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The Other 300

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Nineteenth-century drawing of the Battle of the Winwaed (655) between Mercia and Northumbria, by Patrick Nicolle © Look and Be taught/Bridgeman Pictures.

The Gododdin is an enchanting, however frustratingly elusive, piece of literature. Contained in an incomplete late Thirteenth-century Welsh manuscript, but attributed to the sixth-century north-British poet Aneirin, it’s a assortment of verses written in medieval Welsh regarding in any other case unrecorded individuals and occasions. It belongs, broadly talking, to a style of heroic elegy. The verses mourn named warriors who fell in battle and lots of of these warriors belonged to a individuals known as the Gododdin. They have been killed at a spot named Catraeth. In contrast to, say, the Iliad or Beowulf, the poetry doesn’t inform a narrative and the type is dense. The which means of a lot of the vocabulary should be inferred from etymology or context. Nonetheless, the poem has an plain energy and its unflinching depiction of younger males killing and dying on the battlefield has resonated by the centuries, not least with the Anglo-Welsh writer David Jones, who drew on it to border his experiences within the trenches through the First World Battle.

The Gododdin was edited by Ifor Williams in 1938 and his in depth notes nonetheless type the idea of our understanding of the textual content. It has since been translated into English half a dozen instances. Gillian Clarke’s is the most recent of those, although it’s not fairly a translation. Quite, Clarke’s work resembles Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. It reads fantastically, as one would count on from such a proficient poet, but it surely doesn’t all the time give a really shut rendition of the unique textual content. For instance: 

Gwŷr a aeth Gatraeth, oedd ffraeth eu llu,
Glasfedd eu hancwyn a gwenwyn fu

(Males went to Catraeth, their host was swift,
Contemporary mead their feast and it was poison) 

is right here rendered 

Males rode to Catraeth, debonair
their snare, the honey-trap, gold mead

Readers who require a more in-depth understanding of the textual content because it stands ought to look elsewhere. Of probably the most literal translations, Kenneth Jackson’s The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem (1969) is admirably cautious.

The failing of Clarke’s ebook, nevertheless, is its introduction. Clarke summarises Ifor Williams’ unique speculation in regards to the background, composition and transmission of the textual content, however fails to say that Williams’ arguments have been topic to in depth criticism within the 80 years and extra since his landmark publication. Williams himself was suitably tentative in presenting it at first, however inevitably with every repetition query marks and caveats have been shed. Put succinctly, Williams’ argument is that this: within the late sixth century, Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ruler of the Gododdin (the successor of the Wotadini recorded in Ptolemy’s Geography) summoned a retinue of 300 warriors to Edinburgh (the Eidyn of the poems) and feasted them for a 12 months – a form of team-bonding train. He then despatched them right down to Catterick in present-day Yorkshire (the Catraeth of the poems) to win it again from the Angles of Deira and Bernicia. The expedition was a catastrophe and all however one of many 300 died. Aneirin, Mynyddog’s court docket poet and maybe the lone survivor of the battle, composed elegies for the lifeless, which have been preserved orally and finally transmitted to north Wales the place they have been written down for the primary time through the Outdated Welsh interval (roughly 800-1150).

Sadly, no battle of Catraeth is recorded in any historic supply and the important thing personnel, together with Mynyddog, are unmentioned in annals or genealogies. Thus we’ve no different sources to assist reconstruct the historic occasions alluded to within the Gododdin. The Celtic historian and linguist John T. Koch has reconstructed a really completely different account of the battle of Catraeth, which he sees not as an ethnic battle between the Britons of Gododdin and invading Angles, however as a part of an influence battle between warring British factions, each of whom had Germanic-speaking allies. That is believable, within the gentle of occasions within the seventh century, when the king of Mercia, Penda, allied with Cadwallon of Gwynedd in opposition to the Northumbrians. Nonetheless, within the absence of testimony, Koch’s speculation is each bit as speculative as Williams’.

Furthermore, Ifor Williams urged {that a} handful of verses don’t belong to the Gododdin correct (a stanza on the battle of Strathcarron of 642, a poem to certainly one of Llywarch Hen’s sons and a lullaby addressed to a baby known as Dinogad). This raises the likelihood that different verses could also be much less apparent interpolations. The real core of the Gododdin could possibly be fairly small certainly. Might we go a step additional? We all know that medieval Welsh scribes typically incorrectly attributed poems to well-known poets of a former age. We even have Center Welsh elegies composed for fictional characters equivalent to Dylan eil Ton and the Irish hero Cú Roí. Thus the Gododdin in its entirety could possibly be a really late composition. This can’t be proved or disproved on linguistic grounds: if the poem was transmitted orally, then its language would certainly have been up to date. If, as Koch has argued, it was written down virtually instantly, we would count on it to protect early types of the language, however we’ve no surviving texts in Brittonic languages in manuscripts from earlier than 800 to match it to. This form of linguistic courting is speculative within the excessive.

It’s value mentioning that the potential for late composition was canvassed as early as 1932 by Saunders Lewis, who urged that the Gododdin preserved the work of apprentice bards whose trainer had requested them to compose a poem on the well-known battle of Catraeth. This was airily dismissed by Kenneth Jackson, however latest critics, whereas not essentially endorsing the ‘schoolroom’ a part of Lewis’ concept, are inclined to see the work as a set of poems of various dates, which can protect little or no real lore a few historic battle of Catraeth. A abstract of latest considering on this essential and troublesome textual content is a desideratum and on this respect Clarke’s ebook is a missed alternative.

The Gododdin: Lament For the Fallen
Gillian Clarke
Faber 184pp £14.99
Purchase from bookshop.org (affiliate hyperlink)


Simon Rodway is Lecturer within the Division of Welsh and Celtic Research at Aberystwyth College.

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