Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Gododdin by Gillian Clarke (Faber 2021) A Review of sorts

The Gododdin. Lament for the Fallen.
 A Version by Gillian Clarke. (Faber 2021)

(Book includes an introduction by the poet, and the Welsh and English texts on facing pages.)


Soldiers stormed, fired up by mead,

Mynyddawg’s men, as one they died.

Famous in the war, they paid

For all night feasting with their lives.


Caradog. Madog, Pwyll and Ieuan,

Gwgon, Gwiawn, Gwyn and Cynfan,

Steel-armed Peredur,

Aeddan and Gwawrddur.

Shield-Shattered fighters slew and were slain.

Not one of them came home again.



Y Gododdin may be the ‘oldest surviving British poem’. You can split hairs and call it ‘The earliest Scottish’ or ‘The earliest Welsh’ but those terms would be anachronistic. Although only surviving in a manuscript from the 13th century, it purports to be the work of Aneirin, who may have lived sometime around the end of the 6th, the same time as Taliesin. It is a collection of individual poems ‘Gorchenau’ celebrating the deaths of men in a battle that may have been fought on an unknown date in a place that is often identified as modern Catterick.


Historically there’s a lot of ifs buts and maybes. 


There is no narrative, but the ‘background story’ can be pieced together. Mynyddawg the Generous, the Luxurious, the Magnificent, gathered an army by feasting it for a year. At the end of the year 300 or three hundred and thirty three rode south from modern Edinburg and were slaughtered. Only one man, the poet, survived the disaster. Or perhaps three men. And the poet. Or three men including the poet. You could be cynical and say this is the foundation text for the great British habit of celebrating its military disasters.


Establishing a text has taxed the skills of some of the most prominent students of early Welsh. Anyone interested in the difficulties should try Kenneth Jackson’s The Gododdin (Edinburgh University Press, 1969), in which he scrupulously provided a literal reading of the poems, acknowledging where he could not provide either a reading of the text or a translation of what he’d read.


The original manuscript is difficult to decipher, once deciphered the language itself is hard to read, archaic in places. What, if any, of the text can be reliably dated back to Aneirin is a matter for scholarly debate. This may seem academic but what Clarke calls the ‘earliest known reference to Arthur’ is only ‘the earliest reference’ if that particular line can be dated with confidence. 


While we should be grateful for all this scholarly attention, without it there would be little chance of reading the poem, it tends to reduce the poems to a potential, but highly problematic, historical source which might date to a period where there is an astonishing scarcity of insular texts.


If you’re not interested in the history, why bother? The first answer is obvious if you ever have  the chance to hear Y Gododdin read by a native welsh speaker. If poetry is words organised to pattern sound, or patterned sound organising words, Y Gododdin is a marvel.  


The experience of reading the poem takes the reader out of modern assumptions about poetry, poet and poem. The Gododdin is a public poem, designed to be recited to an audience. The Bard’s role here is to celebrate the dead, to record for posterity that these men earned their mead. 


In her introduction, Gillian Clarke shows she is aware of all the scholarly debates but sets them to one side, and approaches the poem as poem. This presents its own problems, of which she is also very aware. The languages and poetics are so different that any attempt to copy Welsh poetics into English tends to be unimpressive. It’s as though the high stepping, graceful Welsh pony has suddenly become an arthritic elephant with indigestion. Clark successfully avoids this. The book is very carefully titled ‘A version’, perhaps to ward off the attention of the small group of experts who could challenge the literal rendering of her work, and in her introduction she claims her aim was to produce a version which works in English. I think she has succeeded. 


Compare Jackson’s consciously literal version of these lines:


And unless one had been well-nourished it was not possible to withstand Cadfannan’s blow. (Jackson)


With Clarke’s and then with Clancy’s.


Armour and shield could not save them.

None but the nourished fight Cadfannan (Clarke p.9)


None could, on mead he was nourished,

Ward of the stroke of Cadfannan. (Clancy p 34)


So if you want an English translation of the Gododdin, this is it. It’s not literal, but it sings in English. If you’re curious what a poem written over a thousand years ago might look like, or you want to read a version of a poem that was important to David Jones and Basil Bunting, Clark’s version is the one to read. (There are others, but they are becoming impossible to obtain. And while we’re at it, Bunting’s ‘I heard Aneirin Number the dead’ passage in Briggflats is probably the neatest introduction to the poem you’ll find.)




Reading from beginning to end is a strange experience. The names blur, the verses blur, this is not the rhetorical device of repetition with variation, this reflects the fact that the options the poet’s culture had for praise were limited. X was brave, X was generous, X fought like an animal, X died.


The world evoked is also strange. The highest praise this culture could offer a man was to say he was eager for battle, a ferocious, exuberant, merciless killer, and he died slaughtering his enemies. And while my admiration for the translation should now be obvious, I’m not so impressed with the packaging. 


I may be in a diminishing minority, but I prefer the past plain. (or as plain as it can be). I don’t want it softened or censored. 


