Obituary: Professor A. O. H. Jarman

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The Independent Culture
IN THE international field of Arthurian studies, A. O. H. Jarman had a reputation as a meticulous scholar and tireless researcher. For 22 years he was Professor of Welsh at University College, Cardiff, where he specialised in the study of the earliest Welsh and Latin sources and made a distinguished contribution to their interpretation.

The central figure of his research was Arthur - not the hero of medieval romance or the clanking knight of Malory and Tennyson (and certainly not the swashbuckling star of Hollywood's Camelot), but the British warlord about whom little is known for certain and around whom so many tales have accumulated in several literatures.

This Arthur, "the Arthur of the Welsh", was a dux bellorum or military leader who, in the late fifth and early sixth century, fought to sustain Roman civitas in southern Britain and whose most famous victory, about the year 519, was against Saxon invaders at Mount Badon in which, according to the Annales Cambriae (two manuscripts written in the 12th/13th centuries and now kept in the British Library and the Public Record Office), he bore the Cross of Christ for three days and nights. His death at Camlann (perhaps the fort now called Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall) in about 537 is also recorded in this, the most authentic of the early references to Arthur.

Alfred Owen Hughes Jarman (to give his full name is somehow to trespass on the privacy of this very reserved man) was born in Bangor, Caernarvonshire, in 1911. His father, who kept a corner shop, was a monoglot English-speaker from Montgomeryshire and the boy might have been brought up without the Welsh language had his mother not seen to it that he attended the Sunday School at Twr-gwyn, a bastion of the Calvinistic Methodist cause in the city.

At the University College of North Wales he took degrees in both Welsh and English, and then, in 1936, was awarded an MA for a thesis on that part of The Black Book of Carmarthen which deals with the legend of Myrddin, the wizard known in English as Merlin. He began his career as a tutor with the college's Extra-Mural Department and the Workers' Education Association, but moved to Cardiff in 1946 to take up a lectureship in the Welsh Department at University College, Cardiff.

Unlike most of his colleagues at Bangor, Jarman soon became active in politics on behalf of Plaid Cymru, in those days a small group of intellectuals, students, writers and ministers of religion. In the bitter schism which rent the Welsh intelligentsia in the late 1930s after the symbolic act of arson at Penyberth, near Pwllheli, where an RAF bombing school was being built, he was to be found in the nationalist rather than the socialist camp, especially after Saunders Lewis, a lecturer in Welsh at Swansea and an eminent writer, was gaoled for his part in the affair and, while serving a prison sentence, was dismissed from his post.

Jarman was one of those who mounted an unsuccessful campaign to have Lewis reinstated. He also helped in the equally ineffective attempt to elect Lewis, the Plaid Cymru candidate, to the University Wales seat at Westminster. For five years during the Second World War he was editor of the party's monthly newspaper, Y Ddraig Goch, and played a leading part in the formulation of the party's policies. He took the view that Wales, like Ireland, should remain neutral during the conflict of 1939- 45 and, when called up for military service, refused to serve. His hope was that, if a thousand young Welshmen had agreed to do the same, Wales would have been given a new political status after the war.

The tribunal refused to accept this political argument and, as a consequence, Jarman and a few others served a brief term in prison. His commitment to the work of Plaid Cymru, and his allegiance to the seminal but controversial figure of Saunders Lewis, never faltered and he remained a staunch member of the party for the rest of his life.

Two years after coming to the Chair in Welsh at Cardiff, Jarman began publishing the fruits of his research. In his book The Legend of Merlin (1960) and in many articles in scholarly journals such as Studia Celtica he traced the development of the Merlin story from its Celtic and Welsh roots to its French versions. His later research is to be found in his article "The Legend of Myrddin and the Welsh Tradition of Prophecy" which appeared in the magisterial book he edited with Rachel Bromwich and Brinley F. Roberts, The Arthur of the Welsh (1991).

He also contributed to the compendium Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (1959), edited by R.S. Loomis, and published a complete edition of The Black Book of Carmarthen (1982). From 1963 to 1986 he was editor of Llen Cymru, a journal published by the University of Wales Press on behalf of the Board of Celtic Studies. He was also an authority on Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author of the Historia Regum Britanniae, and on Y Gododdin, a sixth-century poem in Old Welsh which, because it describes the defeat in battle of a British war-band from what is today lowland Scotland, has been wryly called "the oldest Scottish poem".

The Merlin to whom Jarman devoted many years of study was a legendary poet and prophet who, after the battle of Arfderydd in 573, lost his reason and fled to the wood of Celyddon, where he lived as a wild man and received the gift of prophecy. Jarman reconstructed the tale, not only from Galfridian sources, mainly the Vita Merlini, but also from the writings of the 12th- century Giraldus Cambrensis, showing how Merlin had become one of the central characters of the continental Arthurian legend.

With his wife Eldra, who is descended from a famous family of Welsh gypsies who were talented musicians, Jarman wrote an authoritative account of the Romanies in Wales, Y Sipsiwn Cymreig (1979), of which an English version, The Welsh Gypsies: children of Abram Wood, appeared in 1991. She brought a vivacity to their marriage which nicely complemented the somewhat taciturn, but not humourless, scholar in him. I well remember his hilarious comments about those who claimed to have discovered Arthur's grave, his caustic dismissal of the efforts of "amateur" Arthurian enthusiasts like Nikolai Tolstoy, and his laughter when I told him that there was a roadside cafe just outside Glastonbury which served Excaliburgers.

During his time as Professor of Welsh at Cardiff, Fred Jarman (as he was known to friends and some of his colleagues) served inter alia as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and, in the wider academic world, on the board of the University of Wales Press and the Board of Celtic Studies, on the Court of the University of Wales and various committees of the National Library of Wales. Among his initiatives in his own department was the establishment of a Linguistics Research Unit, which nurtured the talents of a generation of young scholars, particularly those engaged in the study of Welsh dialects and, most notably, its first Director, Ceinwen Thomas, Glyn E. Jones, who succeeded Jarman to the Chair of Welsh, and David Thorne, now Professor of Welsh at Lampeter.

A. O. H. Jarman received many honours in his chosen field. He was the Sir John Rhys Fellow at Oxford University and Fellow of Jesus College in 1975-76, O'Donnell Lecturer in the University of Wales in 1984, Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecturer in the British Academy in 1985, President of the British Branch of the International Arthurian Society from 1980 to 1983, and thereafter its Honorary President.

Alfred Owen Hughes Jarman, Welsh scholar: born Bangor, Caernarvonshire 8 October 1911; Professor of Welsh, University College, Cardiff 1957-79; married 1943 Eldra Roberts (two daughters); died Cardiff 26 October 1998.