REVIEW by Ros Hudis

NWR Issue r17

Welsh Folk Tales

by Peter Stevenson

Ceredigion based Peter Stevenson is known for his activism as a story-teller and folk-lorist, and for his prolific and distinquished published work, which includes both collections of folk tales, and illustration. In the introduction to his latest book, the English language Welsh Folk Tales ( History Press 2017 ), Stevenson highlights how the oral tradition is rooted in conversation. The Welsh word 'Chwedlau' has dual connotations, meaning both 'myths, legends, folk tales and fables' and also 'sayings, speech, chat and gossip'. Stories exist on a spectrum, but are fundamentally about exchange. Stevens comments on how traditions of story-telling in Wales have been a way of cementing, and giving voice to, communities. From quarrymen dropping into each other's houses to vie with each other in the telling of amusing anecdotes of their work day, to story-tellers who travelled, sharing tales derived from the doings of their local areas, the art was rooted in lived experience, and above all, in characters - real, elaborated or fantastical. It was – and remains – an arena for those whose voices might otherwise be unheard. It also carries the shapes and threads of more ancient or cannonical tales. It is this vivid and eclectic mix of old tradition with the local, immediate and character driven, that animates Welsh Folk Tales.

The book is essentially a compliation of old tales, anecdotes, vignettes, jokes, tall-tales, legends, recollections, local lore and snippets of history, that collectively demonstrate the breadth and vitality of Welsh stories. By its unique juxtaposition of such diverse elements, it provides fascinating material both for scholarly and historical insights, as well as the sheer frisson of variety. Delivered with Stevenson's characteristic wit and light touch, this is noneless an important contribution to the field of folk-lore studies. Stevens has commented on how he selected the tales from a wide diversity of sources spanning six hundred and fifty years, Although personal taste played a part in selection, his aim was to include as wide a range of story-types as possible. In some cases the more well-known tales were omitted in favour of less well-known examples that might never have had a hearing. For example, the Welsh Atlantis story Cantre'r Gwaelod is omitted, but Plant Rhys Ddwfn – Welsh Utopia – is included.

Tales are divided into loosely thematic sections with intriquing headings such as 'Giants Beards and Cannibals' or ' Dragons, Hairy Things and an Elephant'. Within and across each section we find ourselves in the midst of a conversation that might range from sections of the Mabinogion,
such as Manawydan Hangs a Mouse, to Aesopian fables such as those written by Iolo Morganwg in
the eighteenth century, to brief joke tales like 'The Chapel' to gruesome fables of hairy monsters, to legends of selkies or sin-eaters, to telling accounts of local resistance, as in The Penrhyn Strike.
Mostly the method of narration is third person, here or there interspersed by first person accounts that lend intimacy and authetication to the tale told – in a manner faithful to oral tradition. Stylistically the narration maintains a sense of the universalising qualities of traditional stories and story types, whilst being gutsy, immediate, suspenseful, sensory and above all, redolent with the qualities and experiences of the characters involved. All evidence of Steven's long experience and skill as a story-teller. It is idiomatic in ways that infuse the English text with Welsh speech patterns. Often characters from an ancient past are intermingled with the more recent; all are animated to give them a contemporary presence. We find the eccentric early twentieth century 'kings of Bardsey' knocking shoulders with mysterious mermen. A key element here is the abundance of Steven's illustrations of the characters featured in the tales, which are both drily witty and three-dimensional in their suggestion of layered personalities, their quirks and their vulnerabilities. And this is equally true of the many animals – mythic and otherwise – who feature in the tales. Amusing and visceral names add to the pleasure of encountering these characters: we meet, for example, Betty Foggy and a witch named Creaky Wheel. The chwedlau' aspect of the tales is reinforced by Steven's inclusion of biograpies of the people who told the tales. - biographies that are tales in their own right.

Throughout, the sense of specific Welsh location - its past and its future - is emphasised and small details bring to life its particularity – a farmhouse kitchen for example, with its 'lace tablecloth, lace across the mantel piece, lace doilies for hot mugs of tea' ( from The Odd Couple ). These are not only tales of Wales: diverse, witty, brutal, enchanted, by turn -they are told in such a way as to enlist the reader straight into the old world from which these tales came.


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