How Green Was My ValleyBook Cover - Courtesy of Barb Hakanen

A review of the novel and movie
by Jon Kennedy

Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 international best-selling novel, How Green Was My Valley, stands the test of time as a literary classic. Set in a Welsh coalmining village in the last quarter of the 19th century, its themes of spiritual longing and soaring opposed to physical yearning and bondage are developed in a language that combines Shakespeare’s richness and Hemmingway’s freshness. The author delights readers with incisive ways of observing everyday phenomena that make them seem timeless, as indeed they are. This is what it takes to make a writing transcend generations. More than a good read, it feeds the soul now as it did when it dominated the best-seller lists in the midst of World War Two.

Although John Ford’s movie based on the novel won the Oscar as best movie of 1941, and it is still better than anything on the average evening of television, it doesn’t share the novel’s timeless greatness. Ironically, it beat out Citizen Kane for the Oscar, but in retrospect they are not even in the same league. Unlike, say, It’s a Wonderful Life, which takes you back into the 1940’s (perhaps in part because Movie Poster it was made in the 1940’s) How Green Was My Valley is like looking at the 1890’s through a glass. You get glimpses but never get transported. Reading the novel, I was able to get inside Huw Morgan, but Roddy McDowell’s film portrayal of Huw never strikes me as anyone I really know, and neither do any of the film’s other characters.

I read the novel and watched the video of the film because I recently took up developing a home page site for a Welsh-named coalmining town, Nanty Glo (Welsh-Celtic for "Streams of Coal"), but this one is in Western Pennsylvania rather than South Wales. I’d heard of the movie all my life and assumed that I’d seen it as a very small child, perhaps the first movie I ever saw (my parents didn’t average more than one a year), but seeing it now didn’t bring any sense of déjà vu. I got the impression Ford was going for a nostalgic travelog of European villages in general rather than Wales in particular. Though intricate, the set never seems real, and this detracts, as does filming a movie with "green" in the title in black and white (but, okay, Technicolor wasn’t even available at the time). Everything in the movie, except the underground shots, is too pretty, too clean, even for a farming milieu (the novel has livestock living in the Morgans’ back yard), much less a coalmining one.

The film had a world premiere in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (briefly reported in a newsreel clip on the videotape), so my connecting it with the likes of Nanty Glo, about 200 miles west of Wilkes-Barre, was neither far-fetched nor original. But I’ve been to Wales, and Nanty Glo is more like towns in North Wales— Llangollen (pronounced, as best I can remember, Clen-gloff-len) with its wood-frame buildings, raging creek, high curbs and zig-zag streets—bears a strong resemblance. South Wales is marked more by stone-masonry houses (photos I took of the one in which Richard Burton was born attest to this, as does the movie). Nanty Glo occupies a green valley, but its hillsides are not nearly as steep as those described in the novel and movie; nearby Vintondale is probably a closer match, visually, to Llewellyn’s nameless village.

If the novel has a major shortcoming in my appraisal, it is, ironically, its inadequate sense of "place." The movie mentions Cardiff, Wales’ capitol and presumably the nearest city, at least three times. I remember its mention in the novel only once, and even then there is no sense of how far away it is, either in miles or in travel time. London gets more play, but then as much notice of it could be expected in a Victorian-era novel set in India or South Africa. We do get a sense that the real town—the center of commerce equivalent of what 1940’s and ’50’s Nanty Glo was to Vintondale—is over the mountain, a walk of maybe two hours away from the Morgans’ village.

Though organizing labor in the struggle for fair pay and treatment is the story milieu, the novel is "about" people’s lives before God, not a lot different than Fiddler on the Roof, which is set in a Russian village in the same era. Their lives in the home are marked by prayers and Bible readings (but not devoid of other good books and conversation). Outside the home it’s the chapel; the number one person outside the family is the pastor. But Llewellyn’s central character, the boy Huw (the movie tells us that is pronounced Hugh; I struggled with it through nearly 500 pages of the novel) decides arbitrarily at age 10 that he couldn’t believe that Jesus was God because He would never have asked as much of us as He did if He were divine (a gratuitous punch at the Nicene Creed and Councils if there could be one). Complementing Huw’s heresy is his mother’s apostasy. The first death in the family is enough to convince her that if there is a God He’s not on her side, and even though she has a miraculous vision of her dying husband (the book’s character of strongest faith), his death causes her to denounce church, and presumably God, once and for all. Even John Ford couldn’t quite go along with this; the movie implies that the vision strengthens her faith.

But the book is probably just dipping into the kind of speculations that were not uncommon in the Protestantism of the time. Raised as a Methodist and Baptist, I remember not being sure in seminary—graduate school for the ministry!—whether it was proper to refer to Jesus as God, and looking for my answer to the refrain of Charles Wesley’s hymn, "And Can it Be": "that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

The tragic climax of the novel is the destruction of the minister’s career by gossip, which is based on speculation and superficial observation with no real evidence. But this is no Scarlet Letter or Elmer Gantry: the minister is not only not guilty of adultery, he resigns his post simply for allowing himself to have appeared culpable to some eyes of his flock. It was a different time governed by different principles, and this is one of the values of reading such literature, especially in an era that holds nothing sacred. And even when the people in the chapel who know the pastor was innocent start a competing assembly in the village, it never occurs to them, or him, to call him as their pastor as would be almost a given today.

As a metaphor for the decline of the era, Llewellen has the slag pile—the useless rock and dirt pulled out of the mine to get at the coal—sliding down the mountain to bury the village. The image is alluded to repeatedly throughout the story, which is told in flashbacks from presumably the late 1930’s to the 1890’s. The technique involves what I used to tell my writing workshops is an "obligatory scene." That is, you can’t describe the couple’s intensifying feelings for each other without eventually letting your readers see them kiss. But this obligatory scene never comes, and in fact the ending occurs some 45 years before the narrator’s present age. It seems as unorthodox as his "Christianity," but it doesn’t leave the reader unsatisfied, as I’d expect. It is, after all, a story of what used to be, and it seems fitting to leave it there.

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