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Morgan Llwyd (1619-1659), the nephew of a professional soldier and magician, was a Roundhead, a millenialist, a chaplain in the army of Oliver Cromwell, and later a civil servant of the commonwealth in Wales.

His famous religious allegory, A Book of Three Birds, is considered the most important Welsh book of the Seventeenth Century, and an enduring masterpiece of Welsh prose. Its three speakers, the Eagle, the Raven and the Dove, reflect not only on the divisions in Welsh society between royalists and roundheads under Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship, but on the nature of civil authority, the nature of civil liberty, the contrast between tradition and progress, and the underlying conflict between carnal and spiritual approaches to life. This is a section from it.

from A Book of Three Birds

Eagle. But let me converse with the raven a little longer. What news do you have from overseas?

Raven. The doves are on the wing in every kingdom, and that is an omen that the kings will not stand. There are many in Holland, some in France, and a few in Spain, and I am not pleased to see them everywhere flocking to the windows. They are so quick that no hawk can take them.

Eagle. And what do the other ravens say in these countries?

Ravens. The old ones can see that a great change is coming on the world, while the young ones prattle and take their pleasure. I was in Rome the other day, and when I see the Pope quaking on his throne, it is high time for me to look about me.

Eagle. And is the Pope also among the Quakers? Why does he quake?

Raven. Certain prophesies alarm him. He sends far and wide for help to keep his palace up, and yet it topples: he has the world’s most guileful ravens in his nest, and some of the princes, like pillars, are trying to uphold him. But the greater part are rotten at the core, and their religion is a burden on their shoulders.

Eagle. And have you news of the Turks and the Jews?

Raven. Yes. The Turks are gaping their eyes, for they fear that this generation will be the last. In other countries the rivers and lakes are turning to blood, and terrible wonders are seen in the heavens, as though the end of all things were at hand. What will come of us when the world is engulfed in flames? But as for the Jews, they look for the morning star, in the hope of rising again above the hills, and sitting enthroned over the earth. And I wonder whether they might indeed have some strange revival.

Eagle. What makes you say that?

Raven. Because the least will be greatest, for the earth is turning like a cartwheel.

Eagle. And have you news of Ireland and Scotland?

Raven. Only that there is great uproar among them, and the doves are everywhere on the wing. But I have told you too much news already, and no doubt I should be silent.

Eagle. I am grateful for your news. Please continue. It is good to listen to what every bird has to say.

Raven. I will say only this, that the pillars of the earth are shaking, and there are fires and tempests in every land nearby – if it were not so, we would have some help in England by now. But if I tell you more secrets, the dove will hear them.

Eagle. I warrant she knows more than this. But is there no hope of a better world in your opinion?

Raven. I have already spoken my mind, that everywhere there is only the most brutal oppression, and the weakest of protests. It is not my job to argue like this, except to show you how accursed is this generation of doves that raises its beaks, and I think that you and they should part, and that is my whole message. I would say a word to the dove, were it not that I scorn her, that she should think of her life, and stand apart from you, and not by your side as she does. You are an eagle, and nothing is as cruel as your sharp talons.

Eagle. It is true that my forebears have killed many doves, but I do not swoop before I look; nor do I snatch without knowing who or why.

Raven. If I remained with you for many months, I could bring you news every hour. But I am hungry for carrion, and intruders might be burning my nest. Let me go.

Eagle. No. You will not leave my presence until I know more of your mind.

Raven. What do you want from me but what I have already told you?

Eagle. Were you not in London the other day, pricking your ears for what you might hear?

Raven. Yes. In London there is every kind of bird, as in rich woodland, and every bird giving voice. There are many swift doves there, and also black-winged ravens who have not changed their hue. They were saying that London will burn, but for all their talk it still stands, as other cities still stand. Too much prediction perplexes men, yet we would not call the prophesy false. For nothing is false, if it pleases us.

Eagle. What did you learn in London?

Raven. I was out on the thoroughfares listening to the chatterers at their chatter, but I did not learn much, since there was no reason to their gossip: they prattled over their cups, like the sound of waves, or like terriers yapping; there was an uproar of bickering women among them, and a torrent of words, like a river in flood. Each of them had two ears and one tongue, and the tongue said more than the two ears heard, and more than the two eyes saw. And when I saw them in the dark dungeons of their folly, I passed on, rejoicing to see them thus. They knew no more than animals. For if these men went on all fours, and fur grew over them, and if they could say no more than Balaam’s ass, rational men would think them unreasoning beasts, made to be captured and slaughtered.

