Twenty Thousand Saints is set on Ynys Enlli/Bardsey Island and tells the story of an intense summer on Bardsey, with flashbacks to the earlier lives of island residents. Viv and Delyth have taken their young sons to live permanently on the island in 1979, now it is 2007 - ten years after Wales voted for devolution. Delyth has disappeared and Viv's son, Iestyn, has been acquitted after 10 years in prison for Delyth's presumed murder. On the island already are Deian, Delyth's son, who is an archaeologist employed for the summer to do a survey, a writer in residence, Mererid, and a film crew, Leri and Greta, who are making a documentary. A supporting cast of ecologists, nuns, boatmen and island farmer-managers provide humour and drama in the hothouse conditions of isolated island as the real story of Delyth's disappearance is revealed and island inhabitants – old and new – are forced to revaluate their relationships, beliefs and ambitions.
Writing The Novel
Twenty Thousand Saints is an adaptation of Atyniad by Fflur Dafydd, which won the Prose Medal at the 2006 National Eisteddfod. The Welsh novel was written in an intense burst a few years after Dafydd's residency on Ynys Enlli / Bardsey Island.
...I still felt I hadn't quite finished with the idea because there was more to say about Bardsey and I felt that there was a gap in English-language literature specifically about Bardsey. There'd been nothing specifically since Bardsey had been portrayed in Brenda Chamberlain's Tide Race so I thought, well, this is another opportunity to bring the island to the attention of a wider readership and so I worked again on the novel over two years and created a really different kind of novel actually which came out as Twenty Thousand Saints. Different title. New cast of characters. But with the same location.
The English novel is nearly twice the length, has some different characters and the thriller element was introduced for an English audience.
Interview with Fflur Dafydd – English-Language Readership
I think I was very conscious of an English-language readership needing a, kind of, different structure in order to appreciate the story of Bardsey because I'm, kind of, trying to deal with the island as a kind of microcosm of Wales and it does have a political subplot and for all those things to impact on the reader I thought that the best method to go about it was through creating this thriller storyline. I've always been fascinated with disappearances and if you have a disappearance on an island that is tiny where there's basically nowhere to disappear to I thought that would be an interesting thing to play with and my interest in the archaeological side of things had increased and I thought well actually maybe I was missing a trick with the first novel that there was no mystery about discovering bones and thinking about what could be unearthed in that sense. And I'd written the first chapter more or less exactly as a kind of a parallel of the Welsh-language version but then something struck me that actually this needs to happen at a different pace in English and once I'd started to think about that disappearance the story gathered momentum and it became double the size of the Welsh-language version and I am pleased that I put that thriller storyline in because I think it's given it another element that it's not just, you know, I think the Welsh-language book is a sort of reflections on Bardsey whereas Twenty Thousand Saints is a structured novel, a structured thriller that uses the island as the backdrop that says important things hopefully about Wales but I think it's easier to draw your English-language readership into that as well because I'm talking about Wales and the Welsh language, I thought that the best way to do that would be through a thriller storyline.
