This essay appears as the introduction in my translation of the allegorical masterpiece, A Book of Three Birds by the Puritan and Cromwellian, Morgan Llwyd, and reflects on the contemporary significance of Morgan Llwyd’s political and theological writing through an existentialist lens, and in the light of Brexit, the rise of English nationalism, and the conflict between progressive and conservative thought.
Morgan Llwyd was born in Maentwrog in 1619 and educated in Wrexham, where he experienced a religious awakening in 1635 under the preaching of the Puritan, Walter Cradock. He joined Walter Cromwell’s army during the Civil War as a chaplain. In 1644 he returned to Wales as a preacher, and in 1650 was commissioned by Parliament as an Assessor of new ministers under the Act for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. He died in Wrexham in 1659. A Book of Three Birds is considered the most important Welsh-language book of its period, and a masterpiece of literary prose.
A Book of Three Birds: Authority, Reason and Tradition in the Work of Morgan Llwyd
An eagle, a raven and a dove meet and debate in Morgan Llwyd’s seminal masterpiece of Welsh prose style, A Book of Three Birds. The year is 1653 A.D., the year in which A Book of Three Birds was published, and on whose events the three birds reflect: the civil war which brought Oliver Cromwell to power; more recent, demoralising wars in Ireland and Scotland; and the abolition of Parliament. The book is written in expectation of the year 1656, an omen of the Second Coming, for the world waits in suspense between two disasters: the fires of the Day of Judgement, which is imminent, and of which the Civil War is a foretaste, and the waters of the flood which drowned the world in the time of Noah, and which symbolically have not yet receded. The reality of this coming judgement underlies all human politics, all industry and learning, just as the reality of the coming flood underlay the eating and drinking, courtship and marriage of the antedeluvian world. These two judgements, and the uneasy rest between them, are symbolised in the shape of the rainbow, and in the red and blue with which it is fringed.
Authority is held by the Eagle, despite his indifferent religious accomplishment, who has been chosen by God to be king of the birds, and to choose between the contesting opinions of the Raven and the Dove. The moral and spiritual contrast between these two birds, and the symbolic exploration of Noah’s Ark, are informed by the Mysterium Magnum of the theologian and mystic, Jakob Böhme, and are developed imaginatively, and brought dramatically to life, in Morgan Llwyd’s dialogue. The Raven claims loyalty to religious tradition, to reason and conscience, and to the losing side in this civil war, while the Dove represents the new politics and religious beliefs, still being revealed by the intervention of God. The discussion is not even-handed. For the Raven, with his taste for carrion and prey, is considered ‘evil’ by the Eagle, who has abandoned such dainties in favour of respect for life and freedom of conscience, and who directs him to follow the example of the Dove, whose authority comes from good conduct and knowledge, and whose vulnerability to violence is stressed.
The opening words of the Raven establish his nature as an exile and wanderer, and echo the opening words of Satan in the Book of Job. He is also a renegade, for this is the same raven whom Noah sent out from the Ark in search of dry land, and who never returned. By contrast, the Dove, who returned to the Ark with an olive branch as proof that the flood had receded, is identified with the dove which rested on Jesus at the time of his baptism, and represents divine influence in every age. Noah symbolises God in his righteousness, in his triune nature as the father of three sons, and in his provision of the Ark, whereby he saves sinful human beings from the consequences of divine wrath. Yet the branches on which these birds sit are upheld and sustained by an unseen root, just as the many branches of human knowledge are the confused and shattered fragments of a single wisdom. And the God of Morgan Llwyd is at times less like the peevish tyrant whom William Empson finds portrayed in Paradise Lost(1) than like the God of Jakob Böhme, which comprises will and being, darkness and non-being, motion and becoming, and which gives rise to evil, outrage and pain at the junction between being and non-being within itself. It is the ‘eternal Nothing’ which transcends ‘Joy and Sorrow… Sensibility and Perception,’ the ‘Eternal Chaos, wherein all… are contained.’(2) This is not a supreme being, from which the Raven might justly flee as a threat to his own autonomy, but is rather what Paul Tillich calls ‘being itself,’ transcending personhood, in which all being is empowered and affirmed.(3)
So the Raven is no existential hero in revolt against absurdity, any more than he is a rebel aristocrat opposing the powers of an upstart king.(4) He is fearful for his property, resentful of his taxes, and less politically astute than he thinks. He is argumentative, yet suspicious of reason, and like Thomas Hobbes, dismissive of what cannot be quantified or put to use.(5)
The Raven prefers to eat the flesh of the dead than to live under the hand of Noah and his sons. For this he blames the force of his nature, which can be reconciled neither with others nor with itself.(6) Crushed by his finitude, resentful of all that transcends his finitude, he chooses the carrion of non-being, expressed not only in his coming death, which he pushes to the back of his mind, but in the qualities of which death is the fulfilment:(7) in vindictiveness, defiance and despair.(8)
After the departure of the Raven, during the Eagle’s slow and painful journey from doubt to self-affirmation, the Dove refers him to those images of things he has seen or imagined, which are stored within his mind. Such images are permanent, remaining until death, and only the death of Jesus, who is the image of God, is capable of effacing these idols. A mere thought, says the Dove, is of more consequence than the world, because the world is passing, and thought is eternal. Moreover, in advance of the coming Final Judgement, a special judgement is reserved for the people of Wales. Unless they produce spiritual fruit in keeping with their heritage, the Welsh will forfeit their identity as a nation.
