A tale told anew

The red dragon and the white found fighting under Vortigern’s castle

Horatio Clare: The Prince’s Pen, or Clip’s Truth
New Stories from the Mabinogion, Seren 2012

Imagine a dystopian future: most of England is reduced to an archipelago; the world is ruled by some nefarious world order; and only Pakistan and Wales have held out, the latter relying on its geography to mount a guerilla war against the occupying forces — much as it did in ancient times against the Romans and the English. Into the frame step sibling warlords, Ludo and Levello, who assemble a team to plan and coordinate an effective resistance. Barely literate, they rely on hackers and scribes to ensure their success, and thus it is that Ludo’s scribe, Clip, comes to be the narrator of this future history, providing the title and subtitle of Horatio Clare’s thoughtful novella.

The three parts of The Prince’s Pen deal with three threats to this Welsh resurgence: surveillance, most visibly through the use of drones; anxieties over issues about faith, tradition and patriotism once a fragile peace is found; and the sinister and covert power of supranational corporations. For a novella published in 2012 it is significant that all these issues not only remain pertinent now but that they are likely to continue to be so for some time to come, making The Prince’s Pen somewhat prescient.

All the more interesting, then, is the fact that this story is an updating of a medieval Welsh tale, Lludd and Llefelys, itself based on a gloss on the 11th-century ragbag that is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.** The original story recounts three plagues that strike Britain, an invasion of outsiders who are able to monitor every conversation, a dire scream heard by everybody annually which is traced to two dragons fighting, and a rapacious giant who under cover of night appropriates all the prepared food stored in Britain during the day. How well Clare takes the bare bones of this old tale and builds it into something equally mythic, yet one which also allows us to suspend our disbelief, is an indication of his narrative skills. I was only shaken out of an acceptance of the novella’s possible reality by a shift to a magic realist episode towards the end, but that could be put down to the unsuspecting narrator’s drugged state at the time.

What most allowed me to invest in the storyline were the small cast of characters, from a couple of bit parts (like Theo the computer boffin) to the two larger than life brothers, Uzma the proactive bride and of course Clip, the scribe and first-person narrator. Each was distinctive, with motivations I could credit. I liked too the ambiguity implicit in the nature of Clip, only finally resolved — if the reader hadn’t already guessed from clues scattered through the text — after the last sentence of The Prince’s Pen.

That the scribe also has a distinctive appearance from a cleft lip, despite an attempt at corrective surgery, is clear from both name and from unkind jeers received. Such a stigma may be symbolic of the outsider, as is also the case with Uzma whose marriage with Levello was a strategic measure, designed to counter a common enemy, but who’s regarded with suspicion after the initial crisis is over. Outsiders can provide different perspectives from those who, because embedded from birth, may not always be in the best position to give unbiased assessments of their situation; but they can also become unwitting and even unwilling scapegoats when things go wrong.

Much of the success of The Prince’s Pen comes from its near-realist grounding, and that includes a strong sense of place. London and Oxford get brief mentions but most of the action takes place in recognisable towns across South Wales, from Pembrokeshire to Powys, including specific sites such as The Bear Inn in Crickhowell. That saves it from the disadvantages associated with, say, the more dream-like nature of Fflur Dafydd’s The White Trail; this latter, also in Seren’s series of Mabinogion retellings, I found a little less satisfactory because it felt more insubstantial and less focused than The Prince’s Pen. But that’s not to deny Dafydd’s imaginative recreation of a native Welsh tale, for old tales told anew — like Clare’s novella, always have new things to say.


** Lludd — pronounced to rhyme with ‘breathe’ — was (via the alternate form Nudd) ultimately derived from the Celtic god Nodens. The King of France, Lludd’s brother Llefelys — pronounced something like ‘hleh-vel-iss’ — could be a metamorphosis of the Welsh god Lleu (Lugh in Ireland), though I rather like another proposed derivation, from the historic Clodevech or Clovis of Gaul, whose name gave rise to a Welsh form Lewis.

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6 thoughts on “A tale told anew

  1. earthbalm

    A very interesting post and another Calmgrove reviewed book to add to my must-read list. I’m knee deep in Pratchett at the moment (as always, late to the party) and wondering why I’d never thought to read his work until recently.
    Thanks for the heads-up!

    1. Thanks, Dale, and glad to be of service! Having reread Horatio Clare’s source material I thought his updating was singularly well done, but, as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, judged the tale stood up well in its own right too.

      I’ve decided my next foray into Discworld territory will be the Tiffany Aching series, and have acquired three of the titles. As someone compared her to Dido Twite, and as Aching sounds a lot like Aiken, I’m curious to see what Pratchett does in these. And, like you, I speak as someone late to the shindig!

      1. earthbalm

        A strange coincidence! It’s the Tiffany Aching series that I’m reading currently. I read the last novel first then the first and now I’m on the third! TA does indeed have a Dido quality. The Nac Mac Feegle are great entertainment too. Hope you enjoy the novels as much as I am doing.

  2. MrsB_inthehills

    I just read Clare’s Brecon Beacons Myths and Legends and I can see how well he’d do with a longer work. As you say, there is something satisfying about a story which invokes real, well-known places. We’re all used to novels set in locations such as London, Paris, New York etc – to have one set on our home patch and include local haunts such as The Bear is a treat indeed!

    1. Agreed, a sense of place is so important in quite literally ‘grounding’ a novel, but the novel also has to have a more universal appeal if it’s not to come over as parochial; luckily I don’t think this book falls into the latter camp. 🙂

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