This is the first of a series of posts looking at the ambitious book Welsh Gothic by Jane Aaron. If you’ve not heard of Welsh Gothic fiction, start here!
From the University of Wales Press [UWP] description: Welsh Gothic, the first study of its kind, introduces readers to the array of Welsh Gothic literature published from 1780 to the present day. Informed by postcolonial and psychoanalytic theory, it argues that many of the fears encoded in Welsh Gothic writing are specific to the history of Welsh people, telling us much about the changing ways in which Welsh people have historically seen themselves and been perceived by others. The first part of the book explores Welsh Gothic writing from its beginnings in the last decades of the eighteenth century to 1997. The second part focuses on figures specific to the Welsh Gothic genre who enter literature from folk lore and local superstition, such as the sin-eater, cŵn Annwn (hounds of the Underworld), dark druids and Welsh witches.
Prologue: ‘A Long Terror’
PART I: HAUNTED BY HISTORY
1. Cambria Gothica (1780s–1820s)
2. An Underworld of One’s Own (1830s–1900s)
3. Haunted Communities (1900s–1940s)
4. Land of the Living Dead (1940s–1997)
PART II: ‘THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE CELTIC TWILIGHT’
5. Witches, Druids and the Hounds of Annwn
6. The Sin-eater
Epilogue: Post-devolution Gothic
You can buy it, and others in the Gothic Literary Studies series, from the University of Wales Press: https://www.uwp.co.uk/book/welsh-gothic-ebook-pdf/
Context of the ‘Long Terror’
The context, for those unfamiliar with Welsh history, is laid out in the Prologue ‘A Long Terror’, which takes its title from a [translated] line from Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch‘s thirteenth-century ‘Lament for Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the Last Prince’.
‘A long terror is on me’, grieved the bard, following Llewelyn’s death in 1282 and Edward I’s conquest of Wales.
The prince’s death shatters the poet’s world, his fall marking the end of the Welsh struggle for independent rule. Edward I’s conquest was more or less complete by 1284.
Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch laments the loss of safety and the destruction of his world:
Nid oes le y cyrcher rhag carchar braw; | There is no refuge from imprisoning fear
Nid oes le y triger; och o’r trigaw! | And nowhere to abide; O such abiding!
A version can be found here.
This poem is part of a lament tradition that goes back several centuries. Early Welsh poetry in particular is what Jane Aaron describes as ‘a litany of such terrors’, and it is not a coincidence that these texts were rediscovered, translated into English, and published at a time when Gothic Fiction was a popular mainstream literary form. This was part of a parallel cultural movement of the 18th and 19th centuries that tried to reclaim a sense of Welsh cultural identity in the face of active Anglocentric suppression.
Other poems include the anonymous ninth-century saga poem, fragmented, about the sacking of Cynddylan’s Hall, Pengwern (Shrewsbury). The following extract is from part of the saga of Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan, and her lament picks up after the English/Saxons sack and destroy Pengwern:
Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight,
With no fire, no bed.
I weep awhile, than am silent.
Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight
With no fire, no candle.
Save for God, who’ll keep me sane?
(‘Cynddylan’s Hall’, from Tony Conran’s translation in his Welsh Verse).
The following part of this saga evokes the Eagle of Eli (sea-eagles of the river, possibly the river Meheli [Eli is a contraction of the river’s name], suggested by Conrad), concerning the birds who feast on the flesh of the fallen:
Eagle of Eli, loud was its cry tonight –
Had drunk of a pool of blood,
The heart’s blood of Cynddylan Wyn.
Eagle of Eli, it cried out tonight,
It swam in men’s blood.
There in the trees! And I’ve misery on me.
Eagle of Eli, I hear it tonight.
Bloodstained it is. I dare not go near it –
There in the trees! I’ve misery on me.
(Tony Conrad’s translation in his Welsh Verse)
There are other such examples – but these serve to demonstrate how the ‘Celtic revival’ found ample texts that resonated deeply. While Welsh novelists presented Welsh protagonists as ‘vulnerable innocents’ morally threatened by invading English gentry or enforced (sometimes exilic) residence in London, also known as ‘the devil’s parlour’. (Jane Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 5).
For more on the Welsh cultural renaissance and its champions in the 18th and 19thCs, you could look at:
Iolo Morgannwg (1747-1826)
The Rise of [Welsh] National Consciousness (BBC History)
Conversely, Welsh locations were used as settings in ‘first contact’ Gothic novels, of (English) travellers who found themselves ‘startled and sometimes alienated’ by the Welsh landscapes, castles and ruins. The Welsh language was equally alienating to these English-speakers, and by its very nature echoed what was to their mind an older, more primitive and less civilised, world. The speakers of this indigenous tongue populating this striking landscape were therefore themselves more primitive, less civilised, and altogether more barbarous than the inhabitants of England, but language was only one of several alienating factors. Religious habit was another, with English Anglicanism butting against Welsh nonconformist (‘free church’) chapel culture.
As preachers and deacons tightened their control over their congregations in the face of Anglican criticism and attack, and the persecution of revivals, so their grip became a stranglehold from which some sought to extricate themselves – with difficulty. In Welsh Gothic literature, Dissent is often demonized for this reason.
Political messages and anti-industrial views also come through in early twentieth-century texts, covered in the chapter on Haunted Communities (Chapter 3). The coal industry dominated South Wales, and communities were ‘haunted’ by the spectre of ever-present death, the lack of choice of career and destiny, and the sense that these mining communities were doomed, sacrificed to the needs of Westminster and the British Empire, saw the pits and the industry represented as demonic powers, draining the life from the workers and their families.
I come from a family of several generations of miners. I worked underground as a collier for the best part of thirty years, though you may have gathered by some of my comments that I hold no feelings of regret for the passing of the coal-mining era.
Some ill-informed people might say that South Wales was blessed with an abundance of rich coal seams. But it’s my belief that an industry that caused so much destruction of a once beautiful environment and cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children can hardly be called a blessing. It is my opinion that South Wales and the vast majority of its people were in fact cursed with an abundance of rich coal seams. – paul-neath, website owner of the Welsh Coal Mines website.
There is also a sense in the later twentieth-century texts that the Welsh people should heed their folklore and their heritage, or risk being haunted by the spirits of their forefathers. Post-devolution, argues Aaron, some political wounds were healed, so that the dead princes of the medieval period rarely haunt these later stories. In these later works, Gothic tropes are played with more humorously, intentionally evoking laughter rather than horror. (Although my own book is not set in Wales, I tend to do this too, so I’m glad I fit within a recognised strain of writing!)
Aaron ends her prologue with a brief explanation regarding the lack of previous critical recognition for Welsh Gothic as a sub-genre of Gothic Fiction. According to the 1998 Handbook to Gothic Literature, Wales has contributed ‘virtually nothing’ to world Gothic literature, and Welsh Gothic doesn’t appear at all in the 2002 Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. ‘Scottish and Irish Gothic’ are included, but lumped together in their own chapter. The 2002 Companion does include Arthur Machen (the pen-name for Arthur Llywellyn Jones, most famous for his novella The Great God Pan), but identifies him as ‘British’, erasing his Welshness.
Yet, despite this lack of critical recognition, Aaron notes that there is a rich haul of literary materials (much of which is in English) that could be categorized as Welsh Gothic. The purpose of her book is to demonstrate this fact, and to show that Welsh Gothic writing not only exists in abundance but also has much to tell us about ‘the changing ways in which Welsh people have historically seen themselves and been perceived by others’ (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 9).
I’ll be reading through this book for fun and interest this month, and will probably drop some links and reading lists in later posts here for those who’d like to read some Welsh Gothic tales, or learn more about it!
You can also read a full review of the book here, by Prof. Jamil Mustafa, Lewis University.
You can also check out my other posts on Gothic Fiction:
Some posts for further reading on the suppression of Welsh language and culture:
The Treachery of the Blue Books (1847) (National Library of Wales)
The Treason of the Blue Books (1847) (BBC Blogs)
The Welsh Not (Wikipedia)
Welsh Coal Mines (poems, memorials, list of disasters, and more)
People’s Collection Wales (a Welsh Government site set up in partnership with the National Library of Wales, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and the National Museum of Wales, enabling organisations, institutions, clubs, communities, charities and private individuals – literally anyone – to upload pictures, audio files, text and video relating to Welsh history or their own communities or families so that things can be shared rather than lost).