*** DEBUG END ***

From the depths of nature and history

25 August 2023

Nathan Munday is in training for ministry; so why is his book about whaling, Sarah Meyrick asks


Sperm whale being hunted by whalers, historical woodcut, c.1870

Sperm whale being hunted by whalers, historical woodcut, c.1870

IN 1792, 15 Nantucket whalers and their families moved to Milford Haven at the invitation of Sir William Hamilton of Linlithgow and Sir Charles Francis Greville. The plan was to form a whaling colony off the coast of west Wales.

This much is history. The story that unfolds in Nathan Munday’s debut novel Whaling is an act of imagination. In his version of events, a vast whale washes up on the beach at the same time as the whalers arrive. Its arrival — and that of the newcomers — divides the community. The multi-layered novel explores themes of migration and the fear of outsiders, the relationship between humanity and the natural world, and the tussle between faith and superstition.

For a Welshman, was the story of the Nantucket whalers a familiar part of his country’s history? Quite the opposite, he says. “Back in 2016, I was a doctoral student, doing a Ph.D. at Cardiff University, and I was in Harvard, giving a paper. When the conference ended, my friends went to New York. But — ‘Call me Ishmael’ — I went to Nantucket. I’d heard about the island, and I was keen to go. I went on the little ferry from Cape Cod, and, as soon as I came off the boards, I saw the whaling museum. I had no idea about the Welsh connection.”

In the museum, he came across a display that includes a woodcut — reproduced in the book — that depicts the whalers in Milford Haven.

“That was the genesis moment,” he says. “I studied history as an undergraduate, and I was tempted to go full-out into the history, but I made a conscious decision that I would just ask the ‘What if?’ questions.”

He stayed on the island for three nights, and the story began “sort of stewing” in his mind. “It was actually a profound experience,” he says. “And, you know how it is, when you’re in a special place and you meet special people, the creative juices begin to flow.”

At the time, he was halfway through his Ph.D., and had no intention of writing a novel. But, some time later, he won a prize in the New Welsh Writing Awards for his non-fiction book Seven Days: A Pyrenean adventure. (It’s not his only award: in 2016, he took the M. Wynn Thomas New Scholars Prize for an essay on the poetry of R. S. Thomas.) The prize was a nature-writing course at Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre of Wales, where he was tutored by the nature writer Horatio Clare, and Jon Gower, “the Welsh wizard”.

The course sparked a brilliant and extraordinary description of the dying moments of a whale, as imagined by the whale herself. “I wrote one page that week, and that one page was the first page of what would become Whaling,” he says.

DR MUNDAY is bilingual. Why did he choose to write the novel in English? He admits to an internal tug-of-war. “I don’t know what it is. In my mind, my mother tongue, Welsh, is what I would choose to write poetry in, but English works really well for fiction.”

The novel is, naturally, informed by Herman Melville’s famous novel; indeed, the publisher describes Whaling as an “heir to Moby Dick”. It is also threaded through with Bible references, from Noah’s ark to the story of Jonah. What are his other influences? Dr Munday mentions Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, which imagines Michelangelo in Constantinople, and employs a similar style of offering a narrative made up of postcard-like snippets. He also admires Hilary Mantel and Umberto Eco for their close attention to historical detail.

“Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, for example, goes off on all sorts of tangents,” he says, such as theology. “I share that interest in the importance of the sign or the symbol. You know, what do things mean?”

Kateryna BilaNathan Munday

His fascination with symbols is closely related to his faith. “You think of something like that beautiful hymn, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. That idea of surveying the cross, of going right around it — for some, it’s a stumbling block; to some, it’s wonderful; and to others, it’s offensive. I’m fascinated by that. And I want the reader to be asking: what is the whale in this novel? It’s this dark spot on the beach.”

The book is hard to categorise. There is a blurring of the lines between prose and poetry, fact and fiction, the literal and the mythological. A friend recommended that the author send it to Seren, Welsh publishers, on the grounds that they might be open to a speculative work.

“It’s an experiment,” he says. “It’s me, finding my feet, finding my voice, studying the human condition. Interestingly, I was at the time of writing it being called into the ministry, and I was sensing this shift in my own direction, in my own life. . . What I found is that writing fiction becomes a means of discussing the big things. I think, as ministers, we should be open to exploring new marketplaces.”

Whaling addresses reverse colonisation, in which people from the New World come back to the old one. This is partly informed by the experience of his wife, Jenna, who is Dutch, and their journey as a couple since Brexit.

He is interested in liminal spaces. He mentions St Govan’s Chapel (it plays a part in the novel), which is built on a rocky outcrop on the Pembrokeshire coast. “I remember as a child going there, and realising that you could look at it from different perspectives. It could either have been built there to be closer to God, away from society, or it could have been built there because inland was so dangerous.

“The new ideas, and the gospel coming into these shores, was not always welcome. Those kinds of things have always been on my mind.”

IN THE novel, the incomers are Quakers. Their most vocal opponent is the Revd David Jones (Dafydd, when he’s feeling particularly Welsh). He says: “The Welsh are, how can I put this kindly . . . suspicious of the unknown,” and, as the tension ramps up, quotes the Bible to justify his increasingly strident stance. In contrast, one of the characters, Mrs Griffiths, takes “the Reverend” to task for his behaviour, saying, “I cannot bear this ill-will. It isn’t proper, nor Christian.”

Jones is “what I don’t want to be as a minister”, Dr Munday says. “That idea of power, the abuse of power, and that kind of nominalism . . . — it’s a dangerous thing, where he doesn’t actually believe anything. He just believes in himself. He represents respectability, I suppose. And he abuses the Bible, taking verses out of context.”

Mrs Griffiths, on the other hand, is the true heroine. “For me, she captures first-century Christianity. She happens to be a Calvinistic Methodist, but to me she’s a [true] Christian. She’s a follower of Christ. She is Christlike, in the way that she calls out injustice and she helps the needy. You don’t see that in Jones.”

There’s a passage in the book where two young men, Andrew and Joe, are in the meeting house one moment and then the chapel. “Andrew asks Joe, who are these people, and who are we? Wales is a topography brittle with relics, as R. S. Thomas said. This is theologically charged space, with much division. And I guess Mrs Griffiths is going back to the first century, where brothers dwell together in unity.”

Amgueddfa CymruView of the harbour of Milford Haven by George Attwood, 1776

Dr Munday is in training as a Free Church minister. What was his path to faith? He was brought up in “a very happy Christian home”, and his grandfather was a minister. “My grandfather being a preacher was a very big influence on me. I was very privileged to play on my grandfather’s study floor as he would prepare [his sermons].”

He has a vivid memory of “an encounter with higher things” at the age of seven. “I remember asking Christ for forgiveness, for that new life.”

Yet his sights were set on an academic career, and writing. That changed when he was working as the custodian of Ty Mawr Wybrnant, in Snowdonia, the birthplace of William Morgan, who translated the Bible into Welsh. “That was my wilderness experience. Every day, we’d light a fire, and people would come to see the original 1588 Bible, and I would tell them the story of the translator.

“And it was in that time, that quiet time, away from Cardiff, that that desire to be a writer, to be a successful novelist, to have the cure of souls, the care of sheep, as I was in that shepherdine environment, that God called me.”

It was a challenging period — living in primitive accommodation without central heating, for one thing — but a precious time, too. “It’s in those quiet places that I think you hear the Lord the loudest.”

Ordination will happen “when I’m ready”, he says. In the mean time, he is working on another novel, inspired this time by a picture he saw in the Netherlands. He believes that he is called to continue writing — “it’s important to have a Christian voice in the arts” — but that his ministry is the priority.

Horatio Clare, introducing him at the Hay Festival (“it was lovely to be a Welshman, speaking to another Welshman about a Welsh novel”) earlier this year, described him as “a writer who preaches”. Dr Munday corrected him. “No,” he said. “I’m a minister who writes.”

Whaling by Nathan Munday is published by Seren Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 9-781781-727065.

Listen to an extended interview here

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)