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Astonishing Guide Breathes New Life Into Welsh Literature

The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton

Guide to Welsh Literature

The statistics alone make the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking:

  • 825 pages (including a bibliography 63 pages long);
  • 34 contributors by leading academics from Wales, England, North America, Canada and Australia and
  • essays spanning 15 centuries of Welsh literature.

This is the first truly comprehensive guide to the literary traditions and heritage of Wales. The last attempt at such a book was in 1955 but it focussed exclusively on people writing in the medium of the Welsh language. It also went only as far as the end of the 19th century.

The editors of the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature took a more holistic view; seeing English/Welsh bilingualism as the ‘norm’ and the two languages existing in harmony not conflict.

They argue that much of contemporary Welsh literature is the product of that bilingual culture. Dylan Thomas – the author best known within and without of Wales – is a product of that culture, they assert. His exposure to both languages from his childhood years, made him the poet that people love.  “The languages are not in opposition to each other,: said Geraint Evans, “one could not exist without the other.”

From battlefields to industrial sites

The two editors eschew a chronological approach in favour of a thematic series of essays that show how Welsh literature was – and continues to be – influenced by significant political and cultural changes.

Some essays examine the  tradition of poetry and prose writing that begins in post-Roman times, with poetry like Y Gododdin, supposedly an eye witness account of men slaughtered in battle. Other chapters look at the Welsh love of myth and legend, reflected in the tales of The Mabinogion, and the birth of the Eisteddfod as a celebration of music, poetry and prose in the Welsh language. A key chapter considers how the discovery of rich coal seams in South Wales, which transformed a previously agricultural country into a powerhouse of industry, influenced authors like Gwyn Thomas.  

Coming up to the present day, much of the later section of the book considers the impact that devolution and self-governance in 1999 had on the attitudes and pre-occupations of contemporary writers.

What the essays show is that many of the earlier authors writing in Wales shared a love of the land  and the country But today’s authors see themselves more in the context of the city, not the countryside.

Welsh literature on the world stage

Is there a need for a book of this nature?

The two authors – as you’d expect – are in no doubt.  “We felt there was a huge gap,” said Professor Helen Fulton.

People know about The Mabinogion and Dylan Thomas but generally there is a lack of knowledge about what is one of the oldest continual literary traditions in Europe. We want our guide to show how Welsh literature is a rich and genuinely international literature.

Cambridge guide_Welsh literature

Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton at the launch of their definitive guide to Welsh literature

She has a point. Ask a room of even well-read people to name a Welsh author and there’s a high likelihood they won’t get further than Dylan Thomas. They’re highly unlikely to name some of the authors and titles I’ve listed on my page 86 novels from Wales. As talented as these authors are, they’re not in the same league as their Irish or Scottish authors, a fact highlighted  by one of the audience members at a launch event in Swansea. There is no Welsh equivalent of Colm Toibin, or Oscar Wilde, or James Joyce, he pointed out.

The signs are however promising that interest in Welsh literature is increasing. The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature has sold well in the United States where it fits well with study programmes on comparative literature.  There is active discussion also within Wales about changing the schools curriculum to ensure it contains some texts from Wales. 

Perhaps this is the case of the right book at the right time?

The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature: Quick Facts

The guide is published by Cambridge University Press as a companion publication in their long-established series which includes guides to literature in English, children’s literature, Shakespeare and women’s writing. The Guide to Welsh Literature was published in June 2019.

Professor Helen Fulton  trained as a Celticist at the University of Oxford and has since specialised in medieval Welsh literature and its connections with other Celtic literatures and with the literatures of medieval England. She is currently Chair of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol’s Department of English

Geraint Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Swansea University.  His research interests include literary modernism, Welsh writing in English and the history of the book in Britain.

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