Gothic Fiction, Uncategorized

Welsh Gothic Tropes III: The Druid


CW// incest and infant death discussed in one short story.

The Druid has had a negative press, or, to quote Aaron, ‘enjoyed a demonic reputation’, since Julius Caesar’s account in De Bello Gallico (c.58-49 BC). Caesar claimed that Druids officiated at human sacrifices and mentions the infamous ‘wicker man’, powerfully re-imagined by Folk Horror cinema in 1973’s cult classic, The Wicker Man (the novel followed hot on the heels of its success in 1978, co-written by the film’s director and scriptwriter, Robin Hardy and Andrew Shaffer, but the 1973 film itself was inspired loosely by the 1967 novel Ritual, set in Cornwall, by actor and novelist David Pinner). 

As a figure in Welsh Gothic fiction, Druids are anachronistic in most of the historical novels in which they appear, particularly Medieval settings, but not to worry. Druids and Druidic practices were revived for new generations, and there are modern practitioners of Druidism.

Ronald Hutton’s book, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids of Britain (2011) is a good, accessible study of how Druids and Druidism have been re-imagined, reinvented and reinterpreted across the centuries, with so little evidence left after the Romans crushed them in the 1stC AD. Hutton explores the evolution of Welsh, Scottish and English attitudes to Druids, focusing particularly on the Romantic period when they dominated visions of Britain’s “Celtic” past.

I don’t actually have any Druids in Pagham-on-Sea [yet], and none are mentioned in The Crows. I do hint at the pre-Christian past of the town, though: Barrow Field has some 5000-year-old burial chambers (long barrows) where, it’s hinted, entities from another dimension may have first been in touch with this world.

Druids in Welsh Gothic Fiction

The Hermit of Snowden (1789), by Eliza Ryves (1750-97), an Irish poet and novelist, features two antiquarians travelling to Wales to look at ‘monuments of Druidical superstition’ and see if ‘the peasants’ of Wales retained Druidic customs and superstitions. Since by 1789 most Welsh villages were swiftly turning Calvinistic Methodist/Presbyterian, this would, in reality, have been supremely unlikely.

One contemporary review of this epistolary novel praised Ryves and her tale:

The Hermit of Snowden; or, Memoirs of Albert and Lavinia, taken from a faithful Copy of the original Manuscript, which was found in the Hermitage, by the late Rev. Dr. L. and Mr.——, in the Year 17**. 8vo. 3s. Walter.

Without pretending to examine the authenticity of the manuscript, or to develope the inconsistencies of a tale so trite as the discovery of a hermitage and the papers containing the story, we can safely say that the tale is written by no common author; is pleasing, and may be useful. It teaches the salutary lesson of guarding against mean suspicion and unreasonable jealousy; the danger of protracting the happiness within reach, lest the unaffected love of a delicate female should be the ill-disguised dictates of interest or ambition. Read it, ye sons of fashion or of fortune, and change your conduct: be happy, if your hearts, depraved by vanity and dissipation, Will permit!

~ Unknown. “1789: The Critical Review on Ryves’s The Hermit of Snowden; or, Memoirs of Albert and Lavinia.” Women Writers in Review, Northeastern University Women Writers Project, 2016-11-16.

This was not the first novel to have a positive, if rustic, spin on the figure of the Druid.

Imogen: A Pastoral Romance, (1784) by William Godwin (1756-1836), the anarchist and atheist philosopher, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, is set in prehistoric Clwyd. Godwin takes the idea of human sacrifice as certain, but ennobles it in a Classical way – the heroic victim deems his sacrifice necessary for relieving the drought, and is willing to die for the sake of his countrymen.

The pagan community depicted in Imogen lives by the [obviously anachronistic] motto of the French Revolution, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; liberty, equality, fraternity.

This concept had no basis in historical fact, but came out of Godwin’s own political ideas. He met and spoke with Iolo Morgannwg, the bardic name of Edward Williams (1747-1826), who was part of a radical cultural movement to reinstate what he believed were key elements of Welsh cultural heritage.

