"PLACE IS ONE of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction," according to Eudora Welty. In historical fiction, however, that angel gets a promotion. The locus operandi of any historical novel is of vital importance, mainly because in that genre time and place tend to coalesce and form a backdrop for the action; and the degree to which the backdrop is convincing often determines the success or failure of the narrative.
Gareth Jones in Lord of Misrule has given us a superb historical novel. The intangible qualities of what life was like in Wales in the middle of the 18th century are conveyed to us through bold, unfaltering prose which immerses the narrative in atmosphere and frames the action perfectly in terms of the time being depicted. Jones does not eschew the traditional elements of popular historical fiction, either; he has elevated them, as did Thomas Flanagan in The Year of the French. Literary merit here goes hand in hand with first-class storytelling; this is a vivid story, full of drama, bawdy humor, adventure, even romance. And magic.
Magic and charismatic authority are essential elements in Lord of Misrule. Gruffydd (pronounced Griffith) returns to Ystwyth (pronounced Ustwith), the village of his childhood, after a long absence, hoping to restore his family name and heritage to the seat of power in the isolated, heavily superstitious, valley community, presently ruled by the unpopular and incompetent Viscount Lisburne. Unrecognized, the gigantic and bearded Gruffydd becomes the local conjurer, whose duty it is to cure the sick, ensure good weather, keep away evil spirits of all kinds, and most importantly, to protect the health of the local cattle, for it is on the well-being of its herds that the Ystwyth Valley's economy depends. Gruffydd manages to fulfill these duties, not by means of any of the literal magic powers the conjurer is supposed to possess, but by trickery, deceit and the force of his charismatic personality. When he arrives, Ystwyth's community is oppressed, defeatist and abject in its lack of freedom and in its poverty and discomfort. In spite of opposition from Viscount Lisburne and from Hywel Bevan, a fanatical Calvinist preacher, Gruffydd is able to rally the people of Ystwyth around him; and with the help of his son, Iolo, his young aprentice, Mihangel, and his 17-year-old mistress, Madlen, Gruffydd provokes the community into transcending its limiations and improving the quality of life in the valley.
Conflict between the authority of the church and the community's tendency to place faith in primitive superstition; between the authority of English rule in the form of Viscount Lisburne and the autonomy represented by Gruffydd; and between Gruffydd's involvement in his role as conjurer and his desire to usurp Viscount Lisburne: these are the hinges on which the plot swings, and it does so very smoothly. The main subplot involves Gruffydd's relationships with the tempestuous, unpredictable Madlen and with her sister, Rhiannon, prim, proper, and married to Hywell Bevan. The combination of the strong narrative drive which Jones invests in his story with the deft intertwining of the plot and the subplots creates the kind of momentum that makes the reader's impulse to keep turning the pages irresistible.
It is the characters that ultimately give the story its impact, of course, and most especially it is Gruffydd's internal development that holds our attention to the progress of the story. When Gruffydd arrives at his final point of doubt, our sympathies are very much with him:
"Gruffydd stared up the valley to the slate roofs of Cwamystwyth, angular black shadows against white snow in the moonlight. What did it matter to those people down there if he could conjure spirits from the earth? He had helped them and that was all that mattered. What did they care and what did the tribe that died here care about his doubts? Gruffydd knew that the arrowhead would strike him down, too, sooner or later. He sensed that the black tide of Hywel's Calvinism would eventually sweep away the exuberant old beliefs that he had grown up with, as the Roman phalanx swept his ancestors over Grogwvnion. But like them he would fight until the arrow struck."
By the end of the novel we understand that Gruffydd's destiny is inseparable from the destiny of Wales in the 18th century: he is the embodiment of the place and time in which Jones has positioned him. Lord of Misrule evokes that time and place perfectly, with a great deal of feeling for the ancient customs, habits and beliefs that eventually succumbed to the process of "civilization." And if Gareth Jones makes us feel that loss somewhat keenly, it is due to some extent to the positive presence of Eudora Welty's "lesser angel."