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Celtic Well> E-Journal> Lughnasa

Welsh Landscape(Left, fields in the Cennan Valley, South Wales; Llandeilo, Dyfed, south Wales, UK. Photo © Frank Lane Picture Agency/CORBIS .)

Intimate Listening: Stories, the Marketplace, anc Imagination

By Michael Harvey

Embarking on a new career as a professional storyteller within the current revival of interest in the subject, the writer found a mismatch between the stories and the way he perceived the market for them. After a period of frustration and wrestling with the stories themselves, he came to realise that it wasn’t the stories that were at fault.

For about five years, I have worked full time as a professional storyteller in both Welsh and English, mainly in Wales but with occasional forays farther afield. When I first started I saw other tellers in various situations doing good work telling international stories and I began to work out how I wanted to fit into this exciting revival. Many people were telling stories from cultures other than their own but I did not feel comfortable appearing as an advocate or expert for cultures about which I knew nothing. What really appealed to me were the wonder tales (stories of transformation featuring young protagonists on the difficult journey to maturation set in the narrative landscape most people call "fairytale" and academics call "Marchen"). The significant feature of these stories is that they have no specific locality (many years ago in a land far away...). . I could happily tell these as they didn’t seem to "belong" to anyone. As a storyteller in Wales I naturally wanted to tell wonder tales from the Welsh tradition. The problem? There aren’t any.

Instead what I found was a huge assortment of epics, romances, tall tales, stories about fairies, saints, giants, portents of death--none of which fitted into the handy marketable slot I was hoping to fill. I noticed that almost all these stories were tied into a specific landscape and, once removed from that context, they lost their meaning and became untellable. You will have appreciated that by now how I was splitting teller, audience, story, and event in an effort to sell something.

Then one day I was asked to tell the story of Gwynllyw’s Ox by Newport Borough Council who had commissioned a sculpture of the animal and wanted the story told at the unveiling ceremony.

Gwynllyw’s Ox

Gwynllyw was a pirate and all round rogue raiding the Bristol Channel from the place where Newport is now. The name Pill Gwynllyw (Gwynllyw’s pier) shows where he was based. He abducted and married Gwladus, one of the many children of Brychan Brycheiniog, who, despite her best efforts was unable to reform her errant husband. One day he had a dream in which he saw a great white ox with a black star on its forehead. The following day he saw the same beast, but this time for real. He immediately became a reformed character, turned saintly, and founded a cathedral on the spot where he saw the beast.

I had no idea how I was going to present this. As I did more and more research, I uncovered more material that centred around this ox. Some was new to me and some I had heard before but had forgotten. This ox was none other than one of the Ychain Bannog that wander through Welsh mythology. Hu Gadarn used them to pull the dreadful afanc out of its lair in Llyn Llion. Reuniting them is one of the tasks that Culhwch must complete in order to marry Olwen. They pulled the foundation stone to Dewi’s church in Llanddewibrefi (St. David’s of the lowing). Eventually it dawned on me what it was that Gwynllyw saw: not a lone cow but an immensely potent symbol in which landscape, story, imagination, and community came together.

I began to encounter more landscapes that drew these elements together. There are very many of them and I’d like to mention just one. In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Gronw Pebr is killed by Lleu Llaw Gyffes. While Lleu was away, his wife Blodeuwedd and Gronw started a tempestuous affair in which they decided to kill Lleu. This they did. However, despite their best efforts, Lleu was not killed but transformed into an eagle. His distraught uncle, Gwydion, searches for him, eventually finding him and restoring him to health and his human form. At pay-back time, Lleu and Gronw face each other on opposite sides of a river. Gronw accepts that Lleu has the right to throw his spear at him (as Gronw had done to Lleu) but asks to put a stone between himself and the blow. Lleu agrees and throws his spear. The spear goes through the rock and kills Gronw.

A few years ago the rock was found (Senior 1993), not on the banks of the river Cynfael ,as the story says, but on one of its tributaries. The actual rock is interesting but not incredible. A man sized flat stone with a hole at heart-height--unusual but not unique. What is truly astonishing is the location. The farm, on whose land the stone is found, is called "Bryn Saeth" (the hill of the arrow); the farm above is called Llech Goronwy (Goronwy/Gronw’s Stone); and, making a triangle with those two and opposite, the stone is called "Bryn Gyfergyd" (the hill opposite the blow). It’s hard to imagine a more intimate relationship between narrative and landscape.

