The Island of the Mighty

Harlech Castle: Four Square to All the Winds That Blow (1898) by Henry Clarence White (National Museum of Wales)

W J Gruffydd:
Folklore and Myth in The Mabinogion
University of Wales Press 1958

This slim booklet (with a little under 30 pages of text) reproduces a lecture given at the National Museum of Wales in 1950. However, despite a slightly misleading title discussion ranges a little more widely than it implies: it doesn’t deal exclusively with the several native Welsh tales in the collection commonly called the Mabinogion, nor is it limited to folklore and myth — fairytale is also involved (sometimes argued as a subgenre of folklore, other times as distinct), and literature too of course, the texts having come to us in written form with evidence of substantial editing.

In fact, a large part of the lecture is taken up with discussion of the nature of fairies in Welsh traditions; but I’m leaping ahead, as poet and academic William John Gruffydd begins with an attempt at defining what ‘folklore’ actually is.

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A ‘novel’ novel

rocks
West Wales beach, looking west towards a mythical Gwales (personal photo)

Review first published 19th February 2015, then reposted 21st October when Tim Burton’s film of the same name was on general release. Reappearing again as part of Dewithon19, this is the last of my reposts of reviews for this event.


Ransom Riggs:
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Quirk Books 2013 (2011)

There is a technique storytellers use whereby cues — words, phrases, scenes, characters suggested by audience members — are randomly inserted into an improvised narrative. Italo Calvino built up his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies upon a sequence of Tarot cards, using the images to suggest not only a possible narrative but also to link to other classic narratives. These processes are similar to the ways in which Ransom Riggs constructs 16-year-old Jacob Portman’s journey from suburban Florida to a wet and windy island off the coast of Wales. Authentic ‘found’ vintage photographs of sometimes strange individuals placed in enigmatic positions or curious scenarios — these are the bones on which the author constructs his fantasy of children (with, shall we say, unusual talents) and the dangers they potentially face. For the reader the inclusion of these photos at appropriate points in the text is not only an added bonus but an integral and highly effective facet of the tale.

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Of shreds and patches

Table Mountain or Crug Hywel hillfort, Crickhowell, Wales

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At the southern edge of the Black Mountains in Wales, high above the market town of Crickhowell, sits a hillock called Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. Geologically it is an example of a translational slide, a piece of the Black Mountains that has slipped downhill towards the River Usk before coming to a halt.

On top of Crug Hywel’s plateau sits an Iron Age hillfort, named after some forgotten historical or legendary figure called Howell.

The feature is, in effect, Howl’s Moving Castle.


I don’t for a moment believe that the author had this ancient hillfort as a model for the titular castle, nor do I even suggest she was aware of the coincidence of name, only that I’m sure she would’ve been delighted with this parallel. Because, as the Q&A extra at the end of this edition shows, the genesis and composition of a novel such as Howl’s Moving Castle is made up of bits and pieces of her own family life, chance encounters, unconscious jokes, past memories, and so on. As Nanki-Poo in The Mikado sings,

A wandering minstrel I, | A thing of shreds and patches, | Of ballads, songs and snatches, | And dreamy lullaby…

Shreds and patches typify the make-up of this fantasy, and of many of the characters in it (in particular the Howl of the title); but what holds it all together — as in all good stories — is heart, both literally and metaphorically. And though some of the stitching is evident in the writing we forgive the imperfections because the whole is just so enchanting.

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A fictive Principality

Somewhere in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Continuing the theme of Reading Wales during March, this Dewithon post focuses on a selection of Principality-related fiction that I’ve reviewed over the years.

To make it marginally more manageable I’ve deliberately excluded the following categories:

  • Non-fiction titles (obvs) like Roald Dahl’s Boy
  • Fiction that’s set in a non-specific area of what could be the Welsh Marches, as with Jill Rowan’s cross-genre novel The Legacy, being neither Wales nor England (I covered an aspect of this in a previous post, ‘At the margins’, though I might return to this theme at some stage)
  • Reviews and related posts about Wales concerned with works by Tolkien and Joan Aiken (as I’ve already gone on and on and on at length about them)

The titles cross a surprising number of genres: fantasy, speculative fiction, police procedural, historical, alternate history and supernatural horror. Feel free to explore the links to the reviews—or not, as the case may be!

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Primitive catastrophe

Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd (image credit: © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Alan Garner: The Owl Service
Postscript by the author
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (1967)

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”
— 1965 quote from Radio Times used as an epitaph for The Owl Service

We often unconsciously live our lives according to a script, seeing ourselves acting out a tragedy or a quest, a journey or overcoming major obstacles, human or otherwise. Sometimes those scripts follow a fairytale trope, such as the arc of the Cinderella story. More rarely do we mirror an ancient myth, but in The Owl Service that’s exactly what Gwyn, Alison and Roger do, aided and abetted by the mysterious Huw.

The three youngsters, unwittingly at first, take the parts of Gronw, Blodeuwedd and Lleu from the Mabinogion tale of Math, the son of Mathonwy, but even when they become aware of the parallels they seem almost powerless to avoid a descent into darkness. And yet this is not just a simple updating of a medieval plot for modern times: the author also offers insights into psychology, family dynamics and social mobility, all contained within a strong sense of place, in North Wales.

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Wild magics

Still from Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle

The first March Magics event (then called DWJ March) was inaugurated by Kristen of We Be Reading in March 2012 to celebrate the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011). This year’s March Magics has as its featured DWJ book Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps her most famous title and the subject of a delightful Studio Ghibli animation.

For any followers of this blog unfamiliar with DWJ’s work (and a few days before I post my second review of this fantasy, on the anniversary of her death, the 26th March) you may find the following links, to my reviews of other titles, helpful in deciding which of her fictions might appeal to you.

Let’s start with the series loosely associated with that peregrinating edifice.

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Death and the maiden

Nine Bawden: Carrie’s War
Introduction by Michael Morpurgo
Virago Modern Classics 2017 (1973)

Guilt is a terrible thing. And when it’s brought about by such a tenuous belief as sympathetic magic, the sense of culpability can overwhelm—even when there may be no actual cause-and-effect involved between an act and what happens subsequently. Such is the case with Carrie when, as an adult, she revisits the South Wales mining community where she was evacuated during the Second World War and where she has to confront fears engendered thirty years before.

As with many child evacuees Carrie and her younger brother Nick are separated from her widowed mother, sent to the Valleys while their mother relocates to Scotland for the war’s duration. They stay with the odious Mr Evans and his anxious sister Aunty Lou in a bleak mining village (based on Blaengarw, north of Bridgend, which is where the author was herself evacuated to). Nothing they do seems to ingratiate themselves with the self-righteous bullying Mr Evans, who rules his little domain with spite and parsimony.

Luckily there are altogether more friendly people to leaven their existence: Albert Sandwich, another evacuee who lodges with Norfolk-born Hepzibah Green and the child-like Mister Johnny, whom Nick instantly befriends. These all live outside the village at an old farmhouse called Druid’s Bottom, just within sight of the railway line; it’s the home of the now widowed Mrs Gotobed, estranged sister of Mr Evans.

And so the scene is set for the inevitable misunderstandings, conflicts and possible tragedy, as seen through the eyes of the twelve-year-old, and as remembered by her adult self.

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Ifor y Peiriant … who?

Daniel Postgate: Cenhadaeth Nadolig — Bluebell
An Ivor the Engine Story
Pictures by Peter Firmin
Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad 2009

Grown-up British children of a certain age will surely remember Ivor the Engine, a stop-motion 2D animated series created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin sixty years ago, in 1959. While primitive by today’s standards—originally black-and-white before becoming colour, and very jerky—that was all part of its charm, along with its slow gentle narratives and quirky deadpan narration. Accompanying picture books and annuals meant one could keep the enjoyment going, reading them to younger children (as I did with our kids, for example with The Dragon).

Fifty years after its first appearance and a year after the death of Oliver Postgate his son Daniel revived the series’ characters for this one-off picture book in aid of veterinary charity SPANA, with versions in both English and Welsh. With a very rudimentary knowledge of the language and memories of the original TV broadcasts I’ve struggled through the Welsh version at leisure, but with pleasure too.

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Biting satire

Jonathan Swift (1675–1739)

Jonathan Swift: A Modest Proposal
and Other Satirical Works
Edited by Candace Ward
Dover Thrift Editions 1996

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

With this paragraph, around a quarter of the way through a 1729 text, Swift (originally writing anonymously) detonates the bomb that is at the core of A Modest PROPOSAL For preventing the CHILDREN of POOR PEOPLE From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the PUBLICK.

But this, of course, is Swift, and we must never take his writings at their word. When he discusses the main advantages of such a policy for Ireland (such as fewer Catholics, the introduction of a new dish for gentlemen with refined tastes, an added draw for taverns, an income for the ‘breeders’ and an economic policy to encourage marriage) his purpose is to criticise social attitudes, but as with all satire, outward appearances are outrageous–but also deceptive.