For Morgan Llwyd, as for Marcus Aurelius,(9) man is merely a ‘sup of poison,’ a ‘nest of vipers,’ bestial, ashamed of his thoughts, yet unable to control them, or account for all he has said. Moreover, Heaven and Hell are made manifest in the thoughts of the mind in this life, revealing both its true nature and its eternal destiny, so for this reason the Eagle is urged to control his speech and to purify his mind.
For Iris Murdoch, it is foolish to dismiss of the life of the mind as unreal because it is merely individual and subjective, for a charitable thought which leads neither to speech nor to action is still greatly preferable to an uncharitable thought which results in no outward change.(10) For Arthur Schopenhauer, the ‘I’ which so needily yearns to live is the least unique and most extrinsic part of our personhood; the consciousness is a survival mechanism which guides the body in its search for food. Death, for Schopenhauer, ends this consciousness, but without destroying the personhood of which the consciousness is a function, because it cannot efface the time in which the person lived, and in which his thoughts and deeds are preserved forever.(11)
Christopher Lasch describes the people of our time as infantalised by pervasive consumerism, by the impossibility of self reliance in a technical society, and by the overwhelming threat of environmental destruction:(12) threats which are as urgent for our time as the Second Coming was for Morgan Llwyd. And so we retreat from what we cannot change into a narcissistic ‘minimal self:’ unreflective and emotionally numbed, ironic and self-detached, or absorbed in escapist fantasies.(13)
Lasch places his hope in a ‘guilty conscience,’ a cultural revolution from which an ethic of social responsibility and environmental care might emerge:(14) he has faith that the human race can survive. For Clive Betts, reviewing the crisis in which Welsh culture finds itself, hope is to be found in concerted local action, consolidating the language in areas where it is strong as a prelude to a wider linguistic revival.(15) Rather than this, Paul Tillich proposes an ‘absolute faith,’ an affirmation of being which includes non-being, of ‘life and the death which belongs to life,’ by means of which the power of non-being is refuted.(16) Hence a woman dying in a concentration camp in Viktor Frankl’s memoir of the Holocaust sees the tree outside her window, and hears it speaking to her of ‘life, eternal life,’(17) and even the Raven in his despair is offered the grounds of an absolute faith, because being gives him the power to despair, and thereby transcends it. Absolute faith looks forward to nothing; instead, it affirms what is. But being, after all, is the point.
We find ourselves faced with the continuing threat of global destruction, torn between an inner life which is puerile and shameful, and an outer life which is hard to endure. We contemplate the imminent loss of half the species on earth,(18) and account it bearable, and a similar loss to our cultural and linguistic diversity.(19) The language in which Morgan Llwyd wrote, motivated by his love for his God and his people, still faces an uncertain future. Moreover we live in a union threatened, it seems, by extremists and separatists who would seek to divide us,(20) as recidivists, like the Raven, on the defeated side of a civil war.
Like the Raven, I belong on the defeated side of a civil war. For on 23rd June 2016 I expressed the wishes of roughly half the population of Wales and the UK in voting to maintain my European citizenship in the E.U. referendum, acting on the advice of the British Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the former Deputy Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the First Minister of Scotland, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, the First Minister of Wales, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the leader of the opposition in Wales, the President of the U.S.A., and the overwhelming majority of disinterested economists in the U.K.(21) For this act, supporters of Brexit, and of things more loathsome that hid beneath Brexit, branded me and those like me as libtards, as libturds, as snowflakes, as remoaners, as remoaniacs, as bedwetters, as saboteurs, as appeasers, as citizens of nowhere and as enemies of the people, demanding that we be silenced, be crushed, be tried for treason kill ourselves, be killed, be hanged, be shot as Jo Cox was shot, be burnt to death, be murdered by hit men, or be sent to the gas chambers: events in which it is hard not to see the seeds of dictatorship.(22)
For the people who call for our execution or murder, liberals and internationalists like myself are a threat to the unity and greatness of the British nation, to be silenced not only for the damage we might cause, but so that the memories of that civil war, and the ugliness by which it was won, can be effaced. On the other hand, to people like myself, the threats and abuse to which they subject us speak less of jubilation at a battle nobly won, than of the emptiness of a victory which is actually a defeat, expressed in the bitterness and vindictiveness, the paranoia and self-pity, the pride in ignorance and rejection of reason, and the bile and resentment with which, as the Eagle warns him, the Raven has poisoned his mind. And the British nationalism in whose name they act highlights the fragility of the union they claim to love.
