Croeso! Welcome! And apologies to any Welsh speakers if I managed to butcher your language in today’s post title. I promise I looked further than Google translate but, as someone who doesn’t speak Welsh, I’m still not entirely certain if what I’ve written is correct.
Hi! My name’s Jess and I’m English. Sorry about that.
I currently live in South Wales, though, and it’s somewhere I’ve lived twice before: Once when I was a little girl, for around three years, and again for a few years during my holidays from uni and the four years after I graduated in which I worked in Welsh publishing. When we think of publishing in the UK, our minds probably go straight to London and the big businesses such as Hachette, Penguin Random House and HarperCollins, but there are independent publishing houses all over the UK and quite a few in Wales!
There’s Seren, Parthian, Firefly Press, Honno Press, Y Lolfa, Graffeg, Gomer, University of Wales Press, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch and probably even more that I haven’t heard of! Some of them publish solely English-language titles while others, like Y Lolfa, publish English and Welsh-language fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
In a recent article published by Nation Cymru (pronounced come-ree), Penny Thomas of Firefly Press revealed that she has come across both authors and publishers being told to be ‘less Welsh’ to appeal to readers. This article caught my attention because, sadly, this is an attitude I remember encountering during my time working in Welsh publishing; I once came across an author who’d written a piece of historical fiction set around the Rebecca Riots and was told by a London publisher that ‘no one wants to read about Wales’. Thankfully a Welsh publisher happily picked the story up, but it’s no secret that the book could have had more marketing opportunities if it had been published by one of the Big Five.
Since the Brexit vote (ugh) there does seem to have been more of an interest in regional (a.k.a. non-London) voices in the publishing world. If one good thing has come out of Brexit, it’s that it helped to burst that London bubble and made a lot of people realise that there are, in fact, real people living in places like Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cornwall, and they’re actually pretty fed up with all the government’s broken promises. My only hope is that this isn’t publishing’s latest trend and that we continue to see more stories that aren’t set in London.
This is why it’s especially sad to see this attitude around books set in Wales continuing to prevail. You’d think now would be the perfect time to cross the border and bring more stories set across Wales to the fore.
It goes beyond the fantasy genre, of course, but the lack of Welsh fantasy makes no sense to me. Wales is such fertile ground for fantasy tales – there’s a dragon on the Welsh flag, for God’s sake – and even Tolkien was inspired by the Welsh language when he developed Elvish. Wales is also the home of The Mabinogion, which is not only Britain’s oldest collection of prose stories, originally written in Welsh and later translated, but also the first time we encounter King Arthur on the page. Are you seriously telling me there’s no hunger for Welsh fantasy when Wales has inspired several of fantasy’s most-loved creatures and figures?
One of the problems Wales has, though – and it’s a similar issue that I’ve seen many Irish readers and writers discuss in the past – is the amount of people outside of Wales who can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce Welsh. After all, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle is partially inspired by Welsh legend, and yet her books still use the anglicised Owen Glendower instead of Owain Glyndŵr. No, I will never be over that.
I know I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again until I’m blue in the face, but if people can learn to pronounce Daenerys Targaryen then they can learn to pronounce Owain Glyndŵr.
I’m still waiting for Wales to have what I’m calling its ‘Outlander moment’. Scotland has always been a popular tourist destination for people in and outside of the UK, but every now and then when something like Outlander or Disney Pixar’s Brave comes along, it gives Scotland’s history and legends such a boost. That simply hasn’t happened for Wales yet, but I find it hard to believe that, one day, it won’t.
In recent years so many of us, especially here in the UK, have been re-examining our histories. As well as acknowledging that so much exists in Britain today thanks to the slave trade and that Britain has always been multi-cultural – we were part of the Roman Empire, which stretched all the way to North Africa, so the idea that there were only white people in the UK until the 1800s is ridiculous – there has also been even more of an interest in examining the histories of the working classes. This, in turn, influences the fantasy stories we’re starting to see; in 2020 both Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches and C.S. Malerich’s The Factory Witches of Lowell were published, and both feature working class witches protesting and fighting the upper classes for their rights.
Wales has a long and proud history of mining and is the birthplace of both the aforementioned Rebecca Riots and the Newport Rising. Somewhere out there, there’s an author working on a historical fantasy about Wales’s working classes and I am ready for it.
Speaking of witches, Wales was the country in the UK that was the least affected by the witch trials that started in 16th century Scotland and swept through England in the 17th century. The earliest record of a person being tried and executed for witchcraft in Wales is in 1594, when Gwen ferch Ellis was hanged (witches were hanged in England and Wales, but burned in Scotland and Ireland), but on the whole there were very few trials, and even fewer executions, of accused witches in Wales.
(Welsh poet Mari Ellis Dunning wrote a very cool poem about Gwen which you can see her perform here.)
With a history steeped in druidism and white witchcraft, my personal belief is that the Welsh never quite came to believe witches to be a bad thing the way the Scots and English did. That and, frankly, I think they had other problems to worry about – they didn’t have time to waste on a witch trial when they had issues like people stealing someone else’s farm animals! That history alone makes it the perfect setting for a witch story.
It’s important to note, however, that it’s not like these stories aren’t out there. I’m a little more familiar with the arts scene in Wales thanks to living here and having previously worked in Welsh publishing for a few years, but there’s plenty I still don’t know about and plenty of Welsh fantasy books and authors I won’t be familiar with because they’re not being promoted enough, or books I do know that I’ve tried and didn’t like. Jo Walton’s Among Others, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, features a Welsh protagonist and Paula Brackston’s The Winter Witch is set in Wales. Unfortunately I didn’t like Among Others and I DNF’d The Winter Witch, but they’re still worth mentioning for anyone who’s after a Welsh flavour to their fantasy.
I was even pleasantly surprised this month to pick up Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education and be introduced to a heroine who’s grown up with her mother in Cardigan, and Wales’s current Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams, has a MG novel featuring witches, Wilde, and she’s the co-editor of a new anthology retelling The Mabinogion for a younger audience, The Mab. In fact you can support The Mab on Unbound here, if you’re so inclined!
If you’d like to learn more about Welsh mythology, and particularly Wales’s mythological creatures, I highly recommend picking up a copy of C.C.J. Ellis’s Welsh Monsters & Mythical Beasts, which is being published by Eye of Newt Books this October. I already have a copy – and it’s stunning – because I supported the book on Kickstarter, and it’s such a wonderful introduction to the mythology of Wales.
As for me, I’m going to keep shouting about Wales’s very cool literary landscape, and waiting for that Outlander moment.