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Friday, March 03, 2006

MAMWLAD FY NHAD: LAND OF MY FATHERS. AN ODE TO WALES ON ST. DAVID'S DAY

To be born Welsh
Is to be born privileged.
Not with a silver spoon
in your mouth
But music in your blood
And poetry in your soul.

On Wednesday morning this week, I woke up hearing Welsh music on the radio. It was St. David's Day, patron Saint of Wales. The songs I heard broadcast took me back in time because they were the songs I grew up hearing my Dad sing: All Through the Night; Myfanwy and
most particularly Guide me Oh Thou Great Jehovah. On the bookshelf by my bed is the picture of my father, looking handsome and proud in his Chaplain's uniform, showing the six medals he was awarded for service during W.W. II, which include the M.B.E. for bravery and compassion in the line of duty. Dad was a Chaplain in an army field hospital in Holland.

Before he emigrated to Canada in the early 30's, he had been a coal miner in the Rhymny Valley of South Wales. All the men in his family were miners and he worked down in the pits of the Bedwas Navigational Collieries from the time he was 14. When the mining troubles began in 1930 he lost his mining card because he was active in trying to improve conditions for the miners. So he left Caerphilly, his home, and came to Canada as a farm laborer. But soon after, he made himself known as an expert orator. He had often spoken in the mining chapels of Wales and his ability to preach got him an invitation to the McMaster University School of Theology even though he'd had no formal schooling past the age of 14. He became a Baptist minister and was sent to the troubled mining communities of the South Saskachewan to work alongside another young Baptist preacher from Scotland by the name of Tommy Douglas who later became the Premier of Saskatchewan for 16 years and the head of North America's first Socialist government.

As I listened to the Welsh music, many memories came back to me of my childhood. My Dad always sang wherever he went and often would burst into song in the midst of a serman at Church. He had a lovely tenor voice and he sang right up to the time of his death at age 89, back in 1991. The Welsh are known for their gift of song and poetry. The miners always sang to keep up their spirits. I grew up hearing Dad's mining stories and the tales of his childhood in Wales, and listening to the songs of my Dad's homeland.

When I started to write my w.i.p. Dragons in the Sky: A Celtic Tale I heard the Welsh intonation of a girl's voice telling me her story. Her name is Olwen. When I showed my Dad the early manuscript to see if he could hear the Welsh cadence in the prose, he commented about a Celtic holy place I have mentioned in my novel. Senghenydd. He ask me if I knew that Senghenydd was the name of the town where my great-grandfather and several of his uncles had been killed in a mining disaster back in 1904 just before he was born. I didn't know that. I had just read in my research about this Druid holy place in the south part of Wales.

A couple of years ago my cousin and I went to Senghenydd and saw the remains of the mine where our great-grandfather died, and we were even directed to his house. I have very deep roots in Wales and feel spiritually connected with the land and people. I have visited there often as some of my family (children of my father's brothers) live in Caerphilly. I have even visited the house where Dad was born while two of his younger brothers were still living there.

While I listened to the St. David's day tribute to Wales, the announcer mentioned a song that had been requested. It was titled The Dream of Olwen by Charles Smith. Much to my surprise, when the tune was played I recognized it as one that took me back to my grandpa's house in Stratford Ontario. I used to hear that song played as a theme song for a radio program my mother watched. I've always wanted to know the title of it and until Wednesday I had no idea that it was The Dream of Olwen. Olwen, the young protagonist of my novel! Strange how that unfinished w.i.p. has been so much on my mind lately, then suddenly they should play a familiar tune that had her name. Perhaps the Muse is trying to tell me something? Yet I cannot stop my work on my current novel at this point and return to the old manuscript. However lately I have had the yearning to visit Olwen's world again. So here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Dragons in the Sky. And hopefully, not too much longer and I'll be able to pick up from where I left off with her fantastic adventures. The story begins at an Iron Age hillfort on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge and her adventures, when kidnapped by a renegade Chieftain's son, lead her eventually to meet a remarkable young Prince, Alexander, who has just inherited the throne of his father in Macedonia where her captor has come to trade Celtic iron-wares.

