Of Welsh Matters

‘She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.’ — Alan Garner’s The Owl Service novel

Not surprisingly, all things Welsh as regards literature and music are a favourite of many a Green Man staffer here. As Robin Williamson in an interview with Charles de Lint that you’ll find elsewhere on Green Man — ‘The bards were founded in the dim and distant past. They were around when Caesar invaded the islands, as a part of the druid order, and they seemed to have survived in Scotland up into the beginning of the eighteenth century when the clan system was finally destroyed. They were poets and, as such, originally held a sacred function in Celtic societies.’ And the Welsh musicians were no less revered.

So if you look below to our reviews this edition, you’ll discover that we have rounded up a curated selection of Welsh themed fiction and music from our extensive archives for your reading pleasure, i.e, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, but there are a number of less known choices that get reviewed as well.

The fiddlers in Mad Lydia’s Waltz left us a few cases of Pendle Witch’s Brew, a Welsh ale with a thick, malty, and rather earthy taste, as payment for allowing them to stay here during one of our many bad winter storms. Now this brew isn’t quite as good as me favourite Welsh ale, Thames Welsh Bitter Ale from Felinfoel Brewery Co. Ltd, but it’s quite tasty so have a pint of it as we settle in to appreciate this edition.

It was amusing to watch the rat fiddlers, who normally stick to cheese and cider for their fare, comparing notes with Bela, who has apparently become their ‘adopted’ grandpere, on this brew. And did I just spot The Old Man with his ever present ravens perched up in the rafters have the barkeep tuck away a case for later drinking? No matter — there’s more than ‘nough for everyone!

But first we have a tale of The Wild Hunt that befits the coming of the new year as counted on the Celtic calender.

I heard it only faintly, the jingle of harness in the courtyard. The men I’d been watching heard it, too. The pale man I’d never met was the first, I think — he suddenly cocked his head, intent. Then the rest, Kit and Robin, and the two men whose names I didn’t know, although I’d seen them from time to time, all rose from their table and headed toward the door, wrapping cloaks around themselves, the pale man’s hand resting on the bronze hunting horn at his belt. I followed, although I wasn’t sure I should. I’m inquisitive to the verge of foolhardiness, sometimes.

The moon was just full — the Slaughter Moon, they call it, or the Blood Moon — but the light seemed to be swallowed by the group of mounted men in the middle. Well, not all men — both the Lord and Lady of the Wood were there, she conversing easily with the one who seemed to be the leader, a fierce-looking old man with one eye and a pair of equally fierce hounds at his feet — great red-eyed, wolfish things — and I noticed another woman sitting tall, a long spear held casually in one hand, and next to her, another with a business-like bow. A broad-shouldered man with antlers fixed on his helmet nodded to my group as they approached — and then I realized he wasn’t wearing a helmet. I began to wonder if I had been wise to tag along, as I began to notice the others in the party. I had heard of them, some of them, but never thought they were real — I recognized them from the stories. But, I snuck a little closer — they were speaking together, quietly, and — well, I was curious.

I heard Robin call the horned man “Great One,” and the Lady of the Wood greeted Kit as “Maker” and said something I didn’t catch about riding on the same side. Kit just grunted — he was different tonight, quiet, not his usual jovial self. The two strangers hung back a little, although I heard the dark one address the huntsman as “Brother.” They had seemed to know each other quite well. The golden man made some joke about “the other horn,” and was glad it was left behind tonight. They all laughed at that, and the huntsman said “Not yet, not yet.”

They mounted, and I began to be sure I didn’t belong. The golden man and his companion suddenly unfurled great wings, sunlight and shadow. Robin was somehow different, green eyes glowing in the darkness, his face harder, colder than ever I had seen it (I heard a soft roll of distant thunder that seemed somehow to come from nearby), while Kit seemed worn by some great sorrow.

The pale man leaned down from his horse and looked right at me. “I’d advise you to stay in tonight. And tell your friends the same.”

It seemed the wise thing to do. I heard the peal of the horn, as though from a distance, as I scurried back into the House.

