Dark Age Candles (v)


Maserfield & Brune

St Oswald being killed at Maserfield
St Oswald being killed at Maserfield

So that’s me back in the mother-ship, Burnley, where I’ll be working from a distance on The Mumble for the coming cultural orgy that are the Edinburgh festivals. I’ll also be lighting a few of these Dark Age Candles while I’m down here, starting with something remarkable that has grown out of my recent investigations into the site of Brunanburh, that great 10th century battle which settled the native nature of the British Isles forever. Since I completed the dig, back in April I received an email from the much-maligned but incredibly keen-minded New Zealand Litologist,  Sean Bambrough, which contained the following sentence;

Could ‘this place called Brune,’ in chapter 10 of Geoffrey of Monmouth be your Burnley?

Could it indeed? I’d never see it before, thinking the Annales Cambrae use of the word Brune – as appertaining to the battle of Brunanburh – was the only use of the name, as in;

938  Bellum Brune

It was time to get my litological hands dirty again, & finding the passage in  Big Geoff’s History, I observed that the name Brune was given to a place where the Northumbrian king, Oswald, was slain in battle.  When I discovered that variant editions of Big Geoff, such as the Harlech,  give us Burne, I’m like, this really does feel like Brunley/Burnley. Looking into Oswald’s death, I discovered that it took place about the year 642, where King Penda of Mercia met & slew Oswald at a place called Maserfelth, as in Bede’s; ‘Oswald was killed in a great battle, by the same Pagan nation and Pagan king of the Mercians who had slain his predecessor, Edwin, at a place called in the English tongue, Maserfelth, in the thirty-eighth year of his age, on the fifth day of the month of August.’

During my dig, I’d shown how the Burnley area was some kind of border zone prone to warfare, such as the battle of Winfeld.  Was it possible that Maserfield was also fought in the area? At first glance,  nothing popped up. But I was aware of the name Marsden from the Nelson area, the town just to the north of Burnley into which its terraces blend seamlessly. I also knew that where ‘den’ means ‘narrow valley,’ felth means ‘open space’ – rendering it possible that there once was a Marsfield connected to Marsden. Andrew Breeze comments on the Northern-ness of this word when he writes;  ‘The element -felth might direct scholarly attention towards the northern part of the conflict zone, the southern portion of Yorkshire being an area where place names containing “-field.’ He also adds that the battle must have taken place on or near the Northumbrian border – which Burnley was by the way – as in;

By telling his readers that Oswald was slain pro patria dimicans, “fighting for his fatherland,” Bede seems to be suggesting that Maserfelth was a battle fought in defence of Oswald’s core territory (HE 3.9)… Taken at face value, this might direct the reader to envisage the site of the king’s death as a place within Northumbrian territory or close to its frontier… In this context, Oswestry seems an unlikely candidate, being situated not only a considerable distance from Northumbria’s nearest border but closer to the core territory of her foes.

Marsden Park, Nelson
Marsden Park, Nelson

Its now time for a spot of chispology, through which we can ascertain that Maserfield was indeed fought in a field next to Marsden. Looking into ‘A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 6 (1911)’ we find the following names for the township of Marsden’

Merkesden, 1195;

Merclesden, Merkelstene, 1242;

Merclisden, 1258.

Which we can compare with Maserfield variant  names, such as John of Brompton’s Maxelfeld (15th C) or better still  the Marcelde’s field found inscribed on an ancient well dedicated to Saint Oswald.  Mr. Baines says

Little more than half a mile to the north, on the road to Golborne and Wigan, is an ancient well, which has been known from time immemorial by the name of ‘St. Oswald’s Well.'” This well is still in existence, and a certain veneration at the present time hovers about it in the minds of others than the superstitious peasantry. On the upper portion of the south wall of the church is an inscription in Latin, purporting to be a “renovation” of a previous one, by a person named Sclater, in the year 1530, in the curacy of Henry Johnson. On a recent visit, this inscription, as well as other portions of the edifice, I found had undergone further renovation. Gough translates the first three lines as follows

This place of old did Oswald greatly love: Who the Northumbers ruled, now reigns above, And from Marcelde did to Heaven remove.

Mr. Beamont gives the translation of the inscription as follows:

This place of yore did Oswald greatly love, Northumbria’s King, but now a saint above, Who in Marcelde’s field did fighting fall, Hear us, oh blest one, when here to thee we call.

(A line over the porch obliterated.) In fifteen hundred and just three times ten, Sclater restored and built this wall again, And Henry Johnson here was curate then.

This, and its repetition by Hollingworth in his “Mancuniensis…,”The inscription does not, as some have assumed, state the church is built in, on, or near Marcelde. It merely asserts that Oswald died at a place so named.

The actual battle site, I believe, is to be found at Whitefield in Nelson, which connects smoothely with the 12th century historian, Henry of Huntingdon’s account of the battle: “It is said the plain of Maserfeld was white with the bones of the Saints.” We can also connect the area with the Welsh name for the battle – as in the Canu Heledd’s; ‘On the ground of Maes Cogwy, I saw armies, battle affliction,‘ & the Historia Brittonum’s, ‘Battle of Cocboy.’ About a mile from Marsen, in the direction of Burnley, one comes to a valley called ‘Cockden,‘ whose first semantic element matches both ‘Cog‘ & Coc.’



More evidence comes from the village of Oswaldtwistle, about 5 miles from the field. According to Halliwell’s dictionary, ‘twistle‘ means – ‘that part of a tree where branches divide.’ This connects to the grisly demise of Oswald, who according to Bede had his limbs & heads torn from him & put on stakes – i.e. the branches were divided from his body.  That this took place at Oswaldtwistle is confirmed by a certain rivulet known as the White Ash Brook, which flows through the village. White in ancient Welsh is the same as ‘holy,’ thus once it would have been the Holy Ash Brook which connects with Reginald of Durham’s account of a miracle concerning Oswald’s right arm.

The arm, with its consecrated right hand, fell on the bare hard rock. All at once, through God’s wonderful power, from the spot where the holy arm touched the ground in its fall, there gushed out a clear unfailing spring… It so happened that Oswin the king, prompted by a message from God, found his way to this spring… He took the arm and hand out of its waters, and as the vision had commanded, he bore away the most holy head with its arms and hands. On this spot, right up until today, miracles are worked through the power of God and the merits of St Oswald. Here sick people receive the gift of health; the mad who come here are freed of their demons; and through drinking the consecrated waters, many kinds of illness are redeemed. The Life of St Oswald by Reginald of Durham (1165) 

White Ash Brook
White Ash Brook

More miracles are recorded about the death of (Saint) Oswald, which we can now give a location as the Whitefield in Nelson, Lancashire. Bede tells us;


OSWALD, the most Christian king of the Northumbrians, reigned nine years, including that year which is to be held accursed for the brutal impiety of the king of the Britons, and the apostasy of the English kings; for, as was said above, it is agreed by the unanimous consent of all, that the names of the apostates should be erased from the catalogue of the Christian kings, and no date ascribed to their reign. After which period, Oswald was killed in a great battle, by the same pagan nation and pagan king of the Mercians, who had slain his predecessor Edwin, at a place called in the English tongue Maserfield, in the thirty-eighth year of his age, on the fifth day of the month of August.

How great his faith was towards God, and how remarkable his devotion, has been made evident by miracles since his death; for, in the place where he was killed by the pagans, fighting for his country, infirm men and cattle are healed to this day. Whereupon many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, did much good with it to their friends who were sick. This custom came so much into use, that the earth being carried away by degrees, there remained a hole as deep as the height of a man. Nor is it to be wondered that the sick should be healed in the place where he died; for, whilst he lived, he never ceased to provide for the poor and infirm, and to bestow alms on them, and assist them. Many miracles are said to have been wrought in that place, or with the earth carried from thence; but we have thought it sufficient to mention two, which we heard from our ancestors.

It happened, not long after his death, that a man was traveling near that place, when his horse on a sudden began to tire, to stand stock still, hang down his head, and foam at the mouth, and, at length, as his pain increased, he fell to the ground; the rider dismounted, and throwing some straw under him, waited to see whether the beast would recover or die. At length, after much rolling about in extreme anguish, the horse happened to come to the very place where the aforesaid king died. Immediately the pain ceased, the beast gave over his struggles, and, as is usual with tired cattle, turned gently from side to side, and then starting up, perfectly recovered, began to graze on the green herbage; which the man observing, being an ingenious person, he concluded there must be some wonderful sanctity in the place where the horse had been healed, and left a mark there, that he might know the spot again. After which he again mounted his horse and repaired to the inn where he intended to stop. On his arrival he found a girl, niece to the landlord, who had long languished under the palsy; and when the friends of the family, in his presence, lamented the girl’s calamity, he gave them an account of the place where his horse had been cured. In short, she was put into a cart and carried and laid down at the place. At first she slept awhile, and when she awaked found herself healed of her infirmity. Upon which she called for water, washed her face, put up her hair, and dressed her head, and returned home on foot, in good health, with those who had brought her.


ABOUT the same time, another person of the British nation, as is reported, happened to travel by the same place, where the aforesaid battle was fought, and observing one particular spot of ground greener and more beautiful than any other part of the field, he judiciously concluded with himself that there could be no other cause for that unusual greenness, but that some person of more holiness than any other in the army had been killed there. He therefore took along with him some of that earth, tying it up in a linen cloth, supposing it would some time or other be of use for curing sick people, and proceeding on his journey, came at night to a certain village, and entered a house where the neighbors were feasting at supper; being received by the owners of the house, he sat down with them at the entertainment, hanging the cloth, in which he had brought the earth, on a post against the wall. They sat long at supper and drank hard, with a great fire in the middle of the room; it happened that the sparks flew up and caught the top of the house, which being made of wattles and thatch, was presently in a flame; the guests ran out in a fright, without being able to put a stop to the fire. The house was consequently burnt down, only that post on which the earth hung remained entire and un- touched. On observing this, they were all amazed, and inquiring into it diligently, understood that the earth had been taken from the place where the blood of King Oswald had been shed. These miracles being made known and reported abroad, many began daily to frequent that place, and received health to themselves and theirs.


