Sunday, January 11, 2009

Emyr Humphreys' "The Taliesin Tradition": Book Review

My wife asked me if this was about Frank Lloyd Wright. Well, it is and isn't. Humphreys, a long-time (b. 1919) novelist and director, certainly brings the Welsh American experience provocatively if briefly into this chronological survey of "the secret of creative survival" inherited from the early medieval bard, that combines durability with flexibility, mythological resonance with iconoclastic resistance. It's a bracing study, one that does for long stretches wander into scenic if sometimes faraway byways, before in its last dozen pages it comes roaring back with impassioned, thoughtful, and moving reminders of why Welsh identity remains defiant.

I use the third edition, 2000. I recommend this for its afterword (1989) and postscript (2000): these short additions bring the context closer to Wales today, moving towards a small degree of autonomy after Thatcherite abuse and Labour arrogance. The continuity of Celtic tradition may be a slim line upon which to thread so many displays of Welsh literary defiance and definition, but Humphreys' prose energizes and for its short length it's a densely argued, erudite study.

He intrigues by comparing Iolo Morgannwg to John Dee, Unitarians to Marxists, chapel dissenters needing constant revival to Lloyd George's shape-shifting. He links the demythologizing of Madoc to the desperation of Welsh-language speakers within the context of Darwin and scientific revolution. He contrasts the appeal of Chartists in England to their demand that Welsh surrender their identity for entry into the middle-class worlds of education and assimilation.

He compares Matthew Arnold's Celticism to a concoction from Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll: "Take a victim or a patient and extract from him the vital juices that would cost him his life but which could be used to revive the spirit of an ailing giant with an elixir of life which Arnold labelled 'Celtic Magic'." (179) Such verve surfaces here and there in this narrative, and captures the flavor of Humphries' best prose. Transformation, for preservation or destruction, persists for the 1500 years of this tale.

The language itself earlier on, faced with Westminster's power and cultural doom, "was tucked into a corner of the Tudor baggage train, like a cooking pot, along with the crumbling effigies of Arthur, Merlin, Taliesin and Madoc. They could be cast aside when they had outlived their usefulness; the language was not so easily disposed of. A well-made cooking pot, if preserved for a sufficient length of time, could become a cauldron of rebirth." (46) Humphreys traces the fortunes of the cauldron, Cymraeg, the Welsh speakers who rallied against political and theological change with their own territorial and spiritual autonomy. The poets, and the preachers and politicians whose guises bards later assumed, sustained the battle against conformity, and the voices of dissent.

Dispossessed of land and relegated to marginality, some Welsh refuse to turn into caretakers of a theme park. Humphries in 1983 enters the disorientation felt by many in Wales. Lacking their own language, losing their way of life, they lose their history and tradition. "At the most simple level it is they alone who offer the clues and keys to the meaning and the magic of a landscape in which a man must live and work."
The Taliesin Tradition's generated and perpetuated "so large a body of myth," but for Humphreys this translates into "a living poetic tradition." (227) Not only consolation for the defeated, myth-making carries potency as a "weapon in the struggle for survival." (228) It offers a young person a way out of the labyrinth by "clutching more tightly to the thread which connects him to a an honourable past"; it revives dignity and prepares one to embrace, as with heroes of old, one's destiny.

Heady stuff, but Saunders Lewis, in his protests and eloquence (Humphreys wrote equally well of his mentor in an essay for "Presenting Saunders Lewis"; he learned Welsh after Lewis' fiery protest at Penyberth in 1936) models one solution against those superstructures which coddle us within the uncreative slumber of indifference. Instead of being roused only for profit or by manipulation, Welsh myth and history remind its people of sacrifice and demand survival. "They both exist primarily in order to convince a beleaguered remnant that they are a fragment of humanity scheduled, in spite of everything, for ultimate preservation." (229) The tradition offers "a whole range of alternative heroes who have not lost the gift of shape-shifting inside the confines of the tribal language." (230) Cut off from international acclaim, within marches and protests, artists and activists-- such as Lewis-- devote themselves to making the creative also confrontational.

By 1989, Humphreys' afterword warns of annihilation from nukes or assimilation by England. Emancipation politically must also take form spiritually. "For a naked people in the acid rain they offer a coat of many colours and a cleaner air," he says of protesters who suffered prison for their opposition to anglicisation. (236) It is difficult to imagine such an image, of ecology joining economics, language merging with the land, being made even in Ireland, for instance, at this time by a radical populist. Wales carries an advantage of a language preserved within a faith; although that faith may now be as vitiated as in much of the capitalist realm; the Crown's compromise that linked their reformer's bible to an ancient vernacular managed to meld Welsh cultural advocacy into a blend of belief and non-violence that distinguishes it from many other activist movements in the secular West.

Humphreys opens his account: "It is always the past rather than the present that offers the best hope for the future." (4) He concludes the 2000 edition with an prescient image. "Separate societies cease to exist and individuals take on the characteristics of tiny light bulbs respoding gratefully to an omnipotent planetary electric circuit." (237) Against technological imposition, who cares about Welsh concerns? Again, the answer comes via Lewis' example. "A tradition remains of enduring value when it preserves the ability of words to possess the power of meaning more than they say." (238) Humphreys and Lewis take seriously their legacy or Welsh verbal power. They employ language as a weapon as they deploy the spells of earlier bards.

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