William Owen Pughe (7 August 1759 – 4 June 1835)
Pioneer Mabinogi Scholar * Lexicographer * Grammarian * Editor * Antiquary * Poet *
William Pughe holds the honour of first publishing and translating Mabinogi tales in modern print. His pioneering translation of ‘Pwyll’ appeared in 1795 in his own journal the Cambrian Register.
Two later editions of Pwyll 1802, 1821; and his ‘Math’ 1829; appeared in other journals, followed by Taliesin work in 1833. He completed a full transcription and translation of all the ‘Mabinogion’ material,The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is a unified quartet of stories which is often published as part of a larger collection of unrelated mediaeval Welsh tales titled as ‘The Mabinogion.’ and raised financial subscriptions for its complete publication.
He died in 1835 before he could publish the collection. His son Aneirin, though a noted scholar himself and keenly supportive of his father’s scholarship, was unable to complete the project. The work was redone by Charlotte Guest who published her series of seven volumes 1838 -1845.Guest, Charlotte. 1838. The Mabinogion; from the Llyfr Coch O Llergest and Other Ancient Welsh Manuscripts; with an English Translation and Notes. 7 vols. Tonn Press, Llandovery, Wales; and Longmans, London; simultaneously.
He was the leading scholar of the London Welsh societies from 1783 to 1835. His Welsh Dictionary and grammar (1803) served authors and students for a century. Known as William Owen only until 1806 when he added the name ‘Pughe,’ he was renowned as lexicographer and grammarian, regarded as the principal authority on the Welsh language and on everything relating to Welsh scholarship. He gave assistance to several English authors when they were dealing with Welsh or Celtic subjects. His letters show that he corresponded with some of the principal writers in England and that the most noted Welsh 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.
OWEN – PUGHE and BARDIC NAMES
Born William Owen, he adopted the name William Owen Pughe in middle age in 1806, in connection with an important inheritance. He was also known by the bardic names of Gwilym Owain (William Owen), Gwilym Dawel (Silent William), and Idrison (Son of Idris).
To avoid confusion this article often refers to ‘Pughe’ even in the period before 1806, when his name was still William Owen.
Born as William Owen, at Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, Meirionnydd, in Gwynedd, he was sent to school at Altrincham near Manchester. At 17, in 1776, William Owen went to London, where he made his living as a solicitor’s clerk, then as a school teacher. He either lived in London, or later often visited the city, over almost 50 years until 1825.
In London as a young man of 24 Pughe joined the Society of Gwyneddigion in 1783, through which he won the respect and patronage of Owen Jones (Owain Myfyr), a wealthy and generous merchant. In 1784 he became the secretary of the society, then its president in 1789 , 1804, and 1820. He was also involved with the Society of Cymmrodorion.
Pughe at 31 in 1790, married Sarah Elizabeth Harper and they had three children. 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 two years to support his work, chiefly the Myvyrian Archaiologie;This was an ambitious encyclopedia of Welsh poetry, the Trioedd (the Welsh Triads), history and legends. The plan was to add a fourth volume for mediaeval prose, which would comprise ‘The Mabinogion.’ while some publishers also gave him pieces of paid work.
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.
See also PUGHE TIMELINE on page 2.
For a more detailed biography see Pughe, William Owen on the Dictionary of Welsh Biography site.
Glenda Carr (1993) ‘William Owen Pughe’ Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, in Welsh.
PUGHE, THE MABINOGI, ‘THE MABINOGION’
Pughe’s work on the Mabinogi developed very well at first. He saw that the tales would be popular and wanted to make them available in translation to widen the literary audience for Welsh culture. He was resourceful in raising subscriptions and in spite of a crushing workload of Welsh research, translation and publication, he ensured his Pwyll translation was published twice, in 1795 and 1802, in journals. The second version was little altered from the first one.
In 1795 came his pioneering The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, being Ancient Welsh Romances, published in the first issue of his own Cambrian Register journal. The article translated the first episode of Pwyll, minus the sex scene between Arawn and his Queen. The second episode of Pwyll followed in 1799 with Rhiannon’s courtship and marriage. Much interest was also stimulated in a forthcoming complete Mabinogion. An eminent poet, George Ellis, offered both a preface and finance.
