Friday, January 18, 2008

D. J. Williams' Poetic Justice & The Prince of Wales

Menna Gallie's "Strike for a Kingdom" gained my attention in the last blog post here; I noted how one of the main characters, "Davy" or D.J. Williams in her novel's characterized as a poet and magistrate. I also called him "real-life" in my review. Looking up information about him in Meic Stephens' magisterial "New Companion to the Literature of Wales" I found that D.J. never published poetry, nor was he a magistrate. So, given Gallie's poetic justice, so to speak (I like my pun!), who was the "real-life" Williams?

A writer, but not a poet; nationalist studies, short stories, and a memoir about his celebrated "square mile" of Rhydcymerau in Carmarthenshire. 1885-1970. Apparently a shrewd portrayer of character, a trait Gallie shares, as well as a love of animals, especially horses. Down the mines at sixteen in the Rhondda. Four years later, school led him to degrees in English at Aberystwyth and Oxford. (Jesus College, of course.) Turns out my vague hunch that he was a nationalist activist certainly's proven. Like Gallie's Davy, D.J's hauled before the Majesty of the Law, or His Majesty's.

Williams was one of three charged with the Tân yn Llŷn (Fire in Llŷn). A Penyberth cabin historically linked to poets for centuries had been demolished. In its place, the RAF erected sheds for a training camp. These were bombed in 1936-- the delayed spark that would ignite a later generation of Welsh radicals in the 1960s and 70s. Nine months in Wormwood Scrubs after an English jury convicted the trio following a Welsh-speaking jury's acquital in Caernarfon before a judge who knew no Welsh. He ordered another trial. After protests at that assizes, the proceedings were moved to London. At the Old Bailey, Stephens reports: "D.J. Williams alone was allowed to speak in Welsh in court as it could not be proved that he was able to speak English." (581) I must find out more: this despite his two degrees? D.J. was one of the founders of Plaid Cymru in 1925, so definitely Gallie's story, taking place the following year with no mention of the party's establishment let alone D.J.'s role on the national scene, takes liberties with the real man. Nothing wrong with that, but now the divergence of biography from tribute I better understand.

Stephen Knight, the same scholar who I read so avidly in my grad school pursuit of medieval literature, and who since then has delved into areas as diverse as Freemasonry, Robin Hood, crime fiction, and Anglo-Welsh writings, notes in his "A Hundred Years of Fiction: Writing Wales in English" that Gallie based Williams on her own uncle "W.R." but changed the initials as an homage to this patriot, once a collier himself. Knight rightly regards D.J, as the novel's "consistent focus" (as the story features an ensemble cast rather than one protagonist) and suggests a reason for the title. Like D.J., Gallie merges almost too well the cadences her native language (in which throughout the plot D.J.'s been laboring to craft in his mind a poem) with the industrial culture for which the miners have been struggling, being out of work over half a year along with much of Britain. Although the novel's in English except for a phrase or two, and only consistently in a few lines of stark poetry uttered by a dying woman, the rhythms hint at Welsh-- in which P.C. Glyndwr Thomas must reluctantly (if reported to us only in English) negotiate during a verbal standoff with the splendidly rendered, utterly recalcitrant woman farmer Peci-- and this dual identity surfaces in the tensions of the Cilhendre community.

Knight suggests: "Gallie, often more subtle than she chose to seem, may well be thinking of a coherent Welsh nation-- its own kingdom-- that was significantly greater, and more independent, than the principality to which it had under colonial power been reduced." (130) This in turn needs explanation for foreign readers like myself. Last weekend, reviewing here Peter Sager's excellent "Pallas Wales" guidebook, I mentioned that Sager finally summarized why there's a Prince of Wales.

Prophecies have a long life. Merlin claimed a Welsh prince would be crowned in London. After Llewelyn the Last in 1282** was killed at Cilmeri, he was decapitated, and his head spitted and carried through London. Such was the victory march, the severed head, the totem so potent in Celtic lore, hoisted high on a spear, topped with an ivy wreath. Such the cynicism of the English in their defeat of the Welsh.

