Islwyn Ffowc Elis (1924-2004) was one of the most popular Welsh language writers of the 20th century; he is considered the father of the modern Welsh novel.
He was born Islwyn Foulkes Ellis, the elder son of Edward Ivor Ellis and his wife Catherine née Kenrick. Edward Ivor was a tenant farmer; from the age of five Islwyn lived at the family farm at Aberwiel, just outside Glynceiriog, Denbighshire. Although the English border was less than two miles away, the Ellis household was thoroughly Welsh. Islwyn was named after a bardic poet; like most country children at that time, he spoke no English until he was ten. He was later to comment of the difference between the Welsh and the English, ‘We in our mountain valley spoke Welsh. They on the plain spoke English. We could sing spontaneously in harmony. They could not. We talked of preachers and poets, they of footballers and racehorses.’
Elis attended grammar school in Langollen. A dedicated patriot, he began to use the Welsh form of his surname. He was taunted by the teachers because of his nationalism and was upset not to be taught Welsh history. However, he went on to the University College of North Wales, Bangor, in 1942, taking a degree in Welsh and Philosophy. As well as studying, he began writing poetry, stories and essays. His father’s ambition was for Elis to be a clergyman in the Presbyterian Church of Wales. After graduating, he spent two years at theological college in Aberystwyth and then did a year’s pre-ordination training in Bala. As a conscientious objector, he did not do national service. However, he became well-known in Aberystwyth as a songwriter, poet and creator of fiction.
During his time at Bala, Elis met Eirlys Rees Owen, a farmer’s daughter. The couple married in 1950; they had one daughter, Siân. The same year Elis was ordained as a Calvinist Methodist minister and took up a post at Llanfair Caereinion, around eight miles west of Welshpool. He became a friend of the poet R.S. Thomas, who was priest at nearby Manafon. Despite this, Elis was unhappy in his role as a clergyman. He did not feel suited to pastoral work and, unhappy with the institutionalised church, went through a crisis of belief. He moved to a post in Newborough, Anglesey, but after suffering a breakdown brought on by overwork as well as a sense of failure, decided to leave the ministry. He returned to Bangor to concentrate on his writing and to produce radio programmes for the BBC. Elis lectured in Welsh and drama at Trinity College Carmarthen from 1963 to 1968. After that, he worked as editor and translator at the Welsh Books Council in Aberystwyth, and then as a freelance writer, based in Wrexham. Elis’ last role was as lecturer in Welsh and later reader at St David’s University College, Lampeter, where he worked from 1975 to 1988. He was a conscientious and inspiring teacher, happiest when encouraging his students to write.
Elis’ first novel, Cysgod y Cryman (translated as The Shadow of the Sickle) was published in 1953 and established him as the foremost Welsh language novelist of his day. The book is the first part of the saga of the Vaughans, the prosperous owners of Lleifior, a Montgomeryshire farm. Elis documents entangled personal and social relations, as Harri Vaughan, the owner’s son, embraces Marxist-Leninist values whilst at university in Bangor. Bravely Elis introduced a sympathetic German character. Karl Weissman came to the farm as a prisoner-of-war; after the war finished, he chose to stay in Wales and eventually became engaged to Harri’s sister, Greta. In 1999, the Welsh Books Council chose Cysgod y Cryman as the Welsh book of the century, (along with R.S. Thomas’ Collected Poems in English). Three years later Elis wrote a sequel, Yn ôl i Lleifior (Return to Lleifior), in which Harri Vaughan tried to run the farm on co-operative lines. The books were taught in school, adapted for radio and television, and became classics of Welsh literature.
Although Elis never wrote as well again, his later novels were often innovative and with an underlying political message. Ffenestri Tua’r Gwyll (Windows towards the Twilight, 1953) was a psychological novel, set in the world of the arts. A wealthy middle-aged woman dominated and exploited the painters and writers who relied on her patronage. Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd (A Week in the Wales of the Future, 1957) contrasted a region known as West England, in which all traces of Welsh culture have been obliterated with a utopian society enjoying full self government. In Tabyrddau’s Babongo (Drums of the Babongo, 1961), Elis examined the colonization of Africa and its implications for other oppressed cultures. His book Y Blaned Dirion (The Fair Planet, 1968) was the first Welsh-language science fiction. Elis went on writing short stories, translated Arabian Nights into Welsh and was author of a play about Howell Harris, leader of the Methodist Revival in Wales. The University of Wales awarded him a DLitt in 1993 for his services to the literature of his country. In 2002, he became an Honorary President of the Friends of the Welsh Books Council.
Elis was committed to Welsh political nationalism for the whole of his adult life. He joined Plaid Cymru while still a student in Bangor. He stood as Plaid candidate for Montgomeryshire in the general elections of 1959 and 1964, and a by-election in 1962. As publicity for him, two supporters are said to have painted ‘Elis’ on a large boulder on the A44, near the border with Ceredigion. However, an unknown person quickly changed the graffiti to ‘Elvis.’ More successfully, Elis was press and publications officer in the 1966 Carmarthen by-election in which Gwynfor Evans won the party’s first Westminster seat. He also edited Plaid Cymru’s newspaper Y Ddraig Goch (The Red Dragon).
Elis died of bronchopneumonia and heart failure at hospital in Carmarthen on 22 January 2004. His funeral service was held six days later in Aberystwyth.
Stephens, M. (2008, October 04). Elis, Islwyn Ffowc (1924–2004), Welsh-language writer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved October 19 2020, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-94093.
Rees, D.B. (2004, March 22). Obituary: Islwyn Ffowc Elis: one of the 20th century’s most popular Welsh language writers. The Guardian. Retrieved October 19 2020, from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/apps/news/document-view?p=UKNB&t=language%3AEnglish%21English&sort=YMD_date%3AD&page=4&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=%22islwyn%20ffowc%20elis%22&docref=news/10180674DACCEB50
ELIS, Islwyn Ffowc (1924-2004) novelist. (2008). In J. Davies, N. Jenkins, M. Baines, & et. al., The Welsh academy encyclopedia of wales. Literature Wales. Credo Reference: https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/waencywales/elis_islwyn_ffowc_1924_2004_novelist/0?institutionId=1794
Historypoints.org. (n.d.) Novelist IslwynFfowcElis’ former home, Bangor. Retrieved October 20 2020 from https://historypoints.org/index.php?page=novelist-islwyn-ffowc-elis-former-home-bangor
GWales.com (n.d.). Bibliographical information. Shadow of the Sickle. Retrieved October 20 2020 fromhttp://www.gwales.com/goto/biblio/en/9781859026526/
Stephens, M. (2012, December 5). John Hefin – Obituaries. Film-maker whose work celebrates Wales and its people. Independent. Retrieved October 20 2020 from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/apps/news/document-view?p=UKNB&t=pubname%3ATND1%21Independent%252C%2BThe%252FThe%2BIndependent%2Bon%2BSunday%2B&sort=YMD_date%3AD&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=islwyn%20ffowc%20elis&docref=news/142FC3FB888C9940#copy
Stephens, M. (2004, January 27). Obituary: Islwyn Ffowc Elis – writer who liberated the Welsh-language novel. Independent. Retrieved October 20 2020 from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/apps/news/document-view?p=UKNB&t=pubname%3ATND1%21Independent%252C%2BThe%252FThe%2BIndependent%2Bon%2BSunday%2B&sort=YMD_date%3AD&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=islwyn%20ffowc%20elis&docref=news/132990452E9268B8