(7 August 1759 – 4 June 1835)
Pioneer Mabinogi Scholar * Lexicographer * Grammarian * Editor * Antiquary * Poet
|William Owen, later known as Willaim Owen Pughe, holds the honour of first publishing and translating Mabinogi tales in modern print in 1795.|
His pioneering text appeared in 1795 in his own journal the Cambrian Register, the first episode of Pwyll. Like almost all his other Mabinogi publications it was bilingual Welsh and English.
[Pughe], William Owen, ‘The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, Being Ancient Welsh Romances’, Cambrian Register, I (1795), pp. 177–87. Bilingual. He did not adopt the name 'Pughe' until 1806.
A second and a third instalment followed (1799, 1819), a repeat of the first (1821), and ‘Math’ 1829 followed by Taliesin (1833).
He completed a full transcription and translation of all the Mabinogion tales, raised financial subscriptions for the complete publication, and designed a skilful set of illustrations for Pwyll. Sadly he died in 1835 before he could publish the prepared work.
His son Aneirin Owen, though a noted scholar himself who had been strongly supportive of his father’s work, was unable to complete the project. The work was redone independently by Charlotte Guest who published her series of seven volumes 1838 -1849.
Pughe was the leading scholar of the London Welsh societies from 1783 to 1835. These were the heart of Welsh scholarship during the 18th-19thC Welsh Renaissance.
He was renowned as lexicographer and grammarian, regarded as the principal authority on the Welsh language and on everything relating to Welsh scholarship. He worked in close collaboration with his patron Owain Myfyr, and the Iolo Morgannwg. 2) Between them they published the monumental Myvyrian Archaiology, collected works of Welsh literature: however this did not include the Mabinogi. It was however a key source of Welsh texts for a century, although Iolo's work in vols. 2 and 3 was increasingly questioned. 3)
Pughe gave constant and generous assistance to Welsh, English and international authors when they were dealing with Welsh or Celtic subjects. His letters show that he corresponded with some of the principal writers in England, Europe and America, and that the most noted scholars sought his opinion. He also composed poetry. He became President of the Society of Gwyneddigion in three separate years, was recognised as D.C.L. University of Oxford, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
Names: Born William Owen, he adopted the name William Owen Pughe in middle age in 1806, to honour his uncle who bequeathed him financial independence with an estate. For simplicity this article follows the convention in referring ‘Pughe’ even before 1806. He was also known by the bardic names of Gwilym Owain, ‘William Owen’ in English, Gwilym Dawel, ‘Silent William’, and Idrison, ‘Son of Idris’.
Born at Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, Meirionnydd, in Gwynedd, N. Wales, William Owen was sent to boarding school at Altrincham, Manchester, where he continued to stubbornly and privately sustain his native Welsh language. At 17 in 1776, he went to London to work as a solicitor’s clerk, then as a school teacher. He was to live in central London, or later often visit the city, over almost 50 years until 1825.
As a young man of 24 William joined the Society of Gwyneddigion (1783), through which he won the respect and patronage of Owen Jones, 'Owain Myfyr', a wealthy and generous London Welsh merchant. William Owen became the secretary of the society (1784), then its president in 1789 , 1804, and 1820. He was also involved with the Society of Cymmrodorion. These were jolly drinking clubs which networked Welsh people in London, raised funds for both Welsh charity and publications, and established a respected Welsh school.
William Owen married Sarah Elizabeth Harper (at 31, 1790). At the time he taught in a girls’ school, and tutored privately. When the school closed in 1804 Owain Myfyr housed and pensioned him and the family for two years to support his work, chiefly the Myvyrian Archaiology while some publishers also gave him pieces of paid work. William and Sarah had three children.
In 1806 at 47 William Owen inherited a property from his uncle the Rev. Rice Pughe, of Nantglyn, Denbighshire. William began using the name William Owen Pughe in gratitude for the inheritance which meant financial security for the rest of his life. He settled in Egryn, near Nantglyn, but continued to visit London until poor health prevented travel in his last few years.
Pughe astutely realised that the mediaeval prose tales would be popular, and he wanted to make them available in both Welsh and English translation to widen the literary audience for Welsh culture. He was persistent and resourceful in raising subscriptions from the Welsh societies in London, England and Wales.
