Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

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Available HERE

This is the third collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers chronicling her dedication to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and it takes her quest to interpret and re-present his mythology to deeper levels of significance. It also defines her path as an awenydd, engaging in visionary explorations and written evocations of her discoveries. The book is divided into a brief introductory section followed by six longer sections, each taking the reader through a different historical period. A major source for any study of Brythonic lore is the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This tale is often drawn upon here, in particular the episode in the tale where Arthur kills Orddu “the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid”. The episode provides an imaginative frame for the chronology of Gatherer of Souls, spanning an immensity of time between the end of the last Ice Age to the present. The work opens with the migration into Britain as the ice begins to recede, led by a wise woman and her daughter, an already well-established matriarchal succession of witches who then take residence in the cave which they continue to inhabit until Arthur brings their line to an end. The closing piece of the book is a chilling present-day visionary confrontation in the cave on Nos Calan Gaeaf when the bottle containing Orddu’s blood is poured out and Arthur is confronted and defeated to bring the age of his imperium to an end.

If the killing of Orddu provides a mythic underlying theme for the volume, the role of Arthur in her death and his opposition to Gwyn ap Nudd, the implied father of Orddu and all her ancestors, provides the foregrounded mythic focus. The view of Arthur as a usurper of the old ways and conqueror of the gwiddonod – the giants, witches and other denizens of the world he brought to an end – is a theme that emerged in Lorna’s previous collection. It involves reconfiguring the heroic view of Arthur and viewing him as an archetype of the absolute ruler. So, in the final contemporary section of the present work, he returns “to make our country great again” which is about as up to date as you could hope to get in portraying a view of the Arthurian type in our own time.

As readers are taken through the successive ages covered by the work they will encounter much material gleaned from a knowledge of Brythonic lore that has been internalised and imaginatively re-shaped rather than simply recycled, much as the medieval tales in Welsh re-shaped Brythonic inheritance in a range of stories in prose and in verse to keep it alive for us to inherit. That lore tells not only of the emergence of Arthur as a power figure but presents Gwyn ap Nudd as a character who has retreated into the shadows, giving us only tantalising glimpses of his nature and the power he maintains in “keeping all the devils of Annwn from destroying the world”, as the Welsh tale has it. Lorna’s quest, then, is not simply one of discovery but also one of actively bringing Gwyn back into focus and out of the shadows to be recognised as the gatherer of the souls of the dead and Lord of the Otherworld.

The project includes re-telling stories from the Brythonic past, particularly those located in what Welsh medieval culture thought of as ‘The Old North’, the lands of Northern England and Southern Scotland where Brythonic culture made a last stand before retreating to Wales where the legends and myths were kept in the original language to perpetuate them in memory. So there is a substantial account of the story of Myrddin, not the ‘Merlin’ of later Arthurian stories but the figure on whom he was partly based, or with whom he was confused, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This Myrddin ran wild in the Forest of Celyddon along what is now the border country between England and Scotland. Myrddin’s ‘madness’ when he flees to the forest after The Battle of Arfderydd, fought between Rhydderch and Gwenddolau, between christian and pagan, had also been incorporated into the Life of St Kentigern, but is reclaimed here as part of the narrative of the shift away from the old ways and the old gods to the new world which became medieval christendom.

It is true that this process began far away from Britain in Constantinople in the eastern part of the divided Roman Empire, when the emperor Constantine embraced christianity in the year 312 of the current era and, with more force, by later emperors such as Justinian who made christianity the official religion in 380 and Theodosius who began to actively suppress what he called paganism in an edict of 391. But the western Empire was slower to follow this change and by the time it was widespread in the West the Romans were leaving Britain, so the drama was played out over a longer period both within elite Romano-British culture (which Arthur represents) and within native Brythonic culture, further complicated by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon and Norse invaders who themselves underwent their own transition from paganism to christianity as time went on. This marks out Britain as a particularly conflicted arena as the emerging christian world view pushed for dominance. Figures such as Arthur become emblematic of the changes taking places while Myrddin, originally a victim of those changes, later becomes incorporated as Merlin in the Arthurian ethos.

