Friday, December 14, 2007

Gwyn Williams' "The Land Remembers: A View of Wales" Book Review

This historical introduction fades at the Victorian twilight, but the bulk of the action, centered more in medieval and early-modern times, certainly provides much detail about how Welsh identity coalesced. The Welsh took on their language and culture as their legacy of what once was the common treasure of the whole island. The rest of what is now England and much of Scotland succumbed to the Saxon invaders. The stories of such as the Mabinogi the whole of Anglia may have known before the triumph of the Angles-- when Prydain equalled Britain. Ironic that the very term British has been changed to suit the colonial conquerors more than the subdued Celts, when the latter named the island.

Williams, from his own teaching in Turkey and his knowledge of Asia Minor, places the Welsh within the larger Indo-European continuum in a few telling examples, whether crenellated walls borrowed by the Crusaders which made their strategic presence known via the Normans who took over much of Wales, or the Roman innovations that tended to lay a rectangular, relentless grid over a town or military camp's formation rather than conform, as did the Celts (and later the Normans as they sought to subdue the Celts) to the terrain. He also situates the Welsh within Leopold Kohr's national formulation, which proposes no more than five million as a communal ideal; Wales hovers around this maximum. Williams reminds us that, unlike Irish, the natives did not color the King's English with their inimitable twist; the Welsh could not resist the tongue we use today in the same fashion-- the media of the past millennium have ensured that a Celtic language cannot reclaim its past reach. Is, then, a successful power enthroned in Westminster and Buckingham Palace akin more to a Fortune cover story's model or a crook behind bars? Williams alludes to such a dichotomy often.

This book shows us many sites that, in a travelogue with commentary, illustrate the details of the not-quite obliterated Welsh homeland. He roams the landscape he surveys from his home in centralized Cerigidion. Two of my favorite sites: the "miraculous" Derfel Gadarn at Llandderfel which rolled its eyes and opened its arms-- as a wooden horse effigy-- when appealed to by the credulous pre-Reformation supplicant. And, the translator of the bible (which saved the language as an unintentional practicality in the process of Elizabeth's destruction of the Church--a process Williams describes well in the "dissolution of the monasteries"-- in favor of the Anglican hegemony) Dr William Morgan at his vicarage beside "the most beautiful waterfall in Wales" with its 240 feet of "lace-like cascades" at Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant.

One caveat: while Williams defends the lack of maps here for their inability to fit in long Welsh placenames or the topographic precision his text demands, for a non-native like me, this inability to conveniently check where he was at in the storyline detracted from my comprehension of much of the book. He does urge us to follow along with an Ordnance Survey map, but this may be impractical for we foreign readers. His later study, the 1985 (British) Penguin paperback "When Was Wales?" expands the history and adds the maps here in a popular account (but with many statistics and sources) about twice as long as this one I review.

I cite a representative passage of his commonsensical refusal to kow-tow. "The land doesn't always remember its past and the happiest times for ordinary people have been those which left no monuments, times when no castles or prisons were built, when there were no battlements to scar the land and enrich it with blood, when even the towns were static and the countryside largely undisturbed, when men didn't quarrel or despise or persecute each other over politics and religion." (160) Such was Wales at the start of the eighteenth century, but coal and mining changed that. So did another royal backlash against labor, insurgency, and reform. Such lessons of imperial assault against humanist stability resonate today, as with many well-phrased considerations of lessons from our past. Williams, at his best, hones his prose and his ideas in this fashion.

Not only scholar but translator of poetry, he excels at integrating verse renderings into his narrative, especially in the medieval sections which comprise a considerable portion of this book. I confess more enthusiasm for such vivid incorporations; much as I tried, the Bessemer process and smelting of ore fail to enliven my imagination in the necessary but more prosaic accounts of the later industrialization that, as he powerfully attacks, has ravaged so much of the natural beauty of his land in the service of a dying empire's war machines. Not to mention the escalating land prices that even then made unaffordable Welsh homes for the Welsh. He touches upon such subjects early on, and pulls no punches.

He shows how Wales evolved its character by adopting, in later centuries, elements of radicalism, socialism, conservativism, and liberalism as they all fit the needs of its people, victims more than beneficiaries of capitalism. Yet, he is no utopian; he appears to resent a National Trust that preserves vistas at the cost of factories. As this book was written thirty years ago, I am not sure if the influx of Asian enterprise into South Wales, or the transformation of vales into mercury-lit industrial parks (see the novels, reviewed by me all on Amazon US, of Niall Griffiths for more evocations of today's globalized and demoralized Cymry) will have assuaged Prof. Williams' slow burn for an economy that rewards Welsh initiative and enables its people to stay at home rather than emigrate.

Posted to Amazon US today. Image: As Dafydd Iwan told Sandi Thomas (see blog post Dec. 12 '07): the difference was that in Wales, the later 20c activists made their protest in their native language-- unlike most of the Irish-- and therefore solidified Celtic-speaking opposition to anglicization. Poster for a current Cymdeithas yr Iaith campaign.

P.S. Niall Griffith's Guardian list of his top 10 Welsh books:

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