His pioneering 1795 Mabinogi debut publication was titled 'The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, being Ancient Welsh Romances' (see above). This first article presented the first episode of Pwyll bilingually: his sojourn in Annwfn minus the sexual scene between Arawn and his Queen. The second episode of Pwyll followed (1799) with Rhiannon’s courtship horse chases. Much interest was stimulated in a forthcoming complete Mabinogion. An eminent poet, George Ellis, offered both a preface and part finance. Owain Myfyr was also a major sponsor, as always.
In spite of a crushing workload of Welsh research, transcription from manuscripts, translation, fundraising, and his other substantial publications, Pughe published most of Pwyll, some Math, and a Taliesin. By the time he died he had a complete set of the Mabinogion tales ready to publish, with a printer booked, and illustrations sketched for Pwyll.
There are a number of issues around Pughe and the Mabinogi.
1. The long hiatus of almost 20 years between Part 2 and 3 of Pwyll appearing.
2. His lengthy preoccupation with Joanna Southcott.
3. The final failure to publish the full Mabinogi or The Mabinogion.
3. The term Mabinogion. 4. The concept of 'Juvenile Amusements'.
The first three of these issues are connected. The charge is that from 1795 when his first Mabinogi text first appeared, Pughe then failed to produce the rest over the next 40 years. At the turn of the century he had raised strong interest and substantial financial commitment. This was when his literary output declined for a long period and he became an Elder in Joanna Southcott's cult.
Arthur Johnston finds it very sad there are eight volumes of papers of Southcott work in NLW archives, indicating how much time and effort Pughe directed away from his Welsh research.4) This needs some context.
Until 1806 Pughe was heavily dependent on Owain Myfyr and his public, until he inherited an independent estate. His output until then (1789 – 1807) was absolutely prodigious, of outstanding quantity and quality, making allowances for entrenched contemporary ideas. That is eighteen years of consistently peak performance, a career in itself, and would for most spell burnout.
When he became a landowner he seriously lacked the skills required which he mentions as a heavy challenge. He also faced hostility to the point of personal danger from aggrieved relatives who did not inherit. He was by now 47, which was then not merely 'middle aged', but an elder. It is not surprising that he was preoccupied, and slowed down.
He did become a leader in the Southcott cult. It is likely his inheritance made him a prime target for cultivation by the cult once he showed early interest. He may have felt he wanted a different interest, something else in his life, after so many dedicated years. It helps to add that the cult was immensely popular nationwide, among all classes of people.
The next stage of the saga is very sad. Joanna Southcott died Dec. 2014, and her cult collapsed, potentially freeing Pughe. But the previous Sept. Owain Myfyr died, Pughe's closest friend over decades. His wife Sarah then died in 1815, and his great friendship with Iolo Morgannwg had ended long before. In 1815 Pughe was deeply bereft, and understandably not productive in literature. Nonetheless he resumed a larger literary workload, including a fresh attempt to publish his Mabinogion. In 1818 the lagging Part 3 of Pwyll appeared, and an almost identical reprint of Pwyll I in 1821. In 1823 Pughe's health was failing and he moved to Wales permanently.
Yet a powerful promotion appeared in Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1828) of 33 pages, with long excerpts, notes and correspondence, an outline of Branwen, the whole amounting to a full length article. But subscriptions did not arrive as enthusiastically as before, perhaps due to an element of distrust based on Pughe's long slowdown period. His Math (1829, 1833) and Taliesin (1833). Had his son shared more of his father's entrepreneurial confidence, the completed manuscripts might have been published. But Aneirin was a civil servant and also had his own publishing interests.
To sum up it is not as simple as distraction by the Southcott cult sabotaging Pughe's Mabinogion publishing project.
The title Mabinogion
Some writers overlook Pughe completely regarding the term Mabinogion and ascribe its establishment to Charlotte Guest. But it is clearly there in the title Pughe gave the first 1795 publication. It appears to be current among Welsh scholars at the time. Yet Pughe seems less than wholehearted about it himself.
1795 Uses 'The Mabinogion'.
1799 'The Romantic Tales called Mabinogion' which sounds less certain.
