I was out on the thoroughfares listening to the chatterers at their chatter, but I did not learn much, since there was no reason to their gossip: they prattled over their cups, like the sound of waves, or like terriers yapping; there was an uproar of bickering women among them, and a torrent of words, like a river in flood. Each of them had two ears and one tongue, and the tongue said more than the two ears heard, and more than the two eyes saw. And when I saw them in the dark dungeons of their folly, I passed on, rejoicing to see them thus. They knew no more than animals. For if these men went on all fours, and fur grew over them, and if they could say no more than Balaam’s ass, rational men would think them unreasoning beasts, made to be captured and slaughtered.
An eagle, a raven and a dove meet and debate in Morgan Llwyd’s seminal masterpiece of Welsh prose style. The year is 1653 A.D., the year in which A Book of Three Birds was published, and on whose events the three birds reflect: the civil war which brought Oliver Cromwell to power; more recent, demoralising wars in Ireland and Scotland; and the abolition of Parliament. The book is written in expectation of the year 1656, an omen of the Second Coming, for the world waits in suspense between two disasters: the fires of the Day of Judgement, which is imminent, and of which the Civil War is a foretaste, and the waters of the flood which drowned the world in the time of Noah, and which symbolically have not yet receded. The reality of this coming judgement underlies all human politics, all industry and learning, just as the reality of the coming flood underlay the eating and drinking, courtship and marriage of the antedeluvian world. These two judgements, and the uneasy rest between them, are symbolised in the shape of the rainbow, and in the red and blue with which it is fringed.
Morgan Llwyd (1619-1659), the nephew of a professional soldier and magician, was a Roundhead, a millenialist, a chaplain in the army of Oliver Cromwell, and later a civil servant of the commonwealth in Wales.
His famous religious allegory, A Book of Three Birds, is considered the most important Welsh book of the Seventeenth Century, and an enduring masterpiece of Welsh prose. This new translation by Rob Mimpriss brings to life the pungency of Morgan Llwyd’s writing, the richness of his religious and political thought, and the urgency of his drama and characterisation.
Many tedious years ago, before a blazing fire of peat at the warm hearth of a house called Tŷ’n y Ddôl in Blaenau Ffestiniog one long winter’s night, I heard the tales and reminiscences of a simple old Welshman, who was known to his fellow guests as the old man of the Hill.
His perennial favourite was the one that I now intend to lay before the reader. But it would not be unprofitable, perhaps, to say what kind of person that old man was. A small, hard, industrious man, his mind full of the diverting stories he had heard as a young servant in Dolwyddelan, and I believe there was nothing more dear to him than hearing those strange, fantastic tales – those innocent and delightful stories that consecrated the mountain hearths, and instilled such special yearnings in the minds of those who sat and heard them. Once the labour of the day was done, surrounded by the coiling smoke from his pipe, he would be happier in his old armchair under the mantel than any prince or ruler of the world on his fine upholstered throne. His legs crossed and his arms folded, and with his eyes half-closed, he began like this...
A former farmhand from the Conwy valley returns from England to stop a wedding, and to see if he a snare he once set has sprung. A bridegroom in Nant Gwrtheyrn devotes his life to finding the bride who has disappeared without trace. A kindly old man from Esgair Adda tells his nephew two ghost stories from his youth, and a young man staying at a country house for Hallowe’en sets his hopes on marrying his host’s young daughter.
Owen Wynne Jones, also known as Glasynys (1828-1870) was a school-teacher, and clergyman, an editor and poet, and an influential figure in the eisteddfod movement. But he was a also a folklorist and short-story writer, whose contributions to the Welsh anthology, Cymru Fu (1864), influenced T. Gwynn Jones among others, and now, in this new translation by Rob Mimpriss, a body of his work is available to English readers.
Combining horror, romance, humour and adventure with his own moving descriptions of the hospitality and generosity of ordinary people, these stories provide an account of a way of life now vanished, and a glimpse into the extraordinary richness of the Welsh oral tradition.
‘Glasynys had a message for his age, for the common people of Wales who saw him championing their heritage. A sectarian, divided, unpoetic age crushes the spirit, and defaces the life of man. Glasynys describes his dream of the common people of Wales, learned in song and dance, and living through poetry alongside fairies, monsters, spirits and dragons... We enter his world, and delight in his dream.’
Set in the North Wales slate quarries at the end of the nineteenth century, these stories represent a time of unparalleled cultural wealth and economic hardship. With a simplicity that belies their emotional impact, they depict the quarrymen united by humour and friendship against the oppression and upheaval of their time.
Richard Hughes Williams, also known as Dic Tryfan (1878-1919), was proclaimed as a Welsh Gorky in his day, but only now has a body of his work been translated. A liberal, a secularist and an internationalist, he yet depicts his compatriots with loyalty, with humour and with never-failing compassion.
‘His sympathy was always turned to the homeless, the helpless, those defeated by life, and in his stories he always showed the comic side of failure as well as the tragic. For the humour of pity lies in seeing, and there is humour in understanding as well: pity knows how easily any of us can be trampled underfoot in the conflict, and understanding knows that without humour this knowledge becomes unbearable.
‘The Welsh short story was not the same after Hughes Williams had made his mark on it. There was no way it could have have been. He showed a new path and a new style. He adopted a new attitude to life – the attitude of the observer, that to observe is more important than to judge, and that to record what exists is better than to describe what ought to be. He took his work seriously, and lived for its sake. If he is forgotten, as largely he has been, his influence on the literature of Wales will remain.’
E. Morgan Humphreys
‘He was the first Welsh-language writer to discover that it is not the stringing together of incidents that makes a good short story, that it is not the excitement of the plot which is important, that one can sketch a character with a few light strokes, and achieve more by depicting human speech than by objective description. The virtue of these stories lies in economy.’
I am the author of three short story collections.
For His Warriors,
originally published by Gwasg y Bwthyn, Caernarfon, with Welsh Books Council support, now join
Prayer at the End
in revised editions at Cockatrice Books.
My anthology of fiction, Dangerous Asylums: Stories from Denbigh Mental Hospital Told by Leading Welsh Writers, including work by Gee and David Williams, Glenda Beagan, Carys Bray, Simon Thirsk and others, was published by the North Wales Mental Health Research Project, October 2016.
I am the translator of Going South: The Stories of Richard Hughes Williams (Cockatrice, 2015),
Hallowe’en in the Cwm: The Stories of Glasynys (Cockatrice, 2017), and
A Book of Three Birds, the seventeenth-century classic by Morgan Llwyd (Cockatrice, 2017). In addition, I have translated fiction by D. Gwenallt Jones, Angharad Tomos, and Manon Steffan Ros.