- On the Inside Looking In: Contemporary Anglo-Welsh Fantasy
In 1986 Anglo-Welsh author Jenny Nimmo published The Snow Spider and began the phenomenon of contemporary Anglo-Welsh children’s authors making an important, though underrated, contribution to the field of children’s literature. Many Anglo-Welsh children’s novels produced during the 1990s work with the Welsh mythological, folkloric, and historical heritage and have a strong element of the fantastic. I shall consider a sampling of these novels within their cultural context to investigate how these novels are distinctly “Welsh.” One would expect Anglo-Welsh authors to be especially innovative when dealing with their own mythology. In fact, the opposite is more often true, for several reasons: (1) Anglo-Welsh children’s literature is largely a product of this decade, and it reflects the relevance of the folklore and mythology in a contemporary Welsh culture experiencing great political and social change; (2) Anglo-Welsh children’s literature is largely authored, subsidized, and influenced (though not controlled) by those interested in promoting Welsh culture and identity; (3) in the last seven years, the publishing of Anglo-Welsh children’s literature has taken off, with the establishment of presses devoted to the publication of English-language fiction and poetry with a Welsh setting and/or a concern with Welsh identity, and with the National Curriculum Cymreig (the National Curriculum in Wales from the English National Curriculum) introduced in 1989, which stipulates that material with relevance to Wales must be used in Welsh classrooms.
This phenomenon forms a “third wave” of English-language writing based on Welsh Celtic mythology, primarily the Mabinogi. For most of the twentieth century, Anglo-Welsh children’s literature has meant first Kenneth Morris, and then authors such as Alan Garner, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Evangeline Walton, and Nancy Bond. Significantly, not [End Page 67] one of them is Welsh. Contemporary Anglo-Welsh children’s authors are creating works quite different from these English and American forerunners. English and American authors have previously drawn on Welsh mythology to provide “a sense of ‘otherness’ to some texts in what might be termed a ‘romantic’ or perhaps fanciful derivation” (Filmer 108). However, the result has been “a tradition which romanticises Wales and the Welsh, and which does little to shed light upon issues relevant to contemporary Wales, where the resurgence of interest in folk tale and myth since the 1920s has been closely bound up with Welsh nationalism and political awareness” (Filmer 110). Anglo-Welsh authors use the same Welsh Celtic myths to create not a sense of otherness but feelings of belonging and unity.
Wales is “the smallest, least confident, least powerful, but the most intransigent of the Celtic cultures” (Schwenk). Kath Filmer points to Alan Garner as one author who has escaped this romanticizing trap by incorporating “elements of myth in the wider context of the Welsh political, cultural and social agenda” (110). His book The Owl Service, though, explains very little of this wider context to the reader, primarily using it to add texture to the background of the novel in a hazy, fluid manner. In contrast, Anglo-Welsh authors explicitly evoke the notion that the folklore, mythology, and history of Wales are inextricably tied to contemporary Wales. They do so without the subtle teasings and ominous quality of Garner; for them, the idea that Wales’ cultural past is bound up with the politics of the present is not even a belief so much as intrinsic knowledge. Garner and other non-Welsh authors wish to show that, in general, all myths are alive around us, powerful and potent. Anglo-Welsh authors already accept this as fact, surrounded as they are by a living mythic and folkloric presence (Garner, “Death” 69; “Inner” 108). They aim to demonstrate that Welsh myths, folklore, and history affect the current political and social situations and have a function in shaping future Welsh culture and identity.
Contemporary Anglo-Welsh fantasies often employ Welsh myths and history as source material for several reasons: Wales has a living mythic tradition; Anglo-Welsh authors use their writing to reclaim their heritage for their citizens, which has for this century in children...