LSQ: What a beautiful, lyrical exploration of Craerwy! I love how you took this beautiful fragment from such a huge mythology and made it your own. What drew you to write “Cerridwen’s Daughter”?
Alex: Firstly, I was drawn by your theme of “birds” which led me to reflect on two great Welsh bird legends – “Drudwy Branwen” (Branwen’s Starlings) and, of course, the story of Cerridwen and Taliesyn. I chose the latter because the theme of rebirth was strong and appealing. The endings of stories always come to me first, so when I started sketching the tale that would get me to that end, I imagined that Cerridwen would be the narrator. But although Cerridwen is lauded as the keeper of the cauldron of knowledge, I found that I didn’t want to spend time with her. To my
modern sensibilities, she’s selfish and unstable. Her son is ugly and stupid, so what? Why could she not love and accept him as he was? Her anger and murderous vengeance against the servant (whose seed would become Taliesyn) seemed wild and disproportionate. My story almost died there!
However, the more I reflected on her legend, my heart went out to her named but otherwise unregarded daughter, Craerwy. I started to imagine what it would be like to have such a tempestuous mother and to witness her frightful temper. Then I imagined how a quiet, gifted daughter might find her own peace in the world. I found that I wanted to spend time with Craerwy. Once I had her voice, the story started to spin itself around her, drawing from both ancient legends of inundations and our modern concerns about climate change and rising sea levels. During last year’s lockdown, abundant birdsong in my garden kept me going through the dark days of winter, which led me to think about how silent and dreary the end of the world might be. Then I knew for certain that this would be Craerwy’s story – who else would have the patience and resilience to endure the end of days?
LSQ: Clever wordplay comes into a lot of Celtic myths, and I really enjoyed your use of it here, with Taliesin’s words to his sister Craerwy. I wasn’t entirely sure what would be in the sack when it arrived, but I love the way you went with it. How did you decide which seeds would correspond to which birds?
Alex: I am very fortunate to live in the countryside and write in a large, comfy armchair in the conservatory with a great view of the garden. Years ago I started feeding the garden birds – starting out with peanut feeders for the bluetits, then adding mixed seeds for the finches, then sunflower seeds for the woodpeckers, then suet granules for the robins and the blackbirds. Last year, I finally gave in to the prompting of the starlings and added a mealworm feeder. The idea of different seeds for different birds came largely from observing their preferences in my own garden. However, I also had in mind Mona Van Duyn’s poem “Letters from a Father” which explores the joy that feeding garden birds can bring. I have a tendency to over-think stories, so I had a little tussle over whether Craerwy would have to eat a snail in order to create, say, a thrush, at which point I had to remind myself that this is a fantasy tale!
As to the wordplay, it helped that Taliesyn was a real poet. I was able to read translation of some of his prophecies in order to set the tone for his promise to Craerwy.
LSQ: This is a beautiful rendition of creation, and I’d love the opportunity to read more of it. Are there any other aspects or characters within the larger Celtic mythology that you’ve thought about giving their own stories?
Alex: Wales is a land replete with mythology. It seems as if every river, mountain and heathland has its own legend – it’s a rich source of inspiration. Writing “Cerridwen’s Daughter” taught me a lot about the value of reflecting around “secondary” characters whose tales have not yet been told in full. My favourite of all legends is that of the Lady of the Lake who lives in the faerie land beneath Llyn y Fan Fach in the Brecon Beacons. As with Taliesyn, the mother is mythical but the Lady’s sons were mortal men and renowned physicians. In fact, I studied their plant-based medicines for my degree dissertation many years ago (I am a pharmacist in the ‘real’ world). The Lady is famous and her legend has been re-imagined many times, but I still find myself drawn to it. I would love to explore it again though the lens of modern feminism and cultural diversity.