DEWITHON 21: Llyfrbabble (Bookbabble) #1

A light-hearted look at recent cultural and bookish chatter from Wales 

This is the first in a series of posts concerning literary goings-on (Welsh speakers may prefer sgwrsio llenyddol Cymraeg) from the land of poetry and song.

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A Walesi Bardok

János Arany (Portrait by Miklós Barabás)

On Saint David’s Day (1st March), children living in the remote Hungarian village of Kunagota were given lessons on Welsh culture while the national anthem boomed forth and the flag of Wales (Y Ddraig Goch) was projected on to the walls of nearby Breda Castle.

This small community in the south-east corner of Hungary shares literary links with Montgomery, in the county of Powys, stemming from János Arany’s 160-year-old folkloristic ballad, The Bards of Wales, which tells the tragic tale of five-hundred Welsh versifiers being slaughtered by King Edward I at a banquet in Montgomery Castle after refusing to extol the virtues of their English conqueror.

Earlier this year, over thirty Hungarians created a video letter to Wales called Let’s Build Bridges, which they describe as “a love letter to Wales”.

Classical singer, Elizabeth Sillo, the chair of the Welsh-Hungarian Cultural Association, said: “We wanted to send a message to our Welsh friends as they mark St David’s Day in an undoubtedly difficult year. We’d like everyone in Wales to know that there’s a place in Hungary where people have such admiration for their culture and where they are always welcome.”

Balint Brunner, a founding member of Magyar Cymru, said: “We were inspired by St David’s well-known maxim, ‘gwnewch y pethau bychain’, or ‘do the little things’. For this reason, we are sharing small acts of love and kindness from Hungarian individuals and organisations this year, including children’s performances and a daffodil-themed painting by Kunagota-born Klara Gyomber.”

In return, pupils from Montgomery Church in Wales School, along with the local mayor, councillors and business owners replied to their European friends with their own video letter, which has since been viewed more than half a million times and featured on Hungarian TV and radio.

Unsurprisingly, Kunagota has been dubbed ‘Hungary’s Welshest village’.

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The Ballad

Arany’s poem, which was intended to criticise the strict Habsburg rule over Hungary following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, was first written in 1857 and disguised as a translation of an Old English ballad to evade censorship.

All Hungarian students in the sixth grade of elementary school are expected to learn The Bards of Wales by heart as it is considered by many to be one of the poet’s most significant works. 

The Bards of Wales by János Arany

(translated by Watson Kirkconnel)

Edward the king, the English king,
 Bestrides his tawny steed,
      “For I will see if Wales,” said he,
 “Accepts my rule indeed.

      “Are stream and mountain fair to see?
 Are meadow grasses good?
      Do corn-lands bear a crop more rare
 Since wash’d with rebel’s blood?

      “And are the wretched people there,
 Whose insolence I broke
      As happy as the oxen are
 Beneath the driver’s yoke?

      “In truth this Wales, Sire, is a gem,
 The fairest in your crown:
      The stream and field rich harvest yield,
 And fair and dale and down.

      “And all the wretched people there
 Are calm as man could crave;
      Their hovels stand throughout the land
 As silent as the grave.”

      Edward the king, the English King
 Bestrides his tawni steed;
      A silence deep his subjects keep
 And Wales is mute indeed.

      The castle named Montgomery
 Ends that day’s journeying;
      The castle’s lord, Montgomery,
 Must entertain the king.

      Then game and fish and ev’ry dish
 That lures the taste and sight
      A hundred hurrying servants bear
 To please the appetite.

      With all of worth the isle brings forth
 In dainty drink and food,
      And all the wines of foreign vines
 Beyond the distant flood.

      “You lords, you lords, will none consent
 His glass with mine to ring?
      What? Each one fails, you dogs of Wales,
 To toast the English king?

      “Though game and fish and ev’ry dish
 That lures the taste and sight
      Your hand supplies, your mood defies
 My person with a slight.

      “You rascal lords, you dogs of Wales,
 Will none for Edward cheer?
      To serve my needs and chant my deeds
 Then let a bard appear!”

      The nobles gaze in fierce amaze,
 Their cheeks grow deadly pale;
      Not fear but rage their looks engage,
 They blanch but do not quail.

      All voices cease in soundless peace,
 All breathe in silent pain;
      Then at the door a harper hoar
 Comes in with grave disdain:

      “Lo, here I stand, at your command,
 To chant your deeds, O king!”
      And weapons clash and hauberks crash
 Responsive to his string.

      “Harsh weapons clash and hauberks crash,
 And sunset sees us bleed,
      The crow and wolf our dead engulf –
 This, Edward, is your deed!

      “A thousand lie beneath the sky,
 They rot beneath the sun,
      And we who live shall not forgive
 This deed your hand hath done!”

      “Now let him perish! I must have”
 (The monarch’s voice is hard)
      “Your softest songs, and not your wrongs!”
 In steps a boyish bard:

      “The breeze is soft at eve, that oft
 From Milford Havens moans;
      It whispers maidens’ stifled cries,
 It breathes of widows’ groans.

      “You maidens, bear no captive babes!
 You mothers, rear them not!”
      The fierce king nods. The lad is seiz’d
 And hurried from the spot.

      Unbidden then, among the men,
 There comes a dauntless third
      With speech of fire he tunes his lyre,
 And bitter is his word:

      “Our bravest died to slake your pride –
 Proud Edward, hear my lays!
      No Welsh bards live who e’er will give
 Your name a song a praise.

