Glan Rhondda*

In 1990, having finished the first (the blitz) draft of Crossed Wires — during whose composition I read mysteries almost exclusively — I stopped at a bookstore in South Jersey, hungry for something to read. My appetite of the moment was for a book, any book, which I’d been curious about for years but had never read. I wanted something substantial, preferably not overpowering (no Finnegan’s Wake, please). A classic, but one which I could carry in a hip pocket.

I departed the store with Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

Many have had a similar chance encounter with the tales of King Arthur, and like me have said to themselves, “Hmm…,” and then gone on to investigate something more of the story, which leads them to more, and then even further to other related back alleys of myth and literature. The hobby seems so innocent at first, just a pleasant diversion — deluded (as such hapless folk are) into thinking it’s all “just” the story of Knights of Old, the Round Table, the Holy Grail, Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot…

Finally they emerge at the far end (if they ever do) blinking, as though they’ve just spent a week spelunking and emerged at high noon in the desert. (High noon, right. It wouldn’t much surprise us to be greeted by Gary Cooper, wielding a broadsword instead of a revolver: that’s how surrealistic the experience can feel.)

Suddenly they know more than they ever imagined knowing about odd stuff like metallurgy, pre-Roman Britain, the odd and quite mysterious turnings and mergings of one legend into another, medieval French Romances, ecclesiastical rumor and history, and… Wales.

My own investigations wanderings led, eventually, to the first draft of what I’m now calling — again — my work-in-progress. But along the way I took many detours into learning about Wales and the Welsh. I’m not sure why, exactly; The Missus has opined that it’s some sort of past-life experience protruding into the present, like a gnarled index finger. (And experience, after all, has taught me that I doubt The Missus’s connections to the infinite at my own peril.)

I’ve posted before on the topic of Wales. (Earlier posts touched on the waterfalls of Wales, and focused on a marvelously strange Welsh lighthouse for sale — price, with strings attached, £1.) This post has to do with one of the books I came across when I was trying to get a feel for the landscape, the weather, and what you might call the character of the people. (All this is information not readily communicated in the standard tourist-guide format.)

The book in question is by one Trevor Fishlock, whose name appears on a lot of printed material (and in a lot of radio broadcasts) about Wales. The book I’ve got is Talking of Wales: A Companion to Wales and the Welsh (© 1976; paperback edition printed 1978).

Here’s the back-cover text, which should give you an idea of the contents (and please forgive the dangling modifier, or whatever it’s called, in the opening clause):

As Welsh Affairs Correspondent of The Times, the land beyond Offa’s Dyke is Trevor Fishlock’s ‘beat.’ From the hill paths across the Brecon Beacons to a visit to Carmarthen and its still flourishing coracle-building industry, through the pros and cons of nationalism and the preservation of the Welsh Language, to eisteddfods and rugby matches, and not forgetting such curiosities as the Celtic passion for nicknames and the quest for Welsh whisky — he has written a thinking person’s guide to Wales.

Fishlock was traveling around Wales with pretty much in his mind what I had in mine, for my part while traipsing through the pages of his book. He began in a region of southern Wales drained by the River Rhondda; this valley is generally referred to as simply “the Rhondda” or even just plain “Rhondda” (as in, “In Rhondda…”). (The photo at the top of this post is a street in a town in the Rhondda, a town called Treherbert.)

Anyway, I’ve started re-reading Talking of Wales and almost immediately came upon a passage which made me smile and, in the process, confirmed in my mind my strange infatuation with a land I’ve never visited (in this life). Fishlock introduces a section on Welsh nicknames in this manner:

The bus had stopped about three-quarters of the way up the valley and the conductor took the opportunity to jump off and wave his arms furiously at a couple of sheep rooting about in a dustbin on the pavement.

‘Gerroutovit!’ he shouted.

