Towards the end of the third volume of her re-creation of the life of Henry VIII’s fixer Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel has him reflecting on the limited successes of his attempts to move the country away from Catholicism towards Protestantism, to ‘change the story’ that the people tell themselves about who they are and where they belong:
“You can write a new story. You can write new texts and destroy the old ones, set the torn leaves of Duns Scotus sailing about in the quadrangles, and place the gospels in every church ….. but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells. It’s not just the saints and martyrs who claim the country, it’s those who came before them: the dwarves dug into ditches, the sprites who sing in the breeze, the demons bricked into culverts and buried under bridges; the bones under your floor. You cannot tax or count them. They have lasted ten thousand years and ten thousand before that. They are not easily dispossessed by farmers with fresh leases and law clerks who adduce proof of title. They bubble out of the ground, wear away the shoreline, sow weeds among the crops and erode the workings of the mines.”(*)
This sense that ‘the land remembers’, as the poet Gwyn Williams put it, or that the awen is as much embedded in the land as it is in the voices of the bards who sing of the land and its people, as implied in the line from Waldo Williams’ poem ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ : awen yn codi o’r cudd, yn cydio’r cwbl’ (awen arising from hiding, everything binding), suggests a continuous interaction between geography and culture, between landscape and story. Written in Welsh, the poem itself witnesses a language of Britain that remains in spite of the dominant English that has not entirely replaced it. To ‘change the story’ is not simply to alter a description or form of words but to shape a history and a continuity out of a shape-shifting sense of identity and belonging. Change is a fact of history. But so is continuity. Change is never quite how those who instigate it intend it to be. The new always incorporates something of the old. Changes in habits, customs, beliefs, even ethnic composition within a population, may appear to change social identity, but older stories have always persisted, integrating themselves with what appears to displace them, bringing the brew in Ceridwen’s cauldron back into equilibrium with the inspirations which feed into the continuing stories about who and what ‘we’ are. Recognising ‘us’ and ‘them’ as interacting concepts also brings to the debate about identity politics a more subtle sense of how otherness is a necessary element in identity but also a necessary element in the dynamics of the process of change which keeps societies vibrant and alive.
So if those ‘sprites’ and ‘demons’ continue to hum their tunes in despite of the new music, we hear them, absorb their rhythms, beats and cadences, sing along with them. Whether we like it or not they are us, whoever we now think we are. Those spirits who became gods, gods who became saints, saints who became heroes, their legends that became history, and all the history we thought was replaced by modernity: if we do not embrace them they will continue to haunt us. Ghosts are not laid by exorcism but by acknowledging their presences among us. Ancestors are not silenced by ignoring them however embarrassed we may be by their deeds. But nor can they predominate as they once did, though they continue to live in what they made for us and what we learnt from them and how we differ from them and what we will pass on to those who come after as we join the ranks of those who were here before so that we, too, though temporal, will remain eternally present.
*Quotation from Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light pp.709-710 (4th Estate, London – 2020)I