The book is subtitled ‘A Lament for the Fallen’ and the blurb tells us that ‘Clarke animates this historical epic with a modern musicality, making it live in the language of today and underscoring, that, in a world still beset by the misery of war, Aneirin’s lamentation is not done.’


From one of the UK’s leading poetry publishers the sloppy description of the poems as an epic is surprising. But what do the words ‘Lament’ and  ‘The Fallen’ evoke for you? A minute’s silence on Armistice day, the bugler playing the last post, the solemn laying of wreaths at the cenotaph and those seemingly endless rows of crosses in France? If you’re Australian or a New Zealander, the dawn service on Anzac day?  


To present The Gododdin as a lament is to misrepresent the poem. There are occasionally verse that express sadness, but there are very few and they are swamped by the rest of the poems. The majority of verses are celebrations of the violent deaths of exuberant killers. 


To present this as ‘a lament’ is to soften it, to use a loaded phrase like ‘the fallen’ is to associate these dark age killers with the volunteers and conscripts of the first world war or the professional soldiers of the twentieth and twenty first century. It seems like an attempt to make Y Gododdin more acceptable, more ‘relevant’ to a modern reader who obviously lacks the imagination or curiosity or willingness to encounter the past in all its confronting strangeness. 


Medieval Welsh could do laments. In the poems of the Llwyarch Hen cycle, or the poems in Canu Heledd, the personal cost of warfare is made obvious. Heledd laments the death of her bothers:


The hall of Cyndyllan is dark tonight

Without a fire, without a bed

I will weep and be silent. 


But is this a lament?


Flaunting a brooch, he rode ahead,

Warrior, princely leader,

Killed five times fifty with his sword.

Two thousand men of Deifr and Brynaich’s men

Died in an hour in mire and mud and blood.


Sooner meat for the wolf than to his wedding.

Sooner carrion for the crow than priest-blessing.

Before his burial, the field lay bleeding.

In the hall where mead flowed free

the poet will praise Hyfaidd Hir.


The Gododdin is the lie one generation told the next. Be a ferocious warrior, disdain the soft things in life, be eager for battle, be happy to die knowing your name will live on forever in the poets’ words. (Ironically of three hundred, not all are remembered with their own verse.)


In the context of its time it was a necessary lie. These men are not fighting for creed, country or ideology. They are fighting for stuff; to protect their Lord’s boundaries, cattle, and wealth or to steal another Lord’s land, cattle, and wealth. 


At a time when the elite were armed and combat of one sort or another was a part of life, you want your young men to believe the lie. Because if your young men say, well, actually, no, we’d rather not fight, there are better to things to do, then you’re going to be raided, enslaved, or killed. And you’re not going to inspire the next generation if you tell them the reality of being stabbed and hacked and bleeding out on a battle field, or losing consciousness as the ravens start on your eyeballs. 


The poet wants his audience to believe that the heroes of the previous generation sought death in battle in the hope that their dying was worth a song. In reality, they risked death or injury in battle because that’s what men of their class did to earn stuff to improve their lifestyle. Their goal was to die of old age, surrounded by friends and family in relative prosperity. 


If they had all known they were all going to die at Catraeth, they might have preferred to stay at home.


Attempting to domesticate the past so it can be packaged to a modern audience might make sense to the marketing agency, but it is a trendy mistake. It’s the flip side of cancel culture. Neither wants to deal with the past as it was. 


The Gododdin is a relic from a very different world.


Sooner meat for the wolf than to his wedding.

Sooner carrion for the crow than priest-blessing.


Imagine saying this of a young man today? We criminalise or professionalise our killers. If this was true of Hyfaidd Hir, then he would be a disturbed, disturbing personality in our society. Pretending he is one of the ‘fallen’ like the volunteers on the Somme, who left their daily lives to become ‘soldiers for the duration’ is to misrepresent him and his culture and the soldiers on the Somme. 


The past, especially the early medieval past, should knock us back on our heels. Reading The Gododdin should not be a comfortable experience. And on the recoil, we should be thinking  that if the Aneirin’s of the world are ‘still singing’ their lie, then it’s about time they shut up. 


Gillian Clarke’s excellent translation deserved better packaging. 


 (And one minor quibble. It’s a bonus to have an easily available Welsh text of the poem, but there needed to be a note explaining how the editors arrived at this particular version of text.)

Thursday, October 14, 2021

What does it mean to 'believe a story'? Vortigern, Fiction, History 3/3

This is the third post. History and Fiction have been dealt with in the previous two. 

If Layamon isn’t writing ‘History’ or ‘Fiction’ in the modern sense, what was he doing? Or, to reframe the question, how did the original audience ‘receive’ his text. There’s no way of answering that definitely, not least because we don’t know who that original audience was, but asking it will lead us to some interesting places.  

Most conscious reading is based on learnt reading practices. You learn that ‘History’ is different to ‘Fiction’ and there is an assumption that they will be ‘read’ differently. 


