VINTAGE GEMS Catherine Fisher

NWR Issue 99

The Other Wales

Literature Wales recently embarked on an ambitious programme of literary walks, allowing readers to visit the scenes and heartland of various Welsh writers, and I was lucky enough to be involved with two of these, one about my own work in relation to Tredegar House near Newport, and another exploring the Usk valley with readings from the work of the early twentieth-century author and journalist, Arthur Machen.

Preparing for both of these brought me face to face with the difficult relationship that exists between place and fiction: the delicate ambiguities linking the real landscape and the story which the writer finally achieves about it, or sets within it. That they are not necessarily the same in every detail is obvious. But one arises from the other. The place is a necessary cause of the story.

In my own work it was particularly clear to me that the real location can travel through the writer’s imagination, be transformed and end up very differently on the page. Touring Tredegar House and knowing very well that a room or a turn of corridor were settings where I had imagined a fragment of story, or a certain scene, it was disconcerting to revisit and realise that not only were they not as I described them, but that I had imported, changed, even transmuted the whole place into a fictional other. Reading one’s own words aloud to a group gazing around expectantly, in a room that bears little resemblance to your description of it, is peculiarly dismaying. Luckily the listeners were open to my fumbling comments about inspiration, that the remembered feel or taste of a place is often the only seed of its story.

On the Machen tour I encountered this discrepancy again, when faced with the problem of choosing readings. Machen describes the countryside of Gwent a good deal, and is generally accurate about details. Yet standing there in Wentwood, and speaking his loving conjuration of the hanging forest and the mystic esses of the river, I found myself wondering why this place was so powerful for him. Why here, and what, here? Because there are rivers and woods elsewhere. Was it that these were the scenes of his childhood, when his senses were most acute? Or was it his response to some strange psycho- geographic emanation, some result of the way the land is configured, its invisible magnetic forces, the leys and energies of the place? And why do some places become symbols of almost magical force?

Machen speaks of this perfectly in his 1916 introduction to The Great God Pan, when he talks about his early reactions to Bertholey, a country house that stands below Wentwood on a steep slope overlooking the Usk. He says that the house

became an object of mysterious attraction for me.... It became, as it were, a great word in the secret language by which the mysteries were communicated. I thought of it always with something of awe, even dread; its appearance was significant of... I knew not what.

He went on to use the house in many of his stories, but obviously something more than the real building had moved him; somehow the idea of this place, expressing itself in the emotions, in awe, or dread, assisted or created the urge to narrative.

Why do certain places have this effect on us? And can it be true, not only of houses and valleys and mountains, but of a whole country?

Wales has a multiplicity of images in the popular imagination, but an aspect of this country that is little explored is its rich and vibrant influence on popular culture, in particular fantasy fiction, and its spin-offs in film, TV and digital media. In Welsh Mythology and Folklore in Popular Culture, the editors Audrey Becker and Kristin Noone present a series of papers that address aspects of this, from discussions on the Mabinogi-based fictions of Evangeline Walton to the most recent Torchwood productions. In their introduction, ‘Re-Imagining Wales’, they point out that figures and stories from Welsh literature and myth inform almost every aspect of contemporary popular culture. Merlin, Arthur, Taliesin, the Grail, the Mabinogi stories: these all lie at the heart of a whole industry of fantasy fiction that has flourished in the last century. They suggest that Wales, or an image of Wales, occupies a special place among mythological or fantastical realms, and seems to be increasingly more important to certain writers. The American scholar CW Sullivan III is quoted as suggesting that Wales ‘does have an affective power that only a very few actual geographic locations have had.’ He ponders several reasons for this, ranging from associations with Medieval Romance, Arthurian influences, contempo- rary tourism with its focus on castles, druids and stone circles, and the allure of the Gorsedd and the mysterious glamour of the language, to which I would add the rise of archaeology and its popularisation. Sullivan draws an interesting conclusion: that there are two different concepts – the real Wales and, as if reflected in some warped fairy mirror, the Other Wales:

The Wales that the reader discovers in these (fantasy) books then, is not the actual Wales, the Wales of mimesis or what is cognitively possible, or of consensus reality; it is an ‘other’ Wales than the one to which the reader can travel.

The editors point out that this ‘other’ Wales is an imaginative space, a fantasy that partakes of aspects of the real country, and that could not exist without it, but yet is not the same. However, this alternative Wales has grown in power in recent years, and may be more and more the way outsiders – especially those who have never visited it – view Wales and its culture.

After setting my own Grail romance, Corbenic, in several real locations – Chepstow, Caerleon, Glastonbury – it was gratifying, if disconcerting to hear from several readers that because of the book they had travelled – in one case across the world – to visit these areas. Disconcerting, because like most authors I feel completely free to take liberties with a landscape, to transpose hills and valley, drop in whole new buildings, turn east to west and demolish or ignore anything I feel I don’t want. Readers understand this, or so they say, and yet there is still a desire to be literal, to search for the real, but little-known place, the ‘locus’ of the story, as if finding it and going there and standing in that very spot will admit us somehow to the author’s inmost secret, the moment of creativity itself.