      “Our harps with dead men’s memories weep.
 Welsh bards to you will sing
      One changeless verse – our blackest curse
 To blast your soul, O king!”

      “No more! Enough!” – cries out the king.
 In rage his orders break:
      “Seek through these vales all bards of Wales
 And burn them at the stake!”

      His men ride forth to south and north,
 They ride to west and east.
      Thus ends in grim Montgomery
 The celebrated feast.

      Edward the king, the English king
 Spurs on his tawny steed;
      Across the skies red flames arise
 As if Wales burned indeed.

      In martyrship, with song on lip,
 Five hundred Welsh bards died;
      Not one was mov’d to say he lov’d
 The tyrant in his pride.

        “‘Ods blood! What songs this night resound
 Upon our London streets?
      The mayor shall feel my irate heel
 If aught that sound repeats!

      Each voice is hush’d; through silent lanes
 To silent homes they creep.
      “Now dies the hound that makes a sound;
 The sick king cannot sleep.”

      “Ha! Bring me fife and drum and horn,
 And let the trumpet blare!
      In ceaseless hum their curses come –
 I see their dead eyes glare…”

      But high above all drum and fife
 and trumpets’ shrill debate,
      Five hundred martyr’d voices chant
 Their hymn of deathless hate.

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Categories: Wales Readathon

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29 replies

  1. Thank you for a very interesting babble. Coincidentally to the Dewithon, I am currently watching the History of Welsh Art on the TV and it’s fascinating!

  2. This is brilliant! What a lovely connection!

  3. That’s an amazing story and I am pleased to know it.

    I was considering a #Dewithon post myself, featuring some of the outback poetry of C.Elwydd Prentiss but thought better of it.

    • Sounds interesting, Josie. Tell me more.

      • He was born in Wales – son of a miner from Blaenllechauin who worked the Ferndale seam until a colliery accident mangled a leg. One of five children, he yearned to see the world. Hopped a ride down the valley on a coal wagon. Two days later and he’s signed on a deckhand on the SS Pride of Harlech, a tramp steamer sailing from Roath dock with a cargo of coal bound for Argentina. He was 15 years old. For the next three years he worked the steamers as they plied their goods – coal, iron ore, grain, phosphate, and salted cod across the Atlantic. When the world trade slowed, he jumped ship in Sydney and found work on a sheep farm. He had always been a writer and at sea kept a diary of sorts. Now he began to write more formally and submitted some of his work to a local newspaper. At first, his poems reflected the hardscrabble life of the outback and the lives of the early settlers whose hardy spirit he found inspiring. He later became known as the Rhonnda Rhymer and the Barroom Boyo. This is a short sample of his early and rather bombastic style:

        Those who survived the voyage –
        the violent storms, the sickness
        and the brutality – knew
        they had come to the end of the
        world. Mustered courage and took their
        fate as given. Ragged they were
        and rugged they would became –
        fierce, harsh and independent but
        not free. They were no more free than
        is the horse yoked to the plough.

        And this of course would all be very well and very appropriate for a #Dewithon post except he never existed. Which is a shame really as his later work bears comparison with the best of modern verse.

      • 👏👏👏👏👏 What a story – and so ingenious! It’s a great shame Prentiss is fictitious, I would love to know more. Could there be a novel bubbling away in your brain, Josie? It’s a book I would definitely read! 😀

      • Well, I don’t know about a novel but I do keep finding more of the poetry thanks to the work of Professor Juniper at Prentiss Archives at the University of Billancoo in NSW. And also this fascinating biographical tidbit: On a visit home, he bought his mother – then widowed – an electric washing machine – the first one in Blaenllechau and possibly the whole valley. He had it specially delivered from Howells of Cardiff. People walked for miles just to see it work.

      • Oh Josie! You want to… you know you do. 🤣

  4. What a fascinating connection between the two countries! Thanks for posting the poem and the background.

  5. ‘Rascal Lords’ indeed! This cheered me up to think that such connections are made and kept strong … Though I wondered how many schoolchildren rolled their eyes at having to learn a long poem, it is fascinating to think that it has become part of what my old tutor called their ‘mental furniture’.

    • When such things were permitted, I loved attending the annual Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod simply to watch the thousands of performers from all corners of the world in their brightly coloured national costumes. It is such an inspirational cultural festival, which encourages peace and friendship between diverse peoples, and it always warms my heart to see them enjoying each other’s company and connecting over music and dance. I so much hope this festival returns in the future, though it won’t be this year, I fear – well, possibly as a digital event but it isn’t quite the same. 😢

  6. Love this story, Paula. The world needs more such connections 😊

  7. I hope those good people of Kunagota were not made to take Welsh language lessons….

  8. Massacres by colonizers: the oldest stories. No matter how nations are defined today with their borders, this is a constant, it seems.

  9. I think Huw Stephens featured a painting about the 500 bards in his second programme … but they may have been different bards from a different time! Thanks for describing these links, and especially interesting that this tale should be popular in Hungary, given the authoritarian nature of its present government.

Trackbacks

  1. Wales Readathon 2021 – Book Jotter
  2. The Welsh Diaspora and its Literature – Book Jotter
  3. Winding Up the Week #161 – Book Jotter
  4. DHQ: Dewithon 2021 – Book Jotter

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