Wednesday, March 4, 2009

John Davies' "A History of Wales": Book Review

Just over seven-hundred pages in paperback, this updated narrative spans it all, from prehistory to devolution. Its bulk belies its often remarkable readability. Translated in 1993 by the author from the 1990 Welsh-language edition, with an eleventh chapter added to the 2007 revision, Davies' coverage keeps energy and verve despite an inevitable recital of lots of names, dates, statistics, and data.

This makes it a challenge, naturally, to read straight through-- if with many breaks! Still, as a reference, my copy's filled with notations now. While the lack of footnotes or a bibliography (due to the length of the body of the text already) may discourage researchers slightly, the value of a one-volume, thorough, and accessible work remains inestimable to scholars and a wider audience both.

Davies keeps a winningly low-key presence. As a skilled interpreter, he presents heaps of evidence through which he's sifted the wheat from the chaff. The labor must have been immense. He gives you material, and then steps back to sum it up in a striking phrase now and then, as an experienced lecturer may do. "The nation of the Welsh was conceived on the death-bed of the Roman Empire; it was born in the excitement of the 'Age of Saints' but its infancy was meagre and lonely. Yet, as shall be seen, it would have an exhilarating adolescence." (77) So ends the chapter on the early medieval period-- one of the most difficult to explain based on the least evidence, but a section I found captivating.

Although Davies never explains this directly, he organizes each chapter around the rhetorical device of a triad-- commonly used in old Welsh as a memory aid for bards. While this remains rather subtle, it's a clever nod to the past legacy that sustains the present exploration of what it means to be Welsh, always defined as both the oldest British and, as the terms warp, a "foreigner" in one's own homeland. This challenge remains. The last chapter looks at incomers and how they've transformed "y Gymru Gymraeg"-- the formerly Welsh-speaking heartland. "Pont," a "bridge" program aimed at newcomers to teach them about local culture, rests on a shaky metaphor: "the essence of a bridge is that the piers on either side are of equal strength; that was hardly true of the pier of Englishness and the pier of Welshness." (689)

Speaking of architecture, many tourists today, along with the "heritage industry," romanticize old fortifications. Davies, typically, balances his judgment.
"The castles can be considered to be shameful memorials to the subjugation of the Welsh-- 'the magnificent badges of our subjection' as Thomas Pennant put it. Yet, when it is considered that the medieval military architect's science and art at the height of their development were necessary to ensure that subjection, the castles may be seen as a tribute to the tenacity of the resistance of the Welsh, as eloquent testimony to the immensity of the task of uprooting from Wales the rule of the Welsh." (167)

This exemplifies the depth of this study. Davies cites a telling phrase from a venerable scholar two hundred years previous to him. He acknowledges its truth, while circling around it for a fresh perspective that confirms its necessity while directing our attention to its opposite, or complimentary in more peaceful times, corollary. And, he strives for fair-mindedness rather than jingoism or revisionism.

For such legends and identities last long in Wales. Treating a period of tranquility within an often fractious later medieval period of increasingly English-inflicted domination, Davies notes how myths played a dual role in exacerbating wrath and reconciling defeat. Myths "were a cry against the extinction of identity and against the tyranny of fact." (180)

Later, Davies relates the gradual capitulation to imperial rule, and the often enthusiastic participation by the Welsh in the colonial enterprises at home and abroad. Imbued with Non-Conformist and even pacifist Christian tendencies, the Welsh proved rather an anomaly in more recent centuries. Their literacy rates soared as the Bible was translated into the people's native tongue, and this education prepared them better than other Celts, perhaps, to face the assaults of modernity and industrialization that kept many Welsh at home rather than forcing them to emigrate. So many that at one point about half of all the workers in Wales directly or indirectly depended on King Coal. He sums up the change: "In Merthyr, even a labourer owned a watch." (340)

The century of mining domination is introduced by a particularly masterful seventh chapter that ties together dozens of threads into a rich tapestry of rebellion, technology, language, worship, and politics in the early 1800s. While I found myself a bit glazed by the subsequent treatment of Gladstone and Liberals-- the book here as in sections closer to our times does get heavily weighed down by parliamentarian election results and inter-party contentions-- I was roused by the chapter on the early 20th century. Davies seems to revive and his pace quickens.

Radicalism and Christian values contended and co-existed in complex fashions in modern times. Conservatism influenced the nature of the language movement, as advocates sometimes argued that Cymraeg shielded its speakers from harmful foreign ideas. Others urged anglicization as a remedy for poverty and a charm for wealth. Unlike Ireland, the factions for independence by violent means were few, and generally the Welsh have accepted their position, Davies charts, within a kingdom as a principality, rather than as a polity demanding separation by language or ideology. Here, Davies seems to align with Gwyn A. Williams, whose "When Was Wales?" (1983; reviewed by me here and on Amazon US last month) sets out a similar understanding.

Of course, whereas Williams concluded in the first term of Thatcher, Davies continues the saga through the collapse of mining, the rise to nearly half (as of 2003) of all births being out of wedlock, and the increasing visibility of Welsh-language media and English-language usage. He contrasts in the last chapter many ramifications of the narrow decision to accept in 1997 a degree of limited self-rule that was trounced in 1979. He leaves us with a survey of a more diverse, less Welsh-Wales-centered constituency in this region. One where the areas nearest the borders hold most of its people, often in defiance of stereotypes peddled by the Welsh themselves, it's an intriguingly perplexing realm. It's the oldest remaining bastion of Britishness, one marginalized, determined, and always, it seems, somehow declining while reviving.

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