Cymru Collage: Heroes

I was told on the first night here that the door in the wall (above) was a portal that could transport people through time…warned, I should say, as I tried to use it to get around the table to the spaghetti on the other side. I have since gone through numerous times and I am still here.

Anyhoo.

It’s amazing how many cultures are dying out. Many have been dying out for centuries. Ethnographers (culture collectors) race against this dubious clock to gather stories, folkways, recipes, sheet music and artifacts. They create visual reminders, with sketches or photographs, of hidden and forgotten tribes. I think many seek a cultural purity that has never existed anywhere, a sense of in-group and out-group that has so many impossible layers and shifts it would be like trying to capture the after-effects of an earthquake while the tremors still shook.

Ifor ap Glyn hints at this in his poem The Underground Map. Here’s the hint, although you should really check out the whole poem:

Here as a child/I learnt the creation myth,/The folk wisdom of the suburbs;

Whence came the mushrooming/Of crescents, avenues, and views;/Whence came

the great swallowing of land…/And here as a child/I learnt the rituals of the tribe

By watching the elders/on the platforms of the Met./As they narrow-folded their broadsheets

And hunted their seats…

And here as a child/I also have leave to wander/Blue as Piccadilly/And grey as Jubilee

So I could weave my own hero-tales.

In the eighteenth century, this practice was only just taking off in the Scottish Highlands. Networks of ballad collectors, mostly religious men, searched for manuscripts and created written records of old songs and stories. These works of art made many Highlanders think of their childhoods, while readers from Edinburgh and London who purchased broadside ballads were clutching at an abandoned promise: “we will learn, grow and change as a community around the fire, not as a collection of individuals trying on identities with clothing and retiring at night in confusion behind closed doors.”

Since I was talking about the show the other day with Justin and since the poetry fits…this is from ABBA’s Chess, “she is eternal, long before nations’ lines were drawn. When no flag flew, when no armies stood, my land was born. And you ask me why I love her, through wars, death and despair–she is the constant, we who don’t care. And you wonder, “would I leave her,” but how? I cross over borders, but I’m still there now.

Another way to bring tradition to the masses involved rescuing proto-slam poetry contests from pubs and parlors, where they had been just among poets writing (competitively) in traditional styles. National poetry competitions begun in the twelfth century were now being re-enacted in Wales and in London for growing audiences hungry for old ways and old sounds, experienced live.

Very few would have known to go looking in the Scottish Highlands and few would have bought in so thoroughly to the world of ancient Celtic glory without our first hero–a man who did, in fact, tour through the Scottish Highlands, who was trained and supported by the Edinburgh literati, and who could stand up to London’s greatest literary lion. Enter James Macpherson.

Rich people were very snide about the vogue for poetry from the wrong side of the tracks, insisting this was causing artists to seek poverty. But they couldn’t deny the cool-factor of Welsh traditions in London’s first Gorsedd, full of druidic ritual, and over the years the celebration became linked with the central bardic/cultural expression of utter Welshness–the Eisteddfod. Our second hero did that, and his legacy continues to this day. Enter Iolo Morganwg.

When they encountered the door in the wall, they saw an opportunity to step onto the world stage.

Zoe and Ryan, this castle was in ruins and you could climb all through it. I think you would have loved to play here and I would have been terrified that you were going to fall off the side. The chair in the picture at the top is like one of the major prizes of the Eisteddfod–you could win a crown or a chair–which would you prefer, do you think?

What they championed was a fact in common: these cultures were not dead. Who they defended were their countrymen, amidst a world of English naysayers whose plays, songs, rhetoric, cartoons and daily conversation depicted the Welsh and Scottish as barbarians, rubes, sots, animals. What they did was take control of the portals, the liminal spaces: no easy feat. They saw the standing stones and pushed them into the future.

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