1818 'The Romantic Tales of the Mabinogion'.
1821 Not used: 'The Tale of Pwyll'. 1828 Uses 'The Mabinogion'.
1829 Not used. Instead 'The Mabinogi'. This repeats in three more publications in 1833.
Out of nine publications in all, Pughe uses 'The Mabinogion' title in only four, and one of those sounds somewhat reserved about it. Although he was evidently less than half sure of it, his usage was enough to fuel Charlotte Guest in her respect for Welsh tradition. It was then her wealth and promotional power that drove the name well into the 20thC.
The concept of 'Juvenile Amusements'
Again the idea of Mabinogi or Mabinogion tales as childish amusements, has usually been attributed to Charlotte Guest. This is inaccurate even without recognising Pughe's contribution. Guest dedicated her publication to her baby sons to inspire them, and mentioned reading the tales to them when they were older. But a preface dedicating a work to a beloved partner does not mean it is a romance, and Guest read the tales aloud to adults too.
Both Pughe and Guest censored intimate bedroom scenes in the Mabinogi. Pughe's case on this has not been considered and his period unlike Guest's, was not puritanical. However early fiction in Pughe's younger days had strong links to sensational erotic tales, which he would not have wished to evoke. His reclamation of early Welsh literature was bound up with claiming an ancient national identity and serious history for the Welsh. His plans to publish fictional prose full of the 'fabulous' was a radical move against this agenda. Yet he saw the tales would be popular so he used the 'Juvenile' tag to ease their path, an indulgence for the serious.
It is also fundamental that the root of the word mabinogi is mab, 'child, boy, son of'. This must support some sort of connection with the young.5) However, in spite of this strong linguistic ground, revisiting the list of his nine Mabinogion publications, Pughe only used the term 'Juvenile' twice (1795, 1799).6) It seems for Pughe to have been a shortlived experiment.
The concept of 'Romances'
Pughe presented a very different concept to one of the most august societies in Britain: the London 'Society of Antiquaries'.7) Here he framed the prose tales as 'Romances', sources of the high mediaeval courtly literature. He had already used the tag in 1795, and resumed it 1828, 1829, 1833. The growing interest in King Arthur was clearly an approprate vehicle for progressing the reputation of the stories as the other tales of The Mabinogion do feature Arthur albeit not 'romantically'.
It cannot be sustained that Pughe neglected his Welsh literary work merely because of involvement with a cult. Other factors are involved: his challenging inheritance, his burnout after almost two decades overwork; his three major bereavements; and especially his failing health. Nor does it appear that he was strongly wedded to the concept of Mabinogion, and even less so to the 'Juvenile' perspective he used only twice.
What we do see over a long and dedicated life is about 40 years of extraordinary literary output which very narrowly failed to complete his Mabinogion project. He introduced the Mabinogi and a mass of Welsh literature back into British culture, attaching the powerful concept of Romance to the Mabinogion. This last attracted Charlotte Guest to take the project to its successful establishment.
Works on Pughe:
# Rachel Bromwich, ‘“The Mabinogion” and Lady Charlotte Guest’, Cymm., (1986), pp. 127–41. Repr. Sullivan, 1996; and in Wheeler (ed.) On Arthurian Women (2001). Although aimed at Charlotte Guest this article has a substantial section on Pughe.
# Glenda Carr, ‘William Owen Pughe yn Llundain’, Cymm., 1982, pp. 53–73.
—–, William Owen Pughe (Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1993). In Welsh.
—–, ‘William Owen Pughe and the London Societies’, in A Guide to Welsh Literature c.1700-1800, (ed.) Jarvis, Branwen (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), pp. 168–86.
—–, ‘An Uneasy Partnership: Iolo Morganwg and William Owen Pughe’, in Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg, ed. by Jenkins, Geraint, H. (Cardiff, 2005), pp. 443–60
# Dictionary of Welsh Biography website: Pughe, William Owen.
# Arthur Johnston, ‘William Owen-Pughe and the Mabinogion’, NLWJ, 10 (1957), pp. 323–28.
# Emrys Jones, The Welsh in London (University of Wales Press, 2001).
# Thomas Mordaf Pierce, Dr. W. Owen Pughe (Caernarfon, 1914).