Eagle. I myself know that there are many cunning foxes, and wild cats, and dangerous beasts in every land, and in London as well. But I am asking you what the wise men of London were saying.

Raven. They spoke in low tones. And although I have an ear like any other bird, I could not make out their words. I landed on their rooftops, and on the eaves of their houses, yet still I did not hear much.

Eagle. And what is the little you did hear?

Raven. The counsels of state are secret and deep. The ignorant commoners among the birds understand none of them.

Eagle. And do you yourself understand them?

Raven. Not fully. There is no man in either the Kingdom of England or the City of London who understands them entire. Whatever they do today, some spirit undoes tomorrow. I can see nothing coming about according to the expectations of men, for some other wheel is turning, beyond the senses of all. The chaff is swept together, when sudden winds disperse it; the spider patiently weaves her web, and the little children brush it away in an instant. The men I have seen are in a lime kiln, or like children building mud houses on a river bank, and the floods rise without warning, and all is swept away. There is some force among men now that was not there before. Some curious spirit is at work, although men do not see it. I tell you this against my will, and according to my conscience.

Eagle. How is that possible?

Raven. Many speak against their conscience, and according to their will, and some speak against their will, and according to their conscience, as I do now, although it is not my custom.

Eagle. What conflict is this, between the conscience and the will?

Raven. The conscience says, ‘You ought to do this,’ and the will says, ‘I want to do that.’ But all too often we follow the will, and forsake the conscience.

Eagle. And what is the conscience, in your opinion?

Raven. The Witness Within, the Light of Birds, the Candle of Men, the Voice Behind us, the Hawk of Noah, the Rapid Scribe, the Secret Counsellor, the Eternal Friend, a constant feast to some, and the undying worm in others. But I am reluctant to say much about the conscience.

Eagle. Why is that?

Raven. Because I dare not follow it. If I were to follow my conscience, I would try to be like the dove, and I cannot bear that.

Eagle. Indeed! You have said enough, and too much against yourself. I see that the ravens are going against their own conscience, as much as they are going against the doves.

Raven. And do you have the ability to divide me within myself, and set my conscience against my will?

Eagle. Your own words have already done so. But tell me, which will endure the longest, your conscience or your will?

Raven. My conscience, alas. For already, little is going according to my will. And I am afraid it will be even less, when I rise to my judgement.

Eagle. My advice would be that you look to that which endures the longest, and shun that which will come to an end. For however sweet it may be, it will profit you nothing, and will fade after a moment.

Raven. If only I could. My will is against it.

Eagle. Your condition is wearisome, and you are weary in your condition. I can do nothing for you, but there is one who can help. Therefore speak the truth; there is no shame in that.

Raven. If I told you the whole truth, the truth is that I would tell you much against myself.

Eagle. Blessed is the one who does so, and yields to the good. You know that the reed that bends is better than the one that breaks for want of moisture or suppleness. Natural law teaches men to follow their own light. Reason and conscience are the two eyes of the natural man, and the man who pulls his own eye out of his soul should be punished by the judge: not because he has gone against the religious opinions of his rulers, but because he has gone against his own reason. And if you go against your lights, you are punishing yourself within, and forcing the magistrates without to punish you also.

Raven. I cannot prevent it. Do as you will, for you are rulers for the present time. But if ever it falls to my hand, I will avenge myself on the doves.

Cover of A Book of Three Birds

Creative Commons Licence
This passage from A Book of Three Birds by Morgan Llwyd translated by Rob Mimpriss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

I am the author of three short story collections. Reasoning and For His Warriors, originally published by Gwasg y Bwthyn, Caernarfon, with Welsh Books Council support, now join Prayer at the End in revised editions at Cockatrice Books. My anthology of fiction, Dangerous Asylums: Stories from Denbigh Mental Hospital Told by Leading Welsh Writers, including work by Gee and David Williams, Glenda Beagan, Carys Bray, Simon Thirsk and others, was published by the North Wales Mental Health Research Project, October 2016.

I am the translator of Going South: The Stories of Richard Hughes Williams (Cockatrice, 2015), Hallowe’en in the Cwm: The Stories of Glasynys (Cockatrice, 2017), and A Book of Three Birds, the seventeenth-century classic by Morgan Llwyd (Cockatrice, 2017). In addition, I have translated fiction by D. Gwenallt Jones, Angharad Tomos, and Manon Steffan Ros.