by Luke Waterson
“Wales announcing its rise from the Dark Ages onto the world stage of poetry, and music, and song.”
I chose to read this novel specifically because of its subject matter: Wales’ first ever eisteddfod (a great festival of poetry and music for which our small country is justifiably celebrated), but I’m glad for so many other reasons that I did.
Song Castle is an exuberant caper through 12th-century Wales in the company of poets and musicians from all corners of the known world as they gather to compete for a permanent place at a Welsh Prince’s table. They are heading for Cardigan Castle, which overlooks the River Teifiat in Ceredigion, at the invitation of one Rhys ap Gruffydd, ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth in South Wales. He hopes to distance himself from his hitherto savage reputation and put himself and his nation at the heart of medieval culture. It is crucial, therefore, that his festival is a success.
The Lord Rhys (as he is more commonly known) has issued a proclamation giving twelve months notice of a ‘Grand festival’ of vocal and instrumental song honouring the poetry of The Bards, due to take place over Christmas 1176. But to reach their destination the competitors must first travel through a wild, rain-sodden land during a period of great barbarity, when Wales is split into several warring factions. The weather is bitterly cold and the route perilous, but the promise of good food, wine and song keep them coming.
We are introduced to charismatic, historically factual characters like Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, the foremost bard of his day; Gwalchmai ap Meilyr, one of the earliest Welsh court poets at the court of Owain Gwynedd at Aberffraw, Anglesey; and Marie de France, a gifted 12th-century writer who lived in Wales for a time (she was exceptional in that she excelled in a man’s world). The performers become embroiled in feuds, brawls and considerable skulduggery, though not always intentionally, and there is bloodshed on the battlements before the competition reaches its bravura climax.
To this day, the eisteddfod is Europe’s greatest competitive festival of song and poetry.
Luke Waterson is a travel writer, and this his second novel – his first, Roebuck – Tales of an Admirable Adventurer, was set in 16th-century South America. He has deftly used all available facts concerning Celtic bardic traditions and constructed a compelling, richly lyrical novel about an historic event.
I would thoroughly recommend this beguiling new title to anyone with a passion for Welsh culture; those desiring to more fully understand the ritualistic traditions of Wales; or readers who simply enjoy a cracking tale of medieval mischief and music.
“It is not that I object to sleeping alongside bards, certainly not men of Gwynedd. But books are one’s friends and so much more interesting than most people one meets.” – Gerald of Wales to Gwalchmai ap Meilyr (according to Luke Waterson)
Many thanks to Urbane Publications for providing an advance review copy of this title.
Interesting Links & Features
- Druids, bards and rituals: What is an Eisteddfod?
- Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod
- The National Eisteddfod of Wales
- Urdd National Eisteddfod