Swift was Anglo-Irish Anglican clergyman, and his position was to be a signpost always to a via media (as characterises the Church of England itself, being somewhere in the middle of a Christian continuum stretching from Dissenter to Roman Catholic). By taking arguments to extremes, as with A Modest Proposal, he exposed what he saw as inherent ridiculousness, but with such po-faced earnestness that it was sometimes hard to know when he was being serious without close reading of the text.

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Hibernian readings

Irish landscape (image credit: WordPress Free Photo Library)

I’ve never consciously sought out novels related to Ireland, whether set in that country and/or written by native-born Irish writers. But then I’d never consciously not sought them out. So, bearing in mind that I’ve committed to reading at least a couple of pieces of Irish fiction this March for Reading Ireland Month I wondered what books I’d already read (and, crucially, reviewed) and which could comfortably fit into this category.

What follows, in no particular order, is a not at all exhaustive list of what I could identify as Irish, according to the previous criteria, in reviews posted to this blog. I know some writers could be seen as second generation Irish writers (eg the Brontë siblings, whose Irish father changed his surname from Brunty and who all reportedly retained a distinctively Irish inflection throughout their lives) but I’ve excluded these from my very short list.

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A real page-turner

M R Hall: The Coroner
Pan Books 2013 (2009)

When one woman has to contend not only with conspiracy, obfuscation and corruption in high places but also antagonism and intimidation from colleagues and opponents alike, you would think that it’s too much for one individual to manage. If you add in personal difficulties arising from divorce and psychiatric problems stretching out of childhood trauma you can be sure the odds are stacked against her.

And yet this is what Jenny Cooper, the newly appointed coroner to the fictional Severn Vale Dictrict in Bristol, has to face when she discovers that the suspicious deaths of two young offenders have not apparently been properly investigated by her deceased predecessor.

You might think that the flawed individual trying to right wrongs is a cliché in crime fiction, and you’d be right; but in this instance the conflicts Jenny has with both inner demons and corporate villains are entirely believable and gripping. The Coroner emerges, for all its 400-plus pages, as a real page-turner.

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Finding the story

Snow scene in the Preseli Hills

Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith
Corgi 2017 (2006)

Find the story, Granny Weatherwax always said. She believed that the world was full of story shapes. If you let them, they controlled you. But if you studied them, if you found out about them . . . you could use them, you could change them . . .

We’ve met Tiffany Aching before, in The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and know that she is a young witch on the Discworld’s Chalk, the uplands where the principal occupation is shepherding. In Wintersmith she is on the cusp of her teens but has already ratcheted up an impressive CV, having defeated the Fairy Queen and overcome a crisis of identity in the form of the Hiver.

Here, however, she has a rather more challenging antagonist in the form of the embodiment (if that’s the right word for a disembodied being) of the coldest season of the year. To stop the Wintersmith’s personal interest in her and the prospect of the land permanently locked in snow and ice she has to understand the power of story.

And for us to fully appreciate Wintersmith I too believe, like Granny Weatherwax, that we have to find and study story shapes to comprehend how Pratchett uses them to control, in ever so satisfyingly a fashion, his narrative.

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A remarkable narrator

gwenllian

Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

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Riches well told

Wizard by Chris Riddell, Waterstone’s bookshop, Cardiff

This preview post is to flag up two of the books I shall be reviewing for March Magics, the book event founded by Kristen Meston of We Be Reading to highlight the work of Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.

In a couple of days I will be looking at the third in the Tiffany Aching series, Wintersmith. I’ve already drawn attention to this in a post, but you may possibly feel inclined to also look at my reviews of the first two books: The Wee Free Men and A Hat full of Sky.

Later in the month—on the anniversary of her death, the 26th—I shall be returning to Diana Wynne Jones’ land of Ingary by re-reviewing her most famous title, Howl’s Moving Castle. An earlier review appeared here, but a recent reread (and my usual mental meanderings) have encouraged me to think further on this: and an episode in Wales means this also counts as an entry for the Wales Readathon, Dewithon. (There were two sequels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. And I’ll be posting an overview of Diana’s fiction later in the month.)

If you haven’t discovered either or both of these authors you might do worse than made a foray into their works this month (and maybe glance at my links) . . .

Bookish town

Today, 7th March 2019, is World Book Day in the UK and Ireland: “The main aim of World Book Day in the UK and Ireland is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own.”

This post has a twofold purpose: to mark World Book Day and, as part of Dewithon — the Wales Readathon — to celebrate the contribution of Book-ish bookshop in Crickhowell‘s High Street to the literary life of Wales. As a resident I’m quite happy to blow the trumpet and bang the drum for this small market town!

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