I remember when I first read the Mabinogion seeing it in one version refer to Dyfed as ‘the land of magic and illusion’. Over the years since then I have heard stories, here and there, referring to the magical nature of the county, and a new book recently published by the History Press, has brought even more to my notice. Beautifully written, with a natural conversational style, there is a lot to enjoy here. This was my review for the Tivyside.
A new collection of Pembrokeshire Folk Tales by Christine Willison offers a genuinely original take on stories which have been told over and over, and woven into the county’s identity for many generations. The author’s name will be known by many people in Pembrokeshire, from her former role as Arts Officer for the County Council, but she has also been recognised elsewhere for some years as a successful performance storyteller.
It is in this guise that she has collected and researched throughout the county of Pembrokeshire, always looking for the stories that somehow belong to their location and the idiosyncrasies of its people; stories which relate to the human condition, to the fears and joys of inhabiting a land which is a vast repository of tales woven to fit the spirit of place. There is a genuinely unusual structure to the book which makes it immensely readable, and unlike most collections, it reads like a novel with a continuity which presses one to keep turning the page in order to discover what might happen next. For anyone, who enjoys folk tales, this one it has to be said, offers something unusually rewarding. Some of the stories are familiar, certainly those taken from the Mabinogion will be known to many, but it differs so much from the run of the mill collection, that whether the tales are familiar or new, the reader becomes hooked. The trick is that here, the writer becomes the story, just as much as the tales she is telling. She does not simply write the words which others have written before, she writes herself into an adventure where she wanders into the world of fairy, recognises the tylwyth teg and mermaids, and accompanies the ‘little’ man into the land around special places like Pentre Ifan, and Nefern, and , all becomes real, and somehow more relevant and interesting because of her relationship with the stories. She strives not only to record, but to understand and somehow inhabit the stories as they are told to her, and she is equally moved to tell the occasional story back to her companion. She refers to the Preseli Hills as ‘the county’s backbone; where the tales that arise from the very rocks and cliffs are as ancient and resistant as the landscape.’ So there are stories from Crymych, from Frenni Fawr and Frenni Fach, then others from St Davids, from the Islands, some more recent and others so old that they are known to almost everyone, but told now, here, in a new and different way. This is an admirable effort to attract new readers to the folk history of the land, which evidently holds Christine herself spellbound and may inspire others to see and hear what lies beneath the modern surface of an ancient and mysterious landscape.