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The Eisteddfod

The Welsh are a nation of singers. Wherever you get a crowd of Welshmen, whether they're down the mine, in the factory or waiting on the platform for a train, they just can't help bursting into song. "Anyone," said Mr Evans, "who has heard a crowd of 50,000 Welshmen before a Rugby match at Cardiff singing Land of my Fathers,* will never forget it." You could hardly find a town in Wales,however small, that hasn't a choir. Its conductor isn't a trained musician; he may be only a miner, an agricultural labourer or "Jones the milk";** but the university lecturer or the doctor's daughter will be happy to work under his leadership. The choir will gather in the little chapel almost every night for practice - for they are preparing for the Eisteddfod, and the pieces set for competition (this year they are two difficult works by Bach and Brahms) need a lot of practice to bring them to perfection. I should think the Welsh are the only people in the world whose only national festival is devoted to music and poetry. For that is what an Eisteddfod is. During the week of the competition about a hundred thousand people will travel to the Eisteddfod to hear the competitors and listen to the judges' decisions.

* (Land of my Fathers - the Welsh National Anthem sung always in Welsh.)

** ("Jones the milk" - there are so many people in Wales called Jones that it is sometimes necessary to refer to their occupations to distinguish one from the other; e. g. Jones the school, Jones the bread.)

The Eisteddfod is one of the oldest of all Welsh customs; the first one of which we have any record was held in the 6th century, and as early as A. D. 940 the prize for the winning "bard" (poet) was a chair or throne. And that is still the prize today. In medideval times every chieftain used to keep a bard, and there were other bards who wandered about the country singing songs and making poems. There must have been quite a lot of poor singing and bad poetry then, for Queen Elizabeth I ordered an Eisteddfod to be held every year with the object of raising the standard of music and getting rid of the lazy, worthless bards.

By a stroke of great good fortune for Frieda and me, the Eisteddfod was due to take place this year at Caernarvon* at the very time that we were in North Wales. Mr Evans has a brother who lives in Caernarvon and he invited us to stay at his house the night before the meeting opened. "For," said Mr Evans, "we must be up early tomorrow morning to see the Gorsedd." "What's a Gorsedd?" I asked. "You'll see, tomorrow," he replied.

* (Caernarvon - the country town of Caernarvonshire, North Wales.)

So, early next morning we all went to a large grassy field or park just outside Caernarvon. The streets were busy with people and in the field there was a large crowd gathered round a circle of big stones, with an "altar stone" in the middle. Soon I could see a procession coming slowly towards the stone circle. And very colourful it was. First there were four men carrying on their shoulders a kind of platform on which was an enormous golden horn. ("That's the Hirlas Horn, the 'Horn of Plenty'," said Mr Evans. "It's kept all the year in the museum at Cardiff.") Behind them walked men in white robes. "The Druids," said Mr Evans. "Druidism was a culture and a religion that existed in Wales in the very earliest times. Caesar* and Tacitus** wrote about the Druids against whom the Romans fought in Anglesey. They were white-robed priests and law-givers who held their meetings in the woods where they offered up human sacrifices. [...]

* (Caesar - Gaius Julius Caesar (101-44 В. C.), a Roman warrior, states- man, dictator and writer.)

** (Tacitus - Cornelius Tacitus (58-118), a Roman historian.)

By this time the "Druids" had come to the stone circle and now stood in a double row before the altar stone. And then, between the lines of Druids came a man dressed in green and carrying a long two-handed sword. Behind him came a tall, bearded man in white, and wearing a great breastplate. "The Chief Druid," whispered Mr Evans. A friendly Welshman next to me pointed to one of the "bards". "That's Cadwallo," he said "a great poet." I looked at the man he had pointed to and said to Mr Evans, "But that's the Rev. J. A. Hughes, our parson at Capel Curig,* isn't it?" "Yes," he said, "but all our great poets are known by their 'bardic' names."

* (Capel Curig - a little village in Wales (capel - Welsh for chapel).)

Then the ceremony of the Gorsedd began. The sword-bearer drew the great sword from its sheath. One by one the Druids came forward and put theit hands on it. Then the Chief Druid called out in a loud voice something in Welsh. "He says, 'Is it peace?"' whispered Mr Evans. The Chief Druid shouted this three times, and each time the crowd called back, "It is peace." A woman dressed in red and carrying the golden horn came forward to the Chief Druid. He touched it, and she slowly walked back to her place. Then the Chief Druid stepped on to the altar stone and made a long speech in Welsh. I didn't understand a word of it but the audience loved it. Other bards spoke and the crowd enjoyed every minute of it. Then there were prayers in Welsh and, at the end of this, new bards, men and women dressed in blue robes, were brought before the Chief Druid. These were people who had done some particularly good work in poetry or music. The Chief Druid shook hands with them and gave each of them a bardic name by which he would be called at all future Gorsedds. Then the procession formed again; the great sword was held high above the heads of the people; bards and Druids moved off slowly; the crowds began to fade away; the Eisteddfod was opened.

In the afternoon we went to the Eisteddfod. An enormous tent had been put up. "It holds 10,000 people," said Mr Evans, "that's as many as the Albert Hall in London holds." There were thousands of people there, going into the Eisteddfod tent or sitting on the grass outside. We took our places inside. The three best competitors in each event had been chosen in "preliminary" trials, and now soloists and choirs came in turn to sing, to play the harp, to speak their poems, while the judges listened and, at the end of the event, announced the winner and gave reasons for their choice. Though I enjoyed the music I couldn't understand anything else, for at the Eisteddfod everything is done in Welsh. One of the most interesting competitions (at least for those who understand Welsh) is "pennillion" singing. In this the competitors are accompanied on the harp and have to make up their song as they go along.

But the great event comes at the end. This is the choosing of the "crowned bard", the greatest honour the Eisteddfod can give. For a whole year bards have been working at a poem on a subject that has been set by the judges. The poems have been sent to the judges before the Eisteddfod starts and have been carefully studied by the Council of the Druids. I looked round the scene. The tent was now crowded, every seat was taken and people were standing in the passageways. There was a tremendous feeling of excitement and expectation. The trumpets sounded, and in procession came all the bards that we had seen at the Gorsedd. The Chief Druid took his seat in the centre. Again the trumpets sounded and in a silence that you could almost feel the Chief Druid said, "The Crown has been won by ... (there was a pause) CADWALLO."

There was a great burst of cheering. The audience were on their feet. Mr Evans was jumping about with excitement and joy; the crown had been won by Mr Hughes, the parson of his village. I could see Mr Hughes at the back of the tent. Two bards from the platform went towards him and, one at each side of him, brought him to the platform. He was told to sit on a finely-carved chair of Druid's oak that is to be his prize. They put a robe of purple on him with white fur at the edges. The great sword was held over him, and the Chief Druid came forward and put a crown on his head. The Chief Bard read the poem that Cadwallo had written and, though of course I couldn't understand it, the crowd clearly agreed completely with the Druids' decision.

So the Eisteddfod ended.

(Essential English for Foreign Students by C. E. Eckersley)

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