Wild Wales Essay - Critical Essays

George Henry Borrow


If ever a book denied the dictum that travel broadens the mind it is WILD WALES. Borrow went to Wales in July, 1854; four months later he emerged, completely satisfied with his competence in Welsh language, literature, and history. He had seen at first hand some historical places—ruins, churches, castles, the history of which he generally knew better than the guides; he felt it his duty and pleasure to show up their ignorance and improve their knowledge of their national heritage. The book is roughly a catalogue of these visits from Wrexham Church in the north to Caerfili Castle in the south, layered with associated legends and frosted with scraps of incidental information and opinion, the whole done to a turn in Borrow’s rigid but clear prose. Included in the Welsh material are the Welsh themselves; Borrow records conversations with more than one hundred of those of all ages and kinds he met during his expeditions around Llangollen in the north from early August to late October, 1854, and on his southern walking tour which ended early in November.

At the close of the trip Borrow read an account of the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimea, which is mentioned from time to time and forms one of the several threads holding together the conglomerate of historical and personal anecdotes. Among other threads are the Irish gipsies, who have driven out the Romany, that Borrow is especially interested in, acquaintances he meets more than once, dreams which come real, Welsh antagonism to the “Saxons,” English contempt for the Welsh. The book has simply the form of his travels, falling roughly into two sections. In the first sixty-three chapters Borrow tells how he and his wife and stepdaughter rented a cottage in Llangollen from the beginning of August to the end of October. From there he makes visits, sometimes alone, sometimes with his guide, John Jones, his wife or stepdaughter, to Bangor, Ruthyn, Holyhead, Caernavon, Snowdon, and other places on and off the tourist track which was opening up in North Wales for the benefit of the teeming industrial populations of Yorkshire and Lancashire, whose presence Borrow loathes. The most interesting trip should have been that to Plas Newydd, the home of the recently dead but latterly famous “Ladies of Llangollen,” but Borrow tells us little about them.

In the second half, chapters sixty-four through one hundred and nine, Borrow tells of his walks over one hundred and fifty miles in about three weeks through Western and Southern Wales, wilder and more Welsh than the region of his northern sojourn.

The book is much more than the record of a summer journey undertaken because he spoke Welsh and knew the history and bardic poetry of Wales. Borrow introduces the volume by giving four reasons for writing it: Wales has scenery, history, illustrious men; it also has its people with their own language, as the Scottish Highlands have not, because of conquest and emigration. But the most powerful impression is that of Borrow himself, standing in the foreground of every natural scene, recalling historical events for the benefit of the present in habitants, and...

(The entire section is 1282 words.)