Shadow of the Sickle [Cysgod y Cryman]

Elis, Islwyn Ffowc

This enormously popular novel first appeared in 1953 and heralded a new phase in Welsh-language fiction — a phase of novels featuring a young, confident, even rebellious generation. In 1999 it was voted the best-loved Welsh-language novel of the twentieth century.

It tells the story of Harri Vaughan, the son of a gentrified farmer in central Wales, who is a research student at Bangor and something of a heart–throb. He is engaged to be married to the rather dumb daughter of a well-to-do farmer, and it seems ‘a good match’ in the eyes of local people. At university, however, Harri is swept off his feet by fellow student Gwylan, a staunch member of the Communist Society, and he is converted to Marxism. This causes a painful rift between him and his family of pious Nonconformists. He declares his enmity towards the conservative values of his father, and brandishes a symbolic sickle above his head. Harri is not content just to preach this new gospel, but wants to live it out as well, so he refuses to live at Lleifior, the family home, and finds lodgings in the house of a council labourer who is on sick leave, and who is tended for by his daughter. Harri’s engagement to the wealthy Lisabeth is broken off, and he falls in love with Marged, the down-to-earth daughter sacrificing everything for her sick father. Before Harri leaves university, Gwylan pleads for his love, and tells him that she is relinquishing her Marxist ideas, but he now rejects her and presses on with his new-found political faith.

Interweaved with the main story there are sub-plots, in particular one which deals with Harri’s sister, Greta, whose love for a German farmhand is thwarted by the match between her and a rather snobbish and unlikeable English doctor who saves her mother’s life, and whom she marries in gratitude. A great deal of irony is also generated by the juxtaposition of Harri and the good-for-nothing farmhands, Wil James and Terence, for as a Marxist, he is theoretically in league with these workers, but instinctively loathes them.

The Shadow of the Sickle has a strong story line, and it is no surprise that it translated well to the television screen (two adaptations have been made, both gripping enough to attract a large audience). There are dramatic scenes such as that of Karl, the virtuous German farmhand who secretly loves Greta, being beaten up at the behest of Wil James, and returning home drenched in blood, to be greeted by Greta. Then she smells on his clothes the expensive scent which he bought her as a birthday present, but which was spilt in the scuffle in the woods.

The characters, young and old, Welsh, English and German, bourgeois and working class, intellectual and dim-witted, are well delineated and convincing

and capture our emotions. The narrative is strong and implacable and Elis refuses to deliver a fairytale happy ending.

The novel was an instant bestseller, but many readers were disappointed with the sad ending, and clamoured for a sequel. Elis did not relent immediately, however, but wrote a totally different novel which dealt with a middle-aged woman’s obsession with a young poet, and this study in sexual frustration was more of a disappointment still. However, after the apparent failure of the second novel, the author went back to the characters of his first, and wooed his readers back with Return to Lleifior, which made the story of Harri and his people more palatable. JR


‘Kiss me now’.

‘I don’t want to kiss you’.

‘You wanted to once… that night on the pier — ‘

‘You’re not the only one who can change, Gwylan’.

‘You can’t,’ said Gwylan, and her voice was low and strange. ‘A man can change his mind. But not his body’.

‘Don’t — ’ began Harri. But she was pressing her lips on his. She had leapt upon him and was pushing her breasts against him, her ngers busy in his hair. He tried to push her off, struggling to break free, but in vain. She had the grip of a lioness. She pulled him down onto the bench… She pulled him onto her, wrapped her arms and legs around him like an octopus with its prey… Another minute and he would yield, but he couldn’t give in to a woman who had shattered the image he had of her. With one nal heave he shook her off and got to his feet, gasping for breath.

‘So,’ he said… ‘The sweet little Communist didn’t get her man after all, by fair means or foul. Sorry about your mistake. I admired you, but I didn’t love you’. 199–200