Iolo Morganwg - An Interview With Gareth Thomas ( Author of 'I Iolo')
Posted in: Author Interviews
AmeriCymru: Hi Gareth and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your book I Iolo for our readers?
Gareth: It is a historically accurate, creative re-imaging of the life of Iolo Morganwg covering the most significant years of his life from his boyhood to 1798. It is written in the first person present tense with the aim of re-living the thought processes that led him through his stunningly eventful life. Although it contains a lot of history it is not a history book. It is a novel intended to entertain and inform. It shapes, interprets, fills gaps with conjecture and occasionally invents minor characters in order to assist the narrative. By venturing into areas of imagining denied to the academic historian I hope that I can take the reader closer to the truth, into the mind of a uniquely complex fascinating man.
AmeriCymru: Why write it?
Gareth: Iolo is a character of whom most Welsh people have heard, but of whom they know little, apart perhaps from the whisper that he forged things and had something to do with the Eisteddfod. I became entranced with the character and amazed by the story of his life. He lived at the turn of the C18th amidst what he described as ‘ the unparalleled eventfulness of this age’. From a small village in the Vale of Glamorgan he made a place for himself in the centre of the political and cultural turbulence that followed the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. There are many books about him but they are nearly all academic in nature or in Welsh which limits the readership. I,Iolo is intended to be entertaining, accessible and informative – a good read.
There’s another reason too. I write a lot about the nature of identity: personal, community or national and how individuals define themselves through their membership of all sorts of groups. Most people in Wales live with the tension between two languages and two or more identities. This is in itself neither good nor bad. It can be a source of great creativity. It also forces individuals to think about who they are and where they belong. Iolo was a man who re-invented himself repeatedly throughout his life in a search for identity, changing his name from Edward to Ned to Iorwerth to Iorwerth Gwilym and finally to Iolo as well as using a myriad of inventive pen-names. He changed his public persona and even re-wrote his own history on several occasions. This quest is mirrored in the way he worked to helped forge the identity of modern Wales.
AmeriCymru: Why did you choose to end the book in 1798?
Gareth: Chiefly to give the book shape and keep the length within reasonable bounds. There are so many different aspects to his life and so much surviving material that the book could easily have been three times as long. It was essential to choose incidents that told the story and events that conveyed the vitality, passion and endless talents of the man as well as his impetuosity and naivety. Ending in 1798 allowed me to shape a narrative that explained the creation of the Gorsedd in its political and cultural context. There’s a lot I had to leave out.
AmeriCymru: How do you think history should regard Iolo Morganwg? Hero or villain?
Gareth: Not sure I believe in heroes or villains. Iolo is a great subject for a novel because his mental processes are so complex as to defy simple judgements. But the fact that you ask the question is significant. Certainly since his death Iolo has been portrayed as everything from a saint to a scoundrel. For example, in the middle of the C19th the political aspects of his life were carefully ignored and his life was praised as a shining example of Welsh scholarly self-sacrifice. Sixty years later he was vilified after the discovery of his historical creations – I refuse to call them forgeries - by academics such as Sir John Morris-Jones who were horrified to learn that some of the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym they had been praising and analysing with their students were in fact the work of Iolo. The heat of John Morris-Jones’ anger ignited a fire that blackened Iolo’s name for decades.
In the last twenty years we have seen a long overdue re-appraisal chiefly through the work of Professors Geraint H Jenkins and Mary-Ann Constantine of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth. They have succeeded in bringing some order to his vast archive and returning Iolo to his rightful context as a political figure who did so much to shape the character and institutions of modern Wales.
AmeriCymru: So how important was Iolo's role in the development of modern Welsh culture and national awareness?
Gareth: Incalculable. If we just take the creation of the Gorsedd, which is central to my novel, this changed the nature of the Eisteddfod from being a literary and musical competition into the annual national convention of Wales and the Welsh, our first truly national institution. The Gorsedd philosophy encompassed all aspects of Welsh life: science, theology, agriculture, art and politics. In Cysgod y Cryman by Islwyn Ffowc Elis written in the 1950s the main character, Harri Vaughan describes visiting the National Eisteddfod, not for the poetry but because ‘ there the heart of our nation beats strongest: the enchantment of a capital city’. The Eisteddfod had provided the forum where Welsh issues were fiercely debated, initiatives launched and organisations founded. The founding of the National Library and the Universities were plotted in meetings on the Maes as were important new organisations such as Urdd Gobaith Cymru and Cymdeithas Yr Iaith. It is still the case that the Eisteddfod Maes is a self-sustaining cockpit of heated debates and informed lectures on the issues facing Wales.
