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 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
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)
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