AmeriCymru: Your latest work A Court in Splendour is a fictional account of the first Eisteddfod in Cardigan in 1176. Care to tell us something about the book?
Liz: The title of the book comes from the description in the Chronicle of the Princes (the Brut y Twysigion) the earliest history of Wales written by monks, who told of the events at Cardigan Castle when the Lord Rhys invited a contest of 'bards and musicians'. Very few people outside of Cardigan had ever heard about it so in 2010 when Cardigan town hit its 900th birthday, as a way of celebrating I thought it would be good to recall its one really important moment in history. Lord Rhys was a mighty figure and has often been sidelined by historians in favour of later Princes of Wales like Glendower and Llewellyn the Great. I wanted to bring him back full focus and accord him the honour he deserved for being the inspiration behind the Eisteddfod as we know it today. Most people with a little knowledge of Welsh history know it has not been going continuously since the 12th century– but the link is strong enough to claim that the celebration at Christmas 1176 at Cardigan Castle was the first Eisteddfod.
AmeriCymru: You tell the story from four different perspectives - Walter Map, Rhygyfarch, Rhys's son and wife. In my opinion this works remarkably well. What factors influenced you to construct the book in this way?
Liz: When I began to do the research for the story it became clear to me that there were many varying accounts of the events in the early 12th century. That particular period is called the 'dark ages' for a very good reason! No two accounts are ever quite the same and ultimately in confusion I began to think it would not be possible to write it in the third person with a definite viewpoint about what happened in that period. For instance, when Rhys took Cardigan, some historians accept that he allowed the conquered Normans to leave peacefully ‘with half of their goods’. Others however write that Cardigan was treated to a blood bath courtesy of a barbarian Rhys who killed all, Norman and Welsh alike. That is no small difference, is it?. And there were many more instances. Then I thought of the Canterbury Tales, and the clever construction of Chaucer's most famous book. It appealed to me to give several peoples’ view of what went on. All that was left once this decision was made, was to decide who my storytellers would be. I didn't want the Lord Rhys speaking for himself, how could he? It’s obvious in literature generally that it is others who describe the hero, never the hero himself. He cannot boast of his achievements, nor acknowledge his temper and failings. So his family and his priest seemed more appropriate to give us a view of the man himself. It also meant we saw the action from ways which we might not have reached through a single voice. Gwenllian’s family history is of strong women and she appears in history books as one of them, equal to handling, yet respecting and nurturing, this great warrior Prince she marries. My own sense from the history books is that it was a political as well as a love match. Hwyel Sais too, is the son who stands out from all of Rhys’s other sons, because of his Anglicisation. Both of them struck me as interesting characters to develop. Rhygyfarch is in all the history books for opening the gates of Cardigan to the Lord Rhys himself so I wanted to include him. But who would they be telling their stories to? Walter Map was a stroke of inspiration when I came across him in the process of researching Rhys. Here was a court gossip, a king's clerk and envoy, who was also a learned man of the church. Also known for an acid tongue on occasion, his one book 'De Nugis Currialum' translates as ‘Courtier’s Trifles’ and is full of trivial tales.Useless from a historical perspective but his character emerges clearly through the style and content. So I used him as the receiver of the tales. History doesn't actually say he was there at the first Eisteddfod, but I like to think he may have been. So it was a bit cheeky as a device, but hey, I think it works!
AmeriCymru: How difficult was it to find sources when you researched the historical background for the book? Are there any historical works that you would recommend?
Liz: I was lent a copy of the Chronicle of the Princes,(very expensive to buy!) which then led me to the University of Wales book A History of Wales Book II. struggled a bit to find much specific. Then I got hold of Roger Turvey's documentary book 'The Lord Rhys' which is brilliant, he really gets a hold on the man. The other books that I used are listed at the back of A Court in Splendour but actually that list is only a small summation. I tend to read very widely to get going. The big advantage of the internet too is that once you have a clue what you want to find out, it has an immense amount of information there for free. There was a huge amount of material for instance about Henry II and his relationship with Becket and the church. I didn’t use a great deal of it but it coloured the way that Rhygyfarch the priest, saw the monarch.
AmeriCymru: The book was officially launched at Cardigan Castle on September 12 2009. Care to describe the occasion for us?
Liz: For a start it was a glorious autumn day, with sunshine and warmth. Entirely unexpected after a week of rain. During the weeks before I had meetings with several local people from town, most of whom are known as 'drama' enthusiasts, to rehearse, and we ran through the pieces chosen for them to read aloud. We managed to raid the wardrobe at Theatr Mwldan our local theatre, and put together some of my storytelling outfits to make them all look convincingly medieval. They looked great, and they were so good with the readings it was like seeing my characters coming back to life! What made it more extraordinary was that we were all conscious of actually being on the castle site itself where the whole thing had happened all those years ago. The castle is currently the subject of efforts to see a massive restoration programme carried out, and bids are in for funding. It is not generally yet used for public events so you can imagine what an honour it was for the Trustees of the Castle to invite me to have the launch there. We had the readings, and book signings, then some friends talked in Welsh on camera about their memories as children of the National and we had medieval music played by a friend and local dignitaries giving the people an update on the castle. My three sons and friends all helped in putting up marquees and serving trays of food. We had a scrumptious afternoon tea served from a marquee far too small for the crowds to sit down in, so we ended up with hundreds of people strolling and sitting all round the grounds with platefuls of pastries and cream buns and muffins. It was a great afternoon, so it’s no wonder it was a popular event is it?