Mia Nutick leads off our reviews with a look at a classic of Welsh literature — ‘I reviewed a CD of Dylan Thomas reading his classic poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales. In that review I asked:

Are the Christmases we imagine that we remember really the Christmases we had? Was there always snow; did we really go caroling in the crisp night air; did we sit down together in the warmth of our loving families to bright and tantalizing feasts of turkey and dressing and three different kinds of pie; did we truly have gifts wrapped in shining paper and ribbon piled halfway to the ceiling around the glimmering, glistening, twinkling Christmas tree? Or have we seen too many films and television shows and simply assimilated their Dickensian pictures of Christmas into our own fading recollections?

I still don’t know the answer to that, exactly, but I do know that nobody addresses the question better than Dylan Thomas. And yet, I find people in my own circle who are still unfamiliar with Child’s Christmas. Just this evening I was talking to a friend, an accomplished and talented poet in her own right, who has never read this poem. ‘What do they teach them in these schools?’ I found myself muttering, Professor Digory Kirke-style.’

Grey Walker has some choice words about Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series — ‘one of the most compelling stories I had ever read. The story compels me to this day, and I continue to re-read it every few years.’ Read her insightful commentary here to see why you, too, should read this classic story!

Reprints are often a good thing — ‘Originally published in 1999, The Arthur of the English is the second volume in a series of scholarly anthologies centered on the Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages. The series as a whole is a cooperative effort of the University of Wales Press and the Vinaver Trust and marks a substantial revision of the Trust’s earlier history, the one-volume Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages edited by R. S. Loomis.’ Robert M. Tilendis was suitably impressed by this ponderous tome, yet manages to encapsulate his thoughts on the book in a review which is both detailed and interesting. Robert picks up an Excellence in Writing Award for this review of The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend and Medieval English Life and Literature (W.R.J. Barron, editor).

Robert also tackled Robert Graves’ The White Goddess — A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth . I cannot do his thesis any degree of justice by teasing out a bit of his commentary here so you’ll just have to read his insightful commentary here.

And then Robert found himself faced with a selection of Welsh music, from traditional to very modern indeed. ‘Thus I can sit in my room and listen to the music of the Balkans or medieval Spain and Portugal and find echoes of Ireland and the Highlands. Of course, I might wonder more about it if I didn’t know that the Celts had occupied Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic and from the Mediterranean to the North Sea for centuries, perhaps millennia. The important part is that those influences are still there, working their way up through the later layers. . . . This is the sort of thing that ran through my head as I began to listen to three albums by Welsh artists from the Welsh label Sain Records, presented to me as “Welsh music.” What makes them particularly Welsh? I wondered.’ See what he found out in his review of music by Ar Log, Meic Stevens, and Steve Eaves.

Next up is Moch Pryderi’s Dancing in the Pigsty reviewed by Lenora Rose. She ‘as a real handle on the music, but it’s the title wot fascinates me! Lenora says ‘Incidentally, all the references to pigs, pig-drives and Pryderi are directly related to one branch of the Mabinogion, the Welsh national epic, although certainly more tongue-in-cheek than reverent.’ Hmmm.

Ahhh, Spike Winch, one of the Pub bouncers, wants to add a few words about a fav of his — ‘My dear mate Jack Merry (anuvver Senior Writer) wif a pair of reviews. ‘How does one earn the designation ‘Senior Writer?’ you ask. It’s got somethin’ to do wif the amount of Guinness they can consume an’ still compose understandable sentences! Any road. Jack listened to Crwth by Cass Meurig an’ ‘is review is littered wif Welsh words. let me say, they sound lovely read aloud! What did Jack think about it? He had this to say: ‘So how does it sound? Rather lovely in a medieval-ish sort of way. Not a stuffy, ‘this is Church music’ sort of way, but something quite a bit more paganish; this is not Classical music as it’s normally thought of.’ That’s a relief innit? Means I might give it a spin!’