Edward I foreshadowed later Lancastrian and Tudor claims by the English that they inherited through an admixture of Welsh blood a justification of this inheritance. They may have been ironic in their procession, but continued to be wary of the Welsh resistance. Symbols certainly persist on both sides in folk memory.

Cilmeri, site of Welsh activists for whom such defeats did not eradicate hopes even today, possesses its own aura. So too does the figure of Owain Glyndŵr. Yet doubtless many of his Border March rebels like himself-- nearly by default-- had Norman ancestors. In such situations, the Anglo-Norman-Saxons needed psy-ops and their version of photo-ops to win over the restive populace.

Sager sums up the strategy by King Edward. "He had conquered Wales, and so as well as taking over the land, he took over the title of a native ruler. From now on, there could be no Welsh pretender to the throne, for Wales was a 'Principality' to be inherited by the legitimate heir to the English throne. It was a classic example of how power can authorize itself. An old right had been destroyed, and a new one took its place. This constitutional injustice inaugurated the long line of Princes of Wales." Sager adds that while the emblematic ostrich feathers (and as a German he gives us the background on the "ich dien" motto and odd symbol relating to King John of Bohemia) and title may be taken for granted, they represent lasting humiliation for at least a few Welsh-- and I might add those of us Celtically aligned with republican grudges, sympathies, or ideals. He reminds us of the end of Prince Llewelyn; his brother Dafydd III soon after** met a grim end at Shrewsbury: hung, drawn, and quartered.

Supposedly, Edward I presented his first-born son to the natives soon after their subjugation. "I give you a prince born in Wales who could speak never a word of English," Sager tells us, "followed by the ominous 'eich dyn'-- your man." (405) He narrates how this supposed corruption became 'ich dien" before recounting the transfer of the motto to the Black Prince, son of Edward III, from the fallen Bohemian who fought with the French against the again victorious English at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. He picked up King John's headband of three feathers, put it on, and used the Teutonic "I serve" as the slogan for the usurping Prince of Wales. (I recall Dafydd Iwan's song "Carlo Windsor" also noted by Sager-- that first name popular among the Welsh as a sheepdog's moniker.)

Sager concludes: "This is the real background to the investiture-- not the picturesque ruins of Caernarfon Castle." (406) It was not the Celts who built the crenellations and portcullises that tower still over so many of their lands, most of which still in thrall to the Crown. Heraldry coupled to the Lion the Scottish Unicorn upon their royal 1707 Union. The two beasts hoist a shield quartered with a harp for the Irish and a dragon for the Welsh. No dragon rears rampant as a third mascot to support the British Coat of Arms. This reminds us that England incorporates rather than unites with Wales. Wikipedia tells us that it "was never a separate kingdom." Over the 'constituency' of "England and Wales" ethnocentric assertion reifies itself as the law.

P.S. I still like Twining's black-labelled "Prince of Wales" tea blend, however, speaking of other colonial and cultural connections for British, Celts, and millions more of us gratefully oppressed under the Gold Standard. Penyberth & Cilmeri vs. Caernarfon Castle: symbols still.

Image credit: Unlike the Chicago 7, with Welshman Sasha Baron Cohen starring as star-spangled Abbie Hoffman, they may never get the acclaim of a Spielberg movie, but here's in sepia The Penyberth Three: Baptist minister Lewis Valentine, Plaid Cymru's president Saunders Lewis (more about him to come), and D.J. Williams, one-time schoolteacher until retirement in 1945 at Fishguard-- the first, and so far given my single weekend mad-dash motorway-majority visit to Wales only nearly thirty years ago, place I heard Welsh as she is spoken. Although I must learn a few sly phrases to teach my wife so she can berate her domineering Cymraes who thunders at her-- in Saesnag-- during her Griffith (Welsh name again) Park workouts toting that medicine ball uphill past gaping coyotes at dawn's early light.

P.P.S. I had mixed up chronology with the Statute of Rhuddlan, 1284. Thanks for the correction by GR Grove who told me the date I had listed of 1284 for Llewelyn's death was incorrect, and that Dafydd died the following year. More about this in a follow-up blog post.

1 comment:

G R Grove said...

Minor detail - Llyelyn ap Gruffudd was killed in 1282, not 1284, and his brother Dafydd was executed the following year.

Interesting blog - I will have to come back!