WHO THE FOLK is Peter Stevenson?
In this interview, I consider Welsh folklore as a whole and speak with Peter Stevenson; storyteller, illustrator, writer, artist, folklorist, film-maker, crankie-maker, lecturer on the art of visual storytelling and organiser of Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival, Stories @ Medina and Y Mabinogi Project at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
I first came across Peter’s work when I read Welsh Folk Tales (2017), the book that inspired me to write this blog in the first place. Needless to say, I’m very excited for today’s chat...
*The following was adapted from a recorded interview
RW: Thanks for speaking with me today, I’m chuffed you agreed to it! Look what I’ve got here…
(I show him my copy of Welsh Folk Tales and he puts his hand on his heart)
PS: Well, I was very touched when you told me that it had inspired you. I wrote the book to try and balance out our ideas of what Welsh folk tales are. Many have been rewritten for children, and I’m as guilty of that as anybody! But I studied folklore many years ago, and I wanted to explain the connection between written folktales and traditional oral storytelling. There are books out there about this, but not many about Welsh tales. That’s why I was so intrigued by what you’re doing, looking at these stories from a folklorist’s point of view.
RW: That’s right, I mean, it was your book that inspired me to get out there and visit these places in the first place, but I was also very interested in the origins of these stories. One thing I quickly realized was that visiting somewhere for one folktale often resulted in me hearing several others while I was there. But they came in all shapes and sizes, so tell me, and I don’t know if this is a silly question or not, but let’s start at the basics; how would you define a ‘folktale’?
PS: Well, for me, a folktale is like a memory, a combination of reality and dream. So, if I were to tell you what I dreamt of last night and then told you about the walk I took in the morning, I’m bringing together reality and a dream in a story, and that’s the root of folktale. They’re memories, very often memories of big events that happened in the past… a flooding, a war, issues that still concern us today. And memories often become confusing, so we fill in the blanks with our imaginations and narrative skills. I mean, I’m at an age now when I’m not sure if my memories are mine, or whether I’ve borrowed then from someone else!
But of course, it's more complicated than that. As you’ve already suggested, folk tales are tied in with the landscape. Landscape, people and story. Practically all our stories are tied in to the landscape and the people, and every area in Wales is different. You’re from Caernarfon and the stories from the North are very different to those from Cardiff. But then people move and they take these stories with them and they grow roots in a new landscape. Landscape, people and story.
That’s only a short answer as I can give you, really. Welsh tales are so tied in to specific locations and their histories. Because of this, they become a ‘history’ in their own right. Myrddin ap Dafydd recently wrote a folk history of Wales told through Y Gwerin.. it’s an interesting take that complements popular history.
RW: It’s interesting that you mention how these stories are often adapted from other places, because I visited Pembrokeshire recently and found myself at “Little England beyond Wales” and it was interesting hearing their stories, many of which often did not have Welsh characters or names. There was a giant named “Skomar Oddy”, there was a basilisk…
PS: The stories from Pembrokeshire are very interesting, and quite unique. I think it’s because you have a coming together of peoples in the south west; you have the “mountain people” in the north of the county, whose stories Brian John has gathered, traditionally Welsh speaking, then down south you’ve something completely different… I've been involved in a project recently looking at the connections between the port towns of Pembroke Dock, Abergwaun and Rosslare. This proved particularly interesting because Rosslare had its own language or dialect, called Yola. It was only spoken in Forth and Bargy in County Wexford, but it has words and phrases from Lowland Dutch, Norman-French, Southern English, Cornish, Pembrokeshire Welsh and English. So it's a language of migration. There was a huge mix of people crossing, migrating between Ireland and Pembrokeshire before settling in County Wexford.
Then of course, you had Irish stories coming over here as people left Ireland for work. And there is ‘fibbing’, telling tall tales, a tradition found all along the west coast. Now, if you were to write these stories down, without knowing about the backstory about Little England, the fibbing tradition, the battles between the mountain folk and the coastal folk, then you lose part of the meaning of the story. It's about the context just as much as the text of a story.
RW: The Mabinogion, especially, are heavily centred around specific locations. It’s interesting because there are links between the Second Branch, which centred on a war with Ireland, and some Irish place-names…
PS: In the Second Branch, Bendigeidfran walks across the sea to Ireland, crossing two rivers, until the Irish see the masts of his ships. Archaeologists working in Cardigan Bay are now finding that around 12.000 years ago when the glaciers began melting, the Irish Sea was a mixture of forests, swampland, and river valleys. This sounds like a long time to me, but for an archaeologist, it’s yesterday!
