A mythical figure

Iolo Morganwg became a key figure in the cultural and patriotic movements of Victorian and Edwardian Wales because his myth enabled Welsh people to celebrate their past and derive from it a much-needed sense of pride in their culture. He was the connecting thread which brought 'the earliest account of Britain to the present' and thus gave the Welsh a past that stretched back beyond the writing of history. The manuscripts which he had brought to the attention of the public (or created) were used to promote the view that the Welsh were not only devoted to religion but that they were also the people with the longest surviving Christian tradition in Europe. Iolo stood for the Welsh eighteenth-century renaissance and its achievements, among them the internationally acclaimed three volumes of The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (1801–7) which were considered milestones in the annals of Welsh patriotism and scholarship.

The Victorian myth of Iolo Morganwg rested on Elijah Waring's Recollections and Anecdotes of Edward Williams (1850), which was based on the anecdotes Iolo Morganwg had told the author in the 1820s and Waring's correspondence with others. Of the many aspects of Iolo Morganwg's personality the Welsh Victorians and Edwardians chose to develop three: the saintly sage, the gifted antiquary and the timeless folk hero. Each found expression in much-reprinted anecdotes and in general descriptive passage about the hero.

The saintly sage

The following passage, written in 1851, laid the foundation for the myth of Iolo, the saintly sage:

Peidiwch dynesu at Iolo Morganwg, nac at un dyn geirwir, gonest, didwyll, calonog arall. Y mae dyn o'r fath hyn yn aneddu mewn mangre rhy uchel i chwi â'ch llygaid gwyrgam, ei weled yn oleuglaer; ac yn arogli awyr rhy iachusber i'ch cylla a'ch ysgyfaint chwi ei hanadlu, heb beri arteithiau i'ch calonau – cedwch rhagddi, da chwithau, er eich mwyn eich hunain. Am dano ef, a'i fath, nid yw eich crach-feirniadaeth nac yma nac acw. Safant y gwir ddynion ar uchelfan, allan o sŵn sisial yr hystyngwr, a'r clapgi, a dirmygwr ei frawd yn ei absenoldeb.

(Do not approach Iolo Morganwg, nor any other truthful, honest, guileless, high-spirited man. Such a man resides in a place which is too high for you and your crooked eyes to see him in clear light; and the air he breathes is too wholesomely fragrant for your windpipe and your lungs to inhale without causing torture to your hearts – keep away from it, I urge you, for your own sake. For him and his kind, your petty criticism is neither here nor there. Real men stand on elevated ground, beyond the sound of the malicious whisper of the advocate, and the gossip-monger, and the scorner of his brother in his absence.)

The gifted antiquary

Victorian admirers of Iolo's work stressed his humble origins and calling because it confirmed their belief in the werin Gymraeg:

Nid oedd ond dyn tlawd – saer maen wrth ei alwedigaeth – hunan-addysgedig (ni chafodd awr o ysgol eriod), gyda gwraig a thŷaid o blant, i'r rhai yr oedd dan orfod ennill cynaliaeth drwy chwys ei wyneb. Y syndod i mi, pan ystyriwyf y cwbl, yw, sut y gallodd wneuthur cymaint. Meddylier am y cannoedd o filltiroedd a deithiodd, gan fwyaf ar draed; y llyfrgelloedd yr ymwelodd â hwynt; y llu cyfrolau – tua chant – a ddarllenodd ac a gopïodd er mwyn ceisio achub ein hen lenyddiaeth rhag difancoll. Rhodder chwareu teg i'r hen Iolo, o leiaf; a thawed y grwgnachgwyr hyd oni chyflawnant yr hanner a wnaeth.

(He was only a poor man – a stonemason by vocation – self-educated (he never had an hour of schooling), with a wife and a houseful of children, for whom he was forced to earn a living by the sweat of his brow. When I consider everything, what is astonishing to me is how he managed to do so much. Think of the hundreds of miles he travelled, mostly on foot; the libraries he visited; the host of volumes – around a hundred – he read and copied in order to save our old literature from oblivion. Grant the old Iolo fair play, at least; and be the grumblers silent until they achieve half of what he did.)

The timeless folk hero

The more radical aspects of Iolo's legacy were transformed into innocent and edifying tales:

I am glad you have given a notice and portrait of old Iolo. Perhaps the following anecdote will amuse your readers: – Iolo, when in London, was waited upon by a nobleman, who left his card, as Iolo was out, and his wish that the old Welshman would do him the honour of calling.

Iolo did call, in his humble suit, and his hard rap with the stick brought a servant to the door, who eyed him in amazement. 'What do you want, fellow, by rapping like that?' 'To see Lord –', 'You should go to the back, man.' 'No, I won't.' 'What is your name?' 'That is my business. I want to see his lordship.' 'He'll horsewhip you if you don't get off.' 'No, he won't', said Iolo. 'Tell him that a man wishes to see him.'

Back went the servant, who reported that an impudent, abusive fellow was at the door, who would not give his name, but insisted on seeing his lordship, and the nobleman, a very irate worthy, seized his horsewhip and rushed to the door, crying out as he cracked his whip, 'Now fellow, you want a thrashing, do you?' 'Hold', cried Iolo, as Lord – came unpleasantly near. 'Hold, –

Strike a Welshman if you dare,
Ancient Britons as we are,
We were a nation of renown
Before a Saxon wore a crown.'

'Iolo!' exclaimed his lordship with delight, throwing his whip at the servant and holding out eagerly his hand; and forthwith the old bard was marched in, an honoured guest.