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No one who knows and loves Wales will have failed to be present at some time or another at that most interesting and curious ceremony known as an Eisteddfod.
The name simply means a "sitting," and probably refers, not to the spectators, but to the "chairing" of the bard, which forms a chief part in the proceedings.
These gatherings, for the purpose of preserving the poetry and music of the country, are held all over the land; but each year a great national Eisteddfod is held at some convenient centre; and of this notice is published a year and a day beforehand.
At the appointed time, before crowds of spectators, the trumpets are sounded, and the candidates are presented for the "degree" of bard. For this they have to pass tests of various kinds, poetical and literary, which are judged then and there. Then the "bards" present their addresses to the audience—a poem, a prose composition, a song, as the case may be. Musical competitions form a very marked feature of the contest. From far and near the country choirs flock in, and rival each other in choral and solo singing, until one is adjudged the prize.
Other competitors play the harp or violin, and when the contest is decided, the great ceremony of "chairing the bard" begins. A "chair subject" having been previously set for competition, the winner is solemnly conducted to a chair of carved oak, a naked sword is held over his head, and he is greeted with the blare of trumpets as the bard. A concert, given by well-known singers, closes the proceedings, which have often lasted for two or three days.
This ceremony dates from very far-off times. It may, indeed, be found in some form in the time of that wonderful King Arthur of whom you have all heard.
He, as you know, was King of Britain in the "days before history," and at his Court it was the custom to set tests of valour to his knights. Once he set seven of them to find fair Olwen, daughter of Thornogre Thistlehair, chief of the Giants, and they were given a year and a day for their quest. Of .the many wonderful adventures that befell them you may read in a delightful collection of Welsh stories called the "Mabinogion," or "Book for Girls and Boys."
At another Yule-tide his nephew, Sir Gawayne, was put to a more severe test. A Green Knight of immense stature rode into the dining-hall of the King, and dared any knight present to give him, who was armed only with a holly-stick, a blow with an axe, on the condition that he should receive a blow in return a year and a day after the event.
Sir Gawayne proved himself the only one who was not too dismayed at such a condition, and with One good blow cut off the Green Knight's head, The latter, however, merely picked it up, and held it aloft, upon which the head, opening its eyes and addressing Sir Gawayne, said:
"Look you, be ready as you have promised, and seek me till you find me. Get you to Green Chapel a year and a day from now, there to receive a blow on New Year's Eve."
The adventures of Sir Gawayne must be read elsewhere. They form the subject of a fine English poem of the fourteenth century, and were certainly of the nature of a test of courage and endurance.
By the sixth century the Eisteddfod seems to have become more of a test of poetical and musical talent than of knightly skill and prowess. Those who proved themselves worthy at the yearly gathering were classed as bards, and were given the right of entry into the castles of all Welsh barons and Princes. At one of the earliest of these meetings Gwynedd, Prince of North Wales, in order to show how superior vocal music was to that performed on instruments, offered a prize to the bards who should swim over the Conway.
Eagerly the test was accepted, but when they reached the farther bank the unfortunate harpists found their strings were ruined by the water, while the singers were merely braced up to even more successful efforts than before.
In the twelfth century we hear of a very notable Eisteddfod held at Caerwys, now a little country-town, hidden away on a high tableland among the hills, but notable in former days as the favourite residence of the last Llewelyn. It was his ancestor, Griffith, who held there a gathering, "to which there repaired all the men of Wales and also some from England and Scotland," says the proud historian of the event. And another is described as taking place at Cardigan Castle, where assembled many bards, harpers, and minstrels, "the best to be found in all Wales."
In the last century this interesting old custom, which had become much neglected, was revived, and now almost every Welsh town can boast of its own little Eisteddfod, in which the various choirs of church and chapel, the plough-boy poet and the clever school-child, all play their part in keeping alive that spirit of poetry and music which is characteristic of the national character of Wild Wales.