They gorroutovit, sloping off reluctantly with shift sidelong Humphrey Bogart looks. Valley sheep are not like the white and woolly ninepence-to-the-shilling dumplings of nursery books and popular imagination. They are public enemy number one, with tattered grey fleeces and insolent baas, biting the babies and butting the wives. In south Wales the gardeners await the invention of an aerosol spray that will knock out both greenfly and sheep: strong men have wept to see their gardens roughed-up and their dahlias chewed. In response to the public mutterings about sheep atrocities the Welsh Office has established a special department to find ways of bringing the beasts under control. Some districts have sheep pounds and employ wardens, the fleece police, to round up strays. And farmeer in one valley have been warned that if not claimed quickly their impounded animals will be cut up and fed to the local old-age pensioners.

There are more than six million sheep in Wales and I felt that I met most of them during my journey. They pouted like peeved princesses as I stomped by. Their numbers increase while, in the hills, the human population declines. They are one of the constants, like legends and rain, and, somehow, sheep always seem to get in on the act in Wales.

One morning, in a street in one of the thin valleys of the south, a sheep fainted. Who can say why sheep swoon? Perhaps their fleeces grow too heavy to bear, perhaps sudden excitements are too much for them. In this cae, whatever the reason, the beast emitted a croak, flopped senseless and rolled against the front door of one of the grey stone terraced houses.

Hearing the thud, the owner-occupier broke off from shaving and went to the door. He looked down at the shuddering and unconscious sheep and then up the street as a trio of his workmates approached.

‘What’s up, Dai?’ they called.

‘This sheep’s fainted.’

It was enough. In a land where the cult of the nickname is strongly rooted, it was enough. From that day to this the man has been known locally as Dai Sheep Fainting.

The stories are drily amusing. But embedded in the passage above, almost as an afterthought, is — for me — the word that counts, in a context that matters (“one of the constants”): legends.

More about those legends, eventually. :)


* The title of this post was the original name of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem. The post’s title translates to Banks of the Rhondda; the current name of the anthem translates to Land of My Fathers. The Welsh double-d, dd, is pronounced like the English “hard” th, as in with and them. Furthermore, the Rh is pronounced as if the h preceded the r. Thus, if you’re thinking of composing a Beach Boys parody which takes place on the banks of the Rhondda, don’t bother: “Help Me, Rhondda” won’t be as funny as you think it is. Heh.

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  1. This is the Best Booktalk Ever for Le Morte d’Arthur.

    In ’07, 7-Imp did a blogger interview with the blogging partner of Tanita Davis, whom you may recognize as a regular Sunday kicker. Her name is Sarah Stevenson, and she not only blogs with Tanita, but she has a blog in Welsh. No kidding. I just glanced at it, while linking it here, and see a post entitled, “Blwyddyn Newydd…Meh.” Hee. I at least get that last part.

  2. Oh, and is “booktalk” just a geeky school librarian’s term? If so, let me know and I can explain.

  3. Jules: “Booktalk” — isn’t (wasn’t) that a weekend show on CSPAN? Other than that, yeah, you’ll probably need to fill in the gap. :)

    Visited the Castell Tywod blog — thanks! (The most recent post at the moment may blow your mind… obviously one of those 25-things lists, but what a list!)

  4. A booktalk — for a school librarian — is when that librarian shows up in the classroom (or talks to the kids in the library) about “this great new book” …yet you don’t give them the entire plot, of course. You whet their appetite, make ’em want to read it, hope they’ll all clamber to check it out when they’re done. It’s like a commercial for a book — but from your living, breathing librarian.

    Only the Ones Who Actually Read can pull this off. Sadly, I run into so many librarians who don’t read.

  5. Jules: Now, that is just plain cool. It sounds related to the notion of “book trailers” which some authors have started doing — videos posted on YouTube and so on. (Er, except that the librarians aren’t advertising themselves, really.)

    The world of books is full of so many strange and wonderful things that it’s a wonder any of us opt to spend time anywhere else!

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