Return to Lleior [Yn Ôl I Leior]

Elis, Islwyn Ffowc

The central if not always most convincing character of Return to Lleifior (which is the sequel to Shadow of the Sickle [Cysgod y Cryman] also reviewed here) is the bloody-minded Harri Vaughan, a figure who sums up the concerns of the 1930s generation in Wales. His response to many things is primarily ideological: the Communism of his youth is reduced to doctrinaire Socialism as he approaches his 30s, and his ‘punishment’ for this is to end up on his knees sobbing for Jesus in the book’s somewhat unlikely finale.

Despite the weight in the book of the cardboard-like figure of Harri, who is portrayed as a reformed Toff taken up with the cause of the working man, Return to Lleifior captures a certain warmth and intensity of relationship in Wales. Emphasising this perhaps, the main protagonists’ ties with the English in the story seem to be infected with loss and alienation. Harri’s sister Greta, for example, has become trapped in a marriage with the monstrously arrogant medical consultant Paul, who is a Prince of Snobs. His obnoxiousness reminds us that the Welsh have long been on the frontline of upper-class England’s strong notions of its own superiority and it is an eye-opener for English readers to see part of their society from a close-by but hostile vantage point.

The book is written in a highly explicit, populist style that no doubt helps to explain its enormous success, along with Shadow of the Sickle, amongst Welsh-speakers — indeed Elis was the first contemporary author to earn a living (via the BBC) through writing in the language. As well as this, apart from some longueurs in the middle of the book, there is wonderful narrative drive and exposition as he marshals his tight pack of characters, a group which is also well-balanced between men and women.

Apart from that gender balance, the sexual politics of this 1956 book (by an ordained Calvinistic Methodist minister) are hard to relate to today: Greta prays ‘Jesus Christ, help me forget Karl [her first and ‘real’ love who was too much a Mr Niceguy to make his move], lest he destroy me. Help me be a good wife, for to be good is to be happy. Make me love Paul, although he is so odious. . .  if. . .  if. . .  that is my duty’.(27). Nevertheless, the evocation of a more old-

fashioned philosophy of life is somehow fascinating, if romanticised.

One of the several achievements of Return to Lleifior must be that despite all the work Elis required of it: to be a popular novel in Welsh, to demonstrate that a stuffy and strait-laced style wasn’t inherent to the language, to articulate his own ideological Christianity and to be a historical work ‘summing up’ an important period of the twentieth century, it’s an entertaining book.

Apart from the calm-before-the-storm at the centre of the book, the writing has to work very hard sometimes as when in a very agit–prop chapter Greta, who is about to liberate herself from Dr Odious her husband, joins Plaid Cymru to simultaneously liberate herself from awful England. Elis went on to write a science–fiction novel (about the Wales of the future) published by the Welsh Nationalist party Plaid Cymru, so the clank of political cogwheels turning shouldn’t shock us, even if an important argument is rather clumsily put.

To balance the picture there are some set pieces especially with the highly-conflicted Greta that take the breath away, and perhaps Harri’s bloodlessness allows Elis to let rip with the very moving and human character of his sister.

Harri himself is an ideologically complex figure in a supposedly ‘simple’ farming environment; he is really a 1960s man before his time, creating a cooperative venture in the Welsh hills in the early 1950s. Return to Lleifior is an excellent popular novel rather than a literary one and remains full of interest on many aspects of Welsh society, showing, for instance, that even in the late 1940s and early 1950s chapel is the domain only of those ‘on the wrong side of fifty’. RK


‘Now, Greta, you’re married to Paul, and he’s an Englishman. As far as I can make out, he’s English of the English, the kind that understands only his own class of people. The difference between an Englishman of Paul’s type and a Welsh woman like you is not a supercial one. Your attitudes are different from just about everything under the sun. I’m a Welsh Nationalist, as you very well know, Greta. And by and large I’m against marriages between the English and the Welsh. They do great harm to a nation as small as ours — because as a rule, the Welsh who marry into the English soon turn English… He might even love you enough to become a Welshman for your sake, but there’s something else preventing him — his belief in the natural superiority of his own nationality and the inferiority of your way of life. If he were to become a Welshman it would only be to degrade himself, even if it were for your sake — that’s how he sees it, and you can understand it’. 53