Pughe’s title ‘The Mabinogion‘ has a complicated history. What matters here is that this was an established collective name in the 18thC and 19thC for various pieces of Welsh prose stories in mediaeval manuscripts. It derives from a mediaeval copyist mistake of grammar found once only in The Four Branches. It should be noted that Charlotte Guest popularised the title for her Mabinogion publications (1838 – 1877) but she merely adopted it from her Welsh mentors, who in turn followed Pughe and his generation. The name has proved so stubborn a title that books of these tales are still published today under it.Most recently, Sioned Davies, 2007.
Pughe’s chosen subtitle ‘Juvenile Amusements also had far reaching effects on Mabinogi culture. It framed the Mabinogi as ‘tales for the young’ via the root word ‘mab’ boy, child, young person. This is logical etymology, and based on the title attached to each of the Branches, in the MSS. However a complexity of characterisation and plot structure, together with explicitly sexual content, suggest young children are not the primary audience.
Welsh antiquarians worked assiduously to reclaim their culture from colonialised obscurity, and salvaged history was a primary tool. Heritage poetry had a tradition of praise poems for powerful leaders which recorded much historical data. But mediaeval prose offered far less help as it did not aim at much historical accuracy.The concept of a unified ‘Britain’ in the Second Branch and Third Branch is ahistorical for example, and may be ascribed to a propaganda myth. In addition the 18thC culture of novels was associated with hot, scandalous, sexual fiction, not a helpful partnership for men in the serious task of rebuilding a nation. Pughe’s use of the whimsical tag ‘Juvenile Amusements’ may have been a way to avoid that pitfall, and ease acceptance. In his 1821 version of ‘Pwyll,’ and for his ‘Math,’ he dropped the tag. (See Juvenile article for the longer term complexities.)
In 1803 Pughe published The Cambrian Biography which listed Welsh heroes, A-Z, attempting to distinguish categories of historical and legendary people. He included some Mabinogi persons: Bendigeidfran, Pryderi, Rhiannon; as well as Culhwch and Arthur (the latter listed twice, as historical and legendary).Pughe, William Owen. 1803. The Cambrian Biography: Or, Historical Notices of Celebrated Men Among the Ancient Britons. London: E. Williams. See text on google books.
However the inheritance in 1806, though it gave him and his family long term security, was a mixed blessing. Property management was a huge learning curve for which Pughe had little prior experience. He was also distracted by a growing dedication to the cult of the prophetess Joanna Southcott; he became an Elder.
Pughe has been charged with neglecting his Welsh scholarship for more than a decade. Arthur Johnston (1957-8)Johnston, Arthur. 1957. “William Owen-Pughe and the Mabinogion.” National Library of Wales Journal 10 (3): 323–28. finds it very sad there are eight volumes of papers of Southcott work in NLW archives, indicating how much time and effort was directed away from his Welsh research. This is true but needs some context moderation. Pughe’s output in the years 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. It is not surprising that when his life changed radically to become a landowner, and by now he was no longer young, so he slowed down and coasted on his considerable laurels.
Pughe can also be critiqued as too open minded, as his espousal of Iolo Morgannwg’s forgeries and theories suggests; as well as Pughe’s own promotion of Welsh as close to the pure, primitive mother tongue of humanity. Again we need context. The Southcott movement numbered 144,000 at its peak and drew on all levels of society: it was not a completely eccentric fringe cult. Iolo’s forgeries, theories of bardism, and Welsh as close to the primal language, were all an accepted part of Pughe’s times.
Southcott died in 1814, and so did Owain Myfyr, the grand old man who had been the benefactor of Pughe’s younger days. Pughe was also widowed the following year in 1815. By now he was 56, an old man by the calibration of his day. The triple bereavement must have hit him hard. He turned to publishing Coll Gwynfa, a translation of Milton ‘s Paradise Lost in 1819.
In 1821 he returned to the Mabinogi, publishing a slightly edited version of his first translation of Pwyll.Pughe, William Owen. 1821. “The Tale of Pwyll.” Cambro-Briton Journal 2 (18): 271–75. In 1825 he advertised for subscriptions to fund a full Mabinogion publication. Support was slow to come in, perhaps because his delays in the past, and failure to follow through with previous sponsors, affected trust in him.
