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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1305

First published: 1862

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Type of work: Travel journal

Principal Personages:

George Henry Borrow, the narrator

Henrietta Borrow, his step-daughter

Mrs. Borrow, his wife

John Jones, his guide at Llangollen


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 everywhere carrying his message that the Welsh must maintain their identity. Borrow thoroughly enjoys being a solitary Welsh-speaking Englishman, to the confusion of the Welsh, and takes the lead in almost every dialogue, generally reported in direct speech and sometimes in dramatic form. When he meets man, woman, or child he first asks the name of farm or village and then explains its meaning and history to the gaping locals.

The chapters are short and many, and there seems to be no principle in their organization; generally when Borrow has recorded the day's doings or his adventures on a walk in the country he tells where he slept for the night. There are accounts of so many inns, which Borrow prefers to "railway" hotels, that the book would have served as the Baedeker of its time, especially in his fine discrimination of the brews of ale at the different inns. He has a respectful eye for the wild grandeur of the countryside but is not greatly appreciative of it nor is he much aroused against industrial plants which were beginning to alter the ways of the Welsh, making Borrow's one of the last records before nineteenth century industrial England really made its presence felt there. Most of Borrow's expeditions are purposeful and he achieves what he intends. Though Borrow generally applies the adjective to the Welsh scenery (and always to Irish people), what the Welsh thought of WILD WALES is difficult to ascertain but may be surmised. Like Samuel Johnson in the Highlands or Mrs. Trollope in America, he has no hesitation in condemning what does not meet the standards of a civilized Englishman.

From all this one might conclude on first or brief acquaintance that Borrow shows himself as an unpleasant and self-righteous tourist. He can be both, but the most interesting aspect of the work is his unsparing and incredible candor. When he loses an argument or comes off second best in a display of learning, he acknowledges the fact; sometimes to spare his interlocutor he conceals his knowledge, resulting on one occasion in his accepting the role of a Roman Catholic priest and blessing a party of Irish returning to Ireland. No role could have been more abhorrent to this thorough-going antipapist. Although Borrow contradicts himself on at least one occasion, the reader trusts the author's detailed memory of every conversation, so that the record and the character of the man have the ring of truth.

Borrow displays three other characteristics: curiosity, especially about Welsh and other languages (he speculates freely about the connections between them), compassion, and rectitude. His compassion he shows towards the Irish vagrants who pursue him crying, "Give us God!" and towards what he calls "the Church of England cat." After this bedraggled creature attached itself to Borrow and his family in their lodgings at Llangollen, Borrow learned, that it had belonged to a former Anglican vicar in the town and now was persecuted for its former attachment by the "Calvinist-Methodists" whom Borrow found largely made up the population of mid-nineteenth century Wales. Borrow is a whole-hearted defender of what he calls "the poor, persecuted Church of England," the Established Church of Wales as well as of England, and he enters debates on baptism and the like with proselytizing zeal. He protects the cat, restores it to health, and provides for it when the Borrows leave to return to their country home in East Anglia. He makes a point of visiting churches as well as ruins, and he carries the BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER with a white shirt, a razor, a pair of stockings, and twenty sovereigns when he sets out on his walking tour south.

His rectitude is not simply that of a good Anglican but of an English gentleman. Borrow in wild Wales is an excellent example of that energetic and fearsome type, the founders of the British Empire who, finding much to displease their rigid tastes in booming nineteenth century England, left for foreign parts to explore, learn the language, and govern the natives. In spite of Borrow's admiration for the Welsh one feels a certain superiority and arrogance in his attitude and comments, perhaps revealed in the fact that he does not seem to care whether the Welsh take his exhortations to heart or not. His controlled energy sends him into and through Wales and then to the writing of a large book. If we and the Welsh did not hearken to his words, that was our and their loss. Mr. Borrow had spoken.

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