So re-claiming what has been lost, and what was transformed, is a necessary part of a re-connection with the age of the old gods in our own time when spiritual allegiances are shifting and the character of Arthur as an opponent of that old order can be re-evaluated to restore the focus on Gwyn ap Nudd. This is Lorna’s project which also involves an animistic view of the world reflected in some of the work collected here. ‘The Shield of Rheged’, for example, is ingeniously addressed by re-telling the story of one of the ravens who were depicted on it and relating the image to other raven stories in the Brythonic canon. In more recent times, the folklore of Lorna’s own area is retold in stories such as the eerie tale of ‘The Lady of Bernshaw Tower’ in which a woman who might be regarded as a spiritual descendant of Orwen and Orddu, but who also has a negative ‘other’, shape-shifts and rides with The Hunter. The final section of material set in the 21st century contextualises Brythonic sources in modern terms and focuses on what we have to do now to bring about “the ruins of Arthur’s Empire and clear the way for the next world”. If this is an ambitious and demanding task, the writings collected here display a personal commitment and an imaginative vision that makes it possible to think it can succeed.

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Between scythe and budding shoot …

 

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I have recently been reading a posthumous collection of Welsh-language verse by Tony Bianchi: Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn. I was friendly with Tony when I was a post-graduate student and he had a fellowship in the same university and I have had intermittent contact with him, both professionally and informally, in the 35 years or so since then. So it was a shock to hear of his death last year. Tony was a Geordie from North Shields who, like myself, came to university in Wales and never left. He learnt Welsh sufficiently well to be able to write and publish both poetry and prose in the language. The posthumous collection that I have been reading includes poems written in Welsh cynghanedd metres. Some are very compact and highly charged englyns which manage both to be good examples of the formal requirements of this verse form and also very personal expressions of his characteristics and his concerns. The one that gives the volume its name goes like this:

Rhwng plader a blaguryn; rhwng afal
a’r anghofio sydyn;
rhwng y gwaed a’r angau’r gwyn;
o wynfa i bla: trwch blewyn.

Which I venture to translate, without the supporting force of the cynghanedd, like this:

Between scythe and budding shoot;
between an apple and the sudden forgetting;
between the blood and the pale death;
from paradise to plague : a hair’s breadth.

So it was for him: a vibrant life suddenly ended after a brief illness. That ‘hair’s breadth’ between life and death crossed in what seemed like an instant, the poem capturing in the brevity of its concise form the moment of transition. Finding those perceptions embedded in the tight formal structure of an englyn, opening out from the cynghanedd links which hold together the sequence of images leading to the final half line: ‘trwch blewyn’ with its shiver of liminality, is a miraculous revelation.

So the Awen fell on a scion of the Old North living in modern Wales, allowing the expression of an insight that was so characteristically his own, carrying his living breath, contained in an apparently restricting verse form which one of its exponents has described, paraphrasing Dylan Thomas, as ‘singing in chains’*, but which here seems to wear those chains lightly, releasing rather than imprisoning his words.

The book also contains longer poems, including an account of his daughter’s wedding which is both tender and amusing in a way that expresses Tony’s own character so eloquently. It will remain for me a living record of his voice, contained by death but released by his words and so free in the world he has left behind him.

*Singing in Chains by Mererid Hopwood (Gomer, 2004)
Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn Tony Bianchi (Barddas, 2018)

Enchanting the Shadowlands

enchanting Review of Enchanting the Shadowlands by Lorna Smithers


This is a substantial collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers written in response to an imperative from Gwyn ap Nudd who gave her the task of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’, of bringing back enchantment to the land through her writings. As a task carried out for the god she follows it is an exemplary illustration of one way of following the path of the awenydd and , indeed, of showing dedication to the gods.


