Poverty, sickness and hard labour stalk a Welsh village community in Caradog Prichard’s award-winning novel One Moonlit Night. This is the reality of life in a small slate quarrying community as seen through the eyes of a young boy. But though there is also sadness and tragedy, there is also joy; the first sight of the sea; an entire community united in song and a raucous football match.
One Moonlit Night was written as a portrayal of a way of life known intimately by Carodog Prichard. North Wales is where he was born and lived most of his life with his widowed mother, just as his narrator does.
I think that’s why the book has such a strong sense of the child’s love for the village and its inhabitants. Pritchard’s narrator knows every inhabitant and how they are related. He knows too every inch of his village; each street and lane being but a playground for him and his best friends Huw and Moi.
They’re full of curiosity these boys; forever asking questions and wanting to stay out late so they don’t miss anything exciting. They’re also an adventurous trio, exploring the surrounding hills and lakes and always on the look out for fun even if it’s just picking wild berries on the mountainside or passing on the latest gossip.
Shadows Of Reality
Yet their exuberance doesn’t mask the darker reality of their lives. In just the first chapter the narrator encounters an epileptic fit, suicide, illicit sex in the woods, and domestic violence. These don’t cause the boys any deep anxiety however; a sign perhaps that they are such common place occurrences they don’t warrant any commentary.
At one point for example they hear Moi’s mother scream. One boy asks if they should fetch the local policemen only for Moi to reply: “No, there’s no need for that. He won’t do anything to her. They’re always like that.” Their innate curiosity takes over so they inch closer to the door, to find Moi’s mother fighting with his uncle; one armed with a bread knife, the other with a tuck knife. Minutes later they’re all sitting around scoffing bread and butter as if nothing untoward had occurred.
Shadows of Hardship and War
These are kids whose lives are framed by hunger and hardship. The first World War has cast its shadow on the village, creating heroes but also bringing death. The boys go to school but know their childhood will not last much longer. Their families need them to work, to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. So just like their fathers, they’ll head to the nearby slate quarry.
One Moonlit Night doesn’t have a story as such. It’s a series of episodes that spin through different points in time; mixing gossip and anecdote with dreams and recollections. At some points the narrative seems to even leave reality behind, entering the realm of myth with invocations to the Queen of The Black Night and the Queen of Snowdon (the Beautiful One)
Come again my Beautiful One, come again and take me before the sun rises from his resting place, before we are disturbed by the bleating of the lamb; fully possess your chosen one before the withering of the moon’s candle; prepare before me the joy of my afternoon.
Lyrical Yet Ordinary
Caradog Prichard offers a heady mix of the lyrical and the commonplace but also draws heavily on local dialect and expressions. Few characters have standard names; instead they’re denoted by their occupation, or their relation to another character or their residence. So we have Elwyn Top Row, Little Will Policeman’s Dad, Bob Milk Cart, Johnny Beer Barrel’s Dad and – my favourite – Will Starch Collar.
Seeing these names on the page reminded me so much of the village where my parents were born. Few people there used surnames either. When they spoke about a neighbour or someone else in the village. It was always Jones the Milk or Dai Post or Evan Two Shoes (the origin of which is lost in the mists of time). It’s a practice possible only in a small community where that can be just one post man or milkman,
Won Over By Energetic Narrator
I didn’t take to this book initially but slowly its humour and energy won me over. I loved the narrator who has a zest for life that’s hard to quench and a love for his gran and his widowed mother that is matched only by his love of bread and butter and lobscouse (a kind of lamb and vegetable stew). He even prays for food, inspired by a line from the Lord’s Prayer he’d recited in church that morning:
Give us this day our daily bread … bread.
And after saying daily bread, I didn’t go any further with the others, I just started thinking. I remembered Mam telling me before we came to Church that we had no bread to make bread and butter with, and so I asked God for some more daily bread cos the parish money wasn’t coming till Friday.
That quote is one of many examples of how Pritchard blends humour and darkness in this novel. One moment you’re amused by a small child who takes a very literal interpretation of a prayer and the next you’re jolted into recognition this is a family very much on the breadline. What begins as a narrative of childhood fun and laughter, slowly but steadily gets darker until the final, heartbreaking ending.
It’s an unforgettable book.
One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard: End Notes
One Moonlit Night was written in the Welsh language and published in 1961 under the title Un Nos Ola Leuad. The first English translation was issued in 1995, followed by a BBC radio broadcast in English the following year.
The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales called the book “one of the most impressive novels to be published in Wales since the Second World War.” with a narrative stye reminiscent of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. It was Caradog Prichard’s best known work although he was also a highly regarded poet, three times winning the National Eisteddfod crown.