Saint Oswald Durham Cathedral
Saint Oswald Durham Cathedral



This is a wonderful moment in Anglo-Saxon studies, for now not only can we finally confirm the contentious sites of Brunanburh & Maserfield, but we gain more insights into the lost but very real Anglo-Saxon presence in Lancashire. It is also a great confirmation for the power of words to hold the keys of history in their meagre letters, & I shall leave this post with the words of Professor Dwight Whitney, who in his “Life and Growth of Language,” says, ‘It must be carefully noted, indeed, that the reach of phonetics, its power to penetrate to the heart of its facts and account for them, is only limited. There is always one element in linguistic change which refuses scientific treatment, namely, the action of the human will. The work is all done by human beings, adapting means to ends, under the impulse of motives and the guidance of habits which are the resultant of causes so multifarious and obscure that they elude recognition and defy estimate… Every period of linguistic life, with its constantly progressive changes of form and meaning, wipes out a part of the intermediates which connect a derived element with its original.

As linguistics is a historical science, so its evidences are historical, and its methods of proof of the same character. There is no absolute demonstration about it: there is only probability, in the same varying degree as elsewhere in historical enquiry. There are no rules, the strict application of which will lead to infallible results. Nothing will make dispensable the wide gathering-in of evidence, the careful sifting of it, so as to determine what bears upon the case in hand and how directly, the judicial balancing of apparently conflicting testimony, the refraining from pushing conclusions beyond what the evidences warrant, the willingness to rest, when necessary, in a merely negative conclusion, which should characterize the historical investigator in all departments.


Dark Age Candles (IV)


The Birth of Edinburgh

An Early Edinburgh
An Early Edinburgh

Today I leave Edinburgh for a few weeks, heading back to Lancashire where most of these Dark Age candles are going to be lit. However, before I go I’d like to propose the approximate birth-date of the  city of Edinburgh outwith her castle.

The main difference, I believe, between my personal approach to history & that of many scholars, is that where they spend the majority of their time attacking the sources, I tend to use them. The key is learning how to read a difficult & oblique text, rather than declare it as phantasmagorical & discard it completely. Modern scholars also tend to trust each other’s work a tad too much, putting complete faith in their school & schooling rather than their own abilities. The York historian Guy Halsall summed up the attitude perfectly. After countering his anti-Arthurian stance with some new evidence, he retorted by saying, ‘I’ve looked at your bibliography & you don’t know anything.’ The thing is, my bibliography in the main consisted of primary sources, & his insistence on me not knowing anything was based upon my not quoting from the academic handling of this source material. So, moving on quite regardless, let us now examine these lines from the Book of Carmarthen’s poem, Pa Gur, an intriguing text which highlights some of King Arthur’s obscurer battles.

In the fastnesses of Dissethach,  
In Mynyd Eiddyn,         
He contended with Cynbyn;

These three lines store a hell of a lot of information. We know that Arthur fought a campaign in Scotland against the Cynbyn – which translates as ‘Dogheads.‘  We know the campaign was fought in Scotland, for Mynyd Eiddyn is Edinburgh, while Dissethach connects to Tig Scathach, & Dun Scathach, the ‘Fort of Scathach’ found on the island of Skye. Scathach is a legendary figure in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, a Scottish warrior woman whose homelands were Alpae, i.e. Alba. This is the moment where most historians stop their research into the affair. The thing is, we moderns must probe deeper & look for these combinations elsewhere in the records. In this case, there is a great deal of information waiting to burst out of those three wee lines.


In an earlier post I  showed how King Arthur was a Pictish King, who appears as Garthnach son of Gygyurn in the Pictish King Lists, as in;

Drest Gurthinmoch (472-502)
Galan Erilic (502-517)
Drest son of Gygurn (517-530)
Garthnach son of Gygurn (530-537)
Cailtaine son of Gygurn (537-538)

What interests us here is the name Galan Erilic, who lost his kingship in 517 AD, to be replaced by Arthur’s brother, Drest. Let us now look at another event that happened in that very same year.

517 - The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

The question is, are the two events connected in some way, did Galan Erilic give up his throne in response to his defeat at Badon.

In the Historia Brittonum’s list of Arthurian battles, the siege at Badon is preceeded immediately by the siege of Mount Agnet – which I & other scholars have shown to have been fought at Edinburgh. I have also shown how the battles of Agned & Badon seem to have been fought in the same year, based upon a Scandinavian warrior known as Yder / Ederyn fighting at both battles.  In light of this, by adding Pa Gur into the mix we begin to see, or rather scry, a campaign fought by Arthur in which Galan Erilich was involved.



Now comes the juicy part. The epithet ‘Erilic’ means ‘Herulian,’ a dark-age warrior-tribe based in both Scandinavia & SE Europe, the symbol of whom is present on a number of Pictish stones. The exact same symbol as shown above – the Scandinavian rune for sun, the lighting-like Sowilaz, running through a pair of Herulian concentrics  – can be found in Skye, one of only a couple of Pictish stones discovered on the island. It is called the Clach Ard stone, & its presence on Skye provides us with the Herulian angle, to whom we can connect to Galan Eriliz through the name of the majestic Cuillin hills, as in Galan = Cuillin. Indeed, Clach Ard translates as ‘Ard’s Stone,’ & an Arthurian aspect to it may not be ruled out.



 Loch Coruisk and The Cuillin Hills from Sgurr na Stri in
Loch Coruisk and The Cuillin Hills from Sgurr na Stri in


The final piece of the jigsaw comes with the viable connection of the Cynbyn/Dogheads with Galan Erilic.  We begin with a fragment of a stone found in a church wall at the southern shore of the Maelar (Strängnäs) in Sweden, which has inscribed upon it;

.rilaR .wodinR

This connects the Herulians to the wolf-cult of Woden, which also included the Lombards among its devotees. Now let us look at the following passage from the 6th century historian Paul the Deacon; {The Lombards} pretended to have some cynocephapli (that is, men with dog’s heads) in their camp, & circulated among their enemies a rumour that these warriors never tired of fighting, that they drank human blood, & if they could not lay hands on an enemy, sucked their own blood.’  Here Paul the Deacon is referring to the ‘bezerker’ quality of ancient warriors such as the Lombards & the Herulians.



Combining the evidence, one can see Arthur fighting a campaign roundabout 516/517 in which he defeated at least some Herulians in Edinburgh, Dumbarton (Mount Badon) & Skye. In the aftermath we get the perfect background for Big Geoff’s statement that Ebraucus, ‘built the city of Alt Clud towards Albini, and the town of mount Agned, called at this time the Castle of Maidens.’ The refortification of these two strongholds in the wake of the war would have secured central Scotland for the Arthurians, & with it the first streets of Edinburgh would have been built around Castle Rock – which up until that time had been a mere defence work, which according to the Lancelot-Graal, ‘had been secretly fortified at the time Vortigern married the daughter of Hengist the Saxon.’ This was in the mid-450s, & the fort had seems to have been built upon the Roman ‘Alauna,’ as mentioned by Ptolemy. However, it was after Arthur’s victory against Galan Erilic that a comforting blanket of peace descended on the area, enough for  Eleuther / Ebraucus to build the first version of Edinburgh at some point after those fateful battles of 517AD.

Dark Age Candles (III)


Coroticus & Old King Cole

Carlow Cathedral St Patrick Preaching to the Kings
Carlow Cathedral St Patrick Preaching to the Kings

During my Grail-Quest, I observed how the famous Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme was in fact the founding father of a series of northern dynasties stretching from the mid-fifth  to the late 6th century. I also showed how he had been slain in battle by Horwendil – where he had the name Koller – & was buried in Ayrshire. Saxo Grammaticus tells us;

Horwendil held the monarchy for three years, and then, to will the height of glory, devoted himself to roving. Then Koller, King of Norway, in rivalry of his great deeds and renown, deemed it would be a handsome deed if by his greater strength in arms he could bedim the far-famed glory of the rover;

We learn from this that that Old King Cole was something of a ‘rover’ – ie a pirate. Now, before we continue I would like to introduce the following babel-chain;



Cereticus * Guledic

It is possible, then, that Cole is a shortening of Guledic, which meant something like cheiftan in Dark Age Welsh. Indeed,  Harleian pedigree 19 reads:

Catguallaun map Guitcun map Samuil penissel map Pappa post Priten map Ceneu map Gyl hen

Gyl, by the way, is a perfect match for Kyle – the district in Ayrshire said to be named after King Coel himself. This means that Cole/Koller could have been Cereticus Guledic, who appears in the Harleain genealogies as the father of Cinuit. It cannot be denied that Cinuit is a match for Ceneu, who just so happens (in the DMN) to be the son of Coel. Further proof comes with the descendental presence of Cynfelyn, king of Edinburgh, in both genealogies.


Returning a moment to Koller’s status as a sea-rover, as suggested by Saxo Grammaticus, let us examine parts of a letter written in the 5th century by Saint Patrick to a certain Coroticus. In it, the saint announces that he has excommunicated Coroticus’ men, while the seventh century Life of St Patrick by Muirchu Maccu Machtheni (found in the 9th century Book of Armagh) supports Ceretic-as-Coroticus with the phrase, “De conflict sancti Patricii aduersum Coirthech regem Aloo.‘ Here, Aloo stands for Alt Clud, i.e. Dumbarton, the capital of Ceretic Guledic (see note). More support for Coroticus being the British-based Coel, etc, comes in a 12th century version of the Life of St Patrick found in the Royal Library at Brussels which gives us a chapter missing from the Book of Armargh. In it we are presented with, ‘a certain British king called Coroticus, an ill-starred and cruel tyrant.

