Yr Athro Gwyn Thomas
Professor Gwyn Thomas, who died on 13 April 2016 aged 79, was the most prolific and versatile Welsh language author of his day. In addition to his work as a scholar and literary critic his creative output spanned a number of fields; though primarily a poet, he was also a dramatist and he wrote too for film, radio, and television.
Gwyn was born in Tanygrisiau, Merioneth in 1936, but was brought up in the nearby quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. His upbringing there, one in which the chapel and nonconformist culture featured prominently, was important to him. The influence of the town—its rugged setting (‘a town like a bracelet on a bone of rock’), its neighbourly working-class community, and the flavour of its pervasive spoken Welsh—was reflected in much of his work. His debt to the area was highlighted in two warm autobiographical volumes, Bywyd Bach (2006) and Llyfr Gwyn (2015) and in a television programme Gwyn Thomas: Gŵr Geiriau shown seven weeks before his death.
In 1954 Gwyn left Ffestiniog Grammar School for the University College of North Wales, Bangor, graduating with First Class Honours in Welsh in 1957. His 1961 MA thesis on Ellis Wynne (1671–1734) became the basis for his later authoritative volume Y Bardd Cwsg a’i Gefndir (1971). Proceeding to Jesus College, Oxford in 1959, he gained a DPhil (1966) for a thesis on the seventeenth–century bardic tradition in north Wales. After a year’s schoolteaching, he was appointed Lecturer in the Department of Welsh at Bangor in 1963, being awarded a Personal Chair in 1980; he was Professor of Welsh and Head of Department from 1992 until his retirement in 2000. He was a lively and engaging lecturer and a Head of Department whose kind pastoral care of students reflected his warm humanity.
Gwyn’s numerous publications as a scholar and critic encompassed Welsh literature from its beginnings to the modern period. Although he engaged with prose works from various periods, his first love was the rich and ancient Welsh bardic tradition, which he surveyed in Y Traddodiad Barddol (1976), a work reprinted six times. His finely-tuned poetic sensibility was evidenced in modern Welsh versions of the earliest Welsh poetry (hengerdd), first appearing in the co-authored Yr Aelwyd Hon (1970). Dafydd ap Gwilym was a particular favourite; he published modern Welsh paraphrases of his poems and an English translation of his complete oeuvre, Dafydd ap Gwilym: His Poems (2001). His critical volume Dafydd ap Gwilym: Y Gŵr sydd yn ei Gerddi (2013) was his last scholarly publication. Gwyn was also drawn to the more remote world of Celtic mythology, evidenced in Duwiau’r Celtiaid (1992) and in insightful essays in a volume of criticism Gair am Air (2000).
In keeping with the commendable tradition of the Department of Welsh at Bangor, Gwyn’s scholarship was not only intended for scholars: his publications were aimed too at an intelligent lay readership. He enjoyed and appreciated the offerings of the modern media, films, cartoons, and popular music, being the only Welsh scholar who ventured to compare the miracles of medieval saints’ lives with the exploits of Superman and Batman! His desire to extend an awareness of the Welsh literary heritage was a passionate mission, exemplified by his modern Welsh versions of the Mabinogi, Culhwch and Olwen, and the Legend of Taliesin for children, together with the corresponding English versions he co-authored with Kevin Crossley-Holland. With his illustrator Margaret Jones he was awarded the Wales Book Council’s Tir na-n Og Prize for children’s literature in 1989, 1993, and 2004.
Gwyn published plays—original works and translations—but poetry was his main creative medium; altogether he published 20 volumes of poems, the last being Profiadau Inter Galactig in 2013. His poetic attainment was recognized by his election as National Poet of Wales in 2006. His was a distinct poetic voice, informal in cadence and in tune with his own times, a feature which accounted for the undoubted popularity of his poetry. His diction often combined elements from colloquial speech—including features derived from the spoken language of Ffestiniog and an unashamed use of English loanwords—with a muscular literary Welsh grounded in the powerful language of the Bible. His poetry embraced many topics. In poems in a playful key, he warmly, but unsentimentally, observed the wide-eyed world of his growing children. But in counterpoint to works in this domestic vein he also fashioned more disturbing poems. As well as his own home and his beloved Blaenau, places with harshly discordant associations, such as Sobibor, Saddleworth Moor and Memphis, Tennessee, featured among the locales of his poems. Despite the humour of much of his poetry, Gwyn was essentially an intense and serious person possessed of a deep religious outlook, quite devoid of syrupy piety. Although his muse embraced latter-day life enthusiastically, some modern aspects disturbed him: a prominent theme in his poetry was regret at the persistence of man’s brutality despite all technological progress.
A seminal 1977 article by Gwyn emphasizing the need for Welsh to come to terms with modern visual cultural media (llunyddiaeth) was a significant intervention in Welsh language cultural discourse in the period leading up to the establishment of S4C. In keeping with this vision he was a pioneer in combining Welsh language poetry and film, his most notable work in this genre being his poem for television ‘Cadwynau yn y Meddwl’ (1981), a tribute to Martin Luther King. He was a longstanding member of the Welsh Language Film Board, scripting the controversial (allegedly child-scaring!) horror film O’r Ddaear Hen (1981), a work evoking the darker side of the ancient Celtic pantheon. For S4C he scripted animated versions of the Mabinogi tales and of condensed versions of six of Shakespeare’s plays; the latter project took him to the famous Soyuzmultfilm animation studio in Moscow. The film courses which he taught at Bangor were innovative in the context of programmes in university Welsh Departments.
Gwyn’s wider public engagement was extensive. He served as Chair of the Literature Committee of the Welsh Arts Council, the Literature Committee of the Board of Celtic Studies, and the Literary Panel of the Revised New Welsh Bible. In the educational field he served as a longstanding Chief Examiner in Welsh at Advanced Level for the WJEC (1973–93), as Chair of the Working-Party on the Welsh language in the National Curriculum (1988–90) and as a member of HEFCW (2002–5). He was elected an Honorary Fellow of Bangor University in 2011 and of Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol in 2015.
Gwyn’s usual demeanour was notably gentle, but injustices and follies (academic ones included!) could incense him. On sports fields too in his younger days he would shed his customary gentleness. As one of his former team mates among Bangor staff I shall remember him as a ‘robust’ footballer and an intimidatingly fast bowler of bodyline inclinations!
In a very busy life Gwyn’s family was his bedrock and paramount concern. We extend our warmest sympathy to his widow Jennifer, and his children Rhodri, Ceredig, Heledd and their families.