Other essays in Becker and Noone’s volume consider Celtic influences on specific writers, such as Evangeline Walton, the problems of film adaptation, a highly interesting account by Geoffrey Reiter of Arthur Machen’s grail novel The Great Return in the context of the Welsh Revival, and an entertaining survey by Audrey Becker of the afterlife of the Mabinogi in the twenty-first century. Folklore plays a less important role in this book, but the essay on Twm Siôn Cati by Jonathan Evans and Stephen Knight makes fascinating reading.

A major figure, indeed a vital one, in any discussion of the transmission of Welsh myth, folklore and language into modern fantasy fiction has to be JRR Tolkien.

In Tolkien and Wales; Language, Literature and Identity, Carl Phelpstead has produced a cogent and intelligent exploration of Tolkien’s links with Wales, the depth of its influence upon his work and his engagement with its language and culture.

In his lecture ‘English and Welsh’, delivered at Oxford in 1955 and published in 1963, Tolkien wrote, ‘I love Wales, and especially the Welsh language.’ The story is well known of how as an eight-year old he encountered written Welsh on the trains running behind his house in a Birmingham suburb.

I heard it coming out of the west. It struck at me in the names on coal-trucks; and drawing nearer it flickered past on station-signs, a flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old yet alive; even in an adeiladwyd 1887 (plaque), ill-cut on a stone slab, it pierced my linguistic heart.

It seems clear that it was the idea of the unknown language that so moved him, the wonder and potential of it that originated a burning desire to create languages of his own. The Elvish language of Sindarin seems to bear the same relation to the real Welsh language as do stories set in the Welsh landscape – this is reflection, an interpretation of what exists. Phelpstead looks carefully and in detail at this process, and investigates various ways in which Tolkien’s writings engage with the Welsh literature of the Middle Ages. He also examines the aesthetic value of the language; for Tolkien, its sound was very attractive, as he wrote, ‘Welsh is of this soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain, and Welsh is beautiful.’ But of course he would only have discovered the sound of the language once he began to study it as an adolescent. Before that, in those stencilled names on the coal trucks, he was experiencing simply the strangeness, the sense of other which was at the very core of his art, both its seed and its produce.

Of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien once wrote: ‘The names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modelled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical),’ and that bracketed phrase surely holds the key to the process of engaging with the Other Wales, the deliberate and yet also deeply subconscious absorption of a place or culture in order to create something new and personal from it.

The extent of Tolkien’s engagement with the real, physical Wales, is uncertain – he definitely holidayed here, and passed through on journeys to Ireland; there is some evidence that parts of the fictional lands of Middle-earth are based fairly closely on parts of Wales, particularly around Buckland Hall near Brecon. There is no doubt about his knowledge and comprehensive under- standing of the language, though he lamented he was not a fluent speaker. But in the Other Wales, he was a frequent traveller.

Carl Phelpstead devotes a section of Tolkien and Wales; Language, Literature and Identity to the process of language invention and Tolkien’s aesthetics. He compares Welsh and Sindarin – their parallel mutations and closeness of syntax – in some detail. In the second half of the book, he considers the influence of Welsh literature and mythology on Tolkien’s work, including the way his elves and dragons retain the dangerous brilliance of the tylwyth teg or the fearsome beasts of Geoffrey of Monmouth. He devotes a wonderful chapter to the gnarled and mazy forest of the Arthurian legend, its roots in stories such as Culhwch and Olwen, and its development through the proliferating texts of the Middle Ages; even sparing a glance at Breton and its contribution. His conclusion is persuasive. Even as an Anglo-Saxon scholar and specialist of great renown, Tolkien acknowledged Wales. The language and the idea of Wales were pivotal in his work and as a source of his singular creativity.

For those of us who inhabit the real Wales, with its corrugated geography, tribal simmerings and introverted politics, there is a danger of losing sight of this mirror-Wales, of dismissing it as twee or irrelevant or even the result of well-meaning outsiders sentimentalizing a whole culture. I think that would be a mistake. We have to understand that we have something – intangible, unmea- surable, fugitive. It is this that has contributed enormously to recent literature in certain fields and different media, and also – like it or not – to the way Wales is perceived by a significant demographic.

We have a mirror-image.

And it reflects us and our culture, however warped and wonderful we may look in it.

Catherine Fisher’s novel, Incarceron, was a New York Times Best Seller. In 2011, she was appointed the first Young People’s Laureate for Wales. Her most recent novel is The Obsidian Mirror (Hodder, 2012), and her website is here

Books under Review
Welsh Mythology and Folklore in Popular Culture, eds Audrey Becker and Kristin Noone (McFarland, 2011).
Tolkien and Wales; Language, Literature and Identity, Carl Phelpstead (University of Wales Press, 2011).


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