Sunday 17 January 2010

Men went to Catraeth...

Dr Mark Williams writes:

This term some of the Part II students will be looking at the supposedly Old Welsh poem, or rather set of elegies, known as Y Gododdin. It's an opportunity for them to immerse themselves within the knottinesses of a particularly tricky body of material, which is bedevilled by serious textual difficulties.

The standard account of the poem is that its core consists of a series of brief elegies upon the warriors of the Gododdin people of south-eastern Scotland. This was a British (that is to say, Brythonic-speaking) tribe, one of the kingdoms of the 'Old North' which fell, one by one, to the Anglo-Saxons. The poem is supposed to have been composed around the year 600AD by one 'Neirin' or 'Aneirin', to commemorate the fallen warriors of the Gododdin who fell in a disastrous raid deep into enemy Angle territory. The internal narrative of the poem suggests that the ruler of the Gododdin, the otherwise-unattested Mynyddog Mwynfawr, gathered warriors from his own territory and the rest of the Brythonic world, and feasted them in his hall at Edinburgh for a year. His return for this was their unquestioning loyalty to him, even to the death. As the poet says, 'they drank pale mead, and it was poison...' Mynyddog's plan, it seems, was to mount a raid upon the strategic settlement of Catraeth in Yorkshire, modern Catterick, and to retake it from the enemy. According to the poem, all the three hundred splendid, gold-torqued warriors perished.

So far, so unfortunate. The text, however, only survives in a Welsh manuscript that dates from the 13th century, some 700 years after the poem's presumed date of oral composition, 'betwixt which regions', as Shakespeare put it in The Tempest, 'there is some space.' Within this tiny manuscript, known as the Book of Aneirin, at least two strata of text are discernible, known as the A-version and the B-version, and within these we find doubled or even tripled stanzas. (That is to say, variations of the same lines crop up separately in the A and B versions.) The A-version is clearly more 'modern' than the B-version, which alerts us to the fact that the texts have been copied and recopied between the 7th and the 13th century. One version of the poem seems to have circulated for several centuries in the British kingdom of Strathclyde, before passing to Wales around 800AD; but another seems to have reached Wales soon after the total collapse of the Gododdin kingdom in 638AD, hence the two widely differing versions. And at each layer of oral transmission and copying, scribes and reciters chose (sometimes) to update lines or phrases which were becoming too archaic to be comprehensible to them. New stanzas may have been rustled up, so that the poem is like a comet, streaming through time and continually gathering new material into its wake. It's like the old question about the car which has been so patched-up that no part of it is original - is it still the 'same' car? What relation does the poem as we have it in 13th century dress bear to the poem that Aneirin may have composed 700 years before?

Scholars have been hard at work on the problem for eighty years, and the issues show no signs of becoming less complicated. The trouble is, if we can identify the 'genuine' parts of Y Gododdin, we have a historical resource of unparalleled importance. The materials for the study of the Dark Age Brythonic kingdoms are scanty indeed, and the body of vernacular literature pertaining to the Anglo-Saxon takeover from the Celtic side is exiguous. So it matters. The consensus today is that there is a historically verifiable core to the poem which is genuine; around 600AD a Gododdin poet, perhaps called 'Neirin', did write a series of elegies for the warriors of the kingdom who fell in their disastrous mission, and the tone and matter of his poem is still available to us in 'The Book of Aneirin'. His exact words, however, are probably largely lost. This, you might say, is the 'conservative' view.

There is another perspective. In his great edition of the text, the famous and very distinguished Welsh scholar Ifor Williams suggested back in the 1930's that it should be possible to reconstruct parts of the poem in their Old Welsh form. Since he wrote, huge strides have been made in the realm of Welsh historical phonology and philology, so that we now have a decent chronology of the sound changes that transformed late Ancient British into its daughter tongues of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. We now know, more or less for certain, that British became proto-Old Welsh/Cornish around 450-500AD, losing its endings and cases, and developing the characteristic sound-changes that brought about the notorious system of initial consonant mutations. So by 600AD, we know the British kingdoms were populated by speakers of 'Archaic Neo-Brittonic', which eventually diverged into the three Brythonic Celtic languages we know today. Y Gododdin, therefore - the original, Ur-Gododdin - would have been composed in this language.

Once a thing becomes possible, someone is bound to have a go. That someone was John Koch, a Professor at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies, who in 1997 attempted a 'restoration' of the original text. The fruits of his labours were published as 'The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain'. This is a fascinating, if controversial, work, which is hampered by an obscure writing style (including unhelpful tics such as writing 'VII saec.' for '7th century') and a revisionist historical argument which has not found wide acceptance in the field. But brilliantly, he found that when one reverses the sound changes between Middle Welsh and 'archaic Neo-Brittonic', in places at least the poem improves. Alliteration and assonance appear that were not there or were submerged before. Erratic syllable counts settle down somewhat.

Nevertheless, we are still left with a text which is frighteningly obscure. My classes largely consists of me dancing in front of the blackboard pressing my unfortunate students to remember the Common Celtic word for 'under' (it was *wo) or work out what late Latin word has passed into Old Welsh. Recently, for example, we had dysgynieit from 'descendo'. The word means 'attackers', i.e. people who rush down a hill at you, yelling and trying to do you in. We also had ancwyn, 'feast', from 'ante-cena', 'pre-dinner'.) Often a line will admit of several interpretations, because of obscure vocabulary and the characteristic nominal (or ‘verbless’) sentences and lack of prepositions.

But it remains a haunting text. The Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones blurred the warriors of the Gododdin with the soldiers at the Somme and Paschendale in his great modernist poem In Parenthesis. Y Gododdin has little structure, but quasi-refrains occur, and the heroic ethos (Brief life and undying fame!) is undercut occasionally by more sorrowful, elegiac notes.

Here are a few passages of this precious poem: the translation is my own.

A man's might, a youth's years,
courage in battle.
Swift long-maned horses
beneath the thigh of a handsome lad.
A broad light shield
on the crupper of a slender steed.
Bright grey-blue blades,
intricate golden tassels.
This is what will never be:
emnity between you and me.
Better will I do for you,
by praising you in song.
Sooner to a bloodbath
than to a wedding-feast!
Sooner to be ravens' food
than properly buried!
A dear friend was Ywain,
a horror that he is under stones.
A sad wonder it is to me,
in what country was slain
Marro's only son.

Warriors went to Gododdin, enjoying merriment;
bitter in battle, with spears arrayed.
A short year in peace - then they fell silent.
Bodgad's son, his hand's deed wrought vengeance.
Though they might go to churches to do penance,
old and young, strong and feeble,
the certain tryst with death came to them.

Warriors went to Gododdin, swift was their host;
their feast was pale mead and it was poison.
three hundred under orders battling,
and after the war-whoop, silence fell.
Though they might go to churches to do penance,
the certain tryst with death came to them.

Wearing a brooch, in the front rank, wherever he went,
breathless before a girl, he earned his mead;
hacked to pieces was his shield when the battle cry was heard,
he gave no quarter to as many as he pursued.
He did not retreat from the field of battle till the blood ran down.
Like rushes he chopped men down, he did not flee.
Indeed the Gododdin relate it on the floor of the court,
that before Madog's tent when he returned
only one out of a hundred would come back.


  1. How did I miss this when it was new? A lovely set of translations, Mark, but I am mainly excited by what looks a lot like a John James reference in the title. Am I right?

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