Today, we have far more accurate editions of old Welsh poetry and prose than ever, largely due to the growth of Welsh language university departments, sometimes with whole teams of post-graduate editors and researchers devoted to editing and understanding medieval texts. Even greats such as Dafydd ap Gwilym have found themselves caught up in the flurry of new editions repackaging masterpieces of medieval European literature for new audiences. Only a hundred years ago – a relatively short period in the history of some of our older texts – many of these Welsh classics were only available in confused English translations. In comparison we are living in a time of plenty when it comes to the availability of reliable editions of old Welsh literature.
But we have so much text available to us now, and so much still being edited and re-edited, I believe an aspect of critical interpretation has been somewhat left behind, specifically assessing the Celtic and pre-Celtic roots of medieval Welsh literature. This is for many reasons, the main one perhaps being that there is more money in turning out hard copies of texts than there is in talking about them. The general tendency has been to view interpretation as a byproduct of editing, not the primary focus. University departments today will always make research decisions based on funding. Over time this financial conditioning of research tends to neglect types of scholarship that are in any way experimental, risky or adventurous.
Coupled with that is the reticence about mentioning anything to mystical sounding or druidic. Druidic in this sense is a catchall term that refers to several strands of culture, some historic, some pertaining to the present. Historically, there have been occasions when the Welsh have gotten themselves a bit drunk on their own myth-making; a dangerous habit, but we have been indulging in it for millennia so it comes quite easily to us. On one particular occasion, towards the end of the second half of the 18th century, the debauched mead-feast was lead by the then master of ceremonies, Iolo Morgannwg (who had a habit of mixing his myth-making with opiates). Iolo was in fact a talented scholar and poet, but he found his real calling in re-dreaming the mythic past of the Welsh nation. He fabricated tenuous links between the ancient British druids and the Welsh bards of his present day, the consequence of which was the forming of a bardic guild dressed up as a mystery school. In his wake came many druid enthusiasts primed by antiquarianism, desperate for any justification to get up in their splendid ceremonial outfits.
Iolo provided them with that justification, thereby giving us the modern druid order of Wales, or Gorsedd y Beirdd, and their outfits were so fetching that the English got a bit jealous and appropriated the look for their own version of neo-druidry, the heirs of which we see today in venerable organisations such as OBOD. The main success of such organisations has been in turning the older English antiquarianism into a relatively popular modern-day spiritual movement.
Regardless of his trustworthiness as a scholar, Iolo was a great visionary and a truly inspired nationalist. His ceremonial interpretation of Welsh mythology gave his nation a durable vessel that has sustained our public culture from decade to decade: proof enough of his genius, no matter how peculiarly it was expressed.
But the snake-oil peddling fakery of some of his antics has left latter scholars with a bit of a problem when it comes to actually following through on his main claim: that there is an historical connection between medieval bardic culture and the earlier druidic culture of the Iron Age. In other words, for all the pomp and ceremony that the Gorsedd provides, not many people involved in modern Welsh academia can actually take the idea of druidry seriously, at least in public, never mind speculating about its history or its philosophy, or how druidry may have persisted in the professional bardic orders of medieval Wales.
If we consider that much of the fabricated evidence that Iolo presented was swallowed hook, line and sinker by many renowned scholars for almost a century, its not difficult to understand the over-cautious attitude that modern Welsh academics tend to take. New professors usually get the job when they have proven they can appear relevant while not being too controversial within their fields (the proverbial ‘safe pair of hands’). Putting on the donkey ears of druidry doesn’t make for an appealing professorial candidate. Further to that, no one wants to earn a reputation that could haunt them well beyond the end of their careers. A debunked theory doesn’t make for a great epitaph to ones life work. It’s far easier to just keep your head down and keep pumping out non-controversial research. With Iolo clanking his chains in the background, Welsh academics understand better than most the power of memory and the durable nature of the written word.
This is not to say that there is no discussion at all of the historical connection between druids and later bards, but interpretation of the key texts is usually given by linguists, not by anthropologists or mythologists. This is of course a key part of the work, and it’s essential that editors try to provide the reader with a little clarity, not only offering explanations for archaic words and common-sense corrections for miss-copied or damaged text, but providing contextual information to help elucidate meaning. But what is needed is a much broader, much more eclectic comparative study the takes the genuinely interesting medieval Welsh material and considers it from the perspective of anthropology and mythology. The material is all there, expertly presented in an abundance of new editions, we need only learn to read beyond the text.
2 thoughts on “Iolo Morganwg and Welsh mythology.”
Interesting to speculate whether the caution you speak of is especially true of Celtic Studies scholars, because of Iolo, or whether it is a characteristic of scholars more generally.
Certainly there seems to be a disinclination to make much of links to ancient druidry, or even mythology, in approaches that now seem more interesting in the medieval context for the surviving material and traditions rather than speculation about its origins.
I think it is a general academic tendency, just a bit more pronounced because of Iolo. And maybe my expectations of Welsh academia are a bit too high. In such a small community there’s naturally less scope for diversity. Maybe i should be in Berkley CA.