Four Ancient Books
Medieval Welsh bards had a taste for the theatrical. Like many men of high standing they had an appreciation of the power of drama. In the 12th century, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr composed a poem blessing the Lord Rhys’ court gates, probably declaimed in a pounding voice as the old bard swished into the hall followed by a proud troop of young apprentices. In the praise poetry of many a medieval Welsh bard there is the same sense of occasion, of grandeur and majesty.
Court bards such as Cynddelw would have worked hard not only to evoke the traditional authority of their ancient guild, but also to conjure a particular mystique. They would have refined the ability to create a sense of dignity, of continued tradition and ancient power. To this end, their poetry was laden with references to the works of esteemed past masters such as Taliesin and Aneirin. In a theatrical sense they were creating a dramatic persona based on the legendary figures of these long dead bardic forefathers, attempting to embody the archetypal wiseman.
But it wasn’t just the myth of the ancient bard that Cynddelw and his fellow poets were trying to evoke. It’s a little known fact that 12th century Welsh court bards also publicly portrayed themselves as derwyddon, as druids. Cynddelw could have actually traced his bardic lineage through Taliesin back to the ancient priest class of the earlier Britons, but that actual historical lineage wasn’t as important as the idea of it. Just as Cynddelw would have conjured the mystique of his bardic ancestors in performance, so he also conjured the basic notion of an ancient priest class of which he was the current embodiment.
In many ways this testifies to the central realisation of medieval Welsh bardic culture: the idea of the past is far more powerful than it’s historical reality. Time and again in prose tales and bardic poetry, the idea of an Arthur or a Taliesin is far more potent than the historical figures themselves.In much the same way, to a medieval Welsh bard such as Cynddelw, the idea of a druid was of more immediate value than any actual historical connection. Publicly claiming membership of an ancient order of wisemen has always had its perks.
What’s becoming clearer today is the long-term effect of bards such as Cynddelw mythologising themselves, through the theatre of court ceremony turning themselves into symbolic figures that represented profound wisdom and magical enlightenment. The myth of the archetypal wiseman promoted by the Welsh bardic guilds long outlived the bards themselves. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth borrowed the Welsh Myrddin to create the now internationally famous Merlin, many people have been captivated by this same mythology.
Time and again in subsequent centuries, both Welsh and English antiquarians found themselves enchanted by the same ethereal figure of the priest-poet so elegantly conjured in medieval Welsh poetry. The romantic figure of the ancient bard, harp in hand, beard blowing in the wind, became one of the most enduring caricatures of 18th and 19th century British culture.
So successful was Taliesin, Aneirin and their descendants at mythologising themselves that the shadows they cast down the halls of history were felt by generations centuries later, amongst them generations of English men and women who couldn’t even speak the Welsh tongue. The Welsh bardic tradition was fascinating because of the effect of antiquity it conjured, not necessarily because of its historical lineage back to the druids. That, in essence, was the glamour the Welsh bards so successfully cast upon British culture, and it’s effects can still be felt to this day.
The 18th and 19th century obsession with all things druidical was on occasion fed by translations of medieval Welsh bardic poetry, more often than not presented as ‘the real’ mystic knowledge of the ancient druids. One Welsh antiquarian of the 19th century who took the opportunity to make such grandiose claims was the Rev. Edward Davies in his Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809). Half a century later, the scholar W.F. Skene said of his work “It would probably be difficult to find a stranger specimen of perverted ingenuity and misplaced learning than is contained in [Davies’] work . . .” It wasn’t so much the standard of translation that provoked the ire of academics, but the fantastical theories put forward about the poems themselves.
That’s not to say that there is nothing at all of interest in these old texts regarding the beliefs and philosophies of the medieval bardic guilds, nor how such things may relate to the earlier culture of the Druids. Ironically, some of the poems badly mangled by early translators such as the Rev. Edward Davies have in recent years been re-edited, the new editions providing hints and clues of the actual mysticism of the Welsh bardic tradition. The magic they practiced was, perhaps unsurprisingly, akin to the sacred theatre of the Greeks and all other such cultures that find power and transformation in public performance. In many ways, their greatest secret was the practice of mythology, the conscious use of myth and symbol to project their ideals onto present and future generations. The enduring figure of the Welsh wiseman, most popularly seen these days in the fictional characters of Merlin and Taliesin, is proof enough of their mastery of that craft.
In the early days of Celtic studies, much confusion was created by early translators being unaware of the theatrical aspect of bardic culture, of how intentionally the bards controlled and projected their chosen mythology. As a result, many succumbed to the glamour of bardic mystique, and were thereby blinded to how skilfully that mystique had been conjured. Captivated by the magic trick, they failed to appreciate the skilful slight of hand. Thankfully, the resulting tangle of assumption, fact and fantasy slowly began to unravel in the 20th century. John Morris-Jones arrived on the scene to prune back some of the more wacky branches that had grown on the tree of understanding. And that pruning was essential, because without it, we would still be looking for the wood in the trees.
One of the majour stepping stones towards dispelling the glamour of the medieval bards was the publication of The Four Ancient Books of Wales by W.F. Skene in 1868 (in fact a significant portion of the translating work was carried out by D. Silvan Evans, with Skene taking responsibility for the final publication). Although by now considered too unreliable as a text for study, it was one of the more important attempts to clear away the brush and take an objective look at the texts. The countless errors that Skene and Silvan Evans’ translation contains can mostly be put down to the immaturity of the academic tradition they worked in, not necessarily a lack of diligence. The lack of decent reference works may have hindered them, but The Four Ancient Books opened the way for later scholars, Ifor Williams chief amongst them, to present editions that have so far stood the test of time.