Friday, 6 October 2017
The Angel Mountain Allegory
This is the story. In 1796 a pregnant, unmarried and suicidal teenager called Martha Morgan is plunged into a world of violence and corruption in the “Wild West” of Wales when she becomes Mistress of a ruinous small estate. She loses her baby and her husband. Somehow she survives, and with the help of assorted eccentric "angels" she tries to protect her family and her inheritance from prowling predators. She fights endlessly for the rights of the downtrodden. Over the course of 60 years, several love affairs and many involvements in the great events of the time, she becomes an incorrigible matriarch who outlives all of her enemies. At last she goes to her grave in a manner of her own choosing, content that she has left the world a little better than she found it.
But behind every story, there is a story. I have written many times about the symbolism built into the novels, and I have explained that I have tried to ensure that it does not become too obvious or too dominating. After all, if you are writing novels your prime duty to the reader is to entertain by telling a good story in a competent way. So the mountain, the house, the raven, the cave, the spring, and even the kitchen table are there in every single novel, recognized as symbols by some readers but not by others. They resonate and tell us that there may be more going on than meets the eye. The symbols also reinforce for the reader the idea that Martha is not just a small woman caught up in petty events but is a seriously important literary figure who has something to say about the human condition generally, and more particularly about the role of women in society. For me, she is still endlessly fascinating, although I am still uncertain how she evolved and why she turned out to be herself a symbol. So is Martha really Mother Wales, and and is the Plas Ingli estate Wales itself?
Mother Wales. That term was first used by a Scottish friend who read the books, and it has been used by many other readers since then. And although it was never my intention to create a character worthy of that title, in retrospect I now see that while I was doing the writing, one novel after another, that character was slowly emerging. So yes -- Mother Wales, just as we have Britannia, Mother Earth, Mother Nature, The Earth Goddess, and the Eternal Idol. In myths and legends from across the world, powerful and even fearsome women pop up all the time, as they do in literature. And these female / matriarchal symbols are idealised not just as gentle mother figures but also as figures who have weaknesses and even tragic defects. So the goddess becomes lover, sorceress, temptress and witch -- and she is capable of jealousy, lust, rage, and a multitude of other vices. That's Mistress Martha all over.......
So if Martha, who is very far from being the "ideal heroine" or "perfect woman", somehow represents the protective spirit of Wales and is referred to by readers as Mother Wales, what about her relationship with the land? Again I did not consciously work at this, but it seemed to me entirely natural that Martha should have a profound and sensuous relationship with her patch of land, her mountain of Carningli and her little estate of Plas Ingli. So the mountain is her cathedral -- she reveres it and even worships it. She feels that she is part of the mountain and that the mountain is a part of her. When -- for whatever reason, she is away from the mountain and the Plas, her sense of hiraeth becomes almost unbearable. The intensity of the relationship between person and place is not uniquely Welsh, since it exists also in many other countries in rural communities in particular. But in Ireland and Scotland, the love of the land is tinged with sadness and anger arising from the Clearances and the Great Hunger -- with resistance, revolution and armed conflict running right through to the present day. The relationship with the land has both love and hate in it. In England the love of the land has been diluted by industrialisation, urbanisation and "modernisation". In Wales it is still there, with a mystical and romantic component which makes it very special.....
Back to the log line and the enemies -- the prowling predators -- who have designs not just upon Martha herself but on her little estate. Her little patch of land is rough, and not particularly productive, but it is immensely beautiful, and it has the history and the traditions of an old family embedded in it. It is surrounded by larger and more powerful estates owned by predatory members of the minor gentry who see it as an inconvenience and even as an irritant -- especially since, under Martha's guidance it becomes a place of compassion where equality and tolerance are promoted and where a variety of social experiments turn labourers and servants into friends. On the Plas Ingli estate social barriers are broken down and the inhabitants get occasional glimpses of something that is not quite utopia, but is at least a little better than the misery that afflicted many parts of early nineteenth century Britain. Those who become Martha's friends are the angels who protect her whenever she gets into trouble -- as she does, all too often.
Predatory neighbours with expansionist intentions and an instinct for suppression and exploitation? Now where have we heard that before? So if you were to ask me whether, in the stories of the saga, the Plas Ingli estate is really a symbol for the nation and the rough green acres of Wales, I would reply in the affirmative. But the story is also much more than that. It’s about a strong woman, trapped by personal circumstances and convention, who is determined to survive and even thrive — but also to win respect in a male-dominated world, to establish her own autonomy, and to win acceptance of her own independence. She wants an end to exploitation, respect even for the poor and downtrodden, social justice and a toleration of diversity. Until her dying day she fights for all of these things, in the process igniting metaphorical fires and then getting far too close to them! In short, she wants FREEDOM.......
If that makes the whole saga an allegory, so be it. Like Animal Farm, The Lord of the Rings, Pilgrim's Progress? That's fine by me.
Here is a summary of the Welsh narrative:
"Wales is a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe with magnificent landscapes and rich natural resources. It is too close to England to have remained truly independent, and not far enough away for bloody rebellions ever to have taken hold. Throughout its history it has fought to resist the depredations of powerful neighbours; and against all the odds it has retained its language, its culture and its pride whilst encouraging toleration and liberal values and adapting to dramatic change. It has learned how to be subversive and seductive, and how to be spiritual and mischievous at the same time. In its history it has not suffered the same deep traumas as Scotland and Ireland. Its people are romantics, prone to wild swings of emotion; both melancholia and euphoria feature in the national psyche. Welsh people have a powerful "sense of place" and an abiding fondness for family histories, legends, ceremonial and ancient traditions. Eccentricity is embraced, while great value is placed upon learning. There is a tendency towards radical protest and an ever-present desire for social reform. Ultimately, Wales wants the respect of others -- and to be left in peace to enjoy and endure its own strange obsessions.”
If, in that paragraph, you want to transpose everything I say about Wales into the personality — and history — of Martha Morgan of Plas Ingli, that would also be fine by me.