by G. R. Grove
A Welsh Bard's Tale
A review by Carrie Uffindell
Blood and fire, gold and steel and poetry, a river's voice in the silence of the night, and the shining strings of a harp -- all these and more I have known in my time. Steep mountains, dark forests, and the endless song of the rain; music and laughter and feasting in the fire-bright halls of kings; a dusty road and a fast horse and a good friend beside me; and the sweet taste of the mead of Dun Eidyn, with it's bitter aftermath; a dragon's hoard of memories I have gathered, bright-colored as a long summer's day. Now they are all gone, the men and women I knew when I was young, gone like words on the wind and I am left here in the twilight to tell you their tale. Sit, then, and listen if you will to the words of Gwernin Kyuarwyd, called Storyteller.
With this passage, Grove begins the first novel in her Storyteller trilogy. Set in Wales during the sixth century, Storyteller chronicles the adventures of 15-year-old Gwernin as he journeys throughout his homeland, seeking fame and fortune as a bard. Along the way, Gwernin encounters friends and foes, struggling with love, loss, greed, and the true role of a bard in his society. With her vivid prose and excellent research, Grove breathes life into Gwernin's world and skillfully balances between medieval and modern perceptions.
Originally written by Grove as a series of short articles while traveling around Wales, the first 22 chapters of Storyteller are episodic and narrated by an older, wiser Gwernin. In the last six chapters Grove shifts from articles to novel, and the younger Gwernin's voice takes over the narrative. In another book this could be jarring, but Grove's lyrical prose as well as her strong sense of character and setting smoothes the transition.
Storyteller is also broken into two distinct sections, "A Circuit Round Wales" and "Winter in the Hills," each comprising 14 chapters. Readers of medieval Welsh literature will notice that "A Circuit Round Wales" is reminiscent of The Journey through Wales, a book written in the 12th century by clergyman Gerald of Wales. Not only do Gwernin and Gerald travel a similar loop, both their narratives are spiritual and nostalgic for times of old.
Born a century after the Romans deserted the British Isles and three years after the death of King Arthur, Gwernin's Wales is a land inhabited by Roman ruins, warrior kings, Saxon invaders, Celtic gods, and master bards. Grove draws upon a variety of sources, including medieval poetry attributed to Taliesin and Neirin, a collection of Welsh medieval tales called The Mabinogion (which also includes the first recorded stories of King Arthur and his knights), later medieval books like The History of the Kings of Britain, and modern archeological reports. While it might seem fantastical to the modern reader to mix history and mythology together, Grove addresses this in her postscript:
In a time and a place where there was no perceived distinction between spirit world and "real world," I submit that these characters would have seemed, to a person in touch with their stories, to have as much "reality" as many of the "historical" ones.
Like her character Gwernin, Grove is a long-time student of Welsh language and poetry. In July 2008, she won a literary competition for her Welsh poem "Pontydd" at the Cwrs Cymraeg, an annual convention organized by Cymdeithas Madog, the Welsh Language Institute in North America. She continues Gwernin's adventures in Flight of the Hawk and The Ash Spear, scheduled to be published in 2009.