Then there’s the ritual of the Gorsedd. Wales has little ceremonial and perhaps for that reason alone the Gorsedd is hugely popular. For the last two years I have failed to win a seat for either the Crowning or the Chairing. Queues reach round the pavilion. I doubt if most of those attending are thinking or even aware of its origins as Iolo’s celebration of international brotherhood, world peace and the rights of mankind. For most it is a powerful way to celebrate their identity and the common bond between those who love Wales and its heritage.
I could also talk of the role of Iolo as a political figure who placed Wales very firmly in a modern European Context and gave voice to the values of the enlightenment. He undoubtedly contributed to the radical tradition in Welsh politics.
We could also discuss the way he gave pride, confidence and literary ammunition by which the Welsh intelligentsia defended their culture in the difficult years of the C19th. He and his writings became the major weapon by which whose who spoke for Wales defended its reputation against the tide of anti- Welsh sentiment exemplified by the ‘Treason the of Blue Books.’ T.E. Ellis the famous Liberal Member of Parliament described Iolo’s writings as his best means of convincing ‘sceptical English friends of the vitality of the Cymric language and literature.’
AmeriCymru: What was the full extent of his forgeries? You mention the fake Dafydd ap Gwilym poems in the book but wasn't there much more?
Gareth: I don’t use the word ‘forgeries’ in Iolo’s context. To me a forger is one who deceives others for personal gain. Whatever Iolo’s motives were, person enrichment was not amongst them. One of the enigmas surrounding him is why a talented, penniless young poet, in any age when it was possible to earn good money by writing verse, should hide his best work under the identities of long dead medieval bards? Certainly not profit.
It is important to remember the period in which he was writing and his own background. Wales was only just coming to terms with the printing press. Collectors of ancient verse would visit private collections in the libraries of great mansions to copy manuscripts by hand. It was quite common for transcribers, as Iolo himself put it ‘to curtail, to amplify, to interpolate and to alter’ when they perceived inadequacies in the originals. For that reason amongst others it is sometimes difficult, even for forensic academics to know what is ‘genuine’ and what is an ‘improvement’.
Certainly it is wrong to think of Iolo as primarily a faker. The majority of his writing was based on hard won research. The academic who did the most work to unmask the true nature of Iolo’s creations, Professor G.J. Williams, noted that to have produced his inventions Iolo had to achieve a depth of knowledge and width of understanding of medieval Welsh poetry never again equalled academically until the C20th. Amazing for a man with no formal education.
As well as the Dafydd ap Gwilym poems my novel describes the time in gaol in Cardiff when he composed Secrets of the Bards of the Isles of Britain, a creation which prepared the ground for the ceremonies of the Gorsedd and revised the restrictive metrical rules that had governed the work of the bards for centuries. To support this pure invention he wrote poetic testament which he attributed to a series of minor bards from various epochs from the C12th century onwards providing ‘evidence’ in support of his creation. Each work was written in the style of the bard’s own time. He created the myth and then created the proof. In the book I have him imagining and keeping company with these long dead bards whilst they dictated their verses for him to transcribe.
Perhaps his most significant other ‘creation’ occurred in the period not covered by my novel when Iolo was commissioned by his sponsor Owain Myfyr, the wealthy London Welsh furrier, to collect lost poetry of the C13th from the ancient but often decaying libraries of great houses such as Hafod near Aberystwyth and Hengwrt near Dolgellau. This Iolo did on a long and exhausting tour of north Wales but it appears that he was dismayed by his discoveries. The verses portrayed the ancient princes as bloodthirsty, quarrelsome and warlike. These accounts ran counter to the vision of Welsh civilisation Iolo wished to create which portrayed a society dedicated to peaceful cooperation and the rule of reason. Accordingly the genuine discoveries were inexplicably mislaid and lost in transit, supposedly in a carrier’s depot in Bristol. His sponsor was deeply frustrated at this delay to the publication of his planned collection of Welsh verse, The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales. Iolo filled the gap by providing an extensive collection of ancient triads. Triads are short wise statements on religion, society, art and human nature. They were a genuine part of the bardic heritage originally passed on as part of the oral tradition and first written down in the C13th. Those Iolo contributed included much that was ancient but also larger amounts composed by himself in the same style to express republican and progressive values which owed more to Rousseau than the ancient bards of Wales. For example,
Tri dyn a fynnant fyw ar eiddo arall: brenin, offeiriad a lleidr.’