When you read the bizarre happens at the funeral of William 1st, or the Angevin’s victory at the second battle of Lincoln, and you read them in a modern history book, you should assume they did happen. Credibility should not be an issue. Whether it sounds improbable to you as reader is irrelevant. (Or should be, but that’s a different matter.)


When you read Lord of the Rings, you ‘believe’ in the story world while you’re reading, but afterwards, unless you are disturbed or unbalanced, you know there are no Hobbits and never were. Tolkien was writing fiction; he invented them. Modern Fiction is an elaborate form of socially sanctioned lying. 


Take out the safety rails of modern genre, and it becomes far more complicated.


What does it mean to ‘believe a story’? 


A long time ago, Nancy Partner wrote ‘Serious Entertainments’ and pointed out that the dividing line between what we call Medieval Romance and the History of the Chroniclers was so thin that apparently the best educated people could not distinguish truth from false hood or were prepared to accept quantities of complicated, distant or unusual information on the assurance of one informant who might have got their information second hand….’Worst of all, [they] had a sense of probability that apparently excluded nothing’ (Partner, p. 185).


This is a generalisation and like all generalisations isn’t completely true, if it were, William of Malmsbury and Gerald of Wales’ distrust of Geoffrey of Monmouth would be impossible. And the recent pandemic has proven the same description could be applied to sections of the modern community. 


But my question is, what does  ‘accept’ mean in this context? 


There are certainly incidents in the Brut which must have seemed credible to the Audience because they echoed events which would have been comfortably familiar. 


At the start of the Brut, Brutus Kills his father in a hunting accident. That would have rung a bell with some of the original audience who remembered the death of William Rufus.


Civil wars, rebellious royal sons and fractious royal brothers? If Lawman is writing at the end of the twelfth century, every King of England from William 1st to King John had either been involved in the first or could be described as either or both of the second and third. It’s difficult not to read the Brut as a sly commentary on the Angevins. It takes a conscious effort to pull back from that thought and remember Geoffrey set these stories rolling in 1130.


But then take all the Kings from Alfred to John, would any one of them have fallen for Hengist’s bulls hide trick? (see previous post). Name one of those Kings who is tricked in a similar way?


Up to the end of the twelfth century, name an English or Norman King who puts his kingdom in jeopardy or his rule in danger, not just to satisfy his lust for a single individual but to go so far as to allow that individual’s family to dominate him. (It does happen, but much later). Yet this is the central, repeated story in the Brut. 


The nearest relevant example I can think of is King John, whose marriage to Isabel of Angouleme was politically disastrous. But even if he was swept off his feet by her beauty, her lands were equally attractive. The marriage wasn’t a disaster in itself. John’s treatment of Hugh of Lusignan, who was betrothed to her, was thoughtless, heavy handed and inept. But ironically for this discussion, that seems to have been in keeping with what we know of John’s character. Since that marriage didn’t happen until 1200 it can’t have been a model for the story. 


The assumption seems to be that the audience ‘believed’ these stories, the way Layamon ‘believed’ a note saying his Bishop was arriving tomorrow to visit to check up on his behaviour as Parish Priest, or news that the French had landed and were marching on London.  


But Layamon’s audience, if it were local, would remember stories about the Anarchy, or the Civil wars that rumbled on from Henry II’s reign. Some of them might have participated. Did they believe that a body with fifteen wounds, the smallest of which you could put your hand into, would survive? 


Or to take an earlier example, Nennius records that at the battle of Badon, nine hundred and sixty men of the enemy were killed by Arthur, in a single charge, and ‘no one laid them low but he alone’. Did anyone ‘believe’ that? Did the audience ‘translate’ it to ‘Arthur killed a lot of people’? Because otherwise no one apparently stopped and worked out the maths? (10 hours of daylight? 600 minutes? 1.6 deaths every minute non-stop for ten hours? That’s an impressive ‘single charge’.)   


Or, do we need to accept that a response to a story is never as straight forward as ‘accepting’ or ‘believing’ might imply.  


These stories exist in a world of storytelling which exists ‘over there’, where, for the length of the story, the audience might ‘believe’ the way some people entertain the existence of Hobbits or Aliens while reading.


There’s an obvious gap between what people knew and recognised as lived experience, and what people were willing to entertain within a story. But whether or not they ‘believed’ it, or ‘accepted it as factual’ is a different question.  


Which raises all sorts of problems for someone trying to retell it. And all kinds of interesting suggestions about how the legendary history made sense of the past for the people who used it. 


It has serious implications for the dubious idea that you can read ‘values attitudes and beliefs’ straight from a fictive text. Or that studying ‘representations’ in fictive texts is a meaningful and straightforward activity which reveals truths about the author and original audience. 

And it also suggests, perhaps, that reader response theory might not be transhistorical but bound to the learnt reading practices of the twentieth century. 


Who said Medieval Lit was dull?