RW: Which increases the chances that Cantref Gwaelod was a real place!
PS: That’s right.
RW: Now, I know you’re not an archaeologist, but what’s your take on all these “Atlantis” stories? I mean, I’m sure there’s one up Llandudno way, as well…
PS: Yeah, well, how can you not be interested in the romance of Atlantis stories? Folktales focus on hidden worlds, other worlds, whether the Gods in the heavens or the hidden people in the forests or the land below the surface of the water?
There was once dry land in Cardigan Bay, so Cantref Gwaelod probably existed, and over time the story became mixed up with dreams and memories and fantasies and we made archetypal heroines and villains of the people who once lived there. I think the first mention of Cantref Gwaelod in print was in the Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, Black Book of Carmarthen, where we have a praise poem story about a girl who leaves the sluice gates open and the noble hero Seithenyn is drowned and the girl is blamed.
RW: Oh, right?!
PS: Then we have later versions where he tries to drag her away from the gates to have his way with her. So the story starts shifting and changing throughout the ages until it becomes the story we all know and hold dear here today, a story that has become part of our culture, and speaks to us now about climate change and rising sea levels.
Then there's the story of Plant Rhys Ddwfn, the children of Rhys the Deep, and how Rhys built an utopia out there, a whole other world, in the same area as Cantref Gwaelod. For those of us on the mainland, the idea of there being a hidden utopia out there must have been very appealing, as it is now… an inspiration to create a better world.
Now, Tryweryn has become a post-modern “submerged civilization” story, a new creation myth that links in with the politics of water.
RW: I find it interesting when you talk about how these stories change and adapt over time. One of the fascinating things about the Mabinogion, I feel, is that they were already “modernised” versions by the time they were first put into text. So to all these people moaning about “yet another re-telling”- we’ve been doing it since…
PS: …forever! Absolutely, we can almost certainly say that that’s what the first written versions of the Mabinogi were. They were probably oral tales, so the very act of writing them down would have involved making deliberate alterations. They would also have been adapted to suit the times, and the views of the wealthy people who commissioned them.
RW: And you can really tell, whether you read the Welsh or the English translations, that those stories are meant to be performed, can’t you?
PS: Absolutely, yes! One important thing to consider is that the stories would have been told in Welsh and then translated into a more literary English by Pughe and Guest, which inevitably distances it from the landscape and the people it came from. This happens all over the world; as soon as you read a folk tale in translation, you lose some of the story’s original meaning unless we understand the landscape. And because English is a dominant language, globally, it changes the Welsh stories.
This is why tracing the different versions or retellings of a story is very interesting. It’s not about finding the origin, because there’s almost certainly always older unrecorded versions. But just seeing how these stories change and develop is important to our understanding of how folk tales are adapted to the times.
Great example is the story of Devil’s Bridge, near where I live.
RW: Oh, you’re from Devil’s Bridge?! I’ve covered that in my blog, stayed the night with my girlfriend…
PS: Well, I live just down the Rheidol from there.
RW: So what’s your take on the story of Devil’s Bridge?
PS: In the late 1700s and early 1800s, tourism really took off around here. There are many accounts from travellers visiting Wales. Keeping diaries was a huge passion at the time, and visitors recorded stories, antiquities, folklore, doing what the both of us do, but two hundred years ago.
So in Pontarfynach, just like at Beddgelert, there was a sense that the village needed a more exciting story to attract more people to spend their money. It was already a popular spot for writers and artists, but the idea of the monks of Strata Florida walking their sheep across a bridge wasn’t going to bring in tourists, so the name was changed to the more enticing Devil’s Bridge.
But the story was almost certainly known in the area before they changed the village name, because it was a relatively well-known tale, the idea of the devil building a bridge and someone finding a way around having to pay a toll. So the idea of renaming a village wasn’t at all farfetched.
RW: So what about the lady in the story who faces off against the devil. Was she a real local, do you think?
PS: Well, folktales in Wales are often based on real people. Megan might have been a character in the village, or the one who told the story at the time, but whether she was a real person and if that was her real name, who knows. Writers and storytellers are imaginative people, and they often add names to make the story more engaging.
When I tell a story, I hear myself saying “the boy did this and the girl did that” and I’m thinking… can I or the audience identify with this character without a name? So maybe I should call her Megan? Creative thought and writing constantly change old stories.
Folk tales are meant to be heard, not read, so you must look at the art of oral storytelling and understand how that works. Many stories would have begun in first-person; “This happened to me… you wouldn’t believe what I saw…”, that sort of thing. Then when the story is re-told by the listener, they tell it in the third-person; “This happened to Peter, or Russ did this, and you wouldn’t believe what he saw!”
And so the story is repeated and names are forgotten or replaced, or the teller or writer decides to make the stories their own and adopt a first-person perspective and add new characters… it’s an endless changing landscape of story!
RW: I’m glad that you brought up the art of storytelling… bit of a specific question, but one common theme I see popping up in a lot of these tales, and I see it in European fairy tales, as well, is this fascination with the number three… things often happen in a sequence of threes- Pwyll caught up with Rhiannon on his third attempt, a stranger approached the castle three times in the Third Branch, the Lady of the Lake gave her lover three chances before leaving him- what’s that about?
PS: All over the world, there's a fascination with different numbers. I came across this earlier today, actually! I was telling a Welsh-Romany story. Welsh Romany stories are interesting because they have a tradition of building stories out of story motifs, so… girl walks into the woods with food for grandma, that’s one story, grandma gets eaten by a wolf, that’s another story… piece them together in a moment and longer stories develop during the telling.
So, there comes a point in a story when you’ve got to give your hero a set of tasks to complete. So how many? A hundred and one? We’d be here ‘til next Thursday! Eleven? Okay, that would still take all day. Let’s just do three, shall we? In any case, from a story-teller’s perspective, it’s a really handy number! You can’t reach a consensus with two, there needs to be a third. If it happens once, might be coincidence. Twice, you get suspicious. Three times? Something’s wrong… so it works pragmatically.
RW: Makes sense. So Peter, how important do you think it is to keep these tales alive, then? And what does the future look like for them?
PS: Well, there are important messages in old stories. If you look at the Second Branch of the Mabinogi as an example… the first act was about how to avoid war, or how it begins, second act was the war itself and the third act concerned the aftermath and recovery. These are tales of the tribe, formed from memories, that often have a strong moral behind them, or a piece of advice. They are to make you think. If you know how war begins, then you should be able to prevent it from happening again. In theory.
Dunno if you know the rap-poet Kae Tempest, but she has a line in one of her works that asks; “What is a country that has forgotten its myths?” It's important to keep these tales alive, for if we don’t look back, we can’t go forward. The stories have answers! It’s just a shame that most of our leaders don’t know them!
RW: Even going back a couple of hundred years, some of these tales cross the threshold between fantasy and reality. One example would be the Battle of Fishguard, a real event that somehow become a folktale in its own right…
PS: There were other folk tales similar to the Last Invasion. There was a story from Cornwall in the 1500s when the French tried to invade and guess what? The women dressed in uniforms and scared them off! And that was two hundred years before Fishguard!
Again, it was the late 1700s, that period when tourism was really kicking off, and stories were moving around. There’s no doubt that Jemima Nicholas actually existed, and she may have known the story to scare off the French; it was probably a well-established military tactic used to scare off invaders. If anything, it’s a great answer to your previous question; it was people learning from the past and from stories to avoid war!
People ask me what the art of storytelling is- the art of storytelling is listening!
RW: You’re absolutely right. Okay, look, like yourself, I could talk for days about this, but I’m wary of taking up more of your time… but before we wrap things up, have you got a favourite folktale, then?
PS: To be honest, all the ones I included in Welsh Folk Tales are favourites. They were cut down from a very long list… I could have written three volumes of that book, no problem! But I do have a soft spot for Rhyfel y Sais Bach. It's about land rights and migration, two subjects I like in folk tales, and it has that “rule of three” that you mentioned. It's a fairy tale that really happened! Amazing! Great example of a local story from around here, a local story that isn't very well-known throughout Wales. The kind of hidden story I love so much.
RW: Peter, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Diolch yn fawr.
PS: Russ, was a pleasure! Hwyl fawr!
You can check out Peter's work at www.peterstevensonarts.co.uk