Iolo Morgannwg established the Gorsedd of the Bards and the Eisteddfod, a re-imagining of a poetry competition that can be traced back to 1176, and saw Druids as priests of an enlightened religion, not overseers of sacrifice. While the Gorsedd is a product of his imagination, it is nevertheless still a major part of the spectacle of the Eisteddfod today, and its members, although still called Druids, are secularised rather than part of a religious group.

Iolo Morgannwg’s rehabilitation of the Druid figure and Godwin’s reimagining of him as a kind of noble priest-saint (albeit a pagan one) of Antiquity had a long-lasting effect on Welsh Gothic fiction.

Cona, or The Vale of Clwyd (1814) by James Grey (1770-1830) is another example that bears all the hallmarks of Iolo and Godwin’s influence. A Spenserian poem that can be read online in its entirety (hyperlink in its title), it has more Scottish influences despite being set in Wales.

In this poem, set during the Roman Invasion, the Druid Mervyn is a saintly, omniscient figurehead for his people, who does not perform human (or animal) sacrifice but imparts cosmic knowledge and lore directly from the heavens to his disciples.

While Iolo Morgannwg inspired many, there is evidence to suggest that Dr William Price (1800-93) also had a direct influence on Welsh authors imagining Druids and druidic practices. [I’ve had the pleasure of teaching one of Dr Price’s direct descendants, a fact which came up in one of their assignments on ‘Celtic’ identity in the modern world.]

William Price aged 22 while at medical school (1822) By Alexander Stewart –, Public Domain,

Something of a prodigy apprenticed to a surgeon aged thirteen, Dr Price aced his medical exams in his early twenties and became known for his radical ideas in the fields of medicine, politics (he was a Republican and a Chartist) and in his personal beliefs. He prescribed vegetarian diets for his patients instead of medicine (and was a vegetarian himself), drank mainly champagne, and eschewed the wearing of socks. He walked the streets of Pontypridd in full druidic regalia, believed in free love and considered marriage a form of enslavement for women. He fathered several illegitimate children with various lovers, and is now most famous as a pioneer for the practice of cremation.

He timed the (public) cremation of his five-month-old son Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ) by his sixteen-year-old housekeeper and mistress, Gwenllian Llewellyn (16 is the age of consent, although Dr Price was 83 at the time), to coincide with the emptying of the chapels on Sunday night. He was acquitted of desecrating a corpse in a sensational trial in Cardiff, successfully arguing that while cremation was not legal in British law, there was no statute which declared it illegal. This set a precedent that almost directly paved the way for the Cardiff Corporation Act, 1894, and the Cremation Act of 1902. When he died, he was himself publicly cremated on a pyre, which gave rise to many ballads and tales in the area.

Unsurprisingly, he is credited with inspiring the ‘Mad Doctor’ figure in a few Gothic tales.

Bertha Thomas (1845-1918) included one such tale in her anthology, Picture Tales from Welsh Hills (1912), called ‘The madness of Winifred Owen’. The tale is a framed narrative, like many of its type. An English tourist meets Winifred Owen, their hostess, and is immediately impressed by her strength of character. Winifred Owen tells them a tale from her youth, where she once chose medically-induced temporary madness to avoid marrying a man she didn’t love, leaving the tourist with an even greater impression of her strength and willpower. Winifred Owen relates how she sought help from an eccentric neighbour, Dr Dathan, a vivisecting scientist reputed to practice black magic, who experimented on her with all the chilling amorality of Arthur Machen’s doctor in The Great God Pan

Dr Price is also almost certainly part of the inspiration behind Dylan Thomas’s short story, ‘The Burning Baby’ (1935). This is an intensely disturbing story of incest and assault: the link leads to a short WordPress blog summary. Rhys Rhys, the main character, cremates his daughter’s stillborn child in a stone circle on a hilltop, where a flame catches the tongue of the burning baby and elicits a cry that is echoed by the hillside.

