Arthurian and Grail Poetry
Gododdin- William F Skene Translation
Gododdin- AOH Jarman Translation
Gododdin - Joseph Clancy Translation
The earliest Welsh poems transport us
to an uncertain world of strife and battle. They capture the pain and glory of the
last Celtic resistance to the Anglo-Saxon expansion in the British North. The poems
of Aneirin, Taliesin, Myrddin and Llywarch Hen were bardic scripts composed for a
spoken 'praise' or eulogy recantation. They reflect into our mind and heart
the intense pressure facing the Gwyr y Gogledd, or Men of the North, at the
end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh centuries. They speak of the
intertribal warfare among the various Celtic kingdoms in the west and north of
Britain, of warfare against the Picts from the northern area of modern Scotland,
the Del Riadic Irish from the west, and of warfare against the Anglo-Saxons, who
by this period controlled not only the entire Southeast of Britain, but also the
two regions north of the Humber known as Deira and Bernicia. If we gather together
what is said of Aneirin, then he appears to have been the nephew of the Gwallawg,
who was praised by Taliesin, and the brother of St Deinioel, who founded the cathedral
at Bangor. After surviving the battle, the Triads report him as slain by a blow to
the head in one of the Three Unfortunate Assassinations.
Aneirin's poems culminate the end of the period that I date from
573- 604 CE. Much is still unclear but we know that there was continued British
resistance to the growth of Northumbrian expansion throughout the latter part of
the sixth century and devastating inter-tribal power plays. The death of Gwenddolau
at Arderydd in 573 CE seemed to spark the changes that led to the Yorkish defeat
and death of Peredur in 580 CE and allowed Urien Rheged and his sons to play a
dominant but tragic role in the struggle that almost succeeded against the
Northumbrians. But this resistance was weakened by frequent struggles among the
Celtic leaders, leading to Urien's assasination around 589 CE.
The Gododdin eulogizes the last-ditch attempt to stop the invaders
made by Mynyddog, king of Gododdin, who sent a picked force of mounted warriors
south from Eidin (Edinburgh) to the crossroads fortress at Catraeth sometime around
598 CE (modern Catterick in Yorkshire). The expedition ended in the deaths of
almost all the force. Within a few years, Aethelfrith the king of Bernicia was
able to declare himself king of united Northumbria. There are alternate speculations
that this last battle was not against the Northumbrians but referenced a struggle
between a combined force of Picts and northern Britons against the old Coeling
dynasty, perhaps headed by Urien. Such speculation seems to stretch the
clues backward twenty years to the Arderydd period when the Coeling dynasty
fought Gwenddolau and the northern Britons.
The difficulty of determining the nature of the original is illustrated by the manuscript itself which contains two different but overlapping sets of verses in differing orthography and copied by two (or possibly three scribes) from two (or possibly three) different sources. These are normally referred to as the A text and the B text. The B text is considered the more archaic form and preserves orthographic features which point to an Old Welsh exemplar. The A text may be older but is believed to be a copy of a later version of the original poem. The differences between the texts indicate that they existed as separate versions for a significant timeframe before they were copied into the Aneirin manuscript. The book of Anerin is dated to approximately 1265 CE. The manuscript is now in the Cardiff Library (Cardiff MS 1).
In The Gododdin, attributed to
Aneirin, we find the major difference between medieval Welsh poetic structure and traditional prose. The Welsh bard assumes that the listener is familiar with the basic story. Secondly, the poems exhibit a form sometimes called the 'radial' structure, circling about, repeating, and elaborating on the central theme, following the same never-ending circular patterns of the celtic icons. This often gives the reader unaccustomed to this form a feeling of bewilderment. For the new reader,
The Gododdin should be read not as a single poem but as a collection of eulogies and praises of the warriors that were killed in the battle. The interesting item in this poem, besides its insight into the Welsh mind, is the mention of an Arthur (the first on record). It is believed, based on the structure and language that the poem was composed at or near the time of the actual event. There are some indications that pieces or phrases were modified. The question is - does the poem refer to the King Arthur of the legends? There are two prime possibilities.
The poem could indeed refer to Arthur, remembering his great prowess in battle. This seems probable. There should have been a number of praise poems in the bardic repertoire that sang of Arthur. The particular warrior's name,
Gwawrddur, is similar in structure to the name Arthur. The poem could also refer to another Arthur. There are recorded names of a number of Arthurs in the period of the late sixth century, including an Arthur, son of
Aedan. The latter seems unlikely as Aedan was in the prime of his own kingship during this period and his sons were still young men. The one possible support would be an addition to the poem in the early seventh century when Aedan's sons were grown and Aneirin needed to compare the warrior to someone familiar to his audience. The version of this translation is excerpted from The Earliest Welsh Poetry by Joseph Clancy. I hope that he does not mind its use here in my efforts to provide documentation of the Arthurian period. An alternative translation by AOH Jarman is also provided with facing Welsh text that is different in both tone and structure. Other poems from
the book are also included.