The Prelude sets the scene for the collection with a reference to the ‘Bull of Conflict’, the words addressing Gwyn ap Nudd at the beginning of the dialogue between him and Gwyddno Garanhir contained in an early Welsh poem in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen. Following this the collection is divided into a number of sections, each of which are aspects of a journey in the sense that they chronicle a development through time both in the imaginative life of the poet and in the landscape she celebrates while at the same time culminating in a union with Gwyn.

The first section recalls the early history of what is called ‘the ‘water country’ before the land was drained and when people lived close to the wetlands. There is then a section for Nodens, Gwyn’s father in the mythological record. Sections follow which look at the growth of community around Castle Hill, the life of the meadows, the re-imagining of the town of Preston in its original designation of Priest Town, the river Ribble and its Goddess Belisama and, finally, sections focussing on Gwyn himself and his Hall. There is a rhythmic movement between these sections, each changing the perspective but also keeping a clear focus on different aspects of the project of imaginative recall.
As the reader moves through each section the landscape is explored, relationship affirmed and the purpose of the developing narrative kept firmly in the author’s gaze:


I write this prayer for the souls
of the long forgotten dead
who greet us in the fields,
wandering roads and haunted farmsteads.


This is an assured voice, balancing the free expression of her message with a control of the rhythmic development of the verse so that the emphasised words also carry subtle echoes of each other, so ‘souls … fields’ assonate together and interrelate with the harder ‘d’ sounds of ‘roads’, ‘fields’ and ‘farmsteads’.
The “stories must be told”, as a verse in the same poem has it, and the task of discovering a place to live that is ‘enchanted’ is fulfilled by this telling so that gramarye may once again be infused with our experience of living in the landscape. This is not simply an antiquarian exercise in recovery but clearly, as well as being divinely inspired, also undertaken out of love for the landscape itself.


There is, of course, a particular focus on her own locality of Penwortham, or Peneverdant as it is called in he sources back to the Domesday Survey of 1086 that have been researched as part of the project. Understanding history and the felt particularities of the lives of the people who have lived on the land is a strong feature of the poems, and with more detail and a little more definitively in the prose pieces which intersperse them. These also relate some of the legends and myths of the area as in the moving story and subsequent poem about the drying up of a local well. In this way the recognised history of the area known as Castle Hill is brought to life with imaginative insights into events and the people who experienced them. The spirit life, which is inseparable from the physical life for those who would really know it, and the perception of Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of Annwn as he is described in another early Welsh text, infuses the stories told and shapes the collection.


‘The Meadows’ section evokes the life of the fields and ends with a powerfully resonant poem with the refrain “ …Horse of my dreams …” and the charged final line “And we plunge into darkness to the kingdom of our bond” which as well as re-iterating the pact also begins to anticipate the concluding sections. We get there via ‘Priest Town’ and the songs to Belisama and the Ribble. The Gwyn ap Nudd section returns to the early Welsh sources of his mythology, from Culhwch and Olwen and the legends of the Wild Hunt. And so to his Hall in the final section. This might be regarded as the hall of the dead but this is no place of gloomy sojourn. Though it is “Summer here and winter there” and the celebrated life of the earlier poems is a “brief home”, the arrival there is a consummation :


When my task is complete
will you take me, make me whole?


This is addressed to the Hounds of Annwn at the end of the previous section. Once in the Hall


When you are truly swallowed
the universe will spit you out saying
break every boundary.


We are part, that is, of an enduring eternity. Nothing is set in stone. There is “no theodicy” as another poem has it, but there are “truth and promises” binding us to “the boundless infinite”. By such apparent paradoxes truth is found, promises made and the imperative of the god fulfilled.


The Coda poem that completes the collection is addressed to the Ancestors who are “… presence … stories on our lips.” In this collection those stories are told and the Ancestors are made present. It is a remarkable testament to a promise made as well as being a skilfully wrought work by a committed awenydd.