A Toy Epic

An illuminating conversation between M. Wynn Thomas and Emyr Humphreys alerts us to the complex notion of 'locating' or 'mapping' Humphreys's work: EH: A work of fiction must relate to some truth by virtue not only of its content but also, and principally, of its shape - there mut be a meaningful overall design to it, a kind of song running through it that ties it all together. Without that it is nothing. It's like listening to a song of life - you're hearing and playing a tune that awakens a response in the reader. MWT: Is that why, when you deal with the past in your fiction, you positivly advertise the fact that you have no intention of being literatlly faithful to any place or time? EH: It's like a parallel existense. Fiction is a possibility - it could be, but it isn't. The worlf of fiction always floats a few feet above the actual ground, and enjoys a climate and atmosphere all of its own. (Taken from Thomas's Emyr Humphreys: Conversations and Reflections, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), p. 66.) Thomas's 'Afterword' to the 1989 Seren edition of A Toy Epic also provides enlightening discussion on the text. Extracts below: ... “I was brought up in a broad valley in one of the four corners of Wales.” From the very beginning, A Toy Epic puts itself firmly on the Welsh map. Indeed it fills out that map, by reaffirming the Welshness of a part of Wales that tends to be overlooked whenever the Welsh construct a mental image of their country. The other three corners leap instantly to mind, at least in the form of the outdated stereotypes by which many continue to take their national bearings. The industrialised proletarian South, the rural West, the craggy cultural fastness of the North West are familiar fixed points of reference. But the North East of Wales has never captured the public, or the literary imagination. It remains an unknown quantity, an unexplored locality the character of whose Welshness seems to be undecided, even problematic. As such it is a region eminently available for use by a writer who wants to dispense with stereotypes in order to discover and develop more accurate views of the Welsh scene. And of course it goes without saying that Emyr Humphreys was himself born and raised in this neglected corner. There is indeed a good, close fit between the fictional landscape of A Toy Epic, spreading from secluded inland valley down to the brash seaside holiday resort of Llanelw, and the actual geography of the novelist’s home patch, which extended from inland, upland Trelawnyd to coastal Rhyl and Prestatyn. There is also no doubt an intimate, if intricate relationship between the growing pains suffered by Michael and his friends and Emyr Humphreys’ own experiences of growing up... (Page 122) ...A Toy Epic shows us human growth under a complex double aspect. On the one hand it shows us the remarkable distance that is covered in a relatively short space of time, as infants grow up, and as boys move from the restricted world of childhood into the immense world of adult experience – from the valley of Llanelw, and beyond to Chester, to Oxford, and in the direction of an ominously sensed Europe. On the other hand it shows us how the pattern and pace of personal growth is prescribed at a very early stage by one’s primary relationship with one’s parents and one’s immediate environment: “I was brought up in a broad valet ... My name is Michael.” The whole history of Michael’s identity can indeed be read in that single opening statement... (Page 132) ...The cycle of seasons is used throughout the novel as a way of indicating that passage of time. But, it is the calendar of the school year that is used as the real index to the boys’ growth. A Toy Epic is divided into ten chapters, eight of which are of almost equal length while the remaining two (Chapters Six and Eight) depart only slightly, yet significantly, from the norm. The first three chapters cover the period from the boys’ infancy right through to the end of their days in primary school, and this part of the novel concludes with them sitting their entrance examination to the County School. Their first five years at that school are then described in Chapters Four to Six, and Chapter Seven to Ten deal with their time in the sixth-form, leading up to the fateful university entrance-examination which, in the final chapter, leaves the boys very different places as the prepare to move on and out into adult life. Indeed their schooling is throughout shown to play a vitally important part in the formation of the boys’ characters in the development of their social outlook, and in deciding the eventual course of their lives. No wonder that large parts of the novel centre on some aspect or other of the drama of their school careers. Other Chapters deal bit with a single event but with a single phase in the boys’ lives. So Chapter Seven is mainly about their attempts to find a goal and purpose in life, and Chapter Eight shows them returning to their separate home backgrounds and exploring them anew, following both a period of absorption in their new life at County School and a period of adolescent self absorption... (Pages 146 – 147) ... The novel does not seek to imply that a single, unchallengeable account of the whole of Welsh history remains some day to be written. Instead it allows for the possibility of there being many different, sometimes complementary and occasionally competing, versions of the past as viewed from a Welsh perspective... One of the ways of reintroducing the nation to its own history is through providing it with conscientiously historical but compelling imaginative fictions.... indeed it can be seen that A Toy Epic is itself intended to function as at least an aid-memoir for a nation. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” wrote Milan Kundera. In that same sense A Toy Epic is very much Emyr Humphreys’s unforgettable contribution to Wales’s continuing struggle for survival... (Pages 143 – 144) ... In its English form it remains one of the best novels to have been written about Wales ... Moreover while it remains, as Emyr Humphreys once put it, “anchored in historical reality by its landscape”, A Toy Epic also manages to make daily life in one of the four corners of Wales “reverberate on that level outside the restrictions of time and place that is an abiding consolation of the human condition".(Pages 149 – 150)