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This report is taken from PN Review 124, Volume 25 Number 2, November - December 1998.

Letter from Wales Sam Adams

The Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales is a peculiar institution, and I do not mean that in the sense that only the Welsh have an annual gathering of competitors in literature, art and music, or relish the opportunity for a chinwag with old friends from distant parts. It is peculiar because of its origins and history, and most of all perhaps for the extraordinary influence that one man had upon the familiar ceremonies of the event as it unfolds today. It was this man, Edward Williams (1747-1826), the son of a stonemason from Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan, with no formal schooling, who linked the revival of druidism to the notion of bardic competition in a form that still survives. He honoured himself with a bardic name, Iolo Morganwg, and membership of a tradition stretching into the distant Celtic past.

His imaginative leap was in the right direction. The druids seem to have been cult priests and the perambulating repositories of the oral history, knowledge and wisdom of their people. Without books or pictures of the past, they relied upon memory for their learning, and to assist memorising they employed the devices of an extraordinarily complex prosody. Although their religious significance waned with the coming of Christianity, the importance of poetry, and of technical proficiency to the poet, did not. Iolo held - and most agree with him - that the druids evolved into a powerful and exclusive, self-regulating guild of bards, who had the functions ...
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