Gododdin, Y

Gododdin, Y
(The Gododdin)
   by Aneirin
(ca. 600)
   Y Gododdin is a poem in the ancient Brithonic dialect of Cumbric (an ancestor of modern Welsh), spoken by the tribe known to the Romans as Vōtadīnī, but to themselves as the Gododdin. From their capital at Eidyn (modern-day Edinburgh), they dominated that region from the Firth of Forth south to around Durham. The poem is attributed to the bard ANEIRIN, and survives in a single 13thcentury manuscript called Llyfr Aneirin (Book of Aneirin), now located at the Free Library of Cardiff. The textual tradition of The Gododdin is a complex puzzle, but evidence does suggest that the bulk of the poem was composed originally in the late sixth century (though some scholars support a date some 300 years later). As it now exists, the poem comprises some 1,000 lines divided into 103 stanzas of varying length. Generally these stanzas consist of a number of lines united by a common end rhyme (unodle), probably the oldest poetic form in Welsh. The lines are usually about nine or 10 syllables long, and sometimes contain internal rhyme or alliteration. Some scholars have suggested close parallels between the Gododdin and OLD ENGLISH heroic poetry, another detail that suggests an early date for the poem. The poem is made up of a series of laments for fallen British warriors, killed at the Battle of Catraeth (ca. 588–90). No continuous narrative emerges from the text, but the story of the battle can be pieced together. The Gododdin king Mynyddog Mwynfawr (the Wealthy) assembles at his court in Eidyn a group of 300 great warriors and their retinues, gathered from the areas of Scotland, Yorkshire, and northern Wales. For a year the young men train while eating and drinking mead and wine at Mynyddog’s court. After the year has ended, the men are sent to attack an overwhelming army of Northumbrian Anglians from Berenicia and Deira. Mynyddog does not seem to have led the operation himself, perhaps due to advanced age. But the vastly outnumbered British army engages the enemy at Catraeth (now identified as Catterick near Richmond in North Yorkshire). The battle rages for an entire week, with truces called on Friday and Sunday to count the dead. Ultimately all of the Gododdin are slaughtered, with the exception of three men—in some stanzas—or just one, the poet himself, in others. That Aneirin was in fact a survivor of the battle seems far-fetched, and it may be simply a poetic device. But the majority of scholars believe that most of his stanzas were, in fact, written shortly after the battle. There are, to be sure, a few later interpolations in the poem: one refers to the death in ca. 642 of Domnall Brecc, a well-known king of Dál Riada in Scotland; another is a cradle song for the child of Dinogad, sung while his father is hunting near the falls of the river Derwent. But with regard to stanzas directly concerned with the fallen heroes of Catraeth, the fact that virtually none of the warriors mentioned are known from other sources is regarded as evidence that the battle was, in fact, historical and that the verses were written shortly thereafter, since it seems unlikely that a poet writing 300 years after the fact would bother to commemorate men who were by that time unknown. Like most heroic poetry, The Gododdin seems written chiefly to extol the warrior virtues of courage and fidelity to one’s word and to the lord whose mead you have drunk. In the poem the British heroes kill many times their own number of the enemy, though in a hopeless cause. The description of one warrior is famous in the Arthurian tradition as being the first mention of King ARTHUR in literature: The hero Gwawrddur is said to have “glutted the ravens”—that is, killed so many of the enemy that the ravens had more than enough to eat—though, we are told, “he was not Arthur.” In other words he was not the equal of the greatest warrior of all—Arthur—whose name had become (in British thought) proverbial for the ideal of heroic prowess. Certainly it is possible that the line concerning Arthur is a later interpolation, but there is no real evidence to dismiss it. The Gododdin, fighting a losing battle against the Angles, are seen as making war in the tradition of Arthur, the last great defender of the British against the Anglo-Saxon invaders just a few generations earlier.
   ■ Breeze, Andrew. Medieval Welsh Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.
   ■ Jackson, Kenneth H., ed. The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969. Reprinted in 1978.
   ■ William, Ifor, ed. Canu Aneirin. Cardiff: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1938.
   ■ Williams, Gwyn. An Introduction to Welsh Poetry: From the Beginnings to the Sixteenth Century. 1954. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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