King Arthur · The Arthurian Legend · The Arthurian Tradition · Welsh tradition · Y Gododdin

The Arthurian Tradition: Y Gododdin

Last month I promised to start a new monthly feature on the origins and development of the Arthurian legends (Would the real King Arthur please stand up?, 2nd July 2012). My Masters dissertation has kept me busy these past few weeks, but it is finally my pleasure to welcome you to the first instalment of The Arthurian Tradition! In this first post I discuss the mysterious Welsh poem containing what might be the first recorded reference to Arthur…

Book of Aneirin

 

Was there a real King Arthur?

If so, who was he?

Was he a sixth-century dux bellorum (leader of battles)?

Where do all the other parts of the legend come in – Guenevere, Lancelot, Camelot, Excalibur and all the rest?

If he really did live and die, then where is he buried?

And so on.

The debate about whether the literary character of King Arthur has any basis in an actual historical figure has raged for centuries.

The only thing that we’re really sure of is our continuing uncertainty – we just don’t have the historical evidence to conclusively prove or disprove his existence as a real person. If he was a sixth-century warrior or leader of some kind, then he conveniently lived during a time in Britain when people didn’t write all that much down. And we can’t fully trust the assertions of later medieval historians because a) they weren’t around at the time and b) the medieval concept of historical writing differed in many ways to our modern notions of the discipline. To put it one way.

There have been various claims since the later Middle Ages of discoveries of material evidence proving that Arthur once existed, but most of these are probably false. Take the monks of Glastonbury abbey for instance…

King Arthur Glastonbury Abbey

In 1191 they claimed they’d found the bodies of Arthur and Guenevere buried in their abbey grounds. This was just a few years after their church – which had famous links to the Biblical figure of Joseph of Arimathea – was destroyed by fire, thereby wiping out one of their main sources of income in the form of visiting pilgrims. Happily, the discovery of the bodies caused a new wave of pilgrims and other interested parties to pay a visit to the monks, which also had the fortunate side effect of filling the coffers again. ‘Hoax!’ I hear the cynics out there cry, and you’re probably right. But you’ve got to admire the gumption of those monks.

Glastonbury Arthur Cross
A depiction of the lead cross, now lost, which was reportedly discovered with the bodies of Arthur and Guenevere.

 

What we can be completely certain of is that the Arthurian legends have made their way to us through many centuries, passing through different places, authors and historical contexts en route, each adding its own flavour, characters and plot twists that have been influenced by contemporary tastes, concerns and agendas. This process is still happening today. Take, for instance, the swathe of feminism-inspired modern Arthurian literature produced in the 1980s, as exemplified by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1983).

The very essence that has ensured the endurance of these legends for over a millenium is the uncertain nature of their origins. They are an enigma, a realm of possibility, a tantalisingly fluid beast. Writers and other artists have been free to experiment with the legends in a way that would not be possible if there was concrete historical evidence to strictly designate how things ‘really’ happened. Arthur has become a hero for every age, not fettered to the historical past, remade afresh with each successive generation. The possible grain of truth at the core of it all has made the legends even more seductive, and has had the effect of making Arthur a figure of British national heritage. He has been claimed by the English, the Welsh, the Scottish and the Cornish as one of their own.

Where does Y Gododdin come into all this?

The earliest surviving reference to an Arthur who may be the basis for the later literary Arthur might be in the Welsh poem Y Gododdin (the italics should give away the fact that no one’s really sure about this!). I’ve never read the poem, so I was intrigued to find out more…

Y Gododdin
A page from Y Gododdin.

Surviving in just one thirteenth-century manuscript, Cardiff MS 2.81 – commonly called the Book of Aneirin (Welsh: Llyfr Aneirin) – Y Gododdin is generally believed to originate from a much earlier date (I’m classing it as the earliest Arthurian reference, but this blog post could just as happily sit with the other 13thC material that will come later on in this series). Parts of the poem are in Old Welsh, others in Middle Welsh. The poem could have circulated orally (think bards) before being written down sometime in the ninth century. Or the Middle Welsh parts could be more recent interpolations. Maybe a bit of both. Scholars think that the poet Aneirin was himself a bard, and that he may have even been present at the battle that the poem commemorates in an official bardic capacity – sort of like a sports commentator today, if their commentary was in poetic verse. Now there’s a thought.

Scotland
A map showing the location of the Gododdin people in what is now modern Scotland.