Language groups were among those to warn against the consequences of Brexit. Cymdeithas yr Iaith joined Conradh na Gaeilge, the Gaelic Language Society, the Cornish Academy, and the Cornish Language Board in a joint statement(23) warning of ‘an insecure future for our communities’ under a British government which ‘has shown no desire to protect and promote the rights of speakers of our nations’ languages, and have throughout much of our shared history conducted aggressive language policies designed to eradicate our languages’ – a phrase which in Wales recalls the request in parliament for the deliberate extermination of the Welsh language, the imposition of English as the language of schools, and the violence perpetrated upon Welsh-speaking children under the Welsh Not.(24) To observers in Cymdeithas yr Iaith and its fellows, to speak of threats to a nation which has driven its neighbours to the point of cultural extinction, while stamping its language and culture on vast tracts of the globe, is both intellectually vapid and morally reprehensible, the self-pity of a society which complains of foreign oppression because it has never experienced any, which has never examined its past. But neither is that division felt on one side alone. For support for Brexit in England predicts a sense that England has somehow been cheated by its weaker Celtic partners, weakened by the devolution which the British government undermines,(25) and which Brexit potentially undermines,(26) along with a growing English separatism.(27)
In a time of public optimism, such tendencies might lead to a more graciously federal United Kingdom, or even a velvet divorce. In a time of economic hardship, English secession will seem less attractive, and a brutishly Anglo-British nationalism, a hatred of the Welsh language, and a hatred of the Welsh and Scots will take its place. And so I find myself in a time which echoes Morgan Llwyd’s, with its global upheaval, its divided kingdom, its fear of extinction, and its slumbering Wales.
- Milton’s God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1961. p. 103.
- The Works of Jacob Behmen. Vol III. pp. 11-16.
- The Courage to Be. London: Fontana, 1962. pp. 178-179, 181.
- Milton’s God. p. 77.
- Leviathan. London: Routledge, 1894. p. 22.
- The Courage to Be. pp. 31, 160-161.
- The Courage to Be. 41-42, 49.
- The Courage to Be. pp. 39, 60, 56.
- Meditations. trans. A.S.L. Farquharson. Oxford: OUP, 2008. pp. 14-15, 22, 28.
- The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Schocken, 1971. pp. 4-5, 17-19.
- Essays and Aphorisms. trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. pp. 67-76.
- The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984. pp. 30, 34, 63.
- The Minimal Self. p. 94.
- The Minimal Self. pp. 253-259.
- Culture in Crisis: The Future of the Welsh Language. Upton: Ffynnon Press, 1976. pp. 190-218.
- The Courage to Be. pp. 37, 171-173.
- Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust. Rider, 2004. p. 78.
- Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. London: Vintage, 1992. p. 323.
- Lucy Tobin, ‘Half of Living Languages Face Extinction.’ The Guardian, 21st February 2011.
- Lindsay Razaq, ‘May vows to “stand up to the separatists.”’ The Press and Journal, 22nd April 2017.
- Sonia Sodha, Toby Helm and Phillip Inman. ‘Economists overwhelmingly reject Brexit in boost for Cameron.’ The Guardian, 28th May 2016.
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2017. pp. 138, 349. See also Ian Kershaw, The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. The use of the term ‘moaner’ to describe those who had voted against the Nazi party is mentioned on p. 117.
- Jori Ansell, Jamie Bevan, Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, Dòmhnall Mac Nèill and Graham Sandercock. ‘Proclamasiwn Cynrychiolwyr Cymunedau’r Ieithoedd Lleiafrifol yn Sgil Brexit.’ Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, 2016.
- Gwynfor Evans, Land of My Fathers: Two Thousand Years of Welsh History. Swansea: John Penry, 1974. pp. 366-374, 396-397.
- Richard Wyn Jones, ‘Professor Richard Wyn Jones’ excoriating verdict on the Wales Bill plans for devolution.’ WalesOnline, 28th October 2016.
- Gwynoro Jones, ‘Lord Elystan Morgan explains the effect that leaving the European Union will have on Welsh devolution.’ Gwynoro Jones: Wales and the World – Cymru a’r Byd, 22nd February 2017.
- Michael Kenny, ‘The Genesis of English Nationalism.’ Centre for Constitutional Change, 30th August 2016.