Extracts from the letter read;


With my own hand I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.

The newly baptised and anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above. On the day after that, I sent a letter by a holy priest (whom I had taught from infancy), with clerics, to ask that they return to us some of the booty or of the baptised prisoners they had captured. They scoffed at them.

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord. The just, however, will banquet in great constancy with Christ. They will judge nations, and will rule over evil kings for all ages. Amen.


Essentially, we have the dastardly doings of a sea-rover, whose name Coroticus can be chispologicaly connected with some ease to King Koller/Coel. Knowing that Koller was the King of Norway, we can now gain an insight into the etymology of Guletic. It derives, as can be seen, from the name Gulating (Old Norse Gulaþing), which was an annual parliamentary assembly which took place in Gulen (Gyl Hen?), on the west coast of Norway north of Bergen, from at least 900AD. Its roots, however, may have stretched back centuries to the days when the Kings of Norway were also known as the Guletic.

Norwegian Parliamentary Plains at Eivindvik in Gulen
Norwegian Parliamentary Plains at Eivindvik in Gulen



In the first of this Dark Age Candles series, I showed how the East Anglian dynasty was connected to both Scandinavia & Scotland, & it is the eking out of the true King Coel that stands this all in good stead.

It seems highly likely that King Coel / Ceretic Guledic / Koller & Coroticus were all the same personage – a Norwegian king who at befriended the Scots & Picts & went on to conquer the Roman-abandoned north in the 450s; whose descendants went on to rule kingdoms as far south as the Pennines. Most significantly for our studies, it also places a Scandinavian dynasty at the head of political affairs in the north. Most British scholars have never heard of the Gulating,  a situation endemic throughout British academia for there’s a reluctance to think outwith the islands.  Instead, it is there, across the North Sea, that the answers to many mysteries about the origins of the English lie…



Dark Age Candles (II)


The Author of Beowulf

These Dark Age Candles are meant to be further investigations in the two epic litological digs I made over the winter – The Quest for the Holy Grail & Brunanburh 937AD. It was during my Brunanburh dig that I came to the conclusion that the great Icelandic poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, was the author of the Brunanburh poem as found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In one early post I offered a quiet study of the matter, while later in the dig I stumbled upon more evidence which shows that immediately after the battle, Egil is  writing militaristic, kenning-heavy praise poetry to Athelstan, as in;

‘Land-shielder, battle-quickener,
Low now this scion royal
Earls three hath laid. To Ella
Earth must obedient bow.
Lavish of gold, kin-glorious,
Great Athelstan victorious,
Surely, I swear, all humbled
To such high monarch yields.’

But this is the burden in the poem:

‘Reindeer-trod hills obey
Bold Athelstan’s high sway.’

Then gave Athelstan further to Egil as poet’s meed two gold rings, each weighing a mark, and therewith a costly cloak that the king himself had formerly worn.


This giving of rings even fits in with the ASC poem’s, ‘In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors, ring-giver to men.’  So, using this platform as an investigation, I wondered if it could be at all possible that Egil Skallagrimsson could also have penned the great Old English epic – Beowulf. In support let us examine the following ‘flags.’




1 – Beowulf uses Icelandic folk motifs

In the introduction to Beowulf, edited by CL Wren & WF Bolton, we read the following passages;
The saga of the historical & well-authenticated Icelandic hero Grettir… attributes to him two fights against supernatural beings – the one closely resembling Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, & the other that which he had with Grendel’s mother in the demon-haunted mere. The resemblances are too close to be fortuitous; & one must suppose common folklorist elements lying behind both – since the late thirteenth-century Grettissaga cannot be supposed to have ‘borrowed’ these ideas from Beowulf, which was not known in Iceland.

What this tells us is that the author of the Icelandic Grettissaga was using the same motifs as the author of Beowulf, a situation which has baffled the academics. Peter A Jorgensen (Grendel, Grettir & Two Skaldic Stanzas: Scripta Islandica 24 / 1973) writes, ‘the most striking parallels are to be found in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel in the beleaguered Heorot, in which the hero eventually kills the intruder by tearing off its arm, & in Grettir’s fight with a monster in the harassed house at Sandhaugar, where the marauder is dispatched in the identical manner.’

If we see these folk-motifs as purely Icelandic, then we may assume that the author of Beowulf had access to Icelandic material – & thus most probably Icelandic.

2 – Haeft-mece / Heptisax

Where Wren/Bolton tell us;

There was evidently something important about a long-handled sword in the folk material which lies behind a fight with Grendel’s nother: for in Beowulf we find the unique haeft-mece & in Grettissaga an otherwise unrecorded instrument called a heptisax plays a part in the fight of Grettir against the female monster.

Jorgenson writes that most convincing;

is the occurrence of the much-discussed nonce word heptisax, found both in the second stanza & in the alleged prose expansion of the verses, corresponding to its generally accepted counterpart in Old English, the hapax legomenon Haeftmece (in Beowulf line 1457). It seems highly improbable that the word should occur only once in all of the extensive battle descriptions in Old Icelandic prose &, by chance, at precisely the same point in a narrative where the corresponding English text employs the cognate form.

There is a difference between the two poems, for in Beowulf it is the heponymous hero who uses the haeftmece, while in the Grettissaga it is the monster who wields the heptisax. In his paper Jorgenson concludes that, ‘the material to which the skaldic verses are eventually indebted stems from the same legend which also became part of the Beowulf epic.’ Again, we may suggest that the Beowulf author had access to Icelandic material – & was thus most probably Icelandic.


3 – The Dates fit

Egil was clearly around in the mid 900s, a period when the English had a great respect for the Danes. Nicholas Jacobs (Anglo-Danish relations, poetic archaism & the Date of Beowulf:Poetica 8 1977) writes; ‘From 927 onwards the Danes constitute a widely accepted element in English society, & an English poem complimentary to them is conceivable at least Down to the resumption of raids in 980.’  Roberta Frank (Skaldic Verse & the Date of Beowulf), remarks, ‘no linguistic or historical fact compels us to anchor Beowulf before the tenth century; if we do so, it is more from our emotional commitment to an early date rather than from hard evidence. Our one secure terminus is the palaeographic dating of the manuscript to around the year 1000.’

Where Walter Goffart estimated that Beowulf could not have been written with these historical details before 923 (Johnston Staver, Ruth (2005) :Placing Beowulf on a Timeline –  A Companion To Beowulf), Jacobs gives us a probable terminus ad quem of the poem when he writes, ‘the first reference by a skald to an event associated with one of the Scyldings of Beowulf occurs around 965 when Eyvindr Skaldaspillir calls gold ‘the seed corn of Fyrisplains’ alluding to the story.‘  Eyvindr was the court poet of Hakon the Good, the English-speaking foster-son of Athelstan, who may well have heard the poem at first hand. His epithet skáldaspillir means literally ‘spoiler of poets’ – which could mean plagarist.

This means that the poem was written between 923 & 965. Returning to Frank for a moment, she tells us ‘the political geography of Beowulf fits comfortably into the period between Alfred & Aethelweard,’ & also suggests the presence of the Geats in Beowulf is a 10th century skaldic theme, with; ‘The fact that the Geats held together as a people into the eleventh century does not pinpoint the date of Beowulf, but it does suggest that they were as known & topical in the tenth century as in any preceeding one – & perhaps more so.’


All this post is meant to do is scrape a little  topsoil off the Egil-wrote-Beowulf theory. The thing is, he was the greatest poet of the age, he did spend time at the Royal English Courts, the Beowulf poem does contain Icelandic motifs & the poem seems to have been composed in his lifetime.

Dark Age Candles (1)



Wuffa & Urfai

Back in the saddle with Tinky Disco
Back in the saddle with Tinky Disco

I’ve been up Scotland way for a month or so now – reviewing Eden festival for the Mumble & starting up Tinky Disco once again, I’ve had a right old ball. Lancashire beckons, however, & with that a brand new 18-part series of Dark Age investigations which I have called Candles. Seeing as I’m in Edinburgh right now, I thought I’d commence with a fascinating discovery I’ve recently made regarding a connection between Edinburgh & the Anglo-Saxons who went on to dominate the British islands. As ever, its a little complex, so I feel it is better to go through the data, step-by-step.

1 – In the B recension of the Y Gododdin poem, translated by Gwyn Thomas, we read;

It was usual for the son of Golystan
(Though his father was no king)
To be listened to when he spoke.
It was usual, for the good of Mynyddawg,
To have shattered shields & a red spear
Before a lord of Eidyn, Urfai.

In recent years a  number of scholars have suggested that Golystan was an Anglo-Saxon name, but went no further. Instead, let us now look for a tally between Urfai son of Golystan in the other Anglo-Saxon records. This leads us to a certain ‘Uffa son of Guillem Guercha’ as found in the Historia Brittonum, one of the earliest kings of East Anglia. In another version of the lineage – the East Anglian dynastic tally in the Anglian collection –  we find Wuffa son of Wehha, which leads us onto a certain Weohstan as found in the Beowulf poem. Now let us assemble the following babel-chain.


            Wehha  — Weohstan — Golystan — Guillem Guercha

            Wuffa                                          Urfai                             Uffa


Weohstan is an interesting figure who turns up in Beowulf. It has long been recognized that the ship burial described in the prologue to ‘Beowulf’, i.e.;

In the harbour stood a ring-prowed ship,
 icy, outbound, a nobleman’s vessel;
 there they laid down their dear lord,
 dispenser of rings, in the bosom of the ship,
 glorious, by the mast. There were many treasures
 loaded there, adornments from distant lands;
 I have never heard of a more lovely ship
 bedecked with battle-weapons and war-gear,
 blades and byrnies; in its bosom lay
 many treasures, which were to travel
 far with him into the keeping of the flood.

…is describing a similar one found at Sutton Hoo, in the very heartlands of the East Anglian Kings. In the Beowulf poem we read that Weohstan & his son, Wiglaf, ‘lived among the Geats,‘ & so it is unlikely that Weohstan is the same man as Wehha / Golystan / Guillem Guercha. However, the shared name implies a shared culture, which is in this case confirmed by those textual & actual ship-burials as given above.


Sutton Hoo from the air
Sutton Hoo from the air



2 –  The conclusion we may make here is that the East Anglian King, Wuffa, was at some time the Lord of Edinburgh. Another way to connect this lineage with North Britain is through  the name Guillem Guercha, the latter bit sounding rather like a certain Gwrgi, who is found alongside his brother in the Annales Cambrae & the Descent of the Men of the North

Gwrgi & Peredur are the sons of Eliffer of the Great Retinue son of Arthwys son of Mar son of Keneu son of Coel (DMN)

580AD: Gwrgi and Peredur – sons of Elifert – died (AC)

The Anglian Collection tells us that ‘Wehha was the son of Wilhelm, who was the son of Hryþ.‘ The Thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) is a letter in the Old English, Gothic, Old Norse and modern Icelandic alphabets, pronounced as ‘th.’ This means that Hryþ sounded like Hryth, which through the chispological medium of rhotacism may become ‘hlyth,’ & thus the Eleuther of the Harleian genealogies;

[G]urci ha Peretur mepion Eleuther


Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

3 – All that remains here is to somehow connect Peredur & Gwrgi to Edinburgh, & we will be able to see perfectly well how Urfai, the son of Gwrgi (i.e Golystan) was seen as a Lord of Edinburgh. The answer comes through looking firstly at the Mabinogion, in which Peredur’s father is given another name, as in;

Earl Evrawc owned the Earldom of the North. And he had seven sons. And Evrawc maintained himself not so much by his own possessions as by attending tournaments, and wars, and combats…  the name of his seventh son was Peredur, and he was the youngest of them.

Evrawc is a Welshified version of Ebrauc, i.e. Ebraucum, the Roman name for York. The name also appears as a personage in the jumbled history of Big Geoff, who writes that Ebraucus, ‘built the city of Alt Clud towards Albini, and the town of mount Agned, called at this time the Castle of Maidens,‘ i.e. Ebraucus built both Dumbarton & Edinburgh. Interestingly, his other name, ‘Eliffer’ is the son of a certain Arthwys, who could well have given his name to Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat.



We can conclude here that Eluether/Ebrauc, the father of Pheredur & Gwrgi, is also remembered as the man who built the cities of Dumbarton & Edinburgh. It also makes sense, now, that his grandson Urfai was described as a Lord of Edinburgh in the Gododdin poem. I believe he took up the position on the death of his father, which according to the Annales Cambrai took place in 580AD. Fascinatingly, according to the 13th century chronicler Roger of Wendover, Wuffa ruled in East Anglia from 571 to 578. In Dark Age chronological terms, 578 & 580 are near enough to be the same time, & so we may conclude that after Gwrgi’s death in the north of Britain (his tombstone is to be found at Yarrow, near Selkirk) his son left his seat in East Anglia & took up the lordship of Edinburgh.

Pendragon Lectures XIV



 It seems that, in poetry terms, being PC means being Politically Correct, & that means liking excessively intellectualised poetry & felling superior about it.

 David Sneddon

So, this is gonna be my last lecture for a while: I did intend doing two years worth, then reduced that to just 18 posts, & now I’m gonna close things up at 14 – at least for a while. We’ve had a good run; I hoped to have introduced two new poetic forms into the English medium – that is the Tamil Kural & my new adaption of the Chaunt Royale; I have unearthed some of the greatest Romantic poetry in a dusty corner of Sir Walter Scott’s long forgotten ouevre; & I have shown how poets have somehow lost their way from the true Parnassian path, replacing meaningful didacticism with a cliquey, post-graduate pomposity that has alienated the common man from the art, as reflected in its ever-dwindling book-sales.

Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon

A clear example can be found in an elegy by Irish poet, Paul Muldoon (b.1951, Armargh), called Incantata.

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
at arm’s length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh’s.

Even Lugh of the Long (sometimes the Silver) Arm
would have wanted some distance between himself and the army-worms
that so clouded the sky over St Cloud you’d have to seal
the doors and windows and steel
yourself against their nightmarish déjeuner sur l’herbe:
try as you might to run a foil
across their tracks, it was to no avail;
the army-worms shinnied down the stove-pipe on an army-worm rope.

It goes on  – & on – & on – like that for ages & ages & ages. A confusing morass of mimesis that I bet Mr Muldoon doesn’t understand himself. Maybe I’m just to dumb to get it, but poetry should really about the people it speaks to, & especially the language in which the communication takes place – for me, the driving force behind poetry is the living entity that is the language in which it is communicated. If no-one understands it, then what is the point. I must admit, at times in the creation of my epic voice for Axis & Allies, I too have been guilty of over-intellectualisation – but the epic is a different beast than an elegy, & how can we mourn somebody we do not know if we are prevented from making an emotional connection to their spirit through sound & clear imagery.



The next poem is also by an Irish writer of the same era, Paul Duncan (b.1944, Dublin). I’m going to give in full;

I am hiding from my father
On the roof of Joyce’s Tower
In Sandycove.
He is downstairs in the gloom
Of the Joyce Musuem
Exchanging euphemisms with the curator,
The poet Michael Hartnett,
Meteorological euphemisms
Wet & cold for June.

I am standing at the battlements.
I am eighteen years old.
The battle is whether or not
He will buy a copy of Ulysses.
It is a battle about money
But it is a battle alos about morality
Or ‘morals’ as it is called.
It began this morning at the breakfast tabnle
When I asked him for twenty-one shillings
To buy a copy of Ulysses.
He refused on the grounds that on top
Of it being an outrageous sum of money
Which a poorly paid judge could ill afford
It was a notoriously immoral book.
Even the most liberal-minded Jesuits
Had condemned Ulysses
As being blasphemous as well as pornographic.

My mother jumped around form the kitchen sink:
‘Give him the money for the wretched book
And let the pair of you stop this nonsense
For pity’s sake.
Will we ever see peace & sense in this house?’
My father stomred out of the kitchen,
The Irish Independent under his arm:
‘I’ll not be party to subsidising that blackgaurd
Bringing works of blasphemy into this house.
In the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred & sicty-three
I will not be an accessory to blasphemy.’

I caught the 46A bus out to Joyce’s Tower
Newly opened as a museum.
The curator offered to share with me
A carafe of vodka left over
From a literary soiree of the night before.
It was the day after Bloomsday.
Monday, 17 June 1963.
We sat in a compatible silence,
Contemplatively, affably,
Until upheaval of gravel
Eradicated reverie.
I rushed to the door & glimpsed
My father at the foot of the iron steps.
I climbed up to the roof, hoping to hide
From him up there in the marine fog,
Foghorns bleating in the bay.

I hear footsteps behind me, I know it is he.
He declares: ‘I suppose we will have to but that book.
What did you say the name of it is?’
I tell him that the name of it is Ulysses.
I follow him down the staircase & he submits:
Mr Hartness, I understand
You stock copies of a book entitled Ulysses.
I would like to purchase one copy of same.’
‘Certainly, Your Lordship, certainly,’
Replies the ever-courteous, Chinese-eyed curator.
When from his wingbacked chair behind his desk
He takes from a drawer
A copy of the jade-jacketed Ulysses,
The Bodley Head edition,
My father asks him if he would have brown paper
With which to wrap the green, satanic novel,
Make a parcel out of it.
The curator peers into a wastepaper basket
‘Made by the Blind’,
As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.
Formally, he hands it over to my father,
As if delivering to some abstract & intractable potentate
A peace gift of a pair of old shoes.
My father pronounces: ‘Thank you, Mr Hartnett.’
The curator, at his most extravangantly unctuous, replies:
‘Very glad to be able to oblige you, Your Lordship.’

My father departed Joyce’s Tower with the book.
The next day when I asked my mother if she’d seen it
She said it was in their bedroom beside my father;’ sbed.
Her bed was beside the window & his bed
Was between her bed & the wall.
There it was, on his bedside table
With a bookmarker in it – a fruitgum wrapper –
At the close of the opening episode.
When a few weeks later
I got to reading Ulysses myself
I found it as strange to my father
And as discordant.
It was not until four years later
When a musical friend
Gave me my lessons
That Ulysses began to sing for me
And I began to sing for my father:
Daddy, Daddy
My little man, I adore you.

There’s no accounting for taste, but for me that is one hell of a beautiful poem. There’s even a wee-spot of overintellectualisation going on, as in the big-worded;

As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.

But it doesn’t matter, as the rest of the poem has a beautiful eerie sublimity, that quality so perfectly understood by the first century AD writer Longinus. Here are a few extracts from his great work, ‘On the Sublime,’  as important as any other classical  text on the poetic art.

 Sublimity is an echo of a noble mind… a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse. It is the source of distinction of the very greatests poets & prose writers & the means by which they have given eternal life to their own fame. For grandeur produces ecstasy rather than persuasion in the hearer; & the combination of wonder & astonishment alweqays proves superior rto the merely persuasive & pleasant. This is becasue persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement & wonder exert invincible power & force & get the better of heevery hearer… 

All such lapse in dignity arise in literature through a single cause: that desire for novelty of thought which is all the rage today… nothing is so damaging to a sublime effect as effeminate & agitated rhythm, phyrrics , trochees & dichorei: they turn into a regular jig. All the rhythmical elements immediately appear artificial & cheap. Being constantly repeated in monotonious fashion without the slightest motional effect. 

Phrases too closely knit are also devoid of grandeur, as are those which are chopped into short elements consisting of short syllables, bolted together, as it were, & rough at the joins

Zacharias Pearce's Longinus
Zacharias Pearce’s Longinus

Excessively cramped expression also does damage to sublimity. It cripples grandeur to compress it into too short a space. I do not mean proper compression, but cutting up into tiny pieces. Cramping mutilates sense; brevity gives directness. Conversly with fully rextended expressions; anything developed at unseasonable length falls dead

To these scathing comments against poetry  of the unsublime, we can see how the infectiousness of overintellectualisation has spread thoughout the poetical aether in Shelley’s;

There must be a resemblance, which does not depend on their own will between all the writers of any particular age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live; although each is in a degree the author of the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded. (from the Preface to the Revolt of Islam)

All Im trying to say is that a poet should be striving for sublimity – to say what they have to say with a simplicity & beauty not found in high-minded, cleverly rampant wordplay where no-one has a clue whats going on. So with that, I shall close my lectures (for now) – for I have some composition to do in the far north of Scotland.

Pendragon Lectures XIII


The Tryptych

I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man—then the minds of men—in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years—the next five to the composition of the poem—and the five last to the correction of it. So I would write haply not unhearing of the divine and rightly-whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of predestinated Garlands, starry and unwithering.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Between 1999 & 2011 I would say I was active in the creation of an epic poem, entitled Axis & Allies – the latest version of which YOU CAN READ HERE.  The poem began, I would say, in the summer of ’99, when I started work on a poem called Testamundi Imperatrix. I kinda published it myself through the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme down Brighton (I was 23), but by the time I’d finished it I was already ready to try something more ambitious.

imp    GetAttachment

The Imperatrix was both a salute to the coming Millennium & a celebration of Britain’s lost empire – Hong Kong had only been handed back to China a couple of years before I composed the ode. It’s form was the same as that used by Keats in his magnificent series of odes of 1819.  He had developed his new 10 line stanza out of the English & Italian sonnet forms, stating in a letter to his brother;

I have been endeavouring to discover a better Sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate does not suit the language well, from the pouncing rhymes; the other appears too elegiac, and the couplet at the end of it has seldom a pleasing effect. I do not pretend to have succeeded. It will explain itself.

Here is one of Keats’ stanzas from his Ode to a Nightingale.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
         Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
         Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
                With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
                        And purple-stained mouth;
         That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
                And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Like Keats, on completing the Imperatrix, I was enthused to develop a stanza of my own, something more flexible with which to handle the narrative three-part set pieces I was developing in the Imperatrix, as in;


Twin bearded stars circle a purple sun,
For he who transcended life’s tribalhood,
The first very ven’rable Englishman,
Lies down in his death bed, coughing up blood.

This proud patriot, tho’ pale & sickly,
Who gather’d up the knowledge of the West,
Still fires the flame of learning in his eyes.

“Take up thy pen & ink & write quickly,”
He dictates the last sacred scriptures blest,
Pleads grace & mercy, signs the cross & dies.


At some point in October 1999, I decided to write a poem solely on the battle of Waterloo – which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year by the way, & something I have recently began to add to once again. Back in ’99, after sketching with a few ideas for the Tryptych’s infrastructure, I ended up composing the following poem – the first of about 1500 that would be created over the next 12 years as I composed A&A.

Once…Romance, regent ruler of an age,
Dwelt deep in the beatings of great men’s hearts
And conjured the captain that helped to cage
The grand thief of Europe…My tayles lay starts;
He halts his ride
At the edge of tall trees,
Surveys a countryside of swaying yellow seas.

With knowing eyes he scann’d the scene,
“I have seen its like before,”
Then spurr’d his mount past Mont Saint-Jean
To pause upon the contour,
Thereby thro’ blue sky flew, serene,
A Dove from a lovely shore,
On which Wellington, warlord of dead men,
Says, “Swiftly, De Lancey, pass me my pen!”

Unto the Dove the Duke did call
While scribbling down one word…
White wings in fall, how soon the scroll
Tied gently to that bird,
Which flutter’d up to lofty heights where nothing mortal stirr’d.

The Ridge of Mont Saint Jean

From this innocuous peace-time ride across the fields to the south of Brussels,  my Calliopian muse would whisk me through the entire history of warfare, focusing mostly on the Second World war & its aftermath, & ending with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, whose presence in the public eye coincided with my composition of A&A. A survey of my epic is not the theme of this lecture, however, but instead I am going to elucidate the mechanics behind my invention of the Tryptych, so future ‘form-designers’ can get a feel of the necessary thought-processes.


A Tryptych is a medieval three-part painting, which tells a story of sorts, usually related to Jesus. The three part nature of my Imeratrix stanzas reminded me of this, & also set the standard – I needed to create three ‘staves’ with which to construct my Tryptych.


To begin my Tryptych, I thought there was no better stanza than the heroic quatrian used by Dryden in his Annus Mirabilis poem of 1666;

In thriving Arts long time had Holland grown,
Crouching at home, and cruel when abroad:
Scarce leaving us the means to claim our own;
Our King they courted, and our Merchants aw’d.

These four lines are capable of setting the scene, to which I completed the Stave with a device used by the odes, especially in Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more

The last three-lines struck me as especially resonant – in particular the closing alexandrine – & after inverting them I found I had a stave both lovely-sounding & aesthetically pleasing. Notice the internal rhymes in the second part of the stave (eye/by).

What is it all for, love & peace & war,
When both the wide way’d Earth & man’s action
Remain as constant as the Northern star?’
Mused three old madonnas down the station;
Their wise old eye
Translates the censor’d news,
Watching the trains pass by pack’d with Sicily’s Jews


In 1999 I was heavily into the Romantic poets, & for my Tryptych’s middle section, I thought the 8-lined Ottava Rima would be perfect, as introduced into the English language by Byron in his epic, Don Juan. A typical Byronic stanza reads;

Her sweet smile, and her then majestic figure,-
Her plumpness, her imperial condescension,
Her preference of a boy to men much bigger
(Fellows whom Messalina’s self would pension),
Her prime of life, just now in juicy vigour.
With other extras^ which we need not mention, —
All these, or any one of these, explain
Enough to make a stripling very vain.

My own version shortened the lengths of the first six lines – reducing them from iambic pentameter’s ten syllables to an 8/7/8/7/8/6 sequence. The sixth line originally had seven syllables, but I found by reducing it to six, its shortening closure set up the final couplet’s pentameter nicely, as in;

He rode his luck to Switzerland,
Compassment the Northern Star,
At Geneva he shook the hand
Of a man named Jean-Francois,
They drove thro checkpoints seldom mann’d
To Perpignan, by car,
Where with a gourd of wine, & quart of cheese,
Young Miguel guides him cross the Pyrenees.



For the final stave, I thought the primal British ballad stanza would be perfect, followed by a thundering ‘fourteener’ which would both aesthetically support the whole Tryptych, & close off the scene with a fighting flourish. Of this metre C.S Lewis writes;

The medial break in the alexandrine, though it may do well enough in French, becomes intolerable in a language with such a tyrannous stress-accent as ours: the line struts. The fourteener has a much pleasanter movement, but a totally different one: the line dances a jig.

Our Jack is missing, presumed dead!”
The whole street ‘eard ‘er shout,
Base fears that fed on common dread,
Calamity & doubt
Rudely releas’d into the world while scrikin’ ‘er eyes out.

Aesthetically, the Tryptych offers an overall effect as something like a candlestick. It is also reminiscent of an insect, which has a head, body (thorax) & tail (abdomen). Whether I will be the only poet to use the form only time will tell – but for the composition of a lengthy epic I found it perfectly suitable, with its changes in tempo & mood allowing a complete exploration of each historical scene chosen for my materielle.

Pendragon Lectures XII

Transcreating Thirukural

Banyan & Margosa are good for teeth
Nalatiyar & Thirukkural are good for tongue
Tamil Proverb


 As I showed in my last lecture, one of the most interesting avenues a poet may scribble along is the process of recreating creation – transcreation – that is to say the arduous rewording of the great works of ancient masters. This method was the core of the 16th century Renaissance – the new birth – where the lore-caskets of Arabian, Greek & Latin wisdom were studied, assimilated & regurgitated by European writers. A century later came the Georgian translations of Homer’s epics, & more recently Seamus Heaney’s transcreation Beowulf. It is in a similar capacity that I have been engaged on a new version of the Kural of Thiruvalluvar, or as it is more commonly known, Thirukkural. This 2000-year-old treatise on the art of living is ranked as the first book of the Tamils – that ancient, heroic, dark-skinned race that dwells in both Tamil Nadu & Sri Lanka. As I.A. Richards noted, ‘great cultures start in poetry,’ & it is with the Tamils that this is particularly notable. Their literature is held in the national esteem far greater than any other land upon the globe, the writers of which are elevated to the level of saints. Foremost among them is Thiruvalluvar, the creator of the Thirukkural, a timeless text that, as the giant of Tamil studies GU Pope observed; ‘Outweighs the whole of remaining Tamil literature, & is one of the select number of great works, which have entered into the very soul of a whole people & which can never die.’



The thing is, despite its universal brilliance, hardly anyone outside of Tamil Nadu knows about this book. For me, it was the quite unwieldy, clumberous translations into English that formed the problem – dense & wordy phrases that lose the beauty & immediacy of the original. As a poet, & the poet who rediscovered the poem in the post-imperial world, it was a challenge worth rising too. Over the past few decades we have slowly become obsessed with books on self improvement written by an assorted collection of lifestyle gurus. I believe the Kural to be the ultimate self-help book, a treatise on the unchanging realities of human existence, tracing through its pages the outline of an ideal life.

As we stride through the twentieth century, a new culture awaits mankind – that of a unified ‘global village,’ needing its own ‘international literature,’ & the non-sectarian, anti-nationalistic Thirukkural fits the bill astonishingly well. To the Tamils, the Thirukkural is a divine book, but not in the sense of the Koran or Bible, which offer an obstinate outlook on the religious experience. Over the centuries it has been observed that people are more willing to die for their scriptures than to live by them, but the Thirukkural is simply a book to live by, a code of moral conduct to which all creeds, castes & colors can connect, whose lofty idealism has been acclaimed by all the religions of the world. In the words of EV Daniel, “The Holy Kural may well be the meeting ground, the common ground, of all religions.”

Chapter 4 Verse 3

ஒல்லும் வகையான அறவினை ஓவாதே
செல்லும்வாய் எல்லாஞ் செயல்

In every way possible
Practice virtue incessantly

What are the Kural? In Tamil, the word Kural means ‘dwarfish,’ & has been applied to the shortest measure in Tamil poetry – the Kural Venba. This is a couplet of only seven words – four in the first line & three in the second. This curtness insists on an epigrammatic nature of composition, such as the English proverb ‘A stitch in time, saves nine.’ The kural are inherently simple, yet extremely subtle, being very similar to the Japanese Haiku, where ideas & sensations are expressed with a modicum of words. Yet in the hands of Valluvar, through the act of ellipsis, he condenses his world-view into phenomenal couplets that have become became sharpened knives with which to unstitch the fabric of mortal existence & expose it to the world. Or as Archbishop Trench remarked;

 He abounds in short and memorable, and, if I might so call them, epigrammatic sayings, concentrating with a forceful brevity the whole truth which he desires to impart into some single phrase.

What he has achieved is no less than a blueprint for life. & these neat, ordered rows of kural have stamped an order on the chaos of human existence. Or as Reverend P Percival once wrote, “Nothing in the whole compass of human language can equal the force and terseness of the couplets in which the author of the Kural conveys the lessons of wisdom.”

At the feet of Thiruvalluvar - Kanyakumari
At the feet of Thiruvalluvar – Kanyakumari

The legend says that Valluvar submitted his palm-leaf manuscript of his Kural to the 49 Pandits of the second Sangam, the high-browed judges of the Tamil literary establishment, c.100 BC. He found them sat on a raft that floated on the serene waters of the Golden Lily tank, the fabulous centre-piece of the great Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple of Madurai. At first the Pandits initially scoffed at the sage, throwing scorn on the work of an unlearned man from the lower castes. Valluvar remained unphased by their mockery, & simply placed the manuscript on the raft according to the set custom. Much to the Pandit’s astonishment, the raft immediately shrank, ducking these conceited men into the water, & leaving just enough room on the boards for the manuscript. Once on dry land, the sodden scholars recognized through this miracle that the Kural were indeed divine, an opinion that has not changed a single iota for two millennia.

Once the Kural had been accepted by the Pandits of Madurai, its influence penetrated every facet of Tamil society. The common Tamils took this rare blend of vibrant mysticism & pragmatic realism to their hearts, concerning as it does the everyday matters which affected their lives. The Kural was quoted in many early Tamil works, such as the Puranauru & the Manimekalai. It also influenced Kambar’s excellent 13th century Tamil version of the Ramayana, where Rama & his wife Seeta were fully imbued with the moral guidance of Valluvar. Then, in 1272, the poet Parimelazhagar arranged the 1330 kural into the order which the modern world now knows them. They were placed into chapters of ten kural each, which were again divided into 3 sections – the Muppaal – of Virtue, Wealth & Love. The theory is that if these are fully adhered to, then the fourth muppaal – Moksha (salvation) – shall be achieved.

Constantine Beschi
Constantine Beschi

The Kural were first brought to the attention of Europe by a series of missionaries entering Tamil Nadu via Madras (British), Pondicherry (France) & Tranquebar (Danish). The very first translation was in Latin & made by an Italian priest, Father Constantius Beschi, in the early eighteenth century. The next translator was the German AF Cammera, whose work was published in Leipzig in 1803. Then came the French Savant, M Ariel, who released his translation in 1848. It was he who proclaimed the Kural as “One of the highest & purest expressions of human thought.” These men were the pioneers, whose efforts helped to fan the flames of interest in this ancient text, which ever since has burnt fiercer & fiercer. Their efforts in translating Tamil can be compared to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, but instead of using that hieroglyphic key to open the doors of ancient Egypt, they have instead unlocked the wonders of the human soul.

Once the world became aware of these compact distiches of quintessential wisdom, the Kural have been translated into over 6o languages across the world, including 13 other Indian languages. The first English translation was in 1853, by the Reverend Drew, whose work would inspire GU Pope, a gargantuan figure of Kural lore. History now sees George Uglow Pope as the great standard bearer of Tamil, that ‘noble language’ as called it, immersing & devoting his entire life to its study & translation. His first lesson in the language occurred when he was an eighteen-year-old lad in England. Later that year he arrived in Madras & upon first hearing the true beauty of Tamil on the lips of a humble fisherman, he became determined to learn all about the language & to be able to speak it as fluently as a native. He set about meeting the greatest Tamil scholars of the day, & had soon unleashed his genius upon its life-long mission.  By 1840 he was staying at Mylapore, about which he would later write, “While visiting the villages around here, that enthusiasm for the great Tamil poet was first kindled which has been an important factor in my life.”

Within a short time of my learning Tamil, I commenced translating Thirukkural, for the benefit of Europeans,” he said, & after almost fifty years, on September 1st, 1886, he would complete his noble task, which by now he had declared the ‘masterpiece of human thought.’ By February 1893 he would also add an excellent, poetic translation of the Naltiyar to his many achievements in Tamil, which included an unfinished, yet massively comprehensive dictionary of Tamil. For his erudite efforts he was given the honorary degrees by Oxford and Lambeth, & was awarded the much coveted Gold Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1906. After a ‘long and useful’ life of 88 years, he died in 1908, when one of his last requests was to have his tomb decorated with the words, ‘A student of Tamil.’

George Uglow Pope
George Uglow Pope

My own journey into Thirukkural began in February 2002. Two years previously, to celebrate the millennium, the Tamils had erected a giant statue of Thiruvalluvar off the coast of Kannayakamari, India’s most southern point. It was this glorious statue which I first noticed as I arrived at that confluence of the three seas, where the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea & Indian Ocean fling their waves at the rocky shore from three different directions. The monument is 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of the Kural. The pedestal on which the statue stands is 38 ft high, representing the 38 chapters in the Virtue section of the text. The remaining 95 feet of the statue itself represent the total number of chapters in the second and third parts of the Kural – Wealth & Love. The three parts are also echoed by the statue’s right hand, which has three fingers pointing to the heavens. As I gazed upon the statue, all these nuances the time were unknown to me. Kannayakamari had seen my first steps into Tamil Nadu, & all I had gleaned from this visit was that the man who towered before me was the ‘Holy Poet of Tamil Nadu.’
A few days later I found myself in the great city of Madurai, & it was here that I was first flung into the world of the Kural. In the lanes close to the great temple that forms the cities heart, I came across one of the Manivasagar Pathippagm bookshops that are scattered across Tamil Nadu. These are both publisher & bookseller &one of their publications caught me eye. It was a small red book with the famous image of Thiruvalluvar sitting cross legged in flowing white robes, a pen in his right hand & a scroll in his left. I immediately bought it & rushed back to my hotel. There, as I reclined under a fan to avoid the heat, I plunged into the Kural, a moment that will stay with me forever. I was immediately touched by its beauty & simplicity, & though my young western mind found some of the maxims a little difficult, I felt there & then an affinity for them. The copy I had was the famous co-translation by Reverend Drew & John Lazurus & on that very first evening I transformed two or three of them back into the Kural form. It was a small step on a journey that would take many years, but as I made it I knew that one day I would like to translate the every kural.

Book Market Madurai
Book Market Madurai

On my return from India in April 2002 I tucked my copy of the Kural away in my bookshelf & let it gather dust while I pursued other projects. For the next six years it would intermittently be looked at, at one point forming the bedrock of my own work in the Kural form, the results of which can be seen in the Humanology section of this book. All through these years the dedication I had made to translate the Kural niggled away at the back of mind. At the same time my literary abilities were strengthening, waiting for the right moment, some catalyst to trigger off the resolution of my promise. This came in September 2008, when I was visited by a friend. She had brought along with her a young Tamil, & conversation soon turned to the subject of the Kural. The fact that a non-Tamil could enjoy his native literature quite amazed him, & during the course of our evening together I resolved to once & for all translate the book for my peers.

Two months later I flew to Mumbai & traveled overland to Tamil Nadu. My first port of call was Thiruvannamalai, a bustling town nestled beneath the holy red mountain of Aranachala. It was here that the 20th century Sri Ramana Maharishi had spent most of his life in deep contemplation. A famous Ashram had slowly developed about his mediations, which still thrives to this day, many decades after his death. One part of the ashram houses a library, & it was to its silent desks that I found myself drawn. To my delight there were many books on the Kural, which I plunged within in order to create as exact & enjoyable a rendition of the Kural as possible. While I sat at the long desks there, keeping cool beneath a spinning fan, several hefty tomes spread out before me, I was helped many times by the librarian, Ramesh Babu, who would assist me with the awkward points of classical Tamil.


I then took to the road, absorbing the Tamil culture & appreciation of the Kural from conversation to conversation. I felt it would enhance my own version if I was to compose along the same roads that Thiruvalluvar himself once trod. From Thiruvannamalai I passed to the famous beach at Mamallapuram, where under the statue of Thiruvalluvar I reached the half-way point in my translation. Next port of call was chaotic Chidambaram & its famous Annamalai library at the university there. Unfortunately the recent terrorist massacres at Mumbai prevented me from using the facilities. Instead I found a municipal library in the town which was quite adequate. My further travels would take me through the watery wonders of the Karveri Delta, the whitewashed former Danish colony at Tranquebar, the multi-templed town of Kumbakonam, the fabulous fortresses of Thanjavur & Trichy, before I found myself on an overnight train heading to Rameshwaram, arriving there early on Christmas Eve. By this point I had almost completed my task & was hoping to finish the Kural over the festive season. However, every hotel on the island was full, & I rather felt like Joseph & Mary as they trawled the inns of Bethlehem looking for somewhere to sleep. This same scene was repeated even 50 miles away in Ramanathapuram, which was full of Gujuratis who would take a fleet of buses down to Rameshwaram to join in the festivities. Eventually, late on Christmas Eve, I arrived in Madurai where I was very much relieved to find a hotel with vacancies.

As I awoke on Christmas Day I was taken aback by the fact that I was to finish my version of the Kural in the same city in which I had first delved into its pages. To do this I found a small, empty shrine in the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple & went to work to the babble of human voices & jazz-like strains of an Indian trumpet. Six 2-foot tall black statues of gods, each sporting a ‘skirt’ & a garland of yellow flowers, sat watching me as I scribbled frantically. They were joined by a giant wall-painting of the green-skinned Siva & potraits of famous Tamil saints. It was a lovely moment to finally lay my pen to rest in such a place, & as I stepped outside into skintingling sunshine the fact I had just finished the divine Tamil text, in one of the holiest Hindu temples, on the most sacred day in Christendom, was not lost on me at all. In my elation I found the same bookshop where I had originally bought the Thirukkural, & there babbled out my story, on the conclusion of which the bookseller brought out another book. It was the Nalatiyar.


Up until this point I had known nothing about its existence, but a brief glance at its introductory proverb, which proclaimed it as an equal to Thirukkural, immediately piqued my interest. The timing was also exceptional. Only a few minutes previously I had completed the Kural, & now its sister text was in my hands! I felt the same sensation springing up as I had had on first looking into the Kural, & resolved once more to translate an ancient Tamil text into English. This I commenced as I continued my tour of Tamil Nadu, which passed through salubrious Kodaikkanal, the plains Palani & Mancunian Coimbatore, before reaching the gorgeous tea plantations of the Niligris Hills. It was there, in the remarkable town of Coonoor,  that I spent a lovely two weeks, editing the Kural & translating the Naltiyar. Coonoor was to be my last place of residence in Tamil Nadu & I left that wonderful Indian state in January 2009. With me in my luggage was the same red copy of the Kural I had brought seven years previously. But alongside it now was my own completed version, complemented with a rendition of the Nalatiyar!

Thirukkural is a wonderful book, but to an English speaker it might as well be written in Gaelic. Despite being among the most widely translated texts in the world, outside of Tamil Nadu it is one of the least read. Even the vast majority of the multi-lingual Indians cannot read a word of it. On top of this, to the English-speaking mind, the translations of the Kural we possess are often too wieldy or fanciful to absorb. The most widely known & respected translations in English are the poetical couplets of GU Pope, & the transliterations of Reverend Drew & John Lazurus. I offer their renditions of Kural 36-9 as an example.

The True ‘support’ who knows – rejects ‘supports’ he sought before 
Sorrow that clings all destroys, shall cling to him no more (GU Pope)

He, who so lives as to know Him who is the support of all things & abandons all desire, will be freed from the evils which would otherwise cleave to him & destroy (his efforts after absorption) (Drew & Lazurus)

Similarly, a modern rendition by a native Tamil, Kalaimamani Kalladan, reads; The mind’s nature is to cling to every thing; but that should realize the true thing & cling to it; & that should abandon all desires. If done so, any suffering destined to inflict a person, shall not occur

My own rendition of this particular kural, forced as I was into only seven words, goes as follows;

By choosing true virtue
Bruising ruin debarred

Perhaps it has lost a little in the translation, but the essential essence remains. It has been my intention to create something new from the wellsprings of each kural – not just a vague paraphrase, but a simple maxim for the modern human mind. In order to convey the Valluvar’s magnificent message I felt each kural needed to be immediately understood. One of the chief beauties of the original is the compactness of an individual kural, or as PS Sundram observed, “Its soul is brevity, & with it least is most.”


The saint’s succinct & subtle style, operating in such a short space, uses many poetic techniques; from rhyme & repetition, to intricate word-play & clever puns to expose the very heart of his philosophies.  I have attempted to emulate these as best as possible, rendering a version that is as close to the original as possible. This has been helped by the English language, that most flexible & comprehensive of all the modern tongues. At the moment in the world there are 400 million native English speakers – second only to the mandarin of the insular Chinese. However, when you add the billion Indians unified by the English tongue, plus the fact that English is the one true lingua franca of commerce & culture, then it is only right that the ‘global gospel’ of Valluvar should be funneled through the English language into the world at large. As MS Venkatchalam wrote;

It is our bounden duty to make the world realize the richness of Kural & that can be done, only by rendering it into English & thus making it reach all the nook & corners of the world.

Despite Tamil being a beautifully sonorous language, it is extremely complex – a single word may need two pages of explanation. However, one of the traditional strengths of the English language is that by flexing its inherent linguistic muscles it has always been able to adopt foreign lexicon, syntax & grammar, & be strengthened by them in the process. The subtle nuances & inflections of the English language have made it possible to translate the complexities of Tamil – for our words may also be variously expressed, & when placed in combination offer multitudinous shades of meaning. In addition, as a fluent speaker of English I had the relative freedom of Tamil Nadu, where English is widely spoken in the wake of the imperial Raj. I was able to both converse with educated Tamils on the nature of the Kural & form travel arrangements between the widely scattered libraries. In these dusty halls of academe, stuffed with books in both Tamil & English, I discovered many good translations of the Kural which helped me in my task. These include those of PS Sundaram, VR Ramachandra Dikshitar, FW Ellis, VVS Aiyer, Suddhananda Bharati & Kasthuri Srinivasan.

My journey through the kural was the most greatest of pleasures to undertake. For any future poet, during your period of training it is almost a necessity to travel foreign lands Indiana-Jones-stylee in search of obscure yet beautiful poetical texts, in order to enrich your own poetic spirit & through a proper transcreation, the spirit of your native land.


Pendragon Lectures (XI)


Transcreating  Y Gododdin

Who do you think I have at my elbow, as happy as ever Alexander thought himself after a conquest? No less a man than Ieuan Fardd who hath discovered some old MSS. Lately that nobody of this age or the last ever dreamed of. And this discovery is to him & me as great as that of America by Colombus. We have found an epic poem in the British called Gododin, equal at least to the Iliad, Aeneid or Paradise Lost. Tudfwlch & Marchlew are heroes fiercer than Achilles or Satan

Lewis Morris (1758)


The Book of Aneirin
The Book of Aneirin

The transcreation is an important part of any poetical training, when for a briefish period of time a poet enters the very spirit of one of the past masters. The essence of a transcreation is the breaking down of an old text into its composite parts & rebuilding it again in the hope of making something different, something modern, something new. During my own training I have attempted two transcreations; the Kural of Thiruvalluvar & the Gododdin of Aneirin, & it is the latter of these that we shall be looking at in this lecture.

The Gododdin of Aneirin is the first great poem produced in these islands – or at least the first one that survived the ravages of time. It tells the story of a seminal British battle – Catraeth – fought in the year 598 AD, with the Gododdin being a contingent  of warriors from the Lothian region about Edinburgh. Their gruesome fate was discovered in the pages of a single 13th century manuscript, containing poetry penned by the bard Aneirin, an actual eye-witness to the battle. In the poem he tells us that he had marched to Catreath with the British army, & was one of only four survivors of the slaughter. He further describes how he endured captivity at the hands of his enemies, before his ransom was paid by Ceneu, the son of the poet-king, Llywarch Hen.


Y Gododdin, as it is known in its original language, was – & still is – considered by the Welsh bards as the supreme poem of their species.  It contains many parallels with the other surviving poetic masterpiece of British antiquity, Beowulf :as this poem is the pedigree literary representative of the early English, so Y Gododdin is the clear hallmark of the early Welsh. It is clear that Aneirin’s command of his language could only have come from the Bardic school & its years of intensive training, endless compositive exercises & the memorizing of the vast canon of Welsh poems. But Aneirin must stood out as a special talent, whose masterpiece tells us in the most beautiful fashion of a great meeting of the Kymric nobility, when;

From Eidyn’s fort no force like this e’er flow’d (III-V)

Edinburgh, or Dun Eidyn as the poem names it, was the seat of the Gododdin, a later evolution of the Brythonic tribe the Romans named the Votadini. Their realm sat on both shores of the Firth of Forth, with its southern regions corresponding roughly to the three Lothian counties of modern times. During the Roman era, the capital of the Votadini tribe sat on the summit of Traprain Law, near Haddington in East Lothian. Come the late sixth century, the tribe had moved its main base to the grand volcanic & precipitous crag on which Edinburgh Castle sits today. The lands which the Gododdin controlled lay on the north-eastern limits of a Brythonic world that stretched westwards to the Kingdom of Strathclyde, then turned south through modern-day Lancashire & carried on through Wales & on to Cornwall. The eastern parts of Britain had been settled by the tribes of German warriors known through the collective name of Anglo-Saxons. Since the departure of the Romans they had year-by-year encroached on the territory of the native British, & it was only when the messiah-like figure of King Arthur rose up & inspired his countrymen to battle that the Saxons were stopped in their tracks. The Annals Cambrae tell us that Arthur died in the year 537, after which the unity of the British began to disintegrate. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, ten years after Arthur’s death, the Angles had established themselves on the Northumbrian coast.

A.D. 547.  This year Ida began his reign; from whom first arose the royal kindred of the Northumbrians… He built Bamburgh-Castle, which was first surrounded with a hedge, and afterwards with a wall.

This fortress pressed a sharp dagger point onto the territories of the Gododdin, whose capital lay only fifty miles to the north-west at Edinburgh. Fifty years later, this dagger was picked up by a new & powerful king of the Angles called Aethelfrid, of whom the English historian Bede tells us;

At this time, Aethelfrid, a most worthy king, and ambitious of glory, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English for he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune

Saint Bede
Saint Bede

This brings into perspective how vital the Battle of Catreath was to the Gododdin – a life or death struggle for their very existence against a ruthless enemy whose star was very much in the ascendence. To aid them in their great struggle, the Gododdin called for assistance from their fellow Britons. Aneirin tells us that, in addition to the Gododdin, warriors from all over the Brythonic world fought at Catreath. The brilliance of his poem was soon recognized, when an early 9th century monk called  Nennius lists the five great bards of ‘Y Cynfeirdd,’ those Early Poets of Welsh tradition;

Then Dutgirn at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.

Here we see Aneirin being hailed alongside the most important poets of the Welsh. Roll on a few more centuries,  & medieval poets were to proclaim him a ‘Medeyrn Beirdd’ – King of Bards. The bardic tradition he belonged to is one of the treasures of British history, most of which has been lost to the ravages of time. However, enough of their material has survived to modernity, giving us a good idea of the mindset of these bards, & a healthy picture of their life & times. The poetry is deposited in a number of medieval  literary anthologies known by such delightful names as the White Book of Rhydderch & the Black Book of Carmarthen. Of these collections, there is one tome that concerns the seekers of Catraeth. Known to curators by the unassuming title of ‘Cardiff MS2.81,’ but to the rest of the world as the ‘Llyfr Aneirin’ (The Book of Aneirin), it consists of nineteen sheets of parchment, with the text covering both sides of the paper, giving us thirty-eight pages of beautifully written Welsh poetry. Dated by J Gwenogvryn Evans to the year 1250,  the Book of Aneirin contains four small poems known as the ‘Gwarchan,’ & two different versions of a longer stanzaic poem called ‘Y Goddodin’ known as A&B). When combining them together we obtain 140 stanzas or so of moving & deliciously detailed verse, attributed in their entirity to Aneirin. His poetry was passed down through the oral tradition for many centuries, until the hands of two separate scribes recreated Aneirin’s original words on those 19 sheets of vellum.

By the creation of MS2.81 the language used had evolved in the main to Middle-Welsh. That the poem came to modernity in a medieval dialect has influenced academic dating of the poem. However, portions of the poem contain a much older version of the language, indicating that at least some of the poetry we read today does indeed herald from Aneirin’s time, after which the poem was transmitted through the memories & mouths of bards for many centuries before it was ever written down. Thomas Charles-Edwards stated; ‘The historical arguments, therefore, suggest that the poem is the authentic work of Aneirin; that we can establish the essential nature of the poem from the two surviving versions; but that we cannot, except in favourable circumstances, establish the wording of the original.’


The nature of YG is elegaic, a series of florid reports upon the heroes who fought & died at Catraeth. Of the 300 men who marched, Aneirin gives us the names of only 90 warriors, less than a third of those who fell, suggesting a great many stanzas are lost to us. Indeed, the abrupt breaking off of the text at the end of page 38 of the manuscript indicates we have lost some of the text forever. What survives is full of vibrant, militaristic bombast, & has been a joy to transcreate. During the process I found that many of the stanzas of the B recension were similar to those found in the A, & I have often merged them into a single stanza, choosing the best passages from each. In addition, I have added select passages from Aneirin’s four Gwarchans & certain passages from the poetry of Taleisin which concern the battle. The final production consists of twelve cantos of twelve stanzas each, bringing an epic framework to the epic material to what is essentially the first epic poem of the British Isles. A similar process had occurred in the 9th & 6th centuries BC, when King Lycurgas of Sparta & Pesistratus, Tyrant of Athens, sponsored new renditions of the Homeric materielle.

I do not speak Old Welsh – or even modern welsh – so to transcreate something in a foreign language the poet must resort to the translations of scholars, & reinstil these often dull versions with the breath of poetry. With the YG I examined the following translations;

William Probert (1820),

John Williams (1852)

WF Skene (1866)

 Thomas Stephens (1888)

Ifor Williams (1938)

JP Clancy (1970)

AOH Jarman (1988)

JT Koch (1997)


JT Koch
JT Koch

Throughout my own version I have attempted to furnish the reader with something of the music of the original. The Bardic tradition of the Welsh infused the concept of Cynghanned throughout their poetry – that is the use of rhyme & assonance & alliteration in a harmonious whole – being the MUSIC of poetry as I have discussed in earlier lectures. An example of the practice can be discerned from the following line, ‘Like quaffing liquer mead in laughters midst.’ Listing the individual phonetic sounds & their repetitions we can see how a great deal of music can be obtained from just ten syllables of poetry.

L-3 / K-3 / F2 / M-2 / T-3 / S-2 /IN-2

Another example comes from the line, ‘Clove spear path kinks of light thro phalanx’d foes.’

K-3 / L-3 / F-4 / S-3 / P-2 / TH-2 / N-2

Another mainstay of Cynghanned is the frequent use of end-rhymes. Aneirin was a wonderful exponent of rhyme, as can be seen from an example stanza from YG;

Kaeawc kynhorawc aruawc eg gawr

Kyn no diw e gwr gwrd eg gwyawr

Kynran en racwan rac bydinawr

Kwydei pym pymwnt rac y lafnawr

O wyr deivyr a brennych dychiawr

Ugein cant eu diuant en un awr

Kynt y gic e vleid nogyt e neithyawr

Kynt e vud e vran nogyt e allawr

Kyn noe argyurein e waet e lawr

Gwerth med eg kynted gan lliwedawr

Hyueid hir ermygir tra vo kerdawr

Unfortunately, to keep the correct sense of the poem I have had to dispense with Aneirin’s protracted use of rhyme. Despite this, I believe there is enough Cynghanned latent in the English language to recreate something the atmosphere of Aneirin’s recitations, or as the poet Dafydd Benras gushed in the 13th century;

To sing as Aneirin sang

The day he sang the Gododdin


Pendragon Lectures (X)


Wendy Cope’s Villanelle


I am now up in Glasgow enjoying a brief flirtation with Scotland. It was on the way up, gazing on the gorgeousness of the Lake District & Scottish Lowlands, that I realized my initial projection of conducting a 2 year dissertation on the Poetic Art is perhaps a little too much : after all, idleness is the true nurse-maid of poetry. Instead, continuing with the winter’s theme of writing 18-part ‘blockbusters,’ I shall spend the next nine posts trying to wrap up my poetic philosophies at this time. I have already sketched out the plan for the second half of these Lectures, & shall begin with showing how a traditional poetic form, when given proper credence by a modern poet, can produce wonderful effects.



Wendy Cope is among the heavyweights of British poetry, whose work has a refreshing brevity of wit, sprinkled with some quite resonant observations. With her reputation well established, she was not afraid of attempting an obscure & old form, the Villanelle. Originating in the folk-songs of rural France, it found its modern form in the early 17th century, & later it taken to heart by the British Victorians, the first batch being published in Gleeson White’s Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles (1887). Throughout the 20th century, a few poets had a pop; with Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night being the most famous;


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears,
I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The chief elements of a Villanelle are its 19 lines, its rhyming scheme & the use of refrains in the third line of each tercet. The two refrains are also used to conclude the poem in the closing quatrain. Now then, Im going to show you how Wendy Cope handled here experience of composing through the Villanelle.


Hugo Williams
Hugo Williams

A Villanelle For Hugo Williams

What can I say? I’d like to be polite
But have you ever seen a villanelle?
You ask me “Have I got the rhyme-scheme right?”
Is that a joke? You’re not a neophyte
Or some green-inker who can barely spell.
What can I say? I like to be polite.

No, not exactly, Hugo. No, not quite.
I trust this news won’t plunge you into hell:
Your rhyme-scheme is some miles from being right.
What’s going on? I know you’re very bright.
You’ve won awards. You write supremely well.
What can I say? I like to be polite
And this is true: your books are a delight,
In prose, free verse and letters you excel.
You want my help with getting rhyme-schemes right.
You seem dead keen to master them, despite
Your puzzling inability to tell
Which bit goes where. These lines, if not polite,
Will be of use, I hope. The rhyme-scheme’s right.


Not a bad effort, a little bland & a little awkward metrically – but at least, ‘the rhyme-scheme’s right.’ In the same collection in which this poem appeared – Family Values (2011) – there are two more Villanelles; Probably & the most excellent Lissadell, with which I shall close this lecture. Notice how the measure has changed & given the overall effect a lyrical beauty.  For poets of the future, this is a perfect model for how to experiment in a new form. Write a kick-about, cardies-as-goalposts, kinda poem to get a feel for the form, then find your own personal take on it & fill it with your heart’s overflow.


Last year we went to Lissadell.
The sun shone over Sligo Bay
And life was good and all was well.

The bear, the books, the dinner bell,
An air of dignified decay.
Last year we went to Lissadell.

This year the owners had to sell—
It calls to mind a Chekhov play.
Once life was good and all was well.

The house is now an empty shell,
The contents auctioned, shipped away.
Last year we went to Lissadell

And found it magical. “We fell
In love with it,” we sometimes say
When life is good and all is well.

The light of evening. A gazelle.
It seemed unchanged since Yeats’s day.
Last year we went to Lissadell
And life was good and all was well.