The era of the benign Druid figure was properly over with the publication of Robert Bloch’sThe dark isle‘ in American pulp fiction magazine, Weird Tales, in May 1939. ‘The dark isle’ is another re-imagining of the Roman invasion, but this time from the ‘civilising’ Romans’ point of view. Caesar’s portrayal of the Druids in De Bello Gallico is revealed to be a cover-up or whitewash of what they are actually capable of: not only do they burn six wicker men stuffed with screaming Roman legionaries, but they can also turn into blue-taloned monsters after death. They guard a mysterious, poisonous dragon tongue in the heart of an Anglesey cavern, and it’s only by stabbing this tongue with his sword that the Roman protagonist, Vincius, can kill the Druids and the (tongueless, presumably) dragon when it shows up, since it’s not immune to its own toxin for some [plot-necessary] reason.  The Druids are very much in the vein of Lovecraftian priests, and Lovecraft himself acknowledged the influence of our old friend Arthur Machen.

Aaron points out that it’s tempting to look at Bloch’s image of the stabbed dragon’s tongue as a metaphor for the killing of the Welsh language, but this connection is probably not in Bloch’s mind. He anachronistically/erroneously differentiates between the ‘Welsh’ and the ‘Britons’ (the same people group at this time, as ‘Welsh’ is a Saxon word for the Brythonic-speakers who called themselves Britons/British), and has both of them living in fear of the Druids.

In Bloch’s story, the Druids’ mystery returns to life again in a different form, as a ‘great cowled shape’ with ‘no nose or chin: simply a hideous smile and grotesquely sightless eyes’ (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 161).

Demon (1983) by Ivor Watkins is set in contemporary Meirionethshire ‘troubled by demon coverfighter planes practising overhead and an old avenger stirring underground’ (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 161).

Evoking the Drowned Valley trope that began to appear in poetry and prose after the drowning of Capel Celyn, and attacking the chapel culture of the day in the figure of the (female) Nonconformist minister, Elliyn Price-Jones, this novel has as its Horror Monster antagonist a demon undisturbed ‘since Roman Legions marched the breadth of Britannica; undisturbed since Druids carried out their final orgiastic ritual; untouched since the last human sacrifice’ (Demon, p. 206).

The premise owes a great deal to Bloch’s story, ‘The dark isle’, and to the contemporary images of ‘orgiastic’ pagan rituals of human sacrifice as seen in Folk Horror cinema of the 1960s and 70s, embedded in the popular imagination. Here, the shadow of Wales’s ‘nightmare past’ is what lurks to drag the modern civilisation down, and destroy it.

Candlenight (1991) by Phil Rickman is the last text to be discussed in this section. It typifies the themes of in-comers drowning Welsh culture and language, and falls firmly into the same group of texts that Aaron discusses in her chapter on Wales as the Land of the Living Dead (1940s-1997). It reflects the tensions besetting 1980s Wales, with English people buying up houses and land and out-pricing the locals, and the plight of the Welsh language.

Yet the vengeful druidic spirits in the ancient oak trees of Y Groes, the village where English inhabitants die mysterious deaths, are not sympathetically depicted but are the evil antagonists of the tale, in the same way Ivor Watkins paints his titular ‘demon’ as his Horror Monster.

In Rickman’s novel, Y Groes is a zombie town like other examples we’ve looked at, the only place in Wales where everyone is Welsh and Welsh-speaking. Bethan McQueen, a Welsh-language activist, is grieving the loss of her English husband, and unravels the secrets of the village with the help of an American visitor, Berry Morelli. While the tensions of Wales are sympathised with, it is only in rejecting and destroying the trees/Druids that the villagers can be freed of their evil, and moving forwards, at least for Rickman, involves embracing the changes that incomers bring and shedding the shackles of the past and all they represent.

Next time: The Hounds of Annwn!

Folklore and fiction about the hounds of the Welsh Underworld await in the next instalment!





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