Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

“The blessing of God be on Dinas Mawddwy, then. May I stop here till morning?”

“The blessing of God has no meaning in Dinas Mawddwy. You must be a fool not to know that.”

“I only know that I have come from Dolgellau and I am making my way to Llanfair Caereinion — Shining Llanfair, as it is called — to carry on my work. Have I taken a wrong road? And I must tell you that the blessing of God is as powerful here as it is everywhere, say what you will.”

It is the blind harper who speaks now. Scarecrow though he is in outward appearance, his voice is finely deep and melodious.”Dinas Mawddwy is not a place of blessings, but of curses, master,” says he.”You do not know who is talking to you. That is Cursing Jemmy, the blackest curser and swearer even in this cursing place. So you may stick your blessing up your arse so far that when you want it next it will pop into your mouth all brown and stinking.”

The red-headed men are much pleased with this witti­cism, and the harper bobs his head in acknowledgement of their laughter. The harper goes on; plainly he is Cursing Jemmy’s toady.

“Jemmy can curse for five minutes without a pause or taking fresh breath. Jemmy can curse the black out of a par­son’s coat. The last parson came here ran off with his fingers in his ears.”

“That is formidable cursing indeed,” says the traveller.”I don’t suppose you would oblige me with a sample of it? I have heard some very fine cursing in my time, and though I now preach against it as the Devil’s work, I have a right to consider myself a judge.”

“You, a judge?” says the harper.”A Methodist preacher? What way would you be a judge, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“You clearly know nothing of Methodist preachers,” says the traveller.”We are not your Church parsons, who have been to college and live snug in grand houses from birth to death. Most of us are saved men — brands snatched from the burning — and before we took up Our Lord’s work some of us were very great sinners, I may tell you. Now — you men of Dinas Mawddwy have not travelled far. I can tell, because you say you have never heard of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose name resounds throughout the whole world. Your ears are stopped against Him. I know. My ears were stopped against Him, too, but He can shout louder than you can stop your ears, and He will. He shouted till I had to hear him. Now, am I to hear your fine curser?”

Cursing Jemmy leaned forward, with his hands on his knees and his elbows spread. He took a great breath, and launched into his aria of finely burnished abuse and blasphemy.

Welsh, like Irish and Scottish Gaelic, is an apt language for scurrilous abuse and bitter condemnation, as it is for po­etry and prayer. It is in its heart a language of the Middle Ages, when speech was well-salted and frank, but the Celts brought poetry and rhetorical splendour to it, and an ear for rhyme and assonance that makes Welsh poetry an untranslatable marvel of ingenuity and subtle music. So much I had known, but at a distance, because I know no Welsh and had to take on credit what I heard about it in books. Notice that I heard books, I did not scan them with the eye alone, and I think this is what made me a good, and often idiosyncratic, critic. But now, as I watch this film, I understand; the Welsh tongue, after — I don’t know how many generations — is mine again. I feel, and I marvel not merely at the sense but at the overtone, the suggestion, of Cursing Jemmy’s diatribe. With brutal force he suggests what the traveller might do with his Lord, and he develops fanciful details that could only have been carefully arranged before­hand in his mind. This is no extemporaneous blasphemy. It is the creation of a powerful imagination. Jemmy is long-winded, too. He delivers his blast in a single breath, and he has the lungs and control of a great singer.


The traveller, leaning back in his chair, listens with appreciation, and when Jemmy closes with a fine coda he taps on the floor appreciatively with his staff.

“Well done, Jemmy,” he says, in a gentle voice.”Well done for a mountain man and an unimproved intellect. If you can find an eisteddfod that offers a crown for cursing, you might well chance your luck. I could not have done much better than that in my own best days, and I was a notable curser, let me tell you, before I found my salvation.”

“Let us hear you, then,” says the harper.”You cannot speak to Jemmy in that voice without proving yourself. Curse, preacher! Curse, you braggart! You shall not eat or rest here till you have made good your boast.”

“Nay,” says the traveller.”I have forsworn cursing, for it is the Devil’s work. Though, I tell you, cursing is also the Devil’s poetry, as Jemmy has shown us. I will gladly go without food, and I will go out again into the storm, before I will swear and blaspheme as Jemmy has done. But perhaps I may offer you a real eisteddfod judge’s opinion on Jemmy’s style. Would you like to hear it?”

“You would not dare,” says the harper. A stir and a murmur among the men told of their agreement.

“Indeed, I will dare anything in my pursuit of Our Lord’s work,” says the traveller.

“Let him speak,” says Jemmy.”To find fault with my cursing — it is very great impudence, and impudence too may be a form of poetry if it is bold. Speak, damn you, you black-coated turd from Jesus’ arse. Say your say, and then I shall kill you. At a blow! I shall kill you!”

“So I shall, for it is always a pleasure to bring light into darkness and improvement into ignorance. Now, listen to me, all of you. What Jemmy has spoken — with eloquence, I grant you — is not true cursing at all. It is naught but blas­phemy and filthy abuse. Jemmy is a mere mountain-cacafuego and no more, good as he is. Do you not know what a curse is? Abuse is trivial sport, for women and children — unless the woman be a witch, in which case her abuse may well be feared, for she has given her soul to Satan and rails in his name — which is no foolish or feeble name, let me tell you. But I wander from my point. A curse is an imprecation, in which the curser outlines and details the future of the accursed, under which he must suffer forever, in this life and perhaps in the next until the curse be lifted. Who taught us to curse, think you? It was God himself who laid the first curse on Cain, the evil-doer and murderer. What did Great Jehovah say to Cain? ‘Now art thou cursed from the earth — a fugitive and vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.’ And is it not so? Does not Cain walk abroad still, bringing war and rape and villainy and every cruelty to unredeemed mankind? You tell me that you know not Christ, but I am sure upon my soul that you know Cain, for he speaks loud and clear in your filthy songs and your un-Welsh want of hospitality to the stranger among you. Cain is raised here in Dinas Mawddwy, but you are so sunk in your evil that you know it not. God’s curse upon Cain was the primal curse, and every curse since then has been in its pattern. Truly to curse is to call down the Divine vengeance, and those who have no light of the Divine, or the blackness of Satan, in their natures cannot curse. They can only spew filth, which Jemmy does very well indeed. Seek the Divine, men of Dinas Mawddwy, if you would learn to curse, but be assured that the better you know the Divine, the less you will be inclined to curse.”

There is silence. Neither the harper nor Cursing Jemmy has a word to say. They want time to think about what the traveller has said. But after a few minutes a voice is raised, and it is that of a lad of about fourteen or fifteen who has sat on the floor in a corner. He is the pot-boy of this miserable inn and he has the dark red head of Dinas Mawddwy; he does not look as though his life has been a happy one.

“Tell us more about cursing, master,” he says.”Your Bible curse is well enough, but we are Welsh. Do you know of a Welsh curse?”

Some of the men murmur. Yes, tell us of a Welsh curse. They know of the Bible. They have heard of Bishop Morgan’s Welsh Bible, though it is doubtful if any one of them has seen it, or could read it if he had done so. These men are as Welsh as Welsh mountaineers could be. For them it is as though the Romans had never brought four hundred years of European culture to their remote land. Their Wales is an area of perhaps two miles in all directions from the hovel in which they sit. A Welsh curse! Now that would be a fine thing, a comprehensible thing.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson