The earliest Welsh literature is preserved in about half a dozen manuscripts written with one exception after the 12th cent. However, the literature was highly developed well before the Norman Conquest. Of early extant works the most important, the so-called Four Ancient Books of Wales, are The Book of Aneurin, The Book of Taliesin, The Black Book of Caemarthen, and The Red Book of Hergest. Much of the poetry in these manuscripts is credited to four late 6th-century bards—Aneurin, Taliesin, Myrddin (the Merlin of Arthurian romance), and Llywarch Hen—and most of the anonymous poetry is marked by style and subject as belonging to their various schools.
Early Welsh poetry is epic, romantic, and historical. Songs in praise of heroes (many pre-Christian and mythological) and elegiac poems of desolation and longing frequently appear. They are marked by a rich, musical style, displaying the verbal felicity of a highly developed art. Among early prose survivals, the classic is the Mabinogion (set down c.1060). In this work the cycle of stories concerning the old Celtic gods and heroes—similar to those in Irish and Arthurian literature—is expanded by the addition of later stories and partly transformed by numerous Welsh revisions.
Early medieval prose includes The History of the Kings of Britain and romances and stories of the Holy Grail, partly adopted from French and other sources, but showing native Welsh style and story innovations. In poetry, the Gogynfeirdd (early medieval period) eulogized the heroes of the North, but it is lyrical rather than epic. From c.1150 the bardic system, with its archaisms, its prescribed themes and meters, and its aim of "exquisiteness," flowered; of the several levels of bardic verse, eulogy was considered the highest and was preserved.
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