Thursday, February 7, 2013


(Devastation or ravaging).

Llanthony Priory, Vale of Ewyas, Black Mountains, Wales, August 19, 2010 by GLV
It's Book Report night again! I got the second volume of the out-of-print but excellent historical fiction of the Black Mountains of Wales by social critic Raymond Williams, People of the Black Mountains 2: The Eggs of the Eagle (Paladin, HarperCollins, London 1992) (Paperback edition). Similar to Volume 1, it tells the history of southeast Wales through a series of fictional vignettes but from Roman times to 1415. While still relying extensively on archaeology, anthropology, and geography, Williams is able to rely more on historical events and people as he weaves his stories mostly from the perspective of the lower castes of people.

The Eagle in the subtitle refers of course to Rome. The eggs are from a mythical prophecy. There are three: the first is full of blood and fighting men; the second is a dead eagle with a live fish in its claws (that one should be fairly easy to interpret - dead civilization brings something living represented by a fish? car magnets? Anyone?; the third egg is full of yellow smoke. I won't reveal any more spoilers here.

But I will warn that while I found these books to be wonderful, they are best understood with a little background of the history and geography. I have been to this magical land where my surname originates and have read a lot of history. And I still had to stop and look at the glossary or a map or do a quick Google to figure out or remind me of some things. And so much of the Welsh references, people, and place names mystify. Yet that is part of the beauty of the Black Mountains.

Williams deals wonderfully well with Arthur. Spoilers! So I won't say anymore.

He also tells a great story with so much meaning behind it about a real place with two versions of history. Modern-day Clodock in Herefordshire on the east slopes of the mountains has a church built on the site of a 6th Century Martyr's burial. An older Welsh name for the place is Merthyr Clydawg (which is pronounced pretty much like "Martyr Clodock" but looks so much cooler in Welsh). This vignette takes place in 740 A.D. with the Welsh "High King" of Euas [Ewyas] resetting boundaries granting much more to the Church (accompanied as he was by a bishop) from what the local Welsh landowners thought they had owned. The church of St. Clydawg had been burned by invading Saxons (English) from Hereford and the bishop resets the stone marker and blesses with holy water from the sacred well the burial mound of the Saint, a grandson of Brychan Brycheiniog who produced numerous offspring of Saints (as a conquering warlord from Ireland) and got the County named after him. The bishop tells the story of the Saint full of mystical happenings relating to the martyrdom. Later on the walk around the new boundary set by the King, a local Welshman tells a Priest of another, perhaps older version of the story that while full of references to pagan gods and mysterious woodland archers with their strange ceremonies has a closer ring of reality.

The best part is the social commentary that comes out of the author to summarize the devastation of violent history.
. . . one thing this history is not - the traditional resonant clash of unitary peoples: Welsh and English, or Viking and Norman. The different peoples grouped as Cymry or Saeson were in real ways distinct - in language and culture, in customs and law. The long westward pressure of those who called themselves English changed the land and its local frontiers. Yet, within what is now accounted the clash of two nations, the real actions are more tangled. Look closer. Saxon kings and kingdoms, and rival lineages within them. Brother murders and dispossesses brother. Iago son of Idwal the Bald imprisons and dispossesses his brother Ieuaf. Ieuaf's son Hywel imprisons and dispossesses Iago . . . in Gwent, beyond Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, Arthfail son of Noe murders his brother Elise. The sons of Elise come to rule until displaced by the Saxon-sounding Edwin son of Einon. Edwin is dispossessed and blinded by Meurig ap Hywel.
A gallant people fighting an alien invader? Somewhere, somehow, it must often have been so, but always through this tangle of bloody feuding warlords.
It is even harsher as the alliances for battles are traced. The kings of south Wales go to the English King Alfred for military assistance against the Welsh of Gwynedd. Fighting Danes, the micel here of Black Gentiles [Vikings] under Haesten, invade and harry both Welsh and English. Cymry and Saeson combine under Alfred to defeat these latest aliens at Buttingtune. Other Danes, raiding from Brittany into Erging, capture a bishop, Cyfeiliog, and he is ransomed by the English King Edward the Elder.
It is now the tenth century of Christ. The ransom of the lord bishop is recorded. the rest is no more than a word: vastatio (devastation, ravaging). Mareddud king of Dyfed and Gwynedd pays Danish warriors to attack the Welsh king of Morgannwg. Warriors attack warriors, but the overthrow of a king is the burning and looting of settlements, the destruction of lands and crops. In tribute there are his power. But they are also the lives and livelihoods of all the free and unfree obscured behind his name.
Warlords can breed in a single people, disputing title and tribute. But now there are warlords of diverse peoples, harrying the same land, competing with each other under the resonant titles of race. In the eleventh century of Christ this becomes along this frontier, in the shadow of these mountains, a frenzy.
(Williams, at 160-61.)
The picture at top is of the ruins of Llanthony Priory. One vignette in the book dated 1265 A.D. tells of a monk of this priory who gives up his vows to marry a beautiful girl he meets - on the Monnow at Merthyr Clitauc, the same Merthyr Clydawg or modern Clodock in the stories of the martyr. The picture below is of Tretwr, or Tretower Castle where Conan, the former monk and his family live as he is a historian/clerk for his patron of the Picards.