AmeriCymru: Which of the major contemporary Eisteddfodau (Bala or the National) do you think the first Eisteddfod was closer to in spirit?
Liz: Ah! This is a point in dispute. Personally I lean toward the idea of the International being closer to The Lord Rhys's original intention which was to bring in other countries to compete. He invited Ireland, England, Scotland and France and perhaps he thought that by getting together to hear great music and poetry and to network (though I'm sure he would not have called it that) it would heal divisions and create a bit of harmony. However, I am locally in a minority in this reading of it. Cardigan is in Ceredigion, one of the heartlands of the Welsh language, and the feeling amongst some is that the Lord Rhys was an early member of Plaid Cymru and his idea was to display the gifts of the Welsh bards as a kind of one upmanship. Seriously though the singular link is the Chair, which is still the high accolade afforded at the National to the best of the bards. A local artist, Aneurin Jones has produced a painting of the First Eisteddfod, and it is in essence, the National. So was my depiction in the book, with the white robes and so on. The idea of the International was a twentieth century idea which grew out of the National. It came out of the British Council after the Second World War as a way of promoting Peace through the Arts. So although I certainly think the Lord Rhys would have approved of it, I don't think it's worth falling out about. I have had compliments about the book from people who have read it and stand on both sides of the argument. I have also attended the International at Llangollen to read from the book this year, a huge honour and I love the idea of being connected with it, however loosely.
AmeriCymru: You are also the author of several volumes of children's fiction in particular The Dreamstealers Trilogy. Would you say that it is more challenging, or less, to write for a younger audience?
Liz: Life experience has a lot to do with it. I began my career as a teacher, then I set up and ran junior Youth Theatres in Wales and in England. The age group I knew best through these experiences were the seven to twelve year olds. When I wrote Dreamstealers, this was the age group it was intended for, and I found it quite easy to write for them because I knew how I talked to them (same thing in the end) and how they talked to each other. But I do know it varies from one person to another and if you haven't spent time with children I imagine it is difficult. I actually preferred writing for an adult audience but the trilogy came to me because of my love of standing stones, and burial chambers etc and how I saw them as portals to another world. Well you can't really write magical/fantasy for adults without getting twee or sentimental, or gorily surrealist maybe. The stories are about inter-dimensional travel, based very generally in the Mabinogion, so I wrote it for children and thoroughly enjoyed it.
AmeriCymru: Dreamstealers Trilogy was described as the 'Welsh Harry Potter' by the Western Mail. How do you feel about the comparison/description.
Liz: Oh at the time I just thought how lazy the press are. I personally have worked in the newspaper business for years on and off so I speak from personal experience too! It's easier to relate back to a known name or title than think up something original. Look at the tabloids, their headlines are almost always puns on well-known names of phrases. However I have been told that using the Harry Potter reference persuaded more people to buy the books. How disappointed they must have been to find that it did not resemble Harry Potter at all! One bitter reviewer said the first thing that was wrong with it was that there were only two adventurers, not three, and therefore it couldn't work! Ha Ha...he also thought there were lots of other things wrong with it, but the review by the Welsh Books Council and the Cambrian News were very flattering so one just has to take the knocks!
AmeriCymru: Where can our readers obtain copies of 'A Court in Splendour' and the 'Dreamstealers Trilogy'?
Liz: All of them are available online, through Amazon, but specifically from the Welsh Books Council on www.gwales.com ; and A Court in Splendour direct from the publishers at www.llanerchpress.co.uk ; and the Dreamstealers comes separately as The Fizzing Stone, Shapeshifters at Cilgerran, and Manawl's Treasure, all available from www.ylolfa.co.uk
AmeriCymru: What's next for Liz Whittaker?
Liz: My new book is on the way though it's growing slowly as there is an enormous amount of research, and I’m not in a hurry because I do love this stage of the process. Outside right now here in Wales it is dark and cold and rain is arriving in the wind. This is the best time of year for closing the curtains against the miserable late afternoon, putting another log on the fire and getting out the books and notes. This next novel is written in two time-lines and it centres on St Davids in West Wales and Glastonbury England. (Yes, the home of the nearby famous festival,) For my purposes it is the Abbey and its strong connection with Welsh history, particularly St Caradog, that fascinates me and is informing the story. Also I am performing from A Court in Splendour at a big Eisteddfod event for the town at the end of December for the grand finale of 2010 and our 900th celebrations. This will be my last stand-up. I have been a storyteller for years and anyone can see me doing it all over Youtube if they really want to. But there are so many good up and coming young storytellers and I find I prefer to be in the audience to watch them, rather than on the stage these days!
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of Americymru?
Liz: I can only say that I am genuinely pleased to have been invited to contribute to the website - thank you! Americymru is a fantastic way of bringing people together, and this experience of answering questions has been very enjoyable, taking me back to my motives and ideas. I would also like to mention Jacob, my son, who is also on Americymru. He does all my book cover illustrations and the one for A Court in Splendour, which is very special, was an idea taken from an original of a page from Rhygyfarch’s psalter, which Jacob developed specially for the project. He also made the video of the launch. Check out his website at jacobwhittaker.co.uk and mine at lizwhittaker.co.uk
Interview by Ceri Shaw Ceri Shaw on Google+