(Note: some of the chapters of Dragons are written in Bardic verse. Others are a first-person narrative in Olwen's voice.)
* * *
The God speaks and says:
Blood red is the snow; as
blood red as the ragged
leaves of the elder trees.
In Ruis, the Elder month, we made sacrifcies to the Sun God at the winter solstice. The Druid slaughtered a white roebuck and divined the omens in the blood splattered snow. But the gods were not appeased, and Boreas, the North Wind, blew down freezing blizzards across the Plain, burying our village in drifts that reached higher than the edges of the roof thatch.
We huddled in our huts around peat fires, wrapped in furs like hibernating animals, until finally some of us tunneled out through the drifts to snare winter hares and track white stag in the forest.
Supplies of smoked meat and fish dwindled with each passing storm, and rafters that had been heavy with drying fruit and roots were bare. While we counted out the last of the bundles of food and herbs, we muttered oaths ot the gods. It seemed that year we were not in their favour.
My guardian, Essylt, was a medicine woman and high priestess of our cult. She was small and bright-eyed, lively as a sparrow; but that winter seemed to tire her, and she began to look grey and care-worn. As the wind howled outside our wattled hut she brooded and I saw her watching the flames of the hearth fire, staring silently as though her thoughts had drifted off to other worlds. She kept me busy taking votive offerings to the woodland shrine. The snow was too deep on the trail for her to struggle through, but I made a child's game of it, and kept the pathway trampled clear, carrying offerings of things like dried berries, cups of grain and sometimes a sprig of mistletoe.
The winter's cold took its toll. Almost every day Essylt went out to administer medicines, or to say some words of enchantment agains the Raven of Death. We could not wait for the spring thaw to lay our dead in their barrows, so the bodies were burned on pyres outside the palisade. Most of the victims of the raw weather were the old ones, but once a little child wandered out into a storm and froze, buried in a snowbank. I saw them carrying him home, like a stiff little pup, wrapped in a wolfskin. It grieved me for days, and in spite of the wind and the drifts that reached above my knees, I struggled to the woodland shrine, bringing the last sprigs of vervain to make a supplication to the Mother Goddess.
It was my thirteenth year with the Druids. I had learned all the incantations of magic before I was ten years old. Essylt, being a sorceress and diviner of the auguries, was both my guardian and my teacher. I called her modryb, Auntie, because she had nursed me in my infancy as though she were my natural mother. The Druid said my real mother died in childbirth. I would have been exposed for the wolves if someone had not brought me to the Great Stone Circle on the Plain.
Listen to my song: I am
an honoured child. I am
Olwen, daughter of the Earth Mother,
Child of the Raven.
I will be the pinecone
clinging to the branch.
The wind will not dislodge me.
I will be the coral
on the sea reef.
The waves will not displace me.
I will be the stone dolman
of the sacred Henge.
Neither time nor elements will distrub me.
I will be the willow
bending in the wind.
I will be the wave
uncurling on the sea.
I will be the mountain
my pinnacle crowned with sun.
Steadfast I will stand.

6 comments:

Sam said...

I love Celtic mythology and Celtic customs. There is an excellent article about all things Celt in the National Geographic this month (I got it because of the DNA articla that fascinated me so)
This was a lovely post to read! Thank you!

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for the heads up on the NG edition. I'll have to pick one up. The trouble with going back to Olwen's story right now is that I'll have to do a lot more research and redo what I've already done. So I can' really spare the time when it's so crucial for me to finish "Shadow"
However, I feel her calling...and I know once I can return to her story I will have a better chance of finishing it. (I got screwed up with it because my creative writing teacher kept insisting it should be in third person so I tried, and got all mixed up!)

Gabriele C. said...

Argh, teachers in creative subjects should know better than to insist on something. I probably can be glad there's no such thing as Creative Writing courses in Germany, it may have saved me from a lot of trouble.

Well, the worlds of Olwen and Alexander are quite different, else I'd say work on both at the same time. But in this case it might prove difficult to change the mindset. My Roman books share the same world, after all, the difference is rather being in Talorcan's culture, or Horatius', and both are in the same book. :-)

Sending Olwen into Alexander's world could be some fun. A third book?

Wynn Bexton said...

As I teach a creative writing class (Prompting the Muse) I know how important it is to let people 'create'. In my class I give them the prompt, they can write whatever they want (Poetry, play, essay etc) unless it's a specific assignment for a short story. I might suggest someone try to write first or third person for their story but it's up to the writer's choice. I tried it for Olwen's story as suggested and it didn't work. I also workshopped it with a certain group I was in at the time and the responses were not at all helpful (often negative, in fact). So, I gave up. I realize now it's a great story and needs to be told. And being involved in classes and writing workshops I'm very careful to point out that the critiques are meant to 'help', not 'discourage' a writer.

I didn't intend to leave "Dragons" on the shelf for so long. It just happened. And now, thinking it over, I have fresh new ideas and know I can finish it whenever I allow myself to begin again.

No, I can't work on "Shadow" and "Dragons" simultaneously because they are two quite different voices. And yes, I do have a third book already planned and titled "The Black Dove" which will be about Alexander's mother Olympias's life.

WestEnd Writer said...

Hey, great piece, Wynn.

Looking forward to more sometime soon,

m

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

It sounds like your father had a hard but happy and interesting life. The family history about the mining is fascinating, Wynn, especially what you discovered about Senghenydd. I very much enjoyed your Dragons excerpt. Sounds like a captivating story.