The question of language in Welsh Gothic has undergone a shift since 1997 and the implementation of the Welsh Government’s Welsh Language policies. It is no longer a site of contest, but protected in law and promoted across the country. It is visible on all official signs, official forms are bilingual, and schools where Welsh is the primary and only medium of education are far more prevalent than before. Free Welsh courses are also on offer for adults, funded by the Welsh Government and local councils.
The death of the language was once a site of Gothicised anxiety in fiction, or used by non-Welsh speakers (including some who identified as Welsh for complex reasons of colonialism and Anglicisation) as a marker of barbarism, backwards-looking attitudes, and a fatalistic refusal to embrace the [Anglophonic] future.
The bleakness and futility inherent within the Gothicised Welsh identity was often described and demonstrated through characters alienated from and by the Welsh language, or, in Welsh-language literature, by characters fighting to defend it and inevitably punished for their acts of domestic terrorism by the penal system, incarcerated physically and psychologically.
You can read more about this in a previous post on Zombies and Zombification in modern Welsh Gothic fiction.
So how is language incorporated into Welsh Gothic nowadays? The answer is, for the most part, far more naturally. Requiem (2018) is an English-language production, but there are Welsh-speaking characters in the town and they converse with each other in a natural mix of Welsh and English, switching back and fore in conversation with subtitles provided for the non-Welsh-speaking viewer. It reinforces the sense of place and of distinctiveness – but not of difference. The subtitles normalise the switches in language and allow access to the conversations.
So what does the Welsh language add to Welsh Gothic? Fairly obviously – the sense of a modern Welsh identity, the gradual healing from the deeper socio-cultural scars of centuries of Anglicisation, the fluidity of Welsh/English switches, and the diversity of Welsh speakers themselves. Requiem‘s Welsh speakers are all white and Welsh-identifying, but this is not the case in reality and normalising this picture can create a distinctly Welsh flavour to Gothic texts. It can create a sense of belonging or be used to highlight the disinheritance and distance from a communal and individual identity.
The main character in Requiem, Matilda, is not a Welsh speaker, but suspects that she is the missing Carys, a child who disappeared from the town without trace 20 years previously. If this is the case, then she has been disinherited not only from the chance to learn her own language and understand the community who communicate in both modes, but also from her original Welsh name and identity. Even Matilda’s accent differs starkly from the accent of Carys’s mother and younger brother, creating an aural difference that forms a barrier between them. She is also persistently called ‘the English girl’ by locals intimately connected with the missing child whom Matilda believes herself to be.
This is a barrier that Matilda is desperate to break down, and through the series she tries to communicate her identity and suspicions without much success – the key to it all, in the end, is in the universal language of music, not verbal explanations or conversations. The dark midpoint comes when Matilda smashes up her cello, a key part of her identity, and not only signals that she is ready to step into the void left by the mysterious Carys [for better or worse], but also destroys the means by which she can truly communicate her soul.
The Power of Words
Why does language matter? How does language play into Welsh folklore and mythology? And how else is this interplay used within Welsh Gothic fiction?
Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider trilogy is written in English with the odd Welsh word thrown into the dialogue without translation together with untranslated stanzas of Welsh songs. First published in 1986, the first book (The Snow Spider) is a tale of deep loss and belonging, of learning your place in the world, and of painful family choices. At a time when Welsh was a contested medium and there were real fears over the decline of the Welsh language, normalising its use in Children’s literature in this way was a powerful choice that potentially risked alienating the majority of its readership, but managed to do so at points that deliberately created a sense of the uncanny.
Welsh is associated primarily with Gwyn’s grandmother (his nain) who is rumoured to be a witch. She is a positive and sympathetic character in the novel, as witches in Wales were respected figures: see this previous post for historical context.
Some reader reviews of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider reveal confusion over the “magic system” and why Gwydion Gwyn could make things happen simply by speaking to the wind and offering a gift. The answer is very simple: in Wales, words had power.
The bard was a high status position, not a mere entertainer. A bard memorised the whole corpus of material passed down to him from his mentor without forgetting or changing a single word. A bard was the keeper of collective communal memory in story and poetry and song, a bard composed original poems in his head in deeply complicated and notoriously difficult forms, and recited real genealogies deliberately merged with mythological and Biblical ones, charting the lineages of their patrons all the way back to Adam and Eve.
A truly good poet could recite a curse poem that would actually kill. Every ruler had a bard to immortalise them in praise poems, and the Anglo-Norman lords in Wales adopted this practice and patronised Welsh bards to compose praise poems that were also recorded in commissioned texts.
Poets like Dafydd ap Gwilym and Lewys Glyn Cothi are best known, but it wasn’t an exclusively male occupation: the 15thC poet Gwerful Mechain wrote in the bawdy/erotic tradition, and her work was suppressed by male Welsh scholars of the more prudish 19th and 20thCs because of their erotic content and ‘gleeful indecency’ (Lauren Cocking’s phrase). The title of her most infamous poem is sometimes translated as C*nt, so there we are. Language is a wonderful thing.
How this level of power translates in a society that has a complicated relationship with the power of words (empty words and meaningless words, or an intrinsic distrust of anything we are told marking out a distrust of authority figures, for example), is something that could be further explored.
This is a vast topic that I’ve skimmed through and not even really scratched the surface of, except in brief bullet points. A few of the many questions we can ask about words, the power of words, and the importance of language in Welsh Gothic texts written today are:
How can language – both English and Welsh, but also other languages that represent identities and individuals from the diverse communities in modern Wales – be used in Welsh Gothic today?
How can we look at Wales and the Welsh language specifically as a vehicle for the Gothic, and tap into its heritage, its potential for subversity and its rich literary tradition, making this accessible to a modern audience?
These are questions that haunt modern writers of Welsh Gothic, and are points to ponder.