The Gododdin people memorialised by the poem were from a geographical location roughly equivalent to modern-day Edinburgh. The poem eulogises them and their defeat in a battle against the Angles in Catraeth (probably Catterick in Yorkshire) which took place around the year 600. Apparently before other parts were interpolated into the poem each stanza seems to have been written about a different individual from this warband – one stanza for each member of the group. However, the poem’s theme reflects the wider struggles of the Brythonic (Celtic) peoples in a Britain that had been finally abandoned by the Roman empire around the year 408-9.

In 410 Britain was denied the military support of Rome: the imperial city was having a few problems of its own – being invaded by the Visigoths and, you know, other minor issues like that. Rome told Britain in no uncertain terms to fend for itself. The Britons in the north and west of the island already had quite a lot on their plates even before this time, as Roman military rule was never really established with any great clout in these areas, so they were attacked by the Irish, the Picts and others, more so than the peoples in the south and east of the island. After Rome fell, however, the whole of Britain became easy prey to anyone who fancied having a go. Which, as it turns out, was pretty much everyone. The Picts, the Irish, the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes…  They all wanted a piece of poor old Britannia.

End of Roman rule in Britain
A map showing the end of Roman rule in Britain.

In this modern era that has seen Britain at the head of a huge empire, it is perhaps difficult to picture her as a vulnerable little island at the edge of the world, surrounded by threatening forces, circling like vultures around carrion, closing in gradually, hurtling towards the inevitable outcome of all-out invasion. Luckily, other authors have imagined it already, so if your mental energies are feeling somewhat daunted by this task, pop to the library and treat yourself to one of the many novels that envisage this time. Immerse yourself, and you’ll get some idea of the world in which the Y Gododdin poet Aneirin was writing. Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King, the first novel in a trilogy about King Arthur called the Warlord Chronicles, makes Arthur a dux bellorum in a post-Roman Britain, desperately trying to keep the many disparate tribes of Britons together to form a united front against the invaders.

This takes us nicely back to Y Gododdin and what on earth it has to do with Arthur….

Winter King
Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King

 

As I’ve already mentioned, the poem depicts the struggle of one group of Britons against some Angle invaders in the so-called Dark Ages following the departure of Roman forces from the island of Britain. The stanza mentioning Arthur goes as follows:

Ef guant tratrigant echassaf
ef ladhei auet ac eithaf
oid guiu e mlaen llu llarahaf
godolei o heit meirch e gayaf
gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur
ig kynnor guernor guaurdur.

And in English (for those of you whose Welsh, like mine, is not all that it could be!):

He pierced three hundred, most bold,
He cut down the centre and wing.
He was worthy before the noblest host,
He gave from his herd horses in winter.
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was not Arthur.
Among those powerful in feats
In the front rank, a pallisade, Gwawrddur.

(Taken from: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/492godo.htm)

And that’s it.

I can almost hear your confused outcry. That’s it?! How on earth can we reconcile the Arthur who ruled from his court in Camelot, was betrayed by Guenevere and Lancelot, and eventually killed by Mordred, with the one mention of an Arthur in this single line of fairly obscure poetry?

Well, one inference that has been made is that this stanza implies there was a warrior called Arthur whose feats were so marvellous, so incredible, that they became famous amongst contemporary Britons. This warrior was so amazing that he became the yardstick against which all other subsequent warriors and their feats of arms were compared. This would explain why, in the stanza above, despite killing three hundred men singlehandedly, feeding the ravens with the dead bodies of his enemies and being generally a top bloke, this warrior Gwawrddur still falls short of Arthur’s prowess – he was good, but he was no Arthur. Arthur’s name is shorthand for unparalleled martial greatness.

Ok, so perhaps this sounds a bit like the Arthur that we’re familiar with, who is often lauded as the ultimate king, unsurpassable by anyone, but whether or not this provides any proof for the historicity of King Arthur is debatable. Especially if the poem wasn’t written down until the ninth or tenth century. Any number of changes could have taken place between which time and the date of original oral composition if it really was in the early seventh century – including the insertion of Arthur.

