Owen Wynne Jones (also known as Glasynys, 1828-1870), was born in Rhostryfan, the same parish as Richard Hughes Williams (1878-1919), and worked in a quarry at the age of ten. In 1855 he began work as a teacher, and in 1860 he was ordained. He was an eisteddfotwr, journalist, folklorist and writer, whose stories were published in a selection edited by Saunders Lewis (1948). This essay is based on my introduction to his work, found in my translation, Hallowe’en in the Cwm: The Stories of Glasynys, forthcoming from Cockatrice Books.
Hallowe’en in the Cwm: Tradition and Identity in the Stories of Owen Wynne Jones
There is a story towards the end of this book that may help us understand Glasynys’s position as a writer. A monster named the Bych, which has terrorised Denbighshire, is killed by one Sir John Salisbury, and having defeated the beast, he cries out in his victory, ‘Dim Bych!’ or ‘The Bych is no more!’ Thus he bestows a name on the town now called Denbigh, or Dinbych – actually named after the little citadel which guarded the border of Wales in the Middle Ages.
The defeat of monsters is a recurring theme in Glasynys’s stories. In ‘Stories of Spirits’ it is ghostly or even demonic forces which are laid to rest by clergymen or witches and cunning men; in ‘The Wyverns’ a variety of winged serpents known as gwiberod must be fought by blacksmiths, shepherds and preachers in legends which one might, like T. Gwynn Jones, relate to mediaeval stories of saints and dragons.(1) And these heroes call on the help of magicians and seers: dark material, perhaps, for a minister of religion to be writing about, when Daniel Owen felt it necessary to apologise in his novel, Rhys Lewis (1885), for writing fiction at all.
Sir John’s adventures continue, though in a more identifiably modern world, and in a lower key. He is sent rare seeds from Jamaica by his brother-in-law, but realises that they are herrings’ roe; he pays his brother-in-law back for the joke by planting herrings in his flower beds like seedlings, and his English brother-in-law is fooled into believing that anything, fish roe or perhaps even gold, will take root in the rich soil of Sir John’s home. A point has been made, that Welsh people are not as easily fooled as their English neighbours might think, and the stories presented here are not legends preserved in amber, but are alive and supple to the changing tastes of their audiences, connecting the industrial Wales of the Nineteenth Century with the mediaeval Wales of magic and heroism.
Glasynys speaks of collecting such stories ‘here and there’, ‘throughout the length and breadth of Wales’. The Cowrach valley and Cwm Blaen y Glyn recur in the stories selected here, yet John Rhys suggests that Glasynys ‘spun out’ and ‘pieced together’ folk tales from various sources, ‘decked out with all the literary adornments he delighted in.’(2) Saunders Lewis remarks that he was an artist rather than a critical scholar of folklore,(3) Kate Roberts that he was an antiquarian as a result of his patriotism.(4)
He was born in 1828 in Moeltryfan, a quarrying district in the hills above Caernarfon. The area and its industry are linked with Dic Tryfan, the short-story writer, as well as Kate Roberts herself. Glasynys claimed to be descended on his mother’s side from Ellis Wynne, the great author of The Sleeping Bard,(5) and his mother raised him in the folk tales of the area, and in an awareness of music and Welsh literature.(6) Aged twelve, he began work in the slate quarries of Moeltryfan and Ffestiniog, and between 1842 and 1844 converted from the Calvinistic Methodism of his parents to Anglicanism and the Oxford Movement.(7) In 1855, he qualified as a schoolteacher and took a job in Llanfachreth, in Meirionydd, where he became involved in organising eisteddfodau, and in 1860 he was ordained by the Anglican church, and became a curate in Llangristiolus and Llanfaethlu on Anglesey. In 1866 he moved to Monmouthshire, where he co-edited a periodical, Y Glorian. Differences of religious and political opinion and personal artistic rivalry seem to have soured his relationship with his fellow editors, and he left the paper to return to north Wales, allegedly on foot, and under a cloud.(8) He married and settled in Tywyn, where he died in 1870 at the age of forty-two – a result, Saunders Lewis suggests, of the energy and passion he invested in his work, writing too much, and with too little self-criticism:(9) a novel, several volumes of poetry which are not now admired, articles for Yr Herald Gymraeg, Y Brython and Baner y Groes, and the short stories which display his writing at its best, in addition to his work as an editor, an eisteddfodwr, a schoolteacher and a priest.