When writing Twenty Thousand Saints, Fflur Dafydd was acutely aware of the layers of geography, history, languages and literature which underpin a sense of place:
When I wrote Twenty Thousand Saints, I was doing extensive research into some of the saints that were meant to be buried on the island and the archaeological work that had been done there. I was looking at really boring reports about archaeological digs. I was mapping the place looking at the various maps that had been created. I was reading Tide Race over and over so actually I was responding to other texts in a way when I was writing Twenty Thousand Saints and thinking how does this fit in with all of these whereas it felt with my Welsh-language book was sort of uniquely mine and not trying to fit in anywhere. It was just what it was, which was that sort of raw emotional experience. Interview with Fflur Dafydd, 2016
Bardsey becomes a character in different guises in different people's lives. For Viv who wanted to stay on the island with Delyth, the island becomes a space of remembrance in which Delyth is both presence and absence:
She'd grown closer to the island these past few years. It was speaking to her in a different voice. It wasn't merely the island's beauty that kept her going now, year after stubborn year, but something deeper, something so indelibly woven into the island's landscape that it didn't even have a name. p. 25
For the two boys, Deian and Iestyn, who grew up on the island, it is a contradictory space of childhood security, edgy exploration, and a kind of frustration at their isolation. Iestyn collects and hoards dead animals, while Deian imagines the land itself as capable of spawning a 'strange hybrid grass child with a luxurious green boat and his own brown eyes.' p. 112
The island is also a language. Although Twenty Thousand Saints is written in English, and the island is called Bardsey rather than its Welsh name, Enlli, in the novel the island is closely associated with Cymraeg, the Welsh language:
Because for him [Deian] it was the language of the island and his childhood, of kind faces, caves and bird-hides, rock-pools and lime-kilns, of the chattering choughs and the Manx shearwaters, Viv, Iestyn, his mum, their own little enclosed world. The language was Bardsey, Bardsey was the language. p. 59
In fact, the language of much of the daily life of the island is English, as Iestyn pertinently remarks:
They were all bloody speaking Welsh in Cardiff when I came out, I tell you. Like bloody geese they were about that castle. And I get here and I can't find one Welsh speaking fucker to talk to. p. 107
Fflur Dafydd explains:
when I went to Bardsey, you know, I was interviewed through the medium of Welsh to get the post by members of the Bardsey Island trust who are all Welsh speakers and I arrived on the island and there were actually very few Welsh speakers there. So I was sharing a house with two ecologists - one spoke English, one spoke Welsh - so English was the language of that household and there were lots of visitors coming in and some of the wardens were bilingual so there was kind of a bilingual approach as well. English became the predominant language I think and that was interesting to me because I'd always associated it with, I guess, the Welsh-language history and the Saints and so forth and it's part of our mythology and so writing Atyniad then became very, very crucial and important to write that book in Welsh first and to give my experience as a Welsh-language writer being there…
I felt that the books had a way of claiming the island back, I guess, for its Welsh-speaking population. Because, you know, it's not predominantly a Welsh-speaking island, I don't know what the situation is now but certainly when I was there the English-language population was more dominant but then you would always have visitors, you would always have people coming in and definitely it is a microcosm of Wales in that sense.
But in an English-language novel, the issue of the Welsh language in some senses becomes much more prominent.
So then when we come to Twenty Thousand Saints, I thought well, it still needs to be in a way about my Welsh-language experience of the island, on my Welsh-language viewpoint, so Mererid is a Welsh-language poet but her partner, her academic partner, is not, you know, and that kind of reflects some of the tensions of the island that Deian has lost his Welsh and that's the perspective I decided to take so I'm going to create a character that has lost his Welsh and is gradually going to come back to it throughout the novel so that the novel can be peppered with Welsh words, Welsh terms but it's not taking over in any sense and that people are getting a sense of what it is to be ostracised from a language and from a culture that you feel very close to and what it is to feel alien in your own country and all those sorts of things that Welsh-language speakers sort of go through became crucial to have them part of the story. Interview with Fflur Dafydd, 2016
For a more in-depth discussion of the Welsh-language viewpoint in Twenty Thousand Saints, listen to Fflur Dafydd's complete interview answer:
Interview with Fflur Dafydd – Welsh-Language Viewpoint