It seems to me that there are three responses one may have while standing in such a place

  • Fantasy archeology: become a gatekeeper of knowledge and start appropriating the "true" Mabinogi/Arthur/whatever.
  • Keltic Mist: project like mad. We have all experienced this and it has become a veritable industry. As A.M. Alchinn (Honorary Professor at the University College of Bangor) has written: "Where so little is known, it is possible to project onto the past whatever one will... Where uncomfortable facts are not easily available, fantasy can wander freely." (Allchin 1993)
  • Thin Place. Just Listen

I don’t believe that there is any requirement to be clever or escapist. I do believe that there is an invitation to listen to the place, story, landscape, and yourself as the intimate relationships between them resonate. (If you’re a fan of contemporary music you will know what I mean if I liken it to the "tintinnabulation" of Arvo Part’s music). We don’t lose ourselves or our critical faculties. "The key is," as Susan Engel says of stories in a different context, "to learn how to look at them closely but still really listen to them." (Engel, 1994) The more we listen, the less useful individualistic models become. In the same work Susan Engel points to the work on "interpersonal memory" done by Frederic Bartlett and Lev Vygotsgy, and she reviews research that shows just how collaborative oral narrative creation is. In terms of the landscape this is parallelled by interpersonal or "deep" ecology (Fox, 1990).

So where is the truth in all this? Good question. We all know about thin places in Celtic stories where this world and others meet. It would appear to me that that is what many of the stories I had been struggling with were: thin places. Invitations to be less atomist about the way we see the world. Invitations to experience rather than quantify and, ultimately, sell truth. As Richard Bauman points out in his study of Texas dog traders and storytellers, it is the relationships between the narrative, narrative events and narrated events that give meaning, "it is the structures of signification in narrative that give coherence to events in our understanding," and, as for the truth; there is "a complex contextual web that leaves these issues constantly in doubt" (Bauman 1986).

Ironically this treatment of truth as something slippery does not lead to a dissociation of people, community and landscape. In his study of spirituality in a Welsh rural community, Patrick Thomas points out that there is what he calls an "Incarnational attitude to truth," (Thomas, 1993) and it is the pethau bychain--"small things"--that bind us together. He quotes the poet Waldo Williams "cadw ty mewn cwmwl tystion": "keeping house in a cloud of witnesses." Our everyday actions are part of a wider weave. This extends to many placenames associated with saints whose names are often coupled with the prefix "ty-" (my) and suffix "-io" (dear). They link inhabitants, place, and story with affection and belonging. All this is set against and contrasted by what Patrick Thomas calls an "assertive expansionist neighbouring culture." We know who Patrick Thomas means, and the sport of English-bashing may give some kind of temporary satisfaction. But is inevitably short-sighted and unhealthy.

As I discovered in my quest to package and sell stories, it is the imperialism within ourselves that is the real danger, especially when it appears as something normal. Luckily I had enough curiosity to keep on listening and was led away from the marketplace into a world that is not too disimilar to the world of the Welsh tradition bearer as defined by Robin Gwyndaf. That world is characterised by "a deep sense of belonging...brotherhood...the past...perseverance...respect for basic values..the desire to taste the magic of the other world in this world...meaning." (Gwyndaf, 1993) Please don’t misunderstand me: this world is not a conflict free Utopia, far from it. But its inherent tensions and contradictions are ones that are apparent for everyone who has eyes to see, and it offers,perhaps, a more real and human context than the one that treats culture as a commodity.

One ironic result of this slow and ultimately glaringly obvious realisation is that I have become much more effective in the marketplace. I no longer search for niches for my product (I was never any good at that anyway), but find that the same basic need for intimate listening and connecting is all around me in organisations and individuals who are hungry for stories.


Allchin A.M., Celtic Christianity, Fact or Fantasy? 1993: Eglwys Pennant Melangell

Bauman R., Story, Performance and Event. 1986: Cambridge University Press

Engel S., The Stories Children Tell. 1994: Freeman

Fox W., Towards a Transpersonal Ecology Resurgence 1990: Totnes

Gwndaf R., Welsh Tradition-Bearers: Guidelines for the Study of World-View. Folklife, 32, 1993-4

Senior, M., Gods and Heroes in North Wales. 1993: Gwasg y Garreg Gwalch (Lanrwst)

Thomas P., Candle in the Darkness. 1993: Gomer (Llandysul)

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