Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Madoc: A Legendary Prince's Mythical Power.

This is my initial post to the Madoc discussion at the Welsh-American Internet Network. It's the story of a Welsh prince (Madoc or Madog) who claimed to guide in the 1170s a band of settlers who later became absorbed into the Mandan natives, argued variously but usually around the mid-South (or the far Dakotas) among its mound-builders. This proto-colonial tale became propagandized during Elizabeth's reign to bolster British expansion and Welsh cooperation.

Talk about coincidence. The morning-- speaking of mythologizing on Inauguration Day-- after I read about this by chance, I get an invite to join. I copy this diplomatic missive for wider audience attention (such as it is on this little blog!)

I'm a newbie to this network, so I will try to tread firmly but politely. I confess quite a few years of research, for academic and personal aims, of Irish investigations but a semi-dormant concurrent interest in Welsh cultural, nationalist, and linguistic connections to Ireland. Now, I am trying to learn more about the Cymric side. Please be tolerant!

My interests also include medieval British literature and medievalism, thus my curiosity in how Celtic tales get revamped by later storytellers. Madoc's been on the back burner although I've yet to read my copy of Gwyn A. Williams' study; I am halfway through his "When Was Wales," however.

By the way, I've reviewed a couple of titles that are germane. In passing, Emyr Humphreys' "The Taliesin Tradition" brings up Madoc in the American context as a rallying point for Welsh colonization. I posted about TTT on my own blog (see link to my review on my blog URL at my profile) only ten days or so back, and on Amazon US. Humphreys accepts the power of the legend but remains skeptical. If I may say so as a medievalist, a great-grandson of a man killed for his Land League activism for the Fenians-- found drowned in London over a century ago-- and as someone aware of how we moderns make sense or nonsense out of a presumed or real Celtic past, I'd caution romanticists about taking distant rumors and inflating them into what people centuries later want to wish. That's the appeal and the danger of Celtic revivals.

While I remain sympathetic to Ken Lonewolf's claims, I am also sure that he and anybody involved in serious searching of this vexed question about Madoc wants to follow truth and not conjecture. The Mandan-Welsh similarities rumored may be a treacherous foundation, for this tenuous and often coincidental tallying up of soundalikes reminds me of British Israelites who argued that Brit="covenant" and Ish="man" in Hebrew, so voila-- British had a Hebrew origin. Linguists to my recollection deny Mandan-Cymraeg cognates; seekers of alternate paths to wisdom denied by scholars may believe otherwise. As a Celt myself, whatever that revived term means thousands of years on, I acknowledge both a tug of my soul and the restraint of my mind.

Madoc has a tangled context. Iolo Morganwg's involvement in the publicizing of John Williams' account in 1791 should be noted. He did not always rely on facts, to say the least. Madoc was told to bolster Welsh emigration, it was promoted to counter Catholic colonists and Spanish threats, and it was popularized earlier by John Dee, who coined [see blog comments for correction by Rodger Cunningham and my reply] the term "British Empire," in his support of Welsh backing and co-option of that people and that polity within Elizabethan imperialism. Madoc was used to extend royal power.

I reviewed a few years ago the Irish poet Paul Muldoon's 1990 "Madoc" book-length sequence on Amazon US-- it's as formidable, erudite, and enigmatic as his other verse, I warn you, very loosely based on Robert Southey's 1805 epic. And, just last night, with no idea about this group yet, I was browsing Meic Stephens' "The New Companion to the Literature of Wales" (2nd ed. 1998). I found its entry on "Madoc." Here's the final three sentences, after it relates Madoc's 1858 debunking by Thomas Stephens. This entry seems to strike the right balance between skepticism and possibility; I admit I was surprised by its open-minded tone.

"It was probably a legend concocted in the sixteenth century to counter Spanish claims to the New World and to stress Elizabeth I's rights as heir to the Welsh princes. Yet, bearing in mind the strong Viking connections of the rulers of Gwynedd and the fact that Viking voyages across the Atlantic are accepted as germane, the Madoc story is not wholly incredible. There is no serious navigational argument against it and references in Welsh poetry, the account of William the Minstrel and early Spanish maps can be interpreted to give it credence." (s.v. 476)

P.S. Forgive me for a first post that may repeat earlier comments, but as I happened to find this only last night, I figured I'd leap into the friendly fray. Thanks for your comments in return, and I hope I can learn from this discussion. Hwyl pob ichi.

Illustration: Note Margaret Jones' cover for Y Lolfa's publication. Gwyn Thomas has authored earlier children's books with medieval storyteller/ compiler Kevin Crossley-Holland. "The First White Americans" proves a provocative subtitle. Image from "Bad Archeology: Leave Your Common Sense Behind." Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews offers to me a fair-minded evaluation of the evidence, or its lack, as he surveys recent claims to debunk it.

I'd be eager to see how Ken Lonewolf, chief of the "Shawnee-Welsh Madoc Native Americans," responds-- given his counter-claims of DNA linking him to the historical Owain Gruffydd, alleged as Prince Madoc's grandfather. The whole tale sparked by the earnest Elizabethans concocting a "capital" myth that'd resonate two centuries later for Romantic poets and post-colonial landgrabbers within a newly independent America doggedly seeking to oust Spain's Catholics from the Louisiana Territories-- with pioneers passing along hearsay about marvelous sightings of "white Indians" speaking attenuated Welsh among their fortified mounds.


Anonymous said...

I believe it's been shown that the phrase "British Empire" was coined by Humfrey Llwyd and talked up by Dee. Rodger Cunningham

Fionnchú said...

Thanks, Rodger-- my sources may be slightly off, as I guess I was. Figures Dee'd still get the credit, that sinister mage! Following your prompt, I found that Llwyd used the term first in 1572 in his "Breviary of Britain." Which leads to the invention of Crown-friendly propaganda that ensures the Welsh get their share of the profit and credit for their role in Britannia's expansion! Once Llwyd coined the term, then, he could dig up from three centuries before the Madoc story itself to justify for post-1536 such a pre-1536 "British" Empire. His unpublished history of Wales ca. 1558 "cited" apparently Madoc; this was used by Peckham, Hakluyt, and Dee in the 1580s for their own popularizing accounts that sparked exploration.

Anonymous said...

If you're citing Gwyn Williams re that unpublished history, I'd be cautious, as in that paragraph he seems himself to be citing "Richard Deacon," who was prone to invent sources. RC