The Eisteddfod Genedlaethol is under way in Cardiff city centre at the moment. More than just a word that my father has never been able to pronounce the Eisteddfod is arguably the apex of Welsh-language culture. I say "arguably" because when I criticise it, Welsh-speaking Welsh are often eager to back away from it, seemingly suggesting that just over the hill there is some higher greater better cultural element that I have yet to encounter.
But how can you get higher greater better than a teenage girl singing a harp-accompanied ode to Doctor Who? That's really as about as good as it gets.
Or, at least, as good as it gets in Eisteddfod, which is why I may not go this year.
The girl in that clip is performing a Welsh folk art known as cerdd dant. Literally translated as "tooth poem" (a) traditionally it is improvised verse and melody to harp accompaniment -- a sort of old-fashioned version of freestyle rap. In days of yore, cerdd dant was a raucous affair, described in 1852 as being home to: "all sorts of babblers, revellers, balladeers, common bards, minstrels, gluttons, drinkers, drunkards – the dregs of the world and rejects of all kinds."
But you don't see that in the clip above, do you? Cerdd dant is no longer improvised. It is strictly metered; its soul has been removed and you are left with an experience that looks like it should be a parody of itself. It's like what would happen if the evangelistas that are ruining Minnesota took an interest in crunk.
That's an apt comparison. Somewhere along the way, Welsh culture was hijacked by nonconformist denominations like our friends the Methodists and they went about removing all the fun things from folk tradition. For example, one of the reasons novel writing in Welsh didn't really take off until a good 300 years after it occurred everywhere else in the western world was the nonconformist belief that the self-deception is sin. The only reason to read anything, they argued, is to pursue truth. And of course, the greatest truth is the word of God. Reading fanciful lies will only put you on that terrible path paved with unbought stuffed dogs.
Welsh-speaking culture was for a long time dominated by this brand of religion. A few years down the line and Eisteddfod now often feels like a county fair that has been sanitized for your spiritual protection. But in the modern age it leaves you with something hollow. There are exceptions, but for the most part the Welsh populace cannot be defined as "churchgoing" (b). Eisteddfod is a church event without God. It is a car without an engine; a car that is polished and cherished and promulgated as being of such quality that it would rival any other in the world -- all the while never actually going anywhere.
Eisteddfod events remove the folk element of folk traditions. Music of a people is removed from the people, placed on a vacuous stage and judged according to strict standards. Watch this group. Perhaps not your thing but you can certainly imagine (especially once they get going, from about 1:10) enjoying it if you were packed into a pub with them -- if this music of a people was amidst people.
Set up on a huge empty stage and sterilized of its element, it looks sad. It is folk culture in a display case. An extinct animal in formaldehyde. And of course, in one of those moves that underlines my concern that Eisteddfod is a lost cause, that group came in third, behind this romp-stomping performance.
In the absence of religious oppression, you would think that things would be improving, that Eisteddfod would be an event featuring the vitality and roots of a living culture rather than a stoic exhibit of what managed to survive the nonconformist years. Nope. Because Welsh speakers still try to justify themselves according to English standards.
Here's a thing that the Welsh won't tell you: they like the English. More correctly, they want to be liked by the English. Unlike their Celtic cousins, whose animosity toward the English is rooted in the oppression and brutality of things like the Highland clearances and Bloody Sunday, Welsh animosity comes from a desire to be loved. Come on England, we learned your language, got pretty good at your rugby, provided the advisors, soldiers and coal that helped you build an empire, and we've incorporated all of the things that you do -- and still you make fun of our accents. That hurts.
Eisteddfod is a tradition that goes back a fair amount of time but pretty much ceased to be a regular occurrence by the time of Henry VIII. Some 250 years later, the thing was re-imagined by a load of Welsh blokes living in London. The Welsh loved London in those days and spent a lot of time writing poems about how awesome it was and encouraging everyone they knew to move there. But you have to think they got a fair amount of stick from all their high-society English pals, and so they went at it quite doggedly to prove their worth in English eyes and eisteddfod was recreated. The first modern eisteddfod was held in London, on Primrose Hill (which is not in Greenwich).
That mentality is still very much at the heart of Eisteddfod -- an attempt to display Welsh value in English currency. The end result is a whole lot of stuff that is utterly ridiculous and wholly un-Welsh. It is an attempt to praise and exhibit and define Welshness according to what the Welsh think the English might like.
It is staid, boring, lifeless, irrelevant and costs £12 ($24) to get in. That entrance fee and government funding go toward prize money for the various competitors. I have to wonder how many people would be singing falsely august odes to science fiction characters if they weren't being paid to do so. You could argue that if the competitors weren't winning money, traditions like cerdd dant might die out entirely. But compared to what it was, isn't it dead already?
Literature was the original purpose of eisteddfod, and there is still life there. It is even developing in some cases. But does this money create perimeters that confine art? When Mererid Hopwood won the Prose Medal, she joked that she had done so simply for the sake of having a major Eisteddfod award to match each of her children.
"I thought, 'I'll settle the count and see if I can't get another little thing,'" she said.
It's something said in jest but considering that this is a woman who has won two other major prizes, you have to think that she knows, somewhere in the back of her head, how to play the game. She's good, but she's also good at knowing what will win her several thousands of pounds. Does this then create a situation where writers fudge on their natural artistic direction for the sake of being able to win money?
And although literature is at the heart of Eisteddfod, it is a heart that is hidden. You don't get to read the novels and short stories and such until after the fact. In the actual event, awards are given for things you know nothing about -- it's like not watching any films and then trying to care about the Oscars. And it is surrounded by a mouth-dryingingly dull haze of things irrelevant and pathetic.
The overwhelming majority of Eisteddfod can be summed up by this bloke -- lots of hoopla and no substance. Or, in the immortal words of James Landeros: "Too much show, not enough choir."
(a) Not really. That would be "cerdd ddant." Whereas "cerdd dant" literally means "string poem."
(b) I'm faltering here and using the American definition of "churchgoing," which means attending any place of worship -- not necessarily Anglican, or even Christian.