Jane Pugh – When the Devil Roamed Wales

Title: When the Devil Roamed Wales
Author: Jane Pugh
Published: 1988, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch

I found this book when searching for similar books on local folklore in my local university library. The author’s name was familiar to me (she has written other books about folklore and legends of Wales), so I thought it was worth seeking out. Ostensibly it’s a children’s book, given the colourful, humourous front cover and story illustrations, though some of the subject matter is pretty morbid for younger readers. Nonetheless, I haven’t yet found another book that deals solely with the concept of the devil in Welsh folklore, so for now this will have to do.

The book focuses mainly on the oral history of folklore in North Wales (with a handful of others from Mid Wales and South Wales), specifically regarding tales of the devil and his tricks upon the Welsh people. The stories span from around the 1600s to the 1800s, though there are some ancient stories included here also. Frustratingly, Pugh does not state the sources of these stories, instead opting to give her thanks to various academics in her acknowledgements section at the end of the book.

The stories are written in a very simple style, again suggesting this book was probably designed for children, but the amount of grammatical and typographical errors mean that it’s something of an exasperating read for younger readers and adults alike. Readers will also begin to notice that as they approach the end of the book, the stories begin to include details and incidents already covered in previous tales, as though Pugh was struggling to find sufficient stories to fill the volume. In certain ways, this repetition is no bad thing – it certainly reinforces the point that these tales are drawn from oral history and folklore, and the subsequent blurring and mingling of details give the reader a good picture of the nature of oral history through the ages. However, the rehashing of previous stories in this volume ultimately feels lazy, especially when you read the same description of a devil, or a travelling bard, or a headstrong rector three times in as many tales.

As I’ve stated above, some of the subject matter is quite macabre for children – within the first few stories, you can read about miscarriages, murders and monstrous demonic entities appearing from nowhere on dark country roads. When not taking the guise of a nobleman or beautiful maiden, the devil is almost always said to appear naked, showing his victim his green, scaly body, his fire-red eyes, his horned head, his cloven hooves and his pointed tail (interestingly this is the first folkloric account of Satan that I’ve read in which he has a body covered with green scales). This description of the devil is at odds with the cartoonish depiction in the book’s illustrations and I can’t help but think that the book would be stronger without these drawings.

One thing I found interesting here is the amount of tales where people are shown to have made bargains with the devil, and yet still managed to outwit him. Given that these stories were likely invented to warn children of the “dangers” of playing on a Sunday, or drinking, or gambling, there doesn’t seem to be many repercussions to these alleged sins at all. Those who bargain with the devil always appear to outwit him, and so their souls are eventually saved. This suggests that perhaps the purpose of the tales was instead to reinforce the idea that Satan is essentially a fool, and that humankind (with the help of a kind and loving god) will win out in the end.

Despite my criticism, this was a fairly enjoyable read for me, if slightly irritating at times. If you have an interest in the folklore of Wales, I’d suggest you give it a chance – you can find it for next to nothing on Alibris or AbeBooks.

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2 comments

  1. Fairy tales and folk lore stories do tend to the macabre generally – think about Red Riding Hood and the original versions which had the girl naked in bed with a wolf. Or a later version where a hunter comes and removes the bodies of the girl and he grand mother from the belly of the wolf

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    1. That’s true – it’s just that this volume had such a cartoonish cover that I didn’t expect so much of it to be so macabre!

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