Tales of Welsh Tradition Bearers


Dwedai hen ŵr llwyd o'r gornel:
'Gan fy nhad mi glywais chwedel;
A chan ei daid y clywsai yntau,
Ac ar ei ôl mi gofiais innau.'
('Baled yr Hen ŵr o'r Coed, 18g)

[An old grey man in the corner said:
'I heard my father tell a tale;
He heard it from his grandfather,
And I remembered it from him.'
('The Ballad of the Old Man of the Woods', 18th century)]

As well as the long and rich tradition of writing prose and poetry in Welsh found in Wales since the 6th century, there has also been a particular emphasis on oral storytelling. Wales, a country of some 8,000 square miles at the western edge of Britain with a population of just under three million, is geographically speaking indisputably small. Despite this, the native language of Wales, Welsh (one of the Celtic languages belonging to the Indo-European group), has been spoken since the 6th century. It is one of the oldest living languages in Europe today and 21 per cent of the population of Wales still speak it, while a far greater number have some understanding of it.

Robin Gwyndaf and Sarah Trenholme

Through the medium of this language a wide variety of tales and folk traditions have been transmitted orally in unbroken succession from the earliest period to the present day, and a wealth of material recorded in manuscript and print from at least the 9th century onwards. The eleven tales now known as the Mabinogion were composed in Middle Welsh between the 11th and the 13th centuries, and this work has been described by Professors Gwyn and Thomas Jones as being 'among the finest flowerings of the Celtic genius and, taken together, a masterpiece of our medieval European literature.' (The Mabinogion, Dent, 1949, p. ix). Since the time of the Mabinogion there have not been in Wales, as far as we know, professional storytellers (cyfarwyddiaid) with a comprehensive repertoire of tales of magic and enchantement, recounting traditions of early gods and goddesses and heroes of days gone by. Yet, despite all the changes and adaptations in content and function the tales have undergone (for example, the emphasis on moralising as a result of successive religious revivals from the 18th century onwards), the tradition of telling stories has remained very much alive in Wales, with the main emphasis by now on humorous stories and tales and short anecdotes reflecting contemporary life.

The material that follows presents a selection of folk narratives from the extensive collections in the sound archive at St Fagans. With a few exceptions, these are not active storytellers, with stories alive in the memory and being constantly retold. Rather, they are mostly passive bearers of folk tales, people who 'bring stories to mind', given a nudge or two and a ready listener. Sometimes these narratives have not previously been told for 'many, many years', and naturally, at times, this gap is reflected in the nature of the narration — in the style and the timing and the attempt to remember the story.

The Harvest

The narratives were recorded at the informants' homes, and we thank the informants and their families most sincerely for the very kind welcome and cooperation and for their willingness to allow us to publish the tales here.

An attempt was made to include as wide a range of folk tales as possible, so as to represent the nature of the oral storytelling tradition in Wales in the second half of the 20th century. Among the items selected, therefore, are international tales of magic and enchantment (märchen); legends that are more local in nature (sagen), reflecting belief in the paranormal and the supernatural, for example portents of death and dealings with legendary and mythological beings such as fairies and the Devil; formula tales; stories for children; humorous stories, such as 'white lie' tales and anecdotes and traditions reflecting the history of Wales and the vagaries of life in society.

We have included sound recordings of the storytellers telling their tales, the text of each narrative (edited as little as possible), an English translation and background notes. In order to appreciate the narratives in their international context, a reference is made, where relevant, to types and motifs. For those types of folk tales that are most international in character (Aarne-Thompson (A-T) numbers 1-2499) the classification prepared by the scholars Antti Aarne from Finland, and Stith Thompson from America, The Types of the Folktale, Folklore Fellows' Communications, number 84, second revised edition, Helsinki, 1961 was used. For legends that are more local in character, but which are also found in other countries (ML numbers 3000-8025), the classification prepared by the Norwegian scholar Reidar Th. Christiansen was used. (See The Migratory Legends. FF Communications, number 175, Helsinki, 1958.) Where definite types of local legends (sagen) were found in Wales but were not included in Christiansen's classification, the abbreviation (W) was inserted after the number. For international motifs Stith Thompson's classification, Motif - Index of Folk Literature, vols. 1-6, revised edition, Rosenkilde & Bagger, Copenhagen, 1955 was used.

Daniel Jones

Occasionally the background notes refer to two publications that include versions of corresponding narratives from England and America. These are Katharine M. Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk Tales in the English Language, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; part A, vols. 1-2, 1970; part B, vols. 10-2, 1971) and Ernest W. Baughman, A Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America (Mouton, s-Gravenhage, 1966).

Robin Gwyndaf

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