There was also a tradition of converting legendary figures into historical fact in the Middle Ages, which may have meant that a character from earlier legend could have been represented as a real person in later literature by a gradual process:

‘Some examples of this that will probably particularly interest readers of this article are Hengest and Horsa, who were Kentish totemic horse-gods historicised by the eighth century with an important role in the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain (see Turville-Petre, 1953-7; Ward, 1969; Brooks, 1989; Yorke, 1993); Merlin (Welsh Myrddin), who was an eponymous founder-figure derived from the place-name Caer-fyrddin and historicised with the deeds of one Lailoken (see Jarman, 1991); and the Norse demigod Sigurd/Siegfried who was historicised by being associated with a famous historical battle between the Huns and the Burgundians dated A.D. 437, in the Nibelungenlied (Thomas, 1995: 390).’

(Taken from Thomas Green: http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/historicity/arthur.htm)

However, one historian has highlighted the sudden popularity of Arthur as a boys’ name in early sixth century in the indigenous Britons of Scotland, Wales and the Pennines. Could all these boys have been named after a real hero; a man who stemmed the tide of Anglo-Saxon invasion – temporarily at least – at the Battle of Mount Badon?

Unless some fresh evidence presents itself, whether in terms of archaeology or literature, we will never know…

I’ll leave you with that tantalising cliffhanger for now (apologies!). September’s instalment of The Arthurian Tradition discusses the next surviving mention of Arthur – and the Battle of Mount Badon – in Nennius’ early ninth century Historia Britonum.

Do you have any other interesting information, ideas, or any suggestions for further reading about anything mentioned in this post? If so, please leave a comment below!

Further reading

A full version of both the Welsh original and an English translation of Y Gododdin are freely available on the Project Gutenberg website (from the 1852 William Rees edition by David Price).

A. O. H. Jarman, Aneirin: Y Gododdin: Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem (1988)

John T. Koch., The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (1997)

Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem (1969)

Thomas Green, ‘The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur’ (1998) (found online here: http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/historicity/arthur.htm)

 

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14 thoughts on “The Arthurian Tradition: Y Gododdin

  1. Thanks Sarah, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I find it all absolutely fascinating too – I’ve never wanted a time machine so much as when thinking about the ‘Dark Ages’ – it would be so amazing to go back and find out once and for all a) what it was like in post-Roman Britain and b) whether this great warrior Arthur actually existed… until then I suppose I’ll just have to keep using my imagination.

    On another note, it’s a very small world! – I just downloaded your book Lancelot and the Wolf last week! I’m saving it as my post-dissertation holiday read, very much looking forward to it 🙂

    1. Ha ha, brilliant! A friend of mine used to have a medieval well in the middle of the kitchen of her old cottage – it was covered with reinforced glass and had lights in it, so it was quite a feature! When the lights were off though, it was really creepy… you could imagine dark things oozing up out of the well in the middle of the night when everyone’s asleep…

  2. Hello Bex,
    Smashing post 🙂 I wouldn’t have pushed this onto you but as you asked if anyone had anything to add…
    Have you come across ‘The King Arthur Conspiracy-How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero’ by Simon Andrew Stirling ?

    It’s got a couple of reviews on Amazon and you may find it of interest.

    Kim x

  3. Hi, just a thought. Is there anything on the original manuscript that denotes arthur as a person’s name? In none of the translations is it made obvious that it should be interpreted that way, other than the fact that many centuries later we are looking for someone called Arthur. What would the verse/translation be if arthur was translated as a term/description, rather than as a name? Something I’ve always wondered…

  4. Translating Welsh poetry of this period is a tricky business. What we all too often lack is a genuine context against which we can set the words in order to determine their likely meaning. In the case of Y Gododdin, the assumption that Arthur must have been active in southern Britain several decades before the events depicted in the poem seems to have dictated how the poem is usually interpreted. Try as I might, I simply cannot see how “bei ef arthur” could possibly be rendered “he was not Arthur”. Where is the negative in the original Welsh? Perhaps a better translation would be “he blamed/accused Arthur” – but then that requires us to drop the argument that the poet cited a figure of distant memory and ask ourselves whether Arthur might not actually have been there. That possibility is strengthened when we notice that other individuals named in Y Gododdin (Owain, Cynon, Peredur, Taliesin, etc.) were closely associated with Arthur in early British literature.

    1. It really is a fascinating topic, and one that we may never get to the bottom of. This can be frustrating for some, but personally I find it liberating, and intriguing. My PhD is interdisciplinary, straddling both history and literature. Consequently I work with a lot of historians, who are often perplexed that I would choose to study someone who, in their words ‘isn’t real’ or ‘was made up.’ They may think they’re being disparaging, but actually I think that Arthur’s enigma is his greatest strength, and the main reