Yesterday I began a series of three blog posts about my great grandfather Edward Tegla Davies. Yesterday I talked about his fondness for drawing faces on acorns. In today’s post I will look at his writings, particularly his writing for children, and tomorrow I will look at his work as a pastor and preacher. I will be discussing his literary and spiritual vocations separately, but they were very much linked in his mind. According to Lionel Madden (author of Methodism in Wales), Tegla regarded his writing as ‘just one element in his work as a minister of the gospel.’
Before we start, a word about pronunciation. ‘Presumably,’ I said to Dad yesterday, ‘Edward pronounced his surname Dav-ees, being Welsh and all.’ Dad said no, the Welsh name Davies has always been pronounced Davis. Dav-ees is simply an English affectation.
At the age of 14, Edward Davies was a pupil-teacher at Bwlch-gwyn school in north Wales. Promising pupils who completed primary school would sometimes be asked to stay on as teachers – classroom assistants, most likely – and this is what Edward did. He was greatly influenced by a young teacher there called Tom Arfor (pronounced Ar-vor) Davies, who ‘awoke his interest in the history and literature of Wales’ (citation). Dad tells me that the Edward was present when his teacher started coughing up blood, and that he died shortly afterwards. It was in memory of Tom Arfor that Edward later named his own son (my grandfather) Arfor. But the legacy of Tom Arfor was more than a name. A passion for reading and writing had been stoked in the young teenager.
From his reading of the Welsh classics, Edward acquired ‘a Welsh prose style of great purity and naturalness’ and ‘although he never had a Welsh lesson at school nor went to university, he became one of the most prolific writers in Welsh.’ (quotation from Rev. Dr Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Welsh Biography Online).
Edward (often called by his middle name ‘Tegla’) contributed boys stories to a Welsh language magazine called Y Winllan (The Vineyard), of which he became the editor. The stories were eventually published as books in their own right. The first to be released was Hunangofiant Tomi (Tomi’s Life, 1912), the fictional diary of a country boy in north Wales. It was gentle and wry in tone, documenting Tomi’s various adventures and scrapes. There followed Nedw (Ned, 1922), Rhys Llwyd y lleuad (Rhys Llwyd the Moon, 1925), and Y Doctor Bach (The Little Doctor, 1930).
According to the Welsh literary critic Meic Stephens, Tegla’s boy heroes were ‘mischevious, dreamy and tricksy’ (citation). In the story Do Zebras, for example, a boy called Birch and his friend Humphrey paint a donkey to look like a zebra. Tegla’s characters remind me of William and the Outlaws (Ginger, Henry and Douglas) from Richmal Crompton’s much-loved William series. In 1922, the same year as Do Zebras was published in Bangor, the first William book Just William was being published in London. And by strange coincidence, chapter five contains a scene in which William paints Henry’s dog blue as a circus exhibit.
“Blue dog,” said the showman, walking forward proudly and stumbling violently over the cords of the dressing gown. “Blue dog,” he repeated, recovering his balance and removing the tinsel crown from his nose to his brow. “You never saw a blue dog before, did you? No, and you aren’t likely to see one again, neither. It was made blue special for this show. It’s the only blue dog in the world. Folks’ll be comin’ from all over the world to see this blue dog—an’ thrown in in a penny show! If it was in the Zoo you’d have to pay a shilling to see it, I bet. It’s—it’s jus’ luck for you it’s here. I guess the folks at the Zoo wish they’d got it. Tain’t many shows have blue dogs. Brown an’ black an’ white—but not blue. Why, folks pay money jus’ to see shows of ornery dogs—so you’re jus’ lucky to see a blue dog an’ a dead bear from Russia an’ a giant, an’ a wild cat, an’ a China rat for jus’ one penny.” – (Just William, chapter 5, Project Gutenburg)
The Just William books have been criticized by the RSPCA and the Canine Defence League over the blue dog debacle. Birch and his painted donkey have so far escaped censure.
Rhys Llwyd the Moon is a collection of stories about a small moon (!) and the adventures it/he has with a couple of boys in rural Wales. The word surreal is often used when writing about Tegla’s books, and you can see why. The book’s popularity was helped by the fact that it contained six black and white illustrations by the popular children’s book illustrator and landscape artist William Mitford Davies.
The Davies & Davies author/illustrator team also produced Hen Ffrindiau (Old Friends, 1927). The old friends alluded to in the title are Welsh folk tales, popular rhymes and proverbs. Here you will find witty anecdotes about the red-faced cobbler of Rhuddlan, the yellow foal, the mountain chicken and other absurdities. This is a real classic – a book for children of all ages, including adults. I dearly wish that there existed an English translation of this one. This was the first of several fantasy novels by Tegla, including a book of Welsh fairy tales Tir y Dyneddon (Dyneddon Land, 1921) and Stori Sam (The Story of Sam, 1938 ).
He also wrote a novel for adults. Gwr Pen y Bryn (The Master of Pen y Bryn, 1923) was serialized in the periodical Yr Eurgrawn (translation, anyone?) before appearing in book form. It has as its background the Tithe War of the 1880’s and describes the Christian conversion of a rich farmer called John Williams. Emeritus Professor Robert Maynard Jones (1929-) called it ‘one of the most impressive novels of his time’ (citation). Lionel Madden related how the book was described “with pardonable exaggeration” as “the greatest Welsh novel”.
But the novel also had its detractors. It was decried by one leading critic on the grounds that Tegla had insisted on ‘saving’ his central character. ‘Whatever its shortcomings,’ wrote novelist Islwyn Ffowc Elis, ‘The Master of Pen y Bryn is a milestone in the history of the Welsh novel because of its ordered plot and its penetrating study of a soul in anguish.’
The Master of Pen y Bryn is Tegla’s only novel to have been translated into English. I recently found an inexpensive copy on the Oxfam books website and am looking forward to reading it.
I feel a strange sort of vertigo when I imagine my great grandfather sitting down to hand write fiction. I never knew him, nor even his son (my dad’s father) Arfor, but I feel strangely close to him. It encourages me to know that such a recent ancestor has walked this path and walked it well. He wrestled with plot and character and dialogue. He coped with occasional rejection of work submitted to publishers. He sat at a desk and gnawed his pencil and fumbled in his mind for just the right word. He prayed for God to illuminate and inspire his fiction, so that his work would not only entertain but also challenge and bless.
How appropriate that my first series of children’s books should have starred a genealogist (griot). Stephen son of Mark son of Arfor son of Tegla. If I can become half the man he was, and half as prolific a writer, I will be content.
More about Tegla tomorrow!