A first-person retelling of the story of Iolo Morganwg – from his boyhood to the Glynogwr Gorsedd of 1798. Iolo Morganwg had many faces: stonemason, self-taught scholar, poet, hymnist, politician, patriot, revolutionary, druid, failed businessman, drug addict, campaigner for human rights and perpetrator of the greatest act of literary forgery in European history. Admired by many as a hero who helped create the identity of modern Wales, but reviled by others as a con man and a cheat.
The closing of the eighteenth century was a time of 'unparalleled eventfulness' and Iolo was in the thick of it. The action moves from Cowbridge to Mayfair's society drawing rooms, from Flemingston to a luxurious Covent Garden bordello, from public ceremonies on wild hillsides to a hearing before the Privy Council in Downing Street.
About Gareth Thomas
Gareth's roots are in the Rhondda. He studied Drama in Barry and London. For 40 years he worked in England as an actor, teacher and arts center director. Aged 50 and frustrated by the loss of Welsh connections, he started learning Welsh. His first novel, A Welsh Dawn, was published in 2014. He now lives in St Hilary near Cowbridge.
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!
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