Chris Lynch's Reviews > The Four Ancient Books of Wales

The Four Ancient Books of Wales by William Forbes Skene
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's review
Dec 18, 11

Skene's 19th century anthology of ancient welsh bardic poetry presents poems from the Book of Taliesen, the Red Book of Hergest, The Black Book of Caermarthen and the Book of Aneurin; these manuscripts written in the 12th century are believed to contain items of poetry that date from the 6th. The first half of the book is an academic analysis by Skene of the provenance of these poems and cross-references the events they refer to against other sources such as Gildas' Historia Britonum. There is also a discussion of the murky history of the various tribes and petty kingdoms of Britain that made up the political, cultural and lingusitic landscape of the land from the time that Roman rule came to an end, and on throughout the period of the Anglo-Saxon incursions which are described in these poems as seen through the eyes of the Welsh bards of these times. This includes a section devoted to the Pictish people who were eventually to vanish from the cultural landscape of Britain, subsumed into the Gaels.

The latter half of the book presents the translated poems themselves, in which Skene has shuffled the 4 books and grouped the poems of all 4 together in his hypothesised chronological order of the events that they refer to, so that for example one might read a poem first from the Red Book of Hergest, then the Book of Taliesin, then the Black Book of Caermarthen - all of which allude to the same events.

The poems contain a number of fragmentary references to the folk hero-figure of Arthur; also other figures that appear in the Arthurian cycle such as Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Uther Pendragon, Merlin, and Sir Kay.

It should be said that a very large proportion of these poems are discussions of historical events - by which, this being 6th century Britain, we mean battles, conquests, slaughters and assasinations. Whilst interesting from an academic, historical viewpoint, from an aesthetic viewpoint the writing becomes a bit of a wearisome slog of sameness after a point.

However, towards the end of the book, things pick up when we reach the 'Miscellaneous Poems' that do not refer to historical events. I found some of these to be quite beautiful and evocative pieces of writing and superior from a poetic standpoint to the somewhat repetitive battle lays and songs praising or mourning this or that ruler which came before.

To sum up - this is not an easy book if you are looking for something to read for pleasure, but it does offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives and minds of people living in 'Dark Age' Britain.
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