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  • J. R. R. Tolkien and W. Rhys Roberts’s “Gerald of Wales on the Survival of Welsh”
  • Douglas A. Anderson (bio)

The recent discovery of a new bit of J. R. R. Tolkien's scholarship, published early in his professional career, deserves some attention and description. It consists of a translation into a twelfth-century Middle English dialect of a portion of a paragraph from a contemporaneous Latin text. The translation, made at the request of a colleague, provides us with another example of Tolkien's close thinking with regard to language and of the range of his expertise in Middle English and its texts.

Tolkien taught at the University of Leeds from 1920 through 1925, and during the first few years that he was at Leeds one of his colleagues was W[illiam] Rhys Roberts (1858-1929), the Professor of Classics at Leeds from 1904 until his retirement in 1923. Roberts's chief work was on Greek rhetorical writers—he edited and translated, among other things, Longinus's On the Sublime (1899) [Longinus, De Sublimitate], Demetrius on Style (1902) [Demetrius, De Elocutione], Aristotle's Rhetorica (1908), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus on Literary Composition (1910) [Dionysius, De Compositione Verborum].

Shortly before his retirement Roberts read a paper at Leeds that contains the small piece of Tolkien's scholarship. An unsuccessful attempt was made to have Roberts present this same paper in London during the 1923-24 session of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, but in the end it appeared in their transactions without having been read to the society. The Cymmrodorion was a society whose aims (as stated in the masthead of its publications) included "the promotion of intellectual culture by the encouragement of Literature, Science, and Art, as connected with Wales."

Roberts's paper concerns a portion of the twelfth century Latin text of "The Description of Wales" [Descriptio Kambriae], written by the churchman called Giraldus Cambrensis, now generally known by the English form of his name, Gerald of Wales. Gerald (c. 1145-1223) was three quarters Norman and one quarter Welsh. He wrote some seventeen books, all of them in Latin. His most well-known is probably "The Journey through Wales" [Itinerarium Kambriae], which records a mission through Wales taken in 1188 by Gerald as a companion of Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury. "The Journey through Wales" was apparently [End Page 230] written in 1191, and Gerald wrote "The Description of Wales" immediately afterwards as a kind of social study of the Welsh people and of Wales itself.

The closing chapters of "The Description of Wales" give Gerald's view of how the Welsh might be conquered and thereafter governed, while the final part consists of a rebuttal on "How the Welsh can best fight back and keep up their resistance." I quote this section at length from the modern English translation by Lewis Thorpe in order to show the context of the concluding prophecy:

I have set out the case for the English with considerable care and in some detail. I myself am descended from both peoples, and it seems only fair that I should now put the opposite point of view. I therefore turn to the Welsh in this final chapter of my book, and I propose to give them some brief, but I hope effective, instruction in the art of resistance.

forget their Trojan blood and the majesty of their kings who once ruled over Britain, a realm which was so great and a dynasty which lasted so long. During the military expedition which Henry II, King of the English, led against them in South Wales in our own lifetime [i.e., in 1163], an old man living in Pencader (which means the Head of the Chair), who had joined the King's forces against his own people, because of their evil way of life, was asked what he thought of the royal army, whether it could withstand the rebel troops and what the outcome of war would be. "My Lord King," he replied, "this nation may now be harassed, weakened and decimated by your soldiery, as it has often been by others in former times; but it will never be totally destroyed by the wrath...