Tretower Castle in the Valley of the Rhiangoll, the Stream of Singing Birds. August 19, 2010 by GLV
Conan and Eirwen his beloved wife are concerned because their two grown boys are anxious to march off to war and see the world. Their father and mother fail to convince them to stay in their beautiful green valley of the Rhiangoll. Conan walks with his sons over the mountains to see them off at the muster. On the top of the mountain he tries to explain his understanding of the world:
'We see, but yet cannot see a history. The dead are buried. The burned timbers are consumed. New honours are built, awaiting the next destruction. A man who survived the fierce battles of the Thirties [the 1230's] has a son grown ready for the fiercer battles of the Sixties. At every point around us, in any direction, we look at these strongholds of blood. Yet the lands between them, the woods and the fields still lie peacefully below us. Through a lifetime I might sit on this mountain, and in every direction, as in a single moment, see the fires of these battles staining the sky. I would hear the loud shouts of the angry assaults. Yet still below me this other land extends. Ravaged and requisitioned, roughly marched through this way and that with the contending banners brushing the branches, with the arrogant standards stuck in its red earth, the living greens still spread their sweetness. Is this then the otherworld of the old fathers? Look well and it is rather our native world. It is only the rushing blood that is alien. The old island is overridden by a devilish history. a sweet country, raped by armies.' Conan lowered his staff. He closed his eyes. 'It is to some monstrous birth of this sort that you now hurry over your mountains.' (Williams at 250.)
Looking over the Valley of the Wye where the muster was at Pipton
(but from a different mountainside at Twyn y Beddau Common) August 16, 2010 by GLV
Later, as could be expected, Conan and Eirwen mourn at the top of Tretwr for the son that did not come home:
'I wish with all my heart,' he said fiercely, 'that I had never at all understood this world.'
Eirwen released his hand and looked up at him. 'But it has been your whole life, understanding. As Father Teilo or as yourself, as Conan.'
'Yes, but I wish with all my heart that it had never been so. For then the blow falls twice. Once as it falls on all who are bereaved. But then again, as sharply, on those who have read the signs and understood them. That is the second blow, that we know such things must happen while our world remains of this kind.'
(Williams at 258-59.)
We visited Tretower because it was later owned by the Vaughan family to which we are connected by winding genealogies and the sharing of a surname. The Vaughans, sad to say, had their share of brutality as warriors and warlords from these mountains. But now the life of my family is relatively peaceful. And so is the beautiful green valley of the Rhiangoll - -

- - Yet, as we were walking back from the castle, a RAF jet roared and screamed down the valley of the singing birds near tree-level. A child near me started to cry. An elderly British tourist mumbled a curse under his breath. To lighten the mood, I slipped out my standard joke, "I hope it's one of ours!" It probably sounded pretty silly with my American accent.

The U.S. is closely allied with the U.K. these days. We've shared some wars in foreign lands with warlords of various types. I hope that young pilot will one day be home safe in his or her green valley. Too many blows. Vastatio.

I highly recommend the book - and the valley of singing birds.

The low-flying jets in the Black Mountains are controversial as this report from the BBC demonstrates. (You can see pictures similar to the jet we saw zooming the Rhiangoll at this site from more of a fan of such flights.)

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