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Sample Essay from Brooker Prize Winner




Cymru am byth ("Wales Forever"):
The Language, Literature, and History of Wales

Katharine Olson

General Information


Previous Prize Recipients

  Typically, it all began with a book. A story about a young boy traveling to the heart of the "misty mountains" of North Wales. Y maent yr mynyddoedd yn canu, ac y mae'r arglwyddes yn dod. This, phrase in modern Welsh roughly translated means, "The mountains are singing, and the lady will come." Something about the place, the poetry of the language, the legends left an impression on my eleven-year-old mind. I had always been one for fairytales.

The book was Susan Cooper's The Grey King, part of the Dark is Rising sequence. It was the first book I had ever encountered dealing with Wales, and certainly not the last. It was then that I began reading all that I could find on the Welsh nation, as well as other Celtic subjects.


"Wales? Where is that?" This question perhaps has been the most common reaction when people ask about my interests. Growing up in California, few of my classmates knew its location, or understood my interest in the insignificant region to the west of England. In fact, England was all too often taken to the synonymous with Britain. I remember clearly the mystified faces of my eighth-grade English class when I gave book reports on Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and especially The Mabinogion.

I began to collect everything everything Welsh I could find, particularly books on the literature and history of the Middle Ages, as well as some general Celtic books. I started slowly, buying the odd book at local bookstores to read for fun, later scouring Celtic festivals which I dragged my mother along to for "anything Welsh," or the odd antiques fair. Sometimes I was lucky, more often I would find tomes on "Celtic Wisdom" and such. As I began to discover, finding books on Wales was not an easy task: each was a treasure. File past aisles of books on England, Ireland and Scotland in your local bookshop and you will see what I mean!

This past summer I finally got a chance to visit Wales. I enrolled in the two-month intensive Welsh program at the University of Wales--Lampeter. Predictably, by the second day of the course, I had already made rounds of all the town bookstores. In Wales, I had access to more books than I had ever imagined. I discovered the wonders of the local presses' reprints and special editions, Gwasg Y Dref Wen, Llanerch and Gomer, they were called. The Siop y Pethe (literally, the Shop of Things) in Aberystwyth (Midwest Wales) had more Welsh books per square inch than any other place in the world, or so I was told. And I was actually able at last to read books in Welsh. I was in heaven. It was this summer that I discovered the Medieval and Modern Welsh Series, of which I only have a few books so far. Gazing at row upon row of books, I realized just how far my collection is from complete.

Perhaps some of my most precious books I have acquired though, I did not buy. A friend shipped me Williams's A Welsh Grammar from Paris two years ago for my birthday. A church where I attended a special Welsh service every Sunday this summer presented me with a wonderful book upon my return to the States. Another friend found me copies of Armes Prydein and a Welsh leaner's book for my twenty-first birthday last summer.

My fondest memory though is from this past summer. My second day in town I walked into a used books store with the auspicious name of Cambrensia Books. After looking around, I asked the sales clerk if she has any books on or in Middle Welsh. An elderly woman sitting on a stool by her quashed whatever her reply might have been, asking me where I was from, if I was interested in Welsh history if I spoke the language, all in one breath. In the hour-and-a-half that followed I stool spellbound as she told us local history, stories of shipwrecks, princes, the "Drowned Land," the Tylwyth Teg or the Welsh fairies, the use of the "Welsh Knot" in schools to discourage children from speaking Welsh, and countless other tales.

The woman, Mrs. Evans she was called, told me that she had some books from her schooldays which she would give to me. And she did: Jenkin-Thomas's classic and hard-to-find Cambrensia, Wade-Evans's History of Wales and England, Llyfr miseodd, and more.

What started as a casual interest in all things Welsh has developed into far more: what I believe is only the beginning of a lifelong passion for things welsh. I pan to go to grade school in Celtic Studies, studying specially Medieval Welsh History and Literature, and eventually become a University professor. I have spent this year teaching a small group of people on campus Welsh through the Celtic Society, and hope to return to Wales this Summer for the advanced language course. I would like very much to become fluent in Welsh and have the opportunity to do more research in Wales. And of course, I will not neglect those bookstores.

Ms. Olson won the 4th-year prize in 1999
for the collection described in the preceding essay.