His health began to fail, and he moved back to Wales in 1825, at 66 years. Four years later in 1829, he lamented in the Cambrian Quarterly Magazine about lack of support for the project. Then the Cymmrodorion Society, and the Gwynedd, Powis, Gwent and Dyved Societies all finally offered funds. He published “The Mabinogi: Or, the Romance of Math ab Mathonwy” 1829.Pughe, William Owen. 1829. “The Mabinogi: Or, the Romance of Math Ab Mathonwy.” The Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repository 1: 170–79.
In 1833 Pughe published his Taliesin, in two parts, which Guest later noted was incomplete. It was taken from an inexact copy of Llyfr Coch, possibly from Moses Williams’ Llanstephan MSS. 90. By 1834 he had thoroughly revised his Mabinogion manuscripts, structuring them into groups: I, Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, Math; II, Culhwch, Peredur, Geraint; III, Maximus, Rhonabwy, Lludd. The Lady of the Fountain was not placed in any group. All was finally ready for publication: but Pughe died in 1835 before it was carried out.
The charges of not taking the Mabinogi seriously, dismissing it as children’s literature, and neglecting its modern development, cannot be fully sustained. Pughe did not use the label ‘Juvenile Amusements’ after the first publication of Pwyll. He was involved in his property, and other interests, from 1808 – 1819, a period of little scholarly output of eleven years. His personal chronology of scholarship of 44 years shows a gap of a quarter of that time. He returned to the project with stubborn determination, and even in failing health he continued to produce material and canvass support. Had he lived just a year or two longer, or even if he son had been more entrepreneurial, the story might have ended in triumphant success.
However by the time of his death 1835 he had completed his own Mabinogi manuscript for publication. It was titled “The Mabinogion, or The Ancient Romances of Wales, in the original language, and a literal translation into English.” The prospectus had been printed in John Murray’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. But it was never published in its entirety.
The first story of Pwyll, in the First Branch was published in his own Cambrian Register journal, as a article in 1795, and again in 1821 in the Cambro-Briton Journal. The second version is available online. The Hanes Taliesin was published in two parts in 1833.
Like his contemporaries, Owen Pughe thought that Welsh was closely related to the primitive mother tongue and that the meanings of the original elements could be discovered by studying the language. In consequence he twists and changes words in his dictionary, creating words to fit the theory.
He saw the role of the grammarian as describing the language as it ought to be, which is what he did in his grammar. The result was that in the later 19thC he was considered by Sir John Rhys and his followers as a pretentious quack. But he did no more than to apply the ideas of his age to the Welsh language.
It was because of Pughe’s zeal and devotion that Owain Myfyr succeeded in publishing the old Welsh literature.
He performed considerable service to Welsh learning by the publication of his Welsh Grammar. He had read the old literature carefully and he succeeded in explaining the meanings of a host of words which had been obscure.
His Dictionary was constantly in use by Welsh scholars of the 19thC, including Charlotte Guest and her associates.
ALSO« Library Index
NOTES [ + ]
|1.||⇑||The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is a unified quartet of stories which is often published as part of a larger collection of unrelated mediaeval Welsh tales titled as ‘The Mabinogion.’|
|2.||⇑||Guest, Charlotte. 1838. The Mabinogion; from the Llyfr Coch O Llergest and Other Ancient Welsh Manuscripts; with an English Translation and Notes. 7 vols. Tonn Press, Llandovery, Wales; and Longmans, London; simultaneously.|
|3.||⇑||This was an ambitious encyclopedia of Welsh poetry, the Trioedd (the Welsh Triads), history and legends. The plan was to add a fourth volume for mediaeval prose, which would comprise ‘The Mabinogion.’|
|4.||⇑||Most recently, Sioned Davies, 2007.|
|5.||⇑||The concept of a unified ‘Britain’ in the Second Branch and Third Branch is ahistorical for example, and may be ascribed to a propaganda myth.|
|6.||⇑||Pughe, William Owen. 1803. The Cambrian Biography: Or, Historical Notices of Celebrated Men Among the Ancient Britons. London: E. Williams. See text on google books.|
|7.||⇑||Johnston, Arthur. 1957. “William Owen-Pughe and the Mabinogion.” National Library of Wales Journal 10 (3): 323–28.|
|8.||⇑||Pughe, William Owen. 1821. “The Tale of Pwyll.” Cambro-Briton Journal 2 (18): 271–75.|
|9.||⇑||Pughe, William Owen. 1829. “The Mabinogi: Or, the Romance of Math Ab Mathonwy.” The Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repository 1: 170–79.|