A historical novel for young adults published this week has been inspired by the life of Hedd Wyn, the famous Welsh poet who fought in the First World War.
An Empty Chair by acclaimed author Haf Llewelyn follows young poet Ellis, and when the First World War arrives, he has to join up and go and be a soldier like dozens of other young men from rural Trawsfynydd. His teenage sister Anni longs to have him home again on their family farm, Yr Ysgwrn, especially after seeing the terrible effect of the war on her best friend Lora’s father.
Meanwhile Ellis is in the trenches in Belgium, hoping to make it home safely, and to win the Chair at the National Eisteddfod – the most important prize in Welsh poetry.
The novel is published as part of the centenary commemorations for World War I, and particularly to mark the centenary of the battle of Passchendaele in July 1917, and Hedd Wyn’s involvement in it.
The novel follows the huge impact of the war on village life through the eyes of Hedd Wyn’s 14-year-old sister Anni, bringing the incredibly moving events to life for teenagers through a vivid voice of their own age. At the centre of everything is Anni’s relationship with her best friend Lora, and the difficult decisions the two have to face concerning family, friendship, love and honesty, as well the effects of the war on their whole community.
The original Welsh-language version of the novel (Diffodd y Sêr, Y Lolfa, 2013) is highly critically acclaimed and won the Tir na n-Og secondary fiction prize in 2014. Since 2015, it has been a set text on the Welsh Literature GCSE syllabus.
A farmer’s son from Trawsfynydd, Hedd Wyn – real name Ellis Humphrey Evans – fought in the trenches in the First World War as part of the 15th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and fought at Passchendaele in July 1917, one hundred years ago this month, and is famous for being awarded the Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod, held in Birkenhead shortly afterwards.
Haf Llewelyn comes from Ardudwy and was brought up very near Trawsfynydd and Yr Ysgwrn. She now lives in Llanuwchllyn and is a full-time author. After travelling to the small town of Ypres in Belgium, she was struck by the thousands of white gravestones in the World War I cemeteries there, and what the stories of those who fought at Passchendaele might be. Her inspiration to write this novel stemmed from that trip.
‘Seeing the names and ages of the young men carved on those white gravestones in Ypres made me realise the terrible price of war’ said Haf, ‘Sometimes it's difficult for us to connect with a time that has passed, but when visiting Yr Ysgwrn, the home of Hedd Wyn, time has somehow stood still.’
‘The scale of the loss is just incomprehensible when you see those thousands of gravestones, but when you bring it all down to one story about one actual person and the people at home who loved him, it somehow seems more real’ added Haf, ‘The terrible events of July 1917 continue to cast a shadow over the home of one of Wales's best-known poets.’
An Empty Chair by Haf Llewelyn (£5.99, Y Lolfa) is available now.