Do you believe in magic?

October 10, 2017

Memories of holidays visiting her grandmother in the South Downs have helped to shape Cressida Cowell’s new book ‘The Wizards of Once’. With Halloween around the corner it seemed like a good time to ask the ‘How to train your dragon’ author about the magic of our landscapes.

Words by Cressida Cowell

It is easy to forget how recently people truly believed in magic. For thousands of years, witches and fairies and giants and sprites were as real to people as the laws of physics are to us now. And although we have grown up in an age of science, the stories are still all around us, hardwired into our psyche by tales told to our grandparents and great-grandparents, and in the landscape we played in as children.

The earthworks and hill forts around where I spent my holidays are so extraordinary you could see why previous generations may have felt that the land was moved by giants, that the barrows were their graves, and the chalk horses were illustrations drawn by gigantic hands.

There was a hill I used to play on called Levin Down, which means ‘Leave it Alone Hill’. For centuries this land had been un-cultivated, probably because it was too steep to be ploughed, and it had given the hill an extraordinary feeling. Juniper grew there, unusually for the south of England. The trees had blown there, by chance, rather than human hand, and many were yew, a dark presence we were warned not to touch because it was deadly poisonous.

I thought I knew the real reason the hill was called ‘Leave it Alone.’

It was because of the Magic.

It was easy to believe that this hill had an enchantment about it. Intriguing, eerie, exciting, and beautiful all at the same time.

The hill was covered with these strange grassy mounds, about the size of molehills. The adults had no idea what they were, and that is always exciting to a child. So I filled in the blanks for myself, and decided they must be burial mounds for fairies.

Peoples of the past would have agreed with me. It is no wonder that there are so many legends of giants, Gill and Bevis, and the Wilmington giant who had a fight with another giant, and lost. For the sheer gargantuan size of the hill forts and earthworks of the South Downs must have struck our ancestors as requiring such an extraordinary endeavour that the land must have been moved by beings of supernatural size and strength.

Similarly, fairies were said to dance on Torberry Hill, formed out of a spoon flung by the Devil. This was the landscape which inspired my new book, ‘The Wizards of Once’, set in an Iron Age where giants really did stride through the wildwoods of Albion, and where my girl and boy heroes from opposing Wizard and Warrior Tribes ride on enormous snowcats and have their own gigantic philosopher-giant, and a band of sprites and hairy fairies that follow them everywhere.

Watch Cressida Cowell speak to the BBC about the magic of the South Downs