Well, I didn’t keep to my resolution of a blog every month, but I haven’t let it bother me… unlike the girl in my story (see my two previous posts). Besides, it’s been for the usual good reason – I’ve been too busy with other writing projects (more of which in a future blog, maybe later this month, so I’ll be squeezing two into July… perhaps!)
For this one, I thought I’d reprint an interview I did for the Irish Imbas Books newsletter (www.irishimbasbooks.com). I mentioned previously I had been short-listed for their 2017 Celtic Mythology short story competition, and I was thrilled to get second place. So my story ‘The Black Hen’ was printed in their anthology (the only Welsh theme to be included):
And I was asked by their publisher/editor, Brian O’Sullivan, to answer a few questions about it and Welsh/Celtic mythology in general.
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful parts of west Wales, close to the sea in Pembrokeshire. I am even more privileged to be able to spend my time walking on the coast-path, or working in my woodland garden. And yet, most days, you will find me staring at my computer, with a blank wall behind, pressing a key now and then – all of which is another way of describing the creative activity known as ‘writing’. And even though there are many hours when very few of those keys get pressed, writing is not so much ‘what I do’, as who I am.
2) What brought you to ‘The Black Hen’?
I have always been interested in the connection between myth and landscape. The Black Mountains, in mid Wales (another beautiful area, where we used to live) are a perfect example of this interaction. Here, you will find Llangorse Lake, with its lost realm under the waters; or, further into the mountains, Pwll-y-Wrach, the Witch’s Pool. The road south is where the Sin-eater haunts unwary travellers; the stream flowing past our house ran red – was it the sandstone from the hills above, or something more sinister?
This is the stuff of folk-lore, the experiences that feature in the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, rather than the grand battles and tragic romances of the Welsh Princes and their followers, as depicted in the Mabinogion. The tales that spring from them are passed down through the generations by the wise old man sitting by the farmhouse hearth, or the story-tellers, as they travel around the countryside. This is the kind of mythology I was drawn to write about.
I had the idea of a commune of women artists, who lived somewhere in the middle of the mountains. While they worked, each would tell a story, interweaving their particular art/craft with an element of folklore. They would be the new Keepers of Hand-me-down Tales. The setting of the mountains would be a constant throughout the whole, but there would be other linking features – characters such as the Old Women in the Square and Dyn Hysbys (the wise man); certain motifs. Each story would be concerned with an unhappy event from their childhoods, which, looking back on, they interpreted through myth.
‘The Black Hen’ is told by Rainbow, who makes patchwork, and looks after the chickens. When she was young, her baby brother disappeared, causing her mother to have episodes of mental illness, during which she believed her daughter to be the cause of her loss and grief. Rainbow sees this now as a changeling tale. Such stories are not, of course, exclusive to the Black Mountains, nor even to any of the Celtic nations. And, in fact, my story mixes elements from versions throughout Wales. The egg-shell feast for the reapers is from further north and west, and the remedy of killing a black hen from further south. But the story seemed to lend itself perfectly to our area, and many features in the tale are portrayed exactly as they were when we lived there.
There was, indeed, an old railway carriage, beneath an embankment, abandoned by Dr Beeching’s ‘reshaping’ of Britain’s rail system. Hay-on-Wye was the other side of the hills, with its self-styled King – a place where April Ashley, the first ‘celebrity’ transsexual, was welcomed. The fair did regularly visit the town car-park, and the small supermarket, with the gathering of gossiping women outside, most certainly did exist!
And this was something else I was trying to achieve – not simply to relate the old folk-tale of the changeling, the ‘crimbil’, but to interpret the contemporary in ‘mythical’ form as well, to show that such re-imagining is a never-ending process.
‘The Black Hen’ is my favourite of the Tales, which is why I am so pleased to see it in print, in the Celtic Mythology collection.
3) What are your views on Irish/Celtic mythology? Do you have any observations or sense on the status of mythology in the world at the moment?
Generally speaking, it seems to me that mythology in all its forms is thriving. From Disney’s latest fairy-tales, to TV crime dramas involving shamans, indigenous beliefs and rituals, it is more prevalent than it has ever been – and this is in an age of consumerism, capitalism and ‘new’ technology. But perhaps that’s where the reason lies. The monsters and cataclysmic events are still here, but in different forms, requiring more than ever some kind of explanation. So we find ourselves yearning for the metaphors of myth, which are somehow easier to understand – the big, bad wolf, rather than the psychopath killer, for instance.
With regard to Wales, we are, this year, celebrating being the Land of Myths and Legends, and have our own website to prove it (www.landoflegends.wales). Various events are taking place throughout the country – workshops, readings, tours linked to the stories and characters that ‘made’ Wales. This would seem to be an excellent indication of the sustained appeal of myth here, but I do worry that there is too much of a connection with tourism and commercialism, rather than simply the desire to educate people in this field. For example, when you click on the area of the map which includes the Black Mountains, there is no mention of Llangorse Lake or Pwll-y-Wrach, two of the most famous local legends.
Fortunately, story-telling is gaining in popularity throughout Wales, and myth, including folk-tales is always an ideal subject for this form of ‘spreading-the-word’ – including not only stories from Wales itself, but others from across the globe. And the re-working of the Mabinogion by eminent authors remains a favourite, though, sadly, few of the Welsh publishing houses seem interested in the ‘lesser’ tales.
With regard to Ireland, I recently spotted a post in Paul McVeigh’s writing blog, which declared that Irish folklore was very much alive and weird! This led me to a piece in the Irish Times about an artist named Michael Fortune, who is following in the tradition of the great Irish folklore gatherers. He has videoed hundreds of hours of people narrating the stories of their communities, where encounters with fairies and the like are regarded as quite normal. So it seems to me that the ‘handing-me-down’ of such tales, is in safe hands.
And, of course, Ireland is lucky enough to have Irish Imbas, and the Celtic Mythology collection, which (almost) single-handedly, keeps on producing and publishing stories in this field, to the benefit of all its devotees. Thank you!
4) What is the next project we can expect from you?
I’ve just finished a novella, based in Wales, which could be seen as a ghost story, or a psychological mystery. I’m working on putting a collection of stories together – a quite different type of story from my ‘folk tales.’ And there’s a novel I’ve started researching, but haven’t got to first draft yet. I’d love to do a coastal version of the Keepers… who knows?
The next competition opens at the start of September – well worth entering, for those who write folk tales, myths etc. This year’s anthology is available in print form from Amazon, or to download on Kindle etc.