My book for Wales Readathon 2021 is My Favourite Stories of Wales, edited by Jan Morris
“The Welsh were said to be among the merriest people in Europe, but their merriment must always have been, I think, satirical and sometimes eerie.”
– Jan Morris on mediaeval Wales
“Story-telling is among the oldest and most persistent of all Welsh activities”, writes Jan Morris in her introduction to My Favourite Stories of Wales, an eclectic selection of modern short stories, classical legends and poems from our small but eloquent nation.
First published in 1980 by Lutterworth Press as part of the ‘My Favourite’ series, her anthology reflects the broad range of Welsh narrative style, revealing its dark but subtle humour – something she identifies as an intrinsic yet often overlooked element of the Welsh psyche. She somewhat facetiously describes Wales as lying “green and bumpy, half-awash in stories: folk stories, pub stories, tall stories, terrifying stories, funny stories and very depressing ones”, her choices proving her point that “there is much laughter to the Welsh spirit,” albeit tinged with “a streak of the morose and maudlin”, sometimes giving rise “to a whole gloomy genre of the story-teller’s art.”
This piquant brew begins with Three Mediaeval Tales, taken from The Mabinogion, a collection of tales passed down verbally through the generations by wandering Welsh bards. Written down in the 14th and 15th centuries, the versions included here were translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones in 1948 and are presented by Morris as fairy stories of Wales, “full of salt and enigma […], rich in cunning and revenge” and the “trickery of mortals”, not infrequently ending in “total victory for the wrong side.”
Three short folk stories follow, or as Morris calls them, “characteristic specimens” from “the immense body of Welsh folk-lore, repeatedly adapted, embellished and developed down the centuries”. The most “essential elements” of this genre, she explains, include “fairies, goats, wizards, music, treasure, confusions of time, space and identity, memories of old heroes and suggestions of other, unseen worlds around us” – all demonstrated in this selection.
Two Romantics consist of two factual travel pieces taken from Morris’s “beloved and well-worn copies” of George Borrow’s Wild Wales (1862) and John and Emily Pearson Finnemore’s now almost impossible to find From a Welsh Hillside (1923). She declares she chose them for their “characteristic interpretations of Welsh reality – or rather, Welsh fantasy.”
Her brace of witty narrative poems is inspired. Dafydd ap Gwilym (c. 1320-c. 1380), widely regarded as one of the foremost Welsh poets and amongst the great poets of Europe in the Middle Ages, “laughs at an uncomfortable misadventure of his own” in the farcical In a Tavern (sometimes translated as Trouble at an Inn). This is paired with Robert Graves’ much anthologized Welsh Incident. I highly recommend you listen to Richard Burton’s reading of the latter.
She completes the collection with pieces by “five of the most famous twentieth-century Welsh writers” (ranging from Dylan Thomas to Kate Roberts) – picked because they have in common “the mood of modern Wales, a nation half in love with itself and half despairing”. In the Introduction, she warns the uninitiated that “dreadful things happen” and “cruel things are said” in the modern Welsh story. “People”, she delights in telling us, “are displayed in unflattering lights or grotesque attitudes”. The “Wales of modern fiction is full of shock and irony.”
Morris repeatedly recognizes facets of her own personality in these stories. Born in Somerset of a Welsh father and an English mother, she made a conscious decision to be ‘Welsh’ and went on to adopt Wales as her natural homeland – though, it is fair to say, we, the Welsh, took her to our hearts. When she portrays the Welsh as being, “for the most part, a highly introspective and self-conscious” breed, she includes herself. Not merely does she delight in our cultural heritage, but she shares many of our characteristics – for instance, an ability to adapt or “to rely upon techniques of sidestep and allusion, those chameleonlike skills of assimilation, which alone have enabled the nation to retain its identity through nearly eight hundred years of English dominance.” It is by so doing, she declares, that “art in Wales reveals its dark and curious self” and is the reason why you will find little exhibitionism in her anthology. Her advice to the reader is: “Expect no tremor in the voice or Welcome in the Valleys.”
This superb selection is probably best described as a tribute to the complex natures of a people with a deep and enduring love of storytelling. I wholeheartedly recommend it to readers everywhere.
“I live, though, in a Wales of my own, a Wales in the mind, grand with high memories, poignant with melancholy,”
– A Writer’s House in Wales (2002)
Three Medieval Tales
from The Mabinogion
translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones
1. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed
2. Manawydan Son of Llŷr
3. The Dream of Macsen Wledig
Three Folk Tales
retold by Jan Morris
4. The Changeling
5. Cadwaldr and the Goats
6. The Sleeping Soldiers
Two Narrative Poems
7. In a Tavern
by Dafydd ap Gwilym, translated by Joseph P. Clancey
8. Welsh Incident
by Rupert Graves, from Collected Poems
9. Meeting a Bard
by George Borrow, from Wild Wales
10. Dan Bach
by John Finnemore, from From a Welsh Hillside
11. The Followers
by Dylan Thomas, from Miscellany One
12. Tea in the Heather
by Kate Roberts, translated by Wyn Griffith, from Te yn y Grug
13. A Sitting of Eggs
by Geraint Goodwin, from Lilliput
14. Cadi Hughes
by Glyn Jones, from Selected Short Stories
15. The Brute Creation
by Gwyn Jones, from Shepherd’s Hey
I obtained my copy of this book from Barmouth Library. It was published in 1980 by Lutterworth Press and is illustrated with line decorations by Peter McClure.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Jan Morris CBE FRSL (1926-2020) was an extraordinary person. A highly acclaimed historian, author and travel writer, known particularly for the Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–1978), she was at one time a soldier in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers and an intelligence officer based in Italy and Palestine, before going on to read English at Oxford. A ‘poet of time and place’, she was the only journalist to make the first ascent of Everest in 1953 and, in the 1970s, transitioned from male to female. She lived happily in Wales with her life partner, Elizabeth, with whom she had five children. She survived to the age of 94, her humour intact, professing to the end kindness and marmalade were her two essentials in life.
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Categories: Reading Wales