Peter Stevenson : Teller and Collector of Stories.

Folk Tales of Ceredigion

In Ceredigion Folk Tales, by Peter Stevenson, published by the History Press, folk stories local to our own county are, possibly for the first time, given a whole book to themselves, without being tucked into a general Wales-wide folk tales collection. The book is most interesting to those of us who live here, as all the stories are connected with recognisable places, and when one can read a story which has come from Llangranog, or Bettws Bledrws, then one has a reason to read on, as familiarity breeds curiosity. In a way it is like looking into a neighbour’s window to see how they live, though in these stories the people we encounter are very different from those we are likely to meet today. Many of these are the stories that the generation who came up in the 19th and early 20th century would have been telling one another, and within them is the evidence of the certain belief in a world of magic, of conjurers, of tylwyth teg, and otherness, of babies swapped for fairy folk, and animals that have magical presence. Also, within what is a very eclectic mix there are stories about people known for their exaggerated characteristics, like Sir Herbert Lloyd, otherwise known as ‘The Wickedest Man in Ceredigion’ for his evident greed and cruelty. There are the well-known tales, still told today and widely known, like Twm Sion Cati, Tregaron’s own Robin Hoodalike, with his tricks and idiosincracies. Stevenson acknowledges Pritchard, who was the man who made Twm Sion Cati famous and lost his own nose along the way. Indeed he was a storyteller in his own right and a huge character who died penniless. There is also a short piece about Sion Cwilt, the thief and outlaw of Synod Inn who wore a patchwork coat, whose exploits will now live on through the next generation as the new primary school at Synod Inn is named after him, though what brought Cwilt his fame, may be best overlooked. With contemporary tales of Aberystwyth ghosts, and strange things on Borth Bog, and the continuing stories of Nanteos, it can be deduced that though our modern society may have a more prosaic view of life, the stories of strange occurrences and extraordinary happenings are still being enjoyed, that people love to be scared, horrified, amused or simply amazed, and the joy for a storyteller like Peter Stevenson is that these are continuing evidence that folk tales will go on being requested, for ever. (Peter Stevenson launched his book Ceredigion Folk Tales at Awen Teifi, Cardigan High Street on Saturday 19th April with musical accompaniment on harp and fiddle.

Tales from the Land of Magic

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.