He was tall, graceful, good-looking, says Kate Roberts, with an even temper, an open heart, and an ability to make friends: a story-teller, and a lover of company.(10) He was eloquent, selfless and tireless in his work, says Saunders Lewis, fervent in his religious beliefs and deeply patriotic, dreamy, credulous, given to hero worship, and quick to give praise.(11) He praises the generosity of Uncle Rolant and Aunt Gwen in ‘Night in the Hafod,’ who send beggars from their door laden down with good food, and who are themselves welcome in the great houses of Wales; he describes a stranger invited into a country house to take part in the Hallowe’en celebrations. The stories about Sir John Salisbury, quoted above, form part of the entertainment one Christmas Eve in a house where the narrator is a guest, and the entertainment and the hospitality remain in his memory a lifetime later as he describes them to his grandchildren. Stories are often handed down from generation to generation within families. Two tales of witches and their familiar spirits are passed from uncle to nephew in ‘Stories of Spirits,’ and the narrator of ‘The Fair Race’ repeats a story told him by his mother when he was a child. The stories refer repeatedly to the wholesome fellowship to be found in such ‘innocent pleasures’ as music and dancing, ghost stories and fortune telling, which unite the young and old, and bind families together in the culture of Wales; yet they threaten to be replaced by the ‘surliness and dishonesty, pride and excess’ into which, so Glasynys claims, the national character of Wales has declined.
In Anthony Conran’s terms, he seems closer to the Welsh literary tradition of elegy and praise than to the English tradition of the critical, sensible consciousness.(12) . Despite his comments, quoted above, and despite the acceptance of casual violence which is evident in one or two of the stories, there is also very little apprehension of evil in his work. Mistrust hurts only those who feel it, including those Welsh who are mistrustful of the English; and the faults of his characters, snobbery and ill humour, only momentarily mar their enjoyment of good fellowship. He delights in eccentricity, even in physical ugliness, and more so, Kate Roberts points out, than in the godliness of the outstanding religious figures of his day.(13) Yet he does not seem to feel, as Kate Roberts felt, that it is a fatal flaw in a writer to be blind to one’s neighbours’ faults.(14)
Yet in ‘Bee-Keeper’s Field’ one detects a sense of wrong that the people of Wales should be treated as trophies to carry to England in spoil, that the union of England and Wales should fall so far short of equality. And as an eisteddfodwr and folklorist, as a fervent Welsh patriot,(15) Glasynys might deplore the loss of tradition and community which has taken place since his time, an effect of the Nonconformists, who, ‘darkening the country like a great cloud of evangelical witnesses,’ as M. Wynn Thomas puts it, ‘began to devour, locust-like, all the folk traditions of Wales – its dancing, its music and its tales,’(16) and have left almost nothing of value behind them; of industrialisation, which caused vast and rapid social change before itself becoming unprofitable; and of government policy, beginning in 1847 with what was then called the Treachery of the Blue Books, to quell our political urges by effacing our linguistic distinctiveness,(17) to annihilate the national language of Wales.(18) Gwynfor Evans remarked that as Wales became more English it became lonelier.(19) And now it is becoming less European, drawn away from the culture and commerce of the continent by a proud and aggressive British nationalism that does nothing to celebrate or preserve Welsh nationhood or culture. I fear for my future, and my country’s future.
- Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1979, 84-86.
- ‘Welsh Fairy Tales.’ Y Cymmrodor vol. v, 1882. pp. 86, 99, 63.
- (Introduction. Straeon Glasynys, edited by Saunders Lewis. Y Clwb Llyfrau Cymreig, 1943. pp. vii, xxvii.
- Dau Lenor o Ochr Moeltryfan. Caernarfon: Llyfrgell Sir Gaernarfon, 1970. pp. 9-10.
- Dau Lenor o Ochr Moeltryfan. p. 5.
- Straeon Glasynys. p. xii.
- Straeon Glasynys. pp. xvi, xviii.
- Dau Lenor o Ochr Moeltryfan. p. 8.
- Straeon Glasynys. pp. xix, xliii.
- Dau Lenor o Ochr Moeltryfan. p. 8.
- Straeon Glasynys. pp. xviii, ix, xxi, xxiii, xxviii.
- The Cost of Strangeness: Essays on the English Poets of Wales. Llandysul: Gomer, 1982. pp. 180, 165.
- Dau Lenor o Ochr Moeltryfan. p. 12.
- Crefft y Stori Fer, edited by Saunders Lewis. Llandysul: Y Clwb Llyfrau Cymreig, 1949. p. 20.
- Straeon Glasynys. p. ix.
- In the Shadow of the Pulpit: Literature and Nonconformist Wales. Cardiff: U.W.P., 2010. p. 50).
- John Davies, A History of Wales. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1993. p. 387.
- Gwynfor Evans, Land of My Fathers. Swansea: John Penry, 1974. p. 366.
- Land of My Fathers. p. 307.