Monday, 14 January 2013

Pechod Gwreiddiol

Every now and then, I've found myself wanting to write about what I consider to be genre fiction's Original Sin, as it pertains to cultural appropriation, but until now I've always put it off.

The main reason I haven't is because I've never wanted it to appear to be a reference to any given online incident or argument. I've never wanted to be That Celt who invariably shows up in the comment section of an anti-imperialist article to point out that the Irish/Scottish/Welsh/Cornish/Whoever were the very first people that The Damned English ground beneath their heel, in a fair attempt at making a piece about the oppression of non-white people all about the oppression of a particular group of white people.

This isn't to say that I don't believe the sins of the British Empire on the British Isles themselves should be overlooked. In a way, that's what this post is all about. I just find it incredibly awkward when it's brought up during a conversation about colonialism and oppression occuring beyond Europe. So please bear this in mind as you read on; while there's no doubt that anti-Welsh bigotry still exists, in no way am I trying to claim that it's on par with other kinds of racism that I see layered in shitty streaks throughout society, or that appropriation of Welsh culture occurs in science fiction and fantasy circles in the same way as appropriation of other cultures.

But it does annoy me. I've read posts from people online who are usually very careful about issues of privilege and the like, who then lecture about definitive and correct interpretations of Arthurian legend without ever acknowledging the simple fact about all of this: these tales were stolen, lock, stock and barrel, from the people of Wales.

And stolen is absolutely the correct word for it. The transformation of the early Arthurian narratives, the insertion of new characters and stories (like Lancelot, and his subsequent affair with his King's wife), the Anglicised corruption of Welsh names (Gwenhwyfar to Guinevere, Myrddin to Merlin, and so on), the weakening of the original Welsh characters and their replacement with non-Welsh knights (loyal Bedwyr's downgrading to idiot child Bedevere, hotheaded Cai's transformation into simple-minded bully Kay)- all of these things rankle.

What makes it worse is the horrible echoes the theft of these myths have in the history of the Welsh nation over the millennium and a half since the creation of the stories. Anglicisation of Welsh place names is just one of a number of language issues, issues that are routinely and fatuously dismissed by many people (and newspapers). Like Bedwyr and Cai, we continue to be portreyed as Idiot Taffies, the intellectually impaired also-rans of the Home Nations despite the overwhelming cultural and political contributions of the Welsh, punching far above the weight of our relatively tiny population. First they took the stories we told about ourselves, then they took our land and our resources. Wales has been strip-mined for the benefit of others, metaphorically and literally.

Look, I understand it's an ancient sin. Cultural consensus appears to be that all of this passed into the realm of planetary ownership a long time ago. And perhaps that's fine, and maybe I'm just oversensitive, and after all we Welsh can frequently be our own worst enemies. God knows I seem to be one of the few Welsh people who cares about Arthurian legends in this way: the recent show Merlin was made in Wales, by Welsh people working for BBC Wales, yet barely cast a single Welsh person, chosing instead to indulge in the idea of Arthur as a very English king, owing more to the long line of English public schoolboys that preside over we peasants than the figure created as a Celtic superhuman who fought against the encroaching English.

And that's the worst blow of all. Arthur was meant as a symbol of Celtic resistance to Anglo Saxon elimination of ancient Welsh culture, yet the producers of Merlin thought it was fine for the title character to speak in an old Saxon dialect. Did they even consider lip-service to the roots of the mythology? Of course not. We, the Welsh, are an irrelevance, at times even to ourselves.

So this is why I get wound up when I see people proclaiming the supremacy of the French Arthurian adaptations, or T.H. White's execrable books, where the English are explicitly cast as heroes at war with the savage Celts. Perhaps I wouldn't feel so bad about it if so many aspects of Welsh culture weren't currently under direct threat. But they are. It's no exaggeration to say that there has been a thousand year war waged against our people and our culture, even if it's a war hasn't always been fought at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun. It's a historical fact that attempts were being made to eradicate the Welsh language less than a hundred years ago. Less than fifty years ago! Even today.

You want to see how the Welsh language is treated? Look at recent news items about how little Welsh language musicians are paid on the BBC Radio Cymru radio station compared to English language artists on Radio Wales. You want to see how people treat the Welsh themselves? Have a read of any comment section on any news website that mentions Wales. Welsh people get verbally attacked on occasion for speaking Welsh in public in our own country.

But people don't know this context. Of course they don't. As a nation, as a culture, we are essentially invisible. If I travel outside of Britain, I have to explain ad nauseum that I'm not from England. No wonder the appropriation of Wales's Arthur is a non-issue, generally uncredited as the wellspring of Tolkien, Narnia, Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and all of the rest. This act of theft forms the basis of medievalist sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction, the culture of Wales endlessly reused and recycled even as the nation itself struggles to retain its identity and language.

Maybe I shouldn't get this angry about old sins, but I do. There aren't many of us left in the world. I don't want to believe I'm part of a dying people, but sometimes I fear I am. You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't find it pleasant that it's entirely possible that one day all that's left of us will be people play-acting with the corpses of our long-dead stories.


  1. Arthur had to be appropriated by the English because he is the key to a whole can of worms. If Arthur was fighting against the English, then why? Making this period of history the stumbling-block to the desired acceptance of a seamless transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England, with the unspoken suggestion that the Anglo-Saxons were in some way descended from those who had always been here. German Invaders! Who, us!

  2. An insightful piece. It's interesting to see how the way history is taught can affect the way people feel about the present and the future.

    Do you know if there's such a thing as a 'Welsh History Month' where the real history of Wales and the Welsh might be told and celebrated?