Yeah it's interesting because when I went to Bardsey, you know, I was interviewed through the medium of Welsh to get the post by members of the Bardsey Island trust who are all Welsh speakers and I arrived on the island and there were actually very few Welsh speakers there. So I was sharing a house with two ecologists - one spoke English, one spoke Welsh - so English was the language of that household and there were lots of visitors coming in and some of the wardens were bilingual so there was kind of a bilingual approach as well. English became the predominant language I think and that was interesting to me because I'd always associated it with, I guess, the Welsh-language history and the Saints and so forth and it's part of our mythology and so writing Atyniad then became very, very crucial and important to write that book in Welsh first and to give my experience as a Welsh-language writer being there and to change, you know, I don't make any references in the Welsh-language book about what language people are speaking because you don't need to. You can perhaps assume that some of them are speaking English but the whole book is written in Welsh anyway so that felt like, for me, it felt like a contribution and it was a viewpoint and it was important that I did that. It was important that they had a Welsh-language writer to look at the island from that objective viewpoint in a way, to look at the two very, very different groups of people who are there. And it just tends to be that the ecologists and the dolphin watches and the birdwatchers, they tend to be English speaking. I don't know if that's because there is more interest perhaps in those natural elements of the island through the English medium but I was also very, very comfortable there anyway that there was a mix of people of different languages because I think I'm, you know, naturally inclined to, kind of, mix with all kinds of people and I enjoy that variety. But I did become very close to the girl who lived with me in the cottage, Sian, who is the girl from Pwllheli who spoke Welsh and it felt like it was great to have her there that we did have that bond and that we were able to, sort of, introduce the language to other people when we were there. So then when we come to Twenty Thousand Saints, I thought well, it still needs to be in a way about my Welsh-language experience of the island, on my Welsh-language viewpoint, so Mererid is a Welsh-language poet but her partner, her academic partner, is not, you know, and that kind of reflects some of the tensions of the island that Deian has lost his Welsh and that's the perspective I decided to take so I'm going to create a character that has lost his Welsh and is gradually going to come back to it throughout the novel so that the novel can be peppered with Welsh words, Welsh terms but it's not taking over in any sense and that people are getting a sense of what it is to be ostracised from a language and from a culture that you feel very close to and what it is to feel alien in your own country and all those sorts of things that Welsh-language speakers sort of go through became crucial to have them part of the story. But again, I knew that the thriller storyline was what was going to keep them interested that you could introduce elements of language, tension and culture but it wasn't becoming the dominant part of the story. But it's just interesting how some Welsh-language readers have responded and some of them prefer the English-language book and some of them say that I'm a better writer in English than I am in Welsh. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's really odd to be in competition with your other-language self, you know, so it's a very odd experience for me. Perhaps the reviews were kinder to Twenty Thousand Saints than they were to Atyniad I think but maybe Atyniad is a flawed book, actually, because it's so raw and emotional. It is flawed but I think I appreciate it for its floors when I look back because it's been written so instinctively and I would never be able to recreate that. When you get too much time to think about a work, you perfect it too much, you know, you lose that raw instinctive quality so they both have their place, I think.
Bardsey is just one of the many islands or island-metaphors evoked in the novel. Bardsey stands for Wales and recalls a version of the mythical island of Gwales, an enchanted island that appears in the Second Branch of the Mabinogion. After a fierce battle, the head of Bendigeidfran and his followers live for eighty years in happiness until one of them opens a door that looks towards the mainland (Cornwall) and their defeat in battle and Bendigeidfran's death is suddenly recalled and they are full of grief, and must go to bury the remains of their leader (who until that point had been magically alive).
The mainland itself is figured as an island, with the Senedd (the building that houses the Welsh Assembly) itself on a kind of island, which represents independence rather than detachment:
How peculiar, she thought, that what she was stood on now was also a kind of island, a piece of land completely segmented from the rest of the city. The water surrounded them, holding these huge buildings afloat, it seemed, with nothing to be seen in the distance but the dotting of tiny lights, which were miniscule in comparison to the huge streaming light which now poured through this building and through Viv, throwing their shadow onto the water as one. And they truly were on an island now, she thought, all of them: the building behind her confirmed it. All the time she had been away, Wales had been prising itself away from the mainland at its border. Dafydd, 2008, p. 243
Other island metaphors include Iestyn's prison and possibly the media world of Baftas and the new metropolitan Welsh capital of Cardiff.
Other English-language literature set on Ynys Enlli/Bardsey island includes:
- Brenda Chamberlain: Tide Race 1962
- Christine Evans: Island of Dark Horses Seren 1995, Selected Poems Seren, and others.
- John Sam Jones: 'The Wonder at Seal Cave' in Welsh Boys Too Parthian, 2000
- R S Thomas, 'Pilgrimages' in Between Here and Now London: Macmillan, 1981, That Place, Laboratories of the Spirit Macmillan 1975
There are three Twenty Thousand Saints plotlines to explore: