Photos and video displayed today are from: the National Wool Museum, Teifi Farmhouse Cheese, Harlech Castle and Ty Newydd.
Today we were at Harlech Castle. A storyteller performed there, switching cadences from English to Welsh, encouraging her audience to echo the sounds punctuating the narrative and bringing history ringing to life across the courtyard. So I thought I would follow her example today, synthesizing some of what I remember and what I am learning. I tell the tale of two villains.
The first villain seems to me almost Count Olafian in nature… his name was James Macpherson.
He wanted to be rich, he spun wild stories and he moved from place to place, taking on different jobs, different roles to stay on top. He had secret knowledge of several subjects, just enough to make him dangerous, and some very powerful friends who were willing to back him up even when they worried about his methods. He ended up in his own castle, despite hundreds, maybe thousands of people calling him out as a trickster, fraud and liar. He liked the attention.
Our other villain took longer to develop his schemes, aging them like fine wine and testing out ideas on unsuspecting scholars. He had a few aliases too: he started his life as Edward Williams, wrote as if he was Dafydd ap Gwilym (who did exist, but Williams stole his identity) and eventually transformed himself into Iolo Morganwg. Where Macpherson was bold and could be snarly, Morganwg morphed himself into an “acceptable version” of whatever anyone thought he was. And he got away with his crimes–it wasn’t until he had been dead over a hundred years that anyone started to catch on.
Iolo asked a lot of questions about what folks knew about history, language, and Celtic traditions. He discovered the gaps in the record and started to fill them, stacking libraries with fake manuscripts he wrote himself and biding his time. He was a stone mason, a peasant, and he used that to his advantage in England, where they were all going crazy for poetry written by a “common man” by the name of Stephen Duck. As the English drank in peasant poetry, Morganwg became a barkeep of the first order.
Both villains were out for a certain kind of revenge. James grew up in the Highlands of Scotland during a time of intense warfare. English troops slaughtered fighters from the Scottish clans and, soon after, made their traditions illegal–no one could play the bagpipes, no one could wear a kilt and no one was supposed to speak Gaelic–a whole people were silenced.
Edward lived in a world where the language of his people, Welsh, had been illegal to use in public business for centuries and yet somehow the “idea” of Welsh in his own time, much like the idea of the primitive, was coming into vogue. He recognized that “the Welsh language is viewed in a light similar to that wherein the English would view the Cherokee language.”
David Hume wrote, when Macpherson went to America, that “hopefully the man would be civilized by the Cherokee.” This was not meant as a compliment to either the group of Native American men, women and children or the one Scottish man who seemed very comfortable picking fights. Old English and new British monstrous perspectives on “savage” native peoples had always applied to the Scots and the Welsh (and the Irish, but we don’t have any Irish villains in our story today) as well as all peoples in all lands they stole from.
Back to the villains, then.
Mr. Morganwg grew up speaking English, and did often write in English, but it was the study of Welsh forms, Welsh stories and Welsh figures (the bard or singer-storyteller, in particular) that inspired him to seek literary retribution.
He infiltrated the English countryside, spreading his messages of druidic mysticism and intricate poetry about Cuckoos (perhaps this had something to do with his drug addiction, I told you: these are BAD GUYS).
Macpherson stole the limelight from proper English authors and spawned an army of Celtic impersonators.
How far did they go to pursue their aims? Who did they hurt? How much of it was on purpose? Did they have accomplices? Who understood their dark and sinister purposes? Those are stories for another day.