‘How Green Was My Valley’ by Richard Llewellyn

Updated - December 10, 2017 12:08 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2017 04:26 pm IST

Timeless tale  A still from the movie adaptation of the novel.

Timeless tale A still from the movie adaptation of the novel.

In 1939, when Richard Llewellyn’s How Green was my Valley was published, it became an instant bestseller. The coming-of-age story of Huw Morgan growing up in a Welsh mining village touched a chord with its themes of love, loss — of lives, livelihood, home, community — and migration. Coming as it did weeks after the launch of World War II, it was translated into 30 languages.

In 1941, Hollywood picked up the narrative with John Ford directing a classic that swept the Oscars. It was only after Llewellyn passed away in 1983 that the world came to know he wasn’t born at St. David’s in Wales as he had claimed though his parents were Welsh.

Does this literary licence diminish his evocative tale?

Life in memories

In tracing the life of the Morgans and their coal mining ways from the end of the 19th century to the start of World War I, Llewellyn mourned the passing away of the old world, destroyed by trade unions and strikes.

As Huw prepares to leave the valley forever, memories flash by. “It is very strange to think back like this, although come to think of it, there is no hedge or fence round Time that has gone. You can go back and have what you like if you remember it well enough.”

In his book English Fiction in the 1930s: Language, Genre, History , Chris Hopkins writes that Llewellyn “switched the focus from documentary ‘facts’ about Wales to pastoral ‘memories’ of Wales. There is a notable stress in the novel on the mind as having power over events, and a sense that these mental representations are as real as anything life now could present, and in fact, more real, because of that very nature of that lost life.”

Huw remembers his secret crush on his sister-in-law Bronwen, married to his older miner brother Ivor, who dies in a mining accident. Like many others in the village he loses members of his family in the coal pits, and yet Huw feels them around him.

“But you have gone now, all of you that were so beautiful when you were quick with life. Yet not gone, for you are still a living truth inside my mind... So how are you dead, my brothers and sisters, and all of you, when you live with me as surely as I live with myself.”

He tells us of his sister Angarhad, her marriage with a mine-owner’s son and her love for the local preacher; his father who dies in the mines as stones collapse on him; their kind mother who is filled with sadness as her family and community unravel. When Huw draws lines on an atlas to show her where all her other sons have gone, she tells him: “They are in the house.”

If a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say, according to Italian essayist Italo Calvino, then it’s not difficult to understand why Llewellyn’s universal parable of the loss of innocence, of individual and society, endures.

Sudipta Datta looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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