Kim Batesfollows up with her thoughts on Alan Garner’s The Owl Service — ‘This is a magical book, and the finest of Garner’s young adult novels. Now, a lot of people associate magic with ethereal forces, great quests and spells and all that, and indeed spells can be found in several of Garner’s other books. The Owl Service reveals a different kind of magic, the kind that arises from the interaction of people with patterns, of desires that unwittingly mesh with the larger forces around us, harsh magic that people employ without knowing it. The book is multi-layered, with themes that sneak up on the reader, requiring a second or third read, and many fans who read the book as children report returning to it as adults.’

Mike Wilson looks at a Welsh recording worth hearing: ‘ Mim Twm Llai is the pseudonym for Welsh singer-songwriter, Gai Toms. On Straeon Y Cymdogion (Neighbourhood Tales) he builds a sound that is both contemporary whilst retaining a definite roots essence.’ Read his review over ‘ere.

He was also completely captivated by Herne’s Apprentice from Welsh Bardic musician Damh the Bard. Here’s a short extract from Mike’s review — ‘This guy stands shoulders, head, and horns above those who’ve attempted to do what he does. Damh draws deeply from Cymric myth and legend as found in primary sources like the Mabinogion. This CD is not just a tribute to that material, it rebirths it and creates a wonderful gateway for those who should explore it.’

Courtney Shinaberry looks next at a book that I’ve been meaning to write up for several years now — ‘Sometimes — perhaps oftentimes — beautiful little books will come to you from almost out of nowhere. Such was the case with this somewhat obscure little gem from author Louise Lawrence, which I picked up for pennies purely by happenstance at a used bookstore, drawn to it by both the title and the cover art. But The Earth Witch is no quiet, unassuming little book; it is a gritty glimpse through the lens of a Welsh mythology that is as turgid and loamy and menacing as a deep wood on All Hallow’s Eve.’

Listen up now — ‘Crasdant plays music to warm your heart and tells tales to tickle your funnybone,’ Vonnie Carts-Powell writes in her review, ‘This Welsh band played on a wet windy night that, they said, reminded them of home.’ What better way to spend a rainy night than with a pint and good music? Vonnie’s review shows that music can turn even the worst nights into something special. And with plenty of links to get you familiar with the band, after her review you may want to check them out yourself!

Two recordings, Allan Yn Y Fan’s Belonging and Delyth Jenkins’ Aros, are both from Steam Pie, a Welsh company. Lars notes correctly that ‘Everyone listens to folk music from Ireland, Scotland and England, often in that order, but it is harder to come by Welsh folk music . . . yet, it still exists and here are two recent examples.’ Both suggest ‘that Welsh folk music is alive and kicking.’ Read his review thisaway.

Being time for hearty winter fare, The Kitchen staff here at the Green Man building got the jones (pun fully intended) for Welsh cooking this week. I think it was the case of metheglin, a Welsh spiced honey liquor, that gave them the idea. So tonight’s eventide repast will lead off nicely off with cig oen cymreig gyda thatws a chabetsh a garlleg rhost> (loin of welsh lamb with bubble and squeak and roasted garlic) with cacen datws, brocoli a chennin wedi’i bobi dan grwst cnau castan (a baked leek and broccoli potato cake topped with a chestnut crust) and cawl cnnin a deleri gyda hufen perlysiau (a leek and celery soup with a herb cream). Dessert will be, and I’ve been attempting to ‘sample’ it all afternoon without success, teisen lap (moist raisin cake). All washed down with either Dragon’s Breath XXX Stout or some of the metheglin. Iechyd da!

Their meal met with the approval of a person who dropped by to be interviewed. Cat Eldridge had the honour of interviewing Nancy Carlin , a promoter of Welsh music and musicians. She talks about her interest in Welsh music: ‘It’s slightly exotic, but quite accessible and the musicologist part of me loves learning about unusual instruments like the pibgorn and crwth as well as the nuances of Welsh Gypsy tunes and plygain singing. It’s a living tradition that’s been passed from one musician to another and like the Welsh language the music has been preserved, especially in the rural areas in North Wales. I guess part of it is the lure of the chase.’

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