John McNamara

title.none: Henken, National Redeemer (McNamara)

identifier.other: baj9928.9805.006 98.05.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John McNamara, University of Houston,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Henken, Elissa R. National Redeemer: Owain Glyndwr in Welsh Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 250. $18.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-48349-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.05.06

Henken, Elissa R. National Redeemer: Owain Glyndwr in Welsh Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 250. $18.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-48349-2.

Reviewed by:

John McNamara
University of Houston

For over a decade, scholars interested in the early history, hagiography and folklore of Wales have recognized Elissa Henken's books on Welsh saints' lives as the definitive treatments of their subject.[1] In this recent book on the extraordinary late medieval hero Owain Glyndwr, she has extended her research to one of the most significant culture heroes in all Welsh secular history, and she has once again produced a work that will point the direction for further research for many years to come. Those who are not specialists will perhaps remember this Owain as Shakespeare's Glendower, but historians have long sought to get at the "real" Glyndwr behind this biased image. What Elissa Henken brings that is new to this quest are the training and research methods of a folklorist in addition to the demanding methodology of the historian. Thus, in her study she shows how folklore and history commingle, how history becomes folklore and folklore becomes history. In doing so, she can more fully account for the cultural (and even political) significance of narrative memories of Glyndwr than would have been possible in a more "purely historical" approach. As she points out in her Introduction, her study is about one polysemous hero in one particular culture, but it is also about how, in the confluence of folklore, history and literature, people create and maintain their group identity, using heroes and reworking folklore as necessary to give them the strength and cultural tools to survive and accomplish their aims (1).

As such, she provides a model for similar studies of culture heroes in other times and other places.

Henken provides historical background in Chapter 1, quickly sketching the life of Glyndwr from his birth around 1354, through his legal training at the Inns of Court, his service in Richard II's Scottish wars in 1385 and 1387, and his comfortable life as a Welsh gentleman until Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard to become Henry IV in 1399. At that point, the fortunes of the Welsh under English rule radically changed with heavy new taxes imposed by Henry, and political unrest among all classes throughout Wales prepared for the success of Glyndwr's rising. Glyndwr himself broke with the English king and parliament because of his unfair treatment in a land dispute with a neighboring English lord, one Reginald Grey, who may have conspired to turn Henry IV against him. On September 16, 1400, Glyndwr's supporters declared him prince of Wales, and four days later he attacked Lord Grey's town of Rhuthun. Thus began a rebellion that included numerous successes against English forces and for a brief time almost secured the greater part of Wales as an independent state. During the height of his power, Glyndwr also sought to establish the independence of the Welsh church from English authority, with a metropolitan see at St. David's, and he planned an educational system that would include founding universities in North and South Wales. Eventually, however, the English fought their way back to control almost all of Wales, and in 1415 Henry V offered a general pardon to Glyndwr and his followers if they would submit to English rule. Glyndwr refused to do so, and he disappeared into the realm of legend. As Henken points out, "Nothing more is known of him after that time. Nevertheless . . .Glyndwr left a legacy of hope for a free and independent Welsh state. His war is not lost, only unfinished" (7).

Following a review of sources from the later middle ages to modern times, Henken introduces the concept of the redeemer- hero as the model for legends about Glyndwr, with whom she compares the legends of Arthur in certain respects. As she defines this category,

I use the term redeemer-hero for the hero who has never really died, but who, either in sleep or in a distant land, awaits the time when his people will need him, when he will return and restore the land to its former glory (or in some cases to an unprecedented future glory). This type of hero, a familiar figure quickly recognized, has appeared in many cultures and many lands. In each case, throughout his varied manifestations, the redeemer-hero's development has been precipitated by the occurrence of two necessary conditions: the first, that a group has a sense of itself as a people, distinct from all others, and the second, that its members believe themselves to be oppressed by an outside group. (23)

Henken goes on in Chapter 2 to situate Glyndwr as seventh in a series of eight Welsh redeemer-heroes, preceded by Arthur (the fourth) and followed by Henry Tudor as the last (28). She argues that a particular leader would be recognized as a redeemer-hero to the extent that the events of the leader's career conformed, or could be made to conform, to the legendary pattern. Moreover, the specific kind of redeemer-hero that Henken wants to establish here is that of the national redeemer: "Eventually, with the development of nationalism, the oppressors became another nation and it was the whole people, the whole nation, not just the poor or the approved form of Christian, who could look for salvation" through their "national redeemer" (24). She recognizes the difficulties in defining such terms as nationalism and even nationhood, and so she adds,

As the historian R. R. Davies points out for the thirteenth century, but certainly with far wider application, a sense of national identity is not dependent on people sharing the systems and institutions of unitary governance. 'For national identity, like class, is a matter of perception as much as of institutions' [2] (24).

Using this distinction, Henken then proceeds throughout the rest of Chapter 2 to establish how Welsh national redeemers were perceived in various legends according to this common pattern - of course allowing, as every folklorist must, for variations within the pattern in specific contexts.

Chapter 3 treats "Legends of Glyndwr the Redeemer" at great length, focusing first on the ways he was perceived to fulfill prophesies, and then on the importance of his disappearance rather than death, so that his return could be awaited by centuries of Welsh, even up to the present day: "The folk community (as opposed to the historians) accepts the possibility that Glyndwr never died. So strong are the longings and dreams which keep him alive, that even academic historians must take note of them" (69). Accordingly, Henken clarifies the specific nature and functions of these Glyndwr legends within the Welsh context, showing what is distinctive about them through her very helpful comparisons with the legendry of Arthur and of Robert the Bruce.

Henken next analyzes patterns within the Welsh legendry in Chapter 4, "The Multifaceted Character of Owain Glyndwr." Here she discusses the various roles, familiar to folklorists, that Glyndwr was seen to fulfill in the legends about him. In numerous stories he is frequently a trickster figure, as in his "dressing wooden poles in coats and caps so that at a distance they look like soldiers, a trick which in legendry has saved many a fort and garrison for the French Foreign Legion and the US Cavalry" (90). After comparing Glyndwr as trickster to such other medieval outlaws as Hereward the Wake, William Wallace, and Robin Hood, Henken draws attention to the function of the trickster figure in this legendry:

Through playing the fool (both fooling and being fooled), the trickster refashions the world and establishes cultural norms, often providing important features of culture, such as fire and basic foods. Moreover, by turning the world, or at least expectations, upside down, the trickster clarifies societal conditions, underscoring both the good and the oppressive. (105)

Important as such general observations are, Henken is also careful to localize the specific funtions of legends within the specific places where they have been related -- for example, noting that the coats and caps on poles legend seems to be "centred on Glyndwr's home area of Corwen" (90). Likewise, she exercises the same care in discussing Glyndwr's other roles: as social outlaw, as master of escape, as culture hero, as Welsh nobleman and warrior, as destroyer, as fierce avenger, as master of magical arts, and as international folk hero. These roles, along with various associated motifs, have long been studied by folklore scholars, but it is the strength of Henken's treatment of them that she again and again explains their functions within very specific Welsh cultural and political contexts.

It appears that after Glyndwr's disappearance heroic treatments of him and what many at first considered his failed rebellion were taboo, and his legends only gradually began to appear in the mid- to late-15th century, or a generation or two after his disappearance. Henken provides excellent analysis of the ways certain legends entered "official" history and how, especially from Holinshed (1577) onward, both Welsh and English historians authorized the legends they related, passing them on from one historical account to another for centuries with little or no critical treatment of their sources. Thus, in Chapter 5, "Local Hero and Nationalist Symbol," she turns to modern narratives about Glendwyr taken partly from written sources, but mainly from the oral traditions she researched while doing fieldwork in various parts of Wales. She gives a fine account of her fieldwork, noting both the advantages she had as a fluent speaker of Welsh and the disadvantages of still being regarded by some as an "outsider" despite that fluency. She came to realize that the legends that persisted at the national level tended to have been written down or performed in popular media, without great variation in content or function, while legends told by local speakers were typically circulating in oral tradition and showed considerable local variation. Yet even accounting for localization and variation, orally transmitted legendry nevertheless "still points in the same direction as the major theme at the national level -^ a leader endeavouring to redeem his nation" (146).

In discussing legends she recorded from a wide variety of tellers, Henken pieces together the continuing memories of Owain Glyndwr in modern Welsh cultural and political life. She shows how these legends are used to combat erosion of Welsh identity, linked by many to the widespread loss of the Welsh language (161-63), and to enhance national pride. Indeed, the revival of Welsh pride may be seen in the growth of a nationalist movement of which Glyndwr has been called "the father" (176). This enthusiasm is not altogether new, of course, since it began to emerge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when, as happened in other countries as well, the romantic movement fueled much nationalist passion. In Wales, this romantic nationalism was promoted by Iolo Morganwg, who took to druids and made up ceremonies for them, integrated the ancient bardic congress into a reborn eisteddfod, and included tales of Glyndwr in collections featuring him as a Welsh hero (166). Henken shows how Glyndwr displaced even Arthur in Welsh affections in the 19th and 20th centuries because he appeared as a truly Welsh national symbol, whereas Arthur had been appropriated by the English with books, movies and television depicting him as an English king (192-93). Henken concludes with reflections on the processes by which local legends can be employed to produce a national symbol in the person of Owain Glyndwr.

While it might seem ungracious to express even minor reservations over such an excellent work of research and analysis, let me mention two such points in passing. First, I think that Henken's use of "nation" and "nationalism" could have been analyzed more fully. Not all historians or folklorists would agree that nationhood is more a matter of perception than institutions, both formal and informal. In particular, it is not always clear how the Welsh have conceived themselves as "a nation," and while Henken does represent some of the complexity of this problem in reporting her interviews, it would have added to her project to have addressed that problem directly and in greater detail. Second, in analyzing the stories her storytellers told her, Henken concentrates mainly on their content, form and, as noted above, their functions in Welsh society today. Her analyses are excellent, and she takes care to identify her legend bearers and the contexts in which they related their narratives to her. Even so, at times she could have gone further to describe the contexts in which these legend bearers recounted their stories about Glyndwr to one another. For example, do these tellers share their Glyndwr legends as part of their everyday interactions or mainly on certain occasions of special cultural or political significance? Also, while acknowledging the advantage Henken had as a fluent Welsh speaker in eliciting stories from native Welsh speakers, may we ask whether that segment of the population might have a different investment in traditions about Glyndwr as a national redeemer than other Welsh who are not fluent in the language ^ - or perhaps choose not to be?

But these reservations, or at least questions, should not detract from the solid merits of this book. Her quotations of written and oral sources in Welsh, with her own English translations, are alone sufficient to make her work invaluable. But far more than that, Elissa Henken has produced a superb work that should earn the gratitude of historians and folklorists alike, demonstrating clearly the value of bringing the perspectives and research methods of each field to enrich the other in studying the cultural history and significance of a figure such as Owain Glyndwr.


1. Henken, Elissa R. Traditions of the Welsh Saints. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987; followed by her The Welsh Saints: A Study in Patterned Lives. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991.

2. "Law and National Identity in Thirteenth-Century Wales," Welsh Society and Nationhood: Historical Essays Presented to Glanmor Williams. R. R. Davies, Ralph A Griffiths, Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, and Kenneth O. Morgan, eds. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 1984. P. 52.