Literature Wales recently received a message from a friend at PEN Belarus regarding a Welsh fantasy writer called Cenydd Morus (1879 –1937):
Next year it’ll be 80 years since the death of Kenneth Morris or Cenydd Morus – he signed both ways – and it would be tremendously great if the Welsh literary community gave him some attention. This gap between the (roaring) critical acclaim and the (all but absent) popular readership is unprecedented for the fantasy genre; his esoteric affiliations (in fact, rather typical of the Celtic revival) may frighten the publishers away a bit; but to some extent, I believe, it’s his literary homelessness that harms him. He cannot be rooted anywhere but in Wales; he cannot be positioned in any literature but the Welsh… he needs to be welcomed home, conceptually; not just as a curious particular case of reworking the Mabinogi, but as one hell of a modernist author to boast about.
Jamie Williamson, Senior Lecturer at the Department of English, University of Vermont writes to give us more information about the mysterious Cenydd Morus:
At the time of his death in 1937, Kenneth Morris was all but completely unknown, both in his native Wales and elsewhere. Among the variety of reasons for this: he had little interest in self promotion, and was ambivalent about “recognition”; the years during which he was most prolific came during his tenure at the Theosophical Institute abroad in Point Loma CA (1908-30). His one properly ‘literary’ release, The Silent Mountain and Other Tales, a collection of ten of his short tales published by Faber and Gwyer in 1926, appeared to little fanfare; his only other commercial release, Book of the Three Dragons, appeared inappropriately as a title for young readers in 1930, with the last third of Morris’s text simply eliminated. The remainder of his work was either published in venues directed to the Theosophical world, or not at all: The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed was published by the Theosophical Press in 1914; the remainder of his 30-odd stories were published in Theosophical journals, often under pseudonyms; a third book-length narrative, The Chalchiuhite Dragon, did not appear in Morris’s lifetime.
Given this stew of factors, Morris’s obscurity in 1937 and the decades that followed is scarcely surprising. The republication—and, in some cases, first publication— of Morris’s work has come on the heels of the creation of the fantasy genre following the unprecedented commercial success of Tolkien’s work in the 1960s. But even here he was a latecomer. The seminal Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series included only a rather arbitrarily chosen extract from Book of the Three Dragons, presented misleadingly in a context which suggested it was actually an extract from the Mabinogion (in the 1969 anthology Dragons, Elves, and Heroes). His two book-length Welsh narratives did not reappear until 1978: Fates of the Princes of Dyfed was published in the small press Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library, and Book of the Three Dragons in a library edition by Arno Press. Boyer and Zahorski included tales in several of their important anthologies, beginning with The Fantastic Imagination II in 1978. But then came a lull, and it was only with the 1990s, and thanks almost entirely to the work of Douglas A. Anderson[i], that the full spread of Morris’s fiction was rounded out: The Chalchiuhite Dragon appeared in 1992, The Dragon’s Path: Collected Tales of Kenneth Morris in 1995, and the complete text of Book of the Three Dragons in 2004. But despite the acclaim of critics—including Ursula Le Guin, who identified him as one of the “three master stylists of fantasy” (beside Tolkien and E.R. Eddison)[ii]—Morris remains far less widely known than his contemporaries such as Eddison, Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell.
That Morris’s revival, such as it is, has occurred in the context of the post-Tolkien fantasy genre, has perhaps served to blur his ‘Welshness’; so too, to a lesser degree, his lifelong preoccupation with Theosophy. But in the latter case, Theosophy and Wales were, to Morris, inextricably bound up with each other. He would assert that “Theosophy was at one time the religion of Britain.” He simultaneously believed that the ancient Welsh tales recorded in the Mabinogion were properly understood through the imagination, that Theosophical ideas inhered in them: Morris’s metaphysical thought was sophisticated enough and his literary skill great enough that, in his imaginative work, one never feels that an alien ideology is being imposed[iii].
In the case of the former, the association with the post-Tolkien fantasy genre of course allies Morris with a genre which did not exist during his lifetime. Posited as non-culturally specific literary form, “fantasy,” taken uncritically, can implicitly reduce ethnic considerations to a kind of flavor. Unlike many writers since the 1960s, Morris was emphatically not a “fantasy writer” who found a trove of “source material” in Welsh tradition. His wish was, as a Welsh writer, to do for Wales what many of the writers of the Irish Renaissance—Yeats, Synge, Ella Young—had done for Ireland: to center the imaginative impulse in the traditions of his own native Wales. The two book-length narratives published in his lifetime were imaginative engagements of the Mabinogion; five of his six early pieces (1898-1902) were likewise Welsh, anticipating the two later books; some half dozen of the thirty-five tales collected in The Dragon Path take Welsh subjects. His work engaging other traditions—including short tales on Chinese, Norse, and Persian, and the Toltec subject of The Chalchiuhite Dragon—should be seen as emerging from this center.
Those literary qualities which have led to Morris’s association with the fantasy genre, however, do also partly account for his neglect during his lifetime. His favoured narrative modes were distinctly against the grain in a context where social realism and modernism dominated; Morris himself thought little of much that was “modern”, opining in his introduction to Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, that “So-called realism concerns itself with but the froth and spume on the surface of life.” From the standpoint of the early twenty-first century, it is perhaps possible to forget these recriminations emerging from formal preferences, and accept Morris as a unique, and uniquely Welsh voice from his period.
[i] Anderson is responsible for editing and seeing all of the three volumes noted below into print. His research is meticulous, and the scholarly apparati of the volumes are far and away the best sources of background on Morris currently available.
[ii] In her well known essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsi,” in 1973.
[iii] One can see this in Morris’s early narrative-cum-essay “The Epic of Wales,” included in Anderson’s The Dragon Path.
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