The Other 300

The undeniable power of the Gododdin, written by the sixth-century north-British poet Aneirin.

19th-century drawing of the Battle of the Winwaed (655) between Mercia and Northumbria, by Patrick Nicolle.
19th-century drawing of the Battle of the Winwaed (655) between Mercia and Northumbria, by Patrick Nicolle © Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images.

The Gododdin is a fascinating, but frustratingly elusive, piece of literature. Contained in an incomplete late 13th-century Welsh manuscript, yet attributed to the sixth-century north-British poet Aneirin, it is a collection of verses written in medieval Welsh concerning otherwise unrecorded people and events. It belongs, broadly speaking, to a genre of heroic elegy. The verses mourn named warriors who fell in battle and many of those warriors belonged to a people called the Gododdin. They were killed at a place named Catraeth. Unlike, say, the Iliad or Beowulf, the poetry does not tell a story and the style is dense. The meaning of much of the vocabulary must be inferred from etymology or context. Nonetheless, the poem has an undeniable power and its unflinching depiction of young men killing and dying on the battlefield has resonated through the centuries, not least with the Anglo-Welsh author David Jones, who drew on it to frame his experiences in the trenches during the First World War.

The Gododdin was edited by Ifor Williams in 1938 and his extensive notes still form the basis of our understanding of the text. It has since been translated into English half a dozen times. Gillian Clarke’s is the latest of these, though it is not quite a translation. Rather, Clarke’s work resembles Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. It reads beautifully, as one would expect from such a talented poet, but it does not always give a very close rendition of the original text. For example: 

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

(Men went to Catraeth, their host was swift,
Fresh mead their feast and it was poison) 

is here rendered 

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

Readers who require a closer understanding of the text as it stands should look elsewhere. Of the most literal translations, Kenneth Jackson’s The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem (1969) is admirably cautious.

The failing of Clarke’s book, however, is its introduction. Clarke summarises Ifor Williams’ original hypothesis about the background, composition and transmission of the text, but fails to mention that Williams’ arguments have been subject to extensive criticism in the 80 years and more since his landmark publication. Williams himself was suitably tentative in presenting it at first, but inevitably with each repetition question marks and caveats were shed. Put succinctly, Williams’ argument is this: in 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 year – a sort of team-bonding exercise. He then sent them down to Catterick in present-day Yorkshire (the Catraeth of the poems) to win it back from the Angles of Deira and Bernicia. The expedition was a disaster and all but one of the 300 died. Aneirin, Mynyddog’s court poet and perhaps the lone survivor of the battle, composed elegies for the dead, which were preserved orally and eventually transmitted to north Wales where they were written down for the first time during the Old Welsh period (roughly 800-1150).

Unfortunately, no battle of Catraeth is recorded in any historical source and the key personnel, including Mynyddog, are unmentioned in annals or genealogies. Thus we have no other sources to help reconstruct the historical events alluded to in the Gododdin. The Celtic historian and linguist John T. Koch has reconstructed a very different account of the battle of Catraeth, which he sees not as an ethnic conflict between the Britons of Gododdin and invading Angles, but as part of a power struggle between warring British factions, both of whom had Germanic-speaking allies. This is plausible, in the light of events in the seventh century, when the king of Mercia, Penda, allied with Cadwallon of Gwynedd against the Northumbrians. Nonetheless, in the absence of testimony, Koch’s hypothesis is every bit as speculative as Williams’.

Moreover, Ifor Williams suggested that a handful of verses do not belong to the Gododdin proper (a stanza on the battle of Strathcarron of 642, a poem to one of Llywarch Hen’s sons and a lullaby addressed to a child called Dinogad). This raises the possibility that other verses may be less obvious interpolations. The genuine core of the Gododdin could be quite small indeed. Could we go a step further? We know that medieval Welsh scribes sometimes incorrectly attributed poems to famous poets of a former age. We also have Middle Welsh elegies composed for fictional characters such as Dylan eil Ton and the Irish hero Cú Roí. Thus the Gododdin in its entirety could be a very late composition. This cannot be proved or disproved on linguistic grounds: if the poem was transmitted orally, then its language would surely have been updated. If, as Koch has argued, it was written down almost immediately, we might expect it to preserve early forms of the language, but we have no surviving texts in Brittonic languages in manuscripts from before 800 to compare it to. This sort of linguistic dating is speculative in the extreme.

It is worth mentioning that the possibility of late composition was canvassed as early as 1932 by Saunders Lewis, who suggested that the Gododdin preserved the work of apprentice bards whose teacher had asked them to compose a poem on the famous battle of Catraeth. This was airily dismissed by Kenneth Jackson, but recent critics, while not necessarily endorsing the ‘schoolroom’ part of Lewis’ idea, are inclined to see the work as a collection of poems of different dates, which may preserve little or no genuine lore about a historical battle of Catraeth. A summary of recent thinking on this important and difficult text is a desideratum and in this respect Clarke’s book is a missed opportunity.

The Gododdin: Lament For the Fallen
Gillian Clarke
Faber 184pp £14.99
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Simon Rodway is Lecturer in the Department of Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth University.