Transcreating The 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.
Lewis Morris (1758)

The transcreation is an important part of any poetical training, when for a briefish period of time a poet may enter the very spirit of one of the past masters. The essence of transcreation is the breaking down of an old text into its composite parts & the rebuilding of them 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, the processes behind the latter of which we shall be looking at in this lecture.

The Gododdin of Aneirin is the first great vernacular poem produced in these islands, or at least the first one that survived the ravages of time. We are told the story of the battle of Catraeth, a seminal event in the early history of the British Isles. At the of the seventh century, the embattl’d British tribes embarked upon a noble expedition in an attempt to stem the relentless tides of Saxon invaders, among which were a contingent of warriors called the Gododdin, from the Lothian region about Edinburgh. Their gruesome fate was discovered in the pages of a single 13th century manuscript, which contained poetry penned by the bard Aneirin, an actual eye-witness to the battle. In the poem he tells us of his march to Catreath with the British army, where he would become one of only four survivors of the slaughter. He goes on to describe 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.

On surviving the slaughter of Catraeth, Aneirin sang his song. Y Gododdin, considered by the Welsh bards to be the supreme poem. Its parallels with the other surviving poetic masterpiece of British antiquity, Beowulf, are palpable. As Beowulf is the pedigree literary representative of the early English, so Y Gododdin is the hallmark of the Old Welsh. It is clear that Aneirin’s command of his language could only have come from the Bardic school & its years of intensive training; a combination of endless compositive exercises & the memorizing of the vast canon of Welsh bardic poetry. Among the bards, Aneirin stands out as a special talent, whose masterpiece tells us at first, 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.

Edinburgh, or Dun Eidyn as the poem names it, was the seat of the Gododdin, a later evolution of the Brythonic tribe that the Romans named ‘Votadini.’ Their realm spanned 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 controlled by the Gododdin lay on the north-eastern limits of a Brythonic world which stretched westwards to the Kingdom of Strathclyde, then turned south through modern-day Lancashire, then carrying on through Wales & into Cornwall. Since the departure of the Romans, the eastern parts of Britain had been settled by tribes of German warriors known as the Anglo-Saxons, 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 once again 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.

Bamburgh Castle was built on the site of a Brythonic fort known as Din Guarie, whose occupation showed the Angles meant business in the area. The fortress pressed a sharp dagger point on 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 a battle was Catreath was to the Gododdi, a life or death struggle for their very existence against a ruthless enemy whose star was very much in the ascendence. Aneirin describes how warriors from all over the Brythonic world fought at Catreath, amplifying the significance of the battle & catapulting its legacy into the halls of immortal fame. Catraeth was fought, according to my historical investigations, in the year 598 AD. Four decades later, Irish chronicles speak of a ‘Siege of Etain,’ after which the Gododdin are never formally heard of again. This gives an added importance to the poem, for it records forever the valorous deeds of a long, lost British tribe, whose back had been broken at the battle of Catraeth.

The brilliance of Aneirin’s poetical remembrance was soon recognized. An 9th century monk called Nennius lists the five great bards of ‘Y Cynfeirdd,’ those Early Poets of Welsh tradition, among whom Aneirin proudly appears;

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

Roll on a few more centuries, & medieval poets were proclaiming Aneirin a ‘Medeyrn Beirdd’ – i.e. the King of Bards. The tradition he belonged to is one of the treasures of British history, most of whose ouput has been been lost to the ravages of time. Enough of their material has survived to modernity, however, that we can gain a fairly decent idea of the bardic mindset, & also a healthy picture of their life & times. The poetry we possess 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 us the most. Known to curators by the unassuming title of ‘Cardiff MS2.81,’ but to the rest of the world as The Book of Aneirin, it consists of nineteen sheets of parchment, with text covering both sides of the paper – giving us thirty-eight pages of beautifully written Welsh poetry in total. Dated by J Gwenogvryn Evans to the year 1250, the Book of Aneirin contains four small poems known as the ‘Gwarchan,’ & two different versions (A&B) of a longer stanzaic poem called ‘Y Goddodin’. When combining the Gododdin recensions together, we obtain 140 stanzas of moving & deliciously detailed verse, attributed in their entirity to Aneirin. By the creation of Cardiff MS2.81, the language used had evolved in the main to Middle-Welsh, which has influenced academic dating of the poem. A number of portions, however, contain a much older version of Welsh, indicating that at least some of the poetry we read today does indeed herald from Aneirin’s time. ‘The historical arguments,’ wrote Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘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 Y Gododdin 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 90 warriors, less than a third of those who fell, suggesting a great many stanzas are lost to us. The abrupt breaking off of the text at the end of page 38 of the manuscript does suggest we have lost some of the text forever. What survives is full of vibrant, militaristic bombast, & has been a joy to transcreate. My own rendition of the poetry of Aneirin is different to all others in that I have blended the two versions of YG into a composite whole, rearranging the stanzas into what I believe is the best chronology possible. I have found that many of the stanzas of the B recension were similar to those found in the A, & often merged them into a single stanza, choosing the best passages from each. I have also added select passages from the 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 feel to what is essentially the first epic poem of the British Isles.

My transcreation caps a long line of translations, the first of which soon followed the discovery of the manuscript by Evan Evans in the 18th century. He printed ten stanzas with a Latin translation in his book, Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards, published in 1764. The first English translation of the poem was published by William Probert (1820), followed by John Williams (1852), WF Skene (1866) & Thomas Stephens (1888). The twentieth century saw further translations by Ifor Williams (1938), JP Clancy (1970), KH Jackson (1969), AOH Jarman (1988) & JT Koch (1997). I had many of these translations at my desk, nibbling on both their spirit & phraseology, before regurgitating my own lines.

During my transcreation, I have attempted to furnish the reader with something of the music of the original. The Welsh bards infused the concept of Cynghanned throughout their poetry – that is the use of rhyme, assonance & alliteration, assembl’d in the most harmonious of wholes. An example of the practice in English can be discerned from my 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 / F-2 / 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 this, 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

To keep the correct sense of the poem I have had no choice but to dispense with Aneirin’s protracted use of rhyme. Despite this loss, there is enough Cynghanned latent in the English language to recreate something of 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

May 13th

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