Mountains, Welsh Culture and a bit of Science Fiction

I recently finished a 1977 novel called Survivors: Genesis of a Hero. It’s a tale of Britain a few years after a catastrophe that has wiped out of most of the human race. A violent and oppressive government has sprung up to govern what’s left of England.

Wales, however, holds out against this new militaristic regime.  Communities there realize that the English revolution is based on using the guns, food and technology of a civilization that is now over. Instead, they try and build a (Welsh-speaking) society that is not only fairer but more sustainable and self-sufficient. What enables them to do that, and hold off the advances of the English revolution, is retreating to the mountains and fighting a guerrilla war. It’s a military tactic that was familiar to medieval Welsh princes.

The geography of Wales has shaped its history.  Indeed, the opening line of Owen M. Edwards’ influential 1901 history of the nation was ‘Wales is a land of mountains’. The mountains divided north and south, undermining a sense of national unity. But they also kept out not only invaders but migrants too. Only slowly did tourists, industrialists and railways open up north Wales to Anglicizing influences. Mountains were key to why Wales survived into the modern world.

But modern technology and wealth undermined that, as people by the 1950s were only too aware.  In 1961, the nationalist writer Iswlyn Ffowc Elis complained (in Welsh):

Wales is no longer a haven beyond the mountains, but an open playground for hordes of motorists and cyclists and hikers, and an experimental field for the Government’s technology.  The teeth of her defensive mountains have been drawn, her valleys drowned by the English, and the innards of her rural society ripped out.  She now stands naked before the world.

Ironically, mountains are now seen as important to the future of Wales precisely because they bring in the spending power of tourists.

That’s surely a good thing. Wanting to close our border and deny outside influences can only harm Wales, both economically and culturally. Welsh identity survived in the post-war period because it embraced the modern world rather than rejected it. Once ‘the teeth of the defensive mountains’ were drawn, Wales reinvented itself as nation built on the present rather than the past.  Thus while a few opposed the building of the Severn Bridge in the 1960s because it would open Wales up to the world, far more embraced it for exactly the same reason.  Wales was a redefined from a land of hymns and pubs that were shut on a Sunday to one of pop music and personal freedom.

In Survivors the new Welsh society is welcoming of refugees from oppression in England. Those refugees have to agree to live by the ways of the new society but it’s also recognized that the incomers can bring new ideas and news ways of doing things. The best way to protect a culture is to ensure it does not stand still.

Survivors: Genesis of a Hero is out of print but there are pirated pdfs online.  There’s a review of the book here.

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Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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