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THE MATTER OF WALES: Epic Views of a Small Country by Jan Morris

THE MATTER OF WALES: Epic Views of a Small Country


Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Epic indeed: no mere travel book or casual encyclopedia. Morris herself is half-Welsh--she seems, in fact, to know the language well, judging from her many quotations of original material--and frames every chapter with a pointed reference to Owain Glyndwr (Owen Glendower, 13597-1416?), the legendary rebel (who came closest to winning his country's independence. These days, with Wales so thoroughly integrated into British life, and only 1/5th of its 2,750,000 inhabitants speaking Cymraeg, the prospects for independence, except of a shaky cultural kind, aren't very good; but that doesn't dampen Morris' fiery celebration of Welsh-ness. She evokes, or mentions, just about everything: Welsh geology, flora and fauna, the cathedral of Dewi Sant (St. David), the Methodist chapels (Wesley visited Wales 46 times) with their ecstatic revivals, the innumerable Welsh castles (the most insensitive, she says is Caernarfon, the most astonishing Caerphilly, the most daunting is Dinefwr, the most exhilarating is Cardiff. . .), Welsh choirs, Welsh lust (Lloyd George et al.), the eisteddfodau, the Welsh character (Giraldus Cambrensis noted their ""boldness and confidence in speaking,"" their stubbornness, patriotism, love of alcohol, hospitality, facetiousness, and care of their teeth), the grim saga of the Welsh coal pits (439 miners killed in the great explosion at Senghennydd in 1913), and on and on. Morris recalls the Governor of the Western Pacific, Sir Hugh Wyn-Thomas, who was a virtuoso on the Tongan nose flute--as opposed to the anonymous African who settled in northwest Wales in the 1740s, converted to Christianity, and died in 1791 bitterly repenting his violin-playing on the Sabbath; speaking of which, Rabbi Kenneth Cohen recited (1982) the first-ever Jewish prayer in Welsh. But Morris isn't especially interested in trivia--just in serving up a feast of heroic proportions--scenery, history, poetry, architecture, whatever--and her guests will stagger away from the table. Elegantly written, fabulously informative, marvelously intimate--and too too much, perhaps, for many readers.