White as moonlight.
Rattle-bagged and broken backed.
Steed of winter who the pale men carry.
Who are those that squire you?
Slow and ceaseless, yard by yard, house by house, and door by door.’
(Torchwood, episode 57, 21 December 2021)
This began as a chance conversation in the corridor; I was inspired by the Mari Lwyd because of Aberystwyth’s own procession and because I’m interested in the hybridisation of folktales and religion.
Two Mari Lwyds on the Prom, Aberystwyth, January 2022. Photo: Rasma Bertz
My interest in finding out whether the Grey Mare came from a time when two Popes celebrated the medieval Feast of the Ass – built on the foundation of Blessed Mary; the important role of the donkey leading to, and present at, the birth of Christ; the flight into Egypt and later, as transport for Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, will have to wait for another day.
Likewise, confirming the origin of the Mari (in the words of artist Robert Alwyn Hughes) as ‘a figure of ritual significance for a pagan fertility [tradition] …celebrating the Celtic Goddess Rhiannon.’
Instead, a ballad by Vernon Watkins became my focus because after reading it, I was haunted for days. That kind of impression cannot be ignored. But first: what is the Mari Lwyd?
She appears to be the love child of a Wassail and a Mummer’s rite – an intimidating horse skull, decorated and originally carried by six men (named like Morris-dancers with one fiddler) from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night or Hen Galan, the Welsh New Year on 13 January by the Julian calendar.
If the Mari knocks on your door, you must be quick-witted and sing back verses to prevent the mare from entering. Inevitably the host loses, and once inside, food and drink are provided.
Mary Pearce of Fernlea, Christmas Card 1977
The first item I found in the archives was a 1930 composition for timpani titled ‘The Prelude to the Ballad of the Mari Llwyd [sic]’ by Daniel Jones. There are two other references to the same title, and until the various publication dates are ordered, it is easy to assume that this piece was written to accompany the 1958 TV adaptation of Vernon Watkin’s 1941 poem ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’ by Douglas Cleverdon.
As a timpanist, I had to look at the sheet music. There is an addendum which reveals it to be ‘music for approaching and retreating footsteps’, but the mystery remains as to why it was written and if there was ever more than just a prelude!
Of Vernon Watkins, there is much more available: the original drafts of the ballad (NLW MS 21263E) and two versions of the TV script (NLW MS 22841), one with initials for each actor reciting the verses. Notes identify the Living as William Squire, Rachel Thomas, Haydn Jones, Jeffrey Segal and William Eedle, while the Dead were voiced by Aubrey Richards and Basil Jones.
Watkins, described by his close friend Dylan Thomas as ‘the most profound…Welshman writing poems in English’ was a codebreaker in WWII. In fact, he was stationed at Bletchley Park when he wrote this ballad, a fact that possibly explains his vivid geographical imagery – a homesickness maybe; also, the way in which Watkins turns perspective inside out.
Echoing the use of the Mari Lwyd as an archetype for the Blessed Mary, darker imagery is used for the holy, while light represents elements of society that we usually deem less reputable i.e., the outcasts, sinners and blasphemous.
Watkins wrote that ‘the singers came every year to my father’s house; and listening to them at midnight, I found myself imagining a horse’s skull decked with ribbons, followed and surrounded by all kinds of drunken claims and holy deceptions.’
To me, this hearkens more to the Celtic Samhain, but ‘the last breath of the year is their threshold, the moment of supreme forgiveness, confusion and understanding, the profane and sacred moment impossible to realize while the clock hands divide the Living from the Dead’ emphasises the evocativeness of this Welsh tradition.
Robert Alwyn Hughes Sketch 46 from ‘Y Fari Lwyd, Cysgod y farch, Shadow of the Horse’ (2004)
In a signed document, Watkins added lines to be spoken by unseen figures in the wings as a prequel to the prologue in the dramatized version. This strophe/antistrophe begins: ‘Come to me, Mother of God: in an hour the Old Year ends.’ and ends: ‘The beggar is holy within this hour, the inner and culprit divine, even as I bolt the door on those hands, the handcuffs fall upon mine.’
Watkins weaves a thread of social consciousness throughout his ballad, just as he uses call and response – like the verse exchange on the doorstep – to contrast religious against secular concerns:
‘And the chattering speech of skull and spade
beckon the banished poor.
[Refrain] Sinner and saint, sinner and saint
A horse’s head in the frost.
Conscience counts the cost.’
A sinister refrain: ‘Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Hark at the hands of the Clock’ is used to switch the verses between earthly locations and pursuits with biblical imagery – stanza 23: ‘Starving we come from Gruffydd Bryn’ also mentions Felinfoel beer versus stanza 27: ‘for she knows all from the birth of the Flood’.
We are taken to Harlech’s bitter coast with Living reply:
‘White horses need white horse’s food:
We cannot feed a ghost.
Cast your Lwyd to the white spray’s crest
That pounds and rides the air.
Why should we break our lucky feast
For the braying of a mare?’
And to Hebron, Dolgellau, Kidwelly – ‘we bring from Cader Idris, and those ancient valleys, Mari of your sorrows, Queen of the starry fillies…’ – a continued overlay of sacred and profane.
Once the reader is aware of distinction between living and dead, the call and response becomes even clearer: the ghostly Mari’s duet professing to be holy, the living residents declaring her drunken and malicious.
‘Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari:
A sacred thing
Betrayed are the living, betrayed the dead
All are confused by a horse’s head.’
Out of all the items in the catalogue – including songbooks, arrangements of the Blessed Mary carol, and song and dance tune collections, Vernon Watkins’ ballad had the greatest effect on me personally, especially in emphasising the battle for the return of the Light at this time of year.
This blog is also available in Welsh.