Tales of Britain

By Jem Roberts

The finest, funniest stories of England, Scotland & Wales, refreshed for the 21st century. By Brother Bernard, as told to Jem Roberts.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

SEAQUAKE! The Drowning of Cantre'r Gwaelod

Well I have to say, dear Folklore Thursday types – 'volcanoes and earthquakes' is a rather unfair theme for a collection of British folktales! We don't get much in the way of streams of lava over here in Blighty, so a spot of creative thinking is required...

Natural disasters, of course, proliferate in our collection – but they are more typically of the very wet kind, and essentially Welsh. We have already detailed the drowning of the town of Bala in our live favourite, Vengeance Will Come, but it's actually one of two stories about Welsh sunken lands in our collection. Thankfully, they are very different narratives, and besides, as we say in the tales, it's little wonder Welsh folklore is so stuffed with tales about lost lands, when the English stole most of their land from them in the first place...

I'm proud to say that I went to University in Aberystwyth for three years, but little did I know, every time I gazed out over the Ceredigion coastline, or Cardigan Bay if you prefer, that the fertile Kingdom of Cante'r Gwaelod was hiding beneath the waves – the setting of our second Welsh natural disaster tale, 'The Lost Land'.

For a while, it was a toss-up between this west coast story and the near-identical tale of Lionesse, based way down on the most south-westerly tip of Cornwall and with Arthurian overtones , as to which would make the grade. But even given the possible incongruity of two Welsh drowned city tales in the same collection, that corner of Cornwall was so over-stocked with stories already, we were happy to give Ceredigion its moment.

This was one of our morally problematic stories, as the central message of the original legend boils down to 'stop having fun, and do your duty', which you'll agree is about as boring a moral as any story could have. By pitching the upstanding Welsh Prince Teithryn against his boozy good-time brother Seithenyn, who is too busy partying with a buxom young mermaid to check on his side of the great sluicegates which held back the Irish Sea – with predictably tragic consequences – it's hard to disguise the obvious finger-wagging moral of the tale.

We have, however, dampened the moralising somewhat by making the difference between the brother less obvious – in our version of the story, Teithryn likes a drink and a dance himself, but he PRIORITISES his duty to prevent everyone drowning horribly, which seems pretty fair enough really. It's not about being a puritan, it's about… not being a knob.

Of course, there's also a pretty unavoidable metaphor for climate change built into the ancient legend. One Prince crying out for attention to be paid to the ever-more dangerous elements, trying to save everyone by reminding them of the fragility of our environment, while the other laughs at the idea of impending natural disaster, and prefers to prioritise hedonism, hanky-panky, and… well, see Donald Trump.

This legend has long been believed to have a toe or two in historical reality, which was strengthened not that long ago with the discover of the Ynyslas prehistoric submerged forest just off the coast of Borth. As with the historical transformation of the Isle of Avalon into Glastonbury Tor as water levels sank, it's a very useful reminder of the ever-changing landscape of the Earth's surface, and the idiocy of assuming everything will remain the same, and that humanity will ultimately be fine, no matter how we treat the planet…

But we are at least way off the return of active volcanoes in Great Britain, or indeed earthquakes… well, fracking aside.

Seithenyn would have loved fracking. We really do seldom learn.

By the way, lovelies – with our books only a number of weeks away from bookshops now, do come to Bath on 15th December to celebrate our second special Yuletide show! There'll be festive folktales galore, free sweeties, and who knows what else?!

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