(Three men who live on the property of others: a king, a priest and a thief)
Iolo also provided much additional created material for the Myvyrian Archaiology particularly accounts that established his beloved Glamorgan as the most important centre of the bardic tradition.
AmeriCymru: You have read more of Iolo's work than most. How would you rate his literary talent?
Gareth: It is now not the primary reason he is remembered but in his time the work he produced over his own name was greatly admired. His ‘creations’ in the style of Dafydd ap Gwilym remained more popular than the genuine article until his unmaking in the C20th.
Professor Ceri Lewis in his authoritative evaluation of Iolo’s poetry suggests that he was often hindered by his own extraordinary cleverness. Much of his verse in English is over complicated by his attempts to deploy Welsh metrical forms in another language. Personally my favourite pieces by him are his simplest lyric poetry, love songs and ballads in praise of his Glamorgan and his darling Peggy. These are enchanting.
AmeriCymru: You have also written a novel. Care to tell us a little about 'A Welsh Dawn'?
Gareth: A Welsh Dawn is set in the Wales of the late 1950s – a time of political and cultural confusion memorably described by Rhodri Morgan as ‘the wild west period of Welsh politics’. I dramatise the period as faithfully as possible: the intrigues of Welsh politicians, the manoeuvring of Downing Street and the machinations of civil service mandarins. This is the backdrop before which the main characters of the novel, Gwen and Ifan, their families and neighbours, live their lives and make their choices. One reviewer described it as ‘A beautifully developed story of emerging identity, both personal and national.’ More details are available on its dedicated web site www.awelshdawn.co.uk
AmeriCymru: Where can readers purchase 'I Iolo' online?
Gareth: From the publishers Y Lolfa at www.ylolfa.com or by Googling Amazon or other on-line retailer. It is distributed in the USA by Dufour Editions and is available in Welsh and English language versions. There are also some free worksheets for advanced learners of Welsh which can be downloaded free from www.parallel.cymru/cipolwg-ar-
AmeriCymru: What's next for Gareth Thomas?
Gareth: I am just completing ‘ Beyond the Volga River ’ the story of a young Polish woman forcibly displaced from her home in eastern Poland by the Russian invasion of 1940 and her subsequent struggle for survival. She endures a Siberian labour camp, a trek through the Middle East before becoming a truck driver in the Polish Anders Army during the Italian Campaign, eventually ending up as a refugee in London. Crucially, the narrative is interspersed with the stories, 50 years later, of her three UK born children and the effect their parents’ experience and Polish heritage had on their lives. It is hopefully resonant of contemporary problems faced by the families of refugees. As yet the book has no publisher so if any agent wants to get in touch………
AmeriCymru: Any chance of a sequel to 'I Iolo' covering the last 28 years of his life?
Gareth: That’s a real possibility, depending on the demand for the first book. There’s certainly enough material.
AmeriCymru: Any final remarks for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Gareth: Thank you for valuing your Welsh identity and for flying the Dragon banner on the other side of the Atlantic. I so value the creativity that comes from the meeting of cultures that you represent. That is one reason I have come to admire the multi-cultural vitality of American society. It is so good to know that ‘Welsh-American’ is a title proudly carried and one that is capable of inspiring afresh. I was greatly impressed by a talk in the Eisteddfod last year on the Welsh influence on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Although he was born in Wisconsin and never visited Wales until an old man, it was his mother’s descriptions of cottages in the landscape of Ceredigion that led to his ideas that architecture should be organic and at one with the landscape. He could not have achieved this without his Wisconsin and his Ceredigion heritage.
Hir oes i’r Cymry Americanaidd!
Iolo Morganwg is one of the most interesting and contentious figures in 18th/19th century literature. He was an academic pugilist; the bruiser of the Poetry department. And yes he was a laudanum addict and a forger but we love him still....why?
For persons unfamiliar with Iolo's life and work, Gareth Thomas's new book goes a long way toward answering that question. In the course of a lifetime of adventure and achievement Iolo's greatest triumph was, undoubtedly the founding of the Gorsedd in 1792. In the course of his travels as an itinerant stonemason Iolo spent some time in London and there became active in a Welsh society known as the Gwyneddigion . He was incensed at their prejudice against south Wales and their deeply held conviction that nothing of value in Welsh cultural terms had ever originated outside Gwynedd. As a man of Glamorgan Iolo believed he knew better. He was aware that Welsh language culture was still alive in the 'Vale' although it was, by the late 18th century, somewhat atomized and muted. He was convinced that the culture in which he was raised by his mother and other exemplars and tutors was the heir to a great south Walian Bardic and Druidic tradition. The fact that this tradition lacked any foundation texts was a deficiency which he marshaled his considerable literary talents to correct. But why did he resort to forgery and what did he accomplish thereby?
In Gareth Thomas's book, Iolo is the narrator. It is the story of his life that he might have written himself had he chosen to indulge in autobiography. Consequently this is not a judgmental or moral tale but we are provided with a fascinating series of insights into the self-justifications Iolo might have employed to rationalize his actions.
Laudanum is a very powerful opiate based drug. It was available for purchase without prescription in this period. Iolo probably used it initially for pain relief and to combat insomnia. The effect of regular use of such a drug on the delicate sensibilities of an imaginative and creative mind like his can hardly be over estimated. In the course of his laudanum fueled fantasies Iolo communes with the shade of Dafydd ap Gwilym . The two poets forge such a close relationship that Iolo declares, after being asked to help ensure the success of a forthcoming anthology of Dafydd's works, that he and Dafydd "are as one". Iolo was subsequently moved to offer a number of his self-penned poems, admittedly in the style of Dafydd ap Gwilym and of sufficient quality to fool experts, for inclusion in the anthology. He was paid £10 for his troubles and set a precedent for subsequent and more ambitious forgeries.
Elsewhere in the book, once again under the influence of Laudanum, Iolo declares that:
"When the truth is clear before me I will proclaim it. Those lines of Dafydd ap Gwilym I have sent to Owain are one such truth. There are other grand truths that are becoming clearer to me. Truths which will be ridiculed and disregarded by the clerks, clergy and academics who seek to frustrate me at every turn, who cannot see past the pettifogging detail of the tedious present. For the sake of my country, my Vale, my family, I have to find the means of building a greater truth which reflects the glory of the past and projects it into the future. The truth must inspire my countrymen to greater acts.
Truth against the world."
There is of course a delicious irony in dedicating a trove of academic forgeries to the cause of 'truth'. But his motivation is clear! He 'knew' that a rich Bardic tradition once existed in Glamorgan. He 'knew' that it had been lost and that he alone, with a little literary and academic sleight of hand, was in a position to restore and elevate it. I do not know whether in this age of 'alternative facts', he should be judged more or less severely but certainly for Iolo the end justified the means.
But this crusading spirit was likely not the only factor which encouraged him to adopt literary forgery as a means of advancement. Thomas's book includes many letters from Iolo's long suffering wife Peggy in which she admonishes him for his long periods away in London and pleads for more money to cover household expenses. Stonemasonry was a physically demanding and precarious occupation. Securing publication of his work as an unknown author proved difficult. Much easier to 'discover' long lost works and sell them or have them published as your own.
At the height of his literary fame Iolo was also a well-known political radical. His Jacobin sympathies and his detestation of the English monarchy and King George III in particular, were well known to the authorities. Consequently his more vicious political poems and satires were published and circulated anonymously. It cannot have escaped his attention that accurate authorial accreditation was not essential to the subsequent impact and influence of his work.
The book is replete with fascinating historical asides and vignettes. Both William Pitt and John Evans make an appearance as do poets, Robert Southey (author of Madoc ) and Samuel Coleridge . Iolo discussed with Southey and Coleridge the possibility of equipping an expedition to America to confirm the existence of a tribe of Welsh speaking Indians. These discussions came to nothing but at one point Iolo fully intended to accompany John Evans on his epic 1792 expedition to explore the Mississippi. Family and literary commitments intervened to make the trip impossible for Iolo but what a loss to Welsh literature! How wonderful it would be to have his account of this incredible journey.
All in all, this book is a superb introduction to the life and work of Iolo Morganwg both for the general reader and the serious student of literature alike. We are more than happy to give it a 5-star rating!