths of the human mind. 
The human psyche is much higher than any mountain summit, and much deeper than its valleys  - and I believe quite unconquerable, quite un-map-able –wise men and women have showed us with their storytelling to work with the mind rather than to attempt to fathom it - have devised myths to describe its heights and depths and dangers. 
And mountains are, perhaps, the best symbol of those two extremes. Great writers, poets have always understood that.
No worst, There is None
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
So it was under Snowdon that I looked for my story not on top of it.
And under Snowdon are the dragons. 
When you walk through the mountains of Snowdonia you can almost feel the presence of these huge subterranean, mighty, majestic creatures and it was about them that I wanted to write.
The retelling of myths surrounding the Dragons of Wales and the exploits of King Arthur and the magic of Martin and the battles of the giants in and around Snowdonia, have, of course, been retold many times, over the ages, right from the 12th to 13th century Mabinogion, down to the current, popular TV success: MERLIN, and the soon to be released epic fim : KNIGHTS OF THE ROUNDTABLE: KING ARTHUR (2016).  I was writing a great tradition then, with fabulous company! 
Yet, I wanted to bring something new and different to the stories. It seemed to me that nobody yet had quite written a modern love affair based on the mythologies of the mountains of North Wales. In Cornwall, we have the mythologized love affairs of Tristram and Iseult; in Arthurian  legend we have many a gallant knight’s  quest, to bring back trophies to his lady love. We have the doomed love affair of Guinevere and Arthur – of Guinevere and  Lancelot… but specifically in North Wales there are very few love stories set in Snowdonia.  
So I set out to create a love story that was going to be accessible to a teenager living in today's world.  Teenagers today love legendary romance, but expect a little bit more than a rusty sword and a metal overcoat- or for their boyfriend to go gallivanting off on a big swim, across rivers, or trek, across deserts, to prove his love. So I created Ellie, the mountain girl, who has already climbed many of the peaks, and in her own right was victorious over the landscape, but had not, as yet, really plumbed the depths of the human psyche – that deep well of emotion that first love taps straight into.   
So she encounters the dragons, mythical monsters that dwell under the landscape and so begins a heartbreaking romance with the things that live beneath the hills, the buried selves - symbols perhaps of the unconscious desire to become one with the self, the unknown, the other and the magical – things that nevertheless are monsters in their own right.  Symbols too of a very human desire not to just conquer the elements and the geography of a place, but to fall deeply in love with it as well.

My own love affair with North Wales began a very long time ago when I was a small child and went on family holidays to a caravan near Barmouth, for one glorious week every summer. During that week everything was totally magical. We did many things from hill walking to building castles on Barmouth sands - to visiting old mysterious and damp churchyards, poking around little villages with their huge, grey, thick-walled cottages, but the best bits of all were telling tales in the caravan, on windy evenings about the Breath of the Grey King, about the Dragons, about the giants, about all the mysteries of North Wales.
It is hardly surprisingly then, as an adult, when I was looking for a story about the depths beneath and a first powerful love affair - that I should return once again to Snowdonia in North Wales and once again climb Snowdon and sit in the café on its summit and write the opening lines of HERE BE DRAGONS.
IT WAS CHRISTMAS. Although, you’d hardly have known it. I was at home pinging my friends in front of the telly. The telly wasn’t going, of course. Nothing was going, unless you counted the snow. Since 5.00 a.m., my mobile had indicated a serious weather alert.
You need to know what a serious weather alert means when you’re me, Arabella (Ellie) Morgan, living in a remote farmhouse on the slopes of Mount Snowdon with only your mum. It means life comes to a standstill… 
What better way to start a story than with a time and a place…

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