A Toy Epic [Y Tri Llais]

Humphreys, Emyr

Emyr Humphreys’ A Toy Epic, first published in 1958, is a classic work of twentieth-century Welsh literature, for which the author won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize. There are two versions of the novel: one in Welsh (Y Tri Llais) and one in English. In the novel we are presented with three main characters, Albie, Michael and Iorwerth, and the rest of the novel follows their journey through boyhood and adolescence with each boy taking up the story in turn. Through these boys, who grow up in north-east Wales during the 1930s, Humphreys explores the politics of national identity, language, class and religion. Albie is a victim of class and language conflict. Whilst his father desires to speak Welsh at home, and is thoroughly unashamed of being working class, his mother desperately wants Albie to make something of himself. Consequently he listens to the wireless in order to improve his English accent, and shuns Welsh. The tension between Albie’s parents’ values is subtly portrayed. Father looms large and jolly as he belches without embarrassment, whilst mother coughs discreetly behind her grey gloves, a simple detail that demonstrates the contrast between his robust physicality and her concern with social appearances.

Michael, a rector’s son, learns early that it is better to make friends, not enemies, by using a ‘false engaging smile’ to win over a bully on his first day at school. We experience life as Michael, whether it is the taste of an Oxo™ cube, bought illicitly with a shilling from his mother meant for a school fund, or the bitter taste of shame he experiences as he is found out by his father. After an attempt to gain friendship with other boys backfires, he scribbles a message on the wall above his bed, ‘I have no friend in the world’. We are poignantly reminded of a child’s need for approval from family and compatriots.

Iorwerth, growing up on a farm, is earnest and religiously devout. His life represents a wholesomeness and naturalness, although he considers himself a ‘weak soldier’ intellectually, unable to defend his core beliefs against the more sceptical attitudes of his friends. His perspective on life is nostalgic, as seen when he describes his father and paints a picture of a happy hearth:

‘…I smile back at him, the kind man who is my shield and my protector, who teaches me new things and reads to me, teaches me rhymes and takes pleasure in me… The thin, kind man who reads so much in the evening while my mother knits on the other side of the fire, like two figures on a Christmas card’.

This scene is presented fixed in time like a childhood memory, or a beautiful photograph, already fading, so that an air of sadness pervades it. This is

confirmed when his father grows old and ill. So too dies an old, ‘true’ Wales, where thinking men worked the land and believed in God.

Although the boys represent different facets of Welsh society, the exploration of these themes does not impinge on Humphreys’ deeply compassionate portrayal of his characters. The reader is led to revisit the universalities of growing up: the beautiful intensity of friendship and the darker sides of jealousy, competitiveness and disappointment. We see how the boys make their decisions at various junctures and seal their own fates as each boy’s worldview is brought to life in a wonderfully captivating way. SPJ


Spring is the most mysterious season, they were saying. The trees break into green song. Each leaf opens like a baby’s st and grows towards the sun. Nothing can withstand our growth, today’s foot already too big for yesterday’s shoe. Observe our steady stretching in the air about us. We grow daily and nightly, and we are plants equipped to draw sustenance from all the elements.

Our heads grow bigger to contain more information. In school our faces among rows of faces each have two ears down which funnels are poured the measured gallons of knowledge. In each face two bright eyes stare out at a map of the world. The mouths in the row of faces are shut until the bell rings and then they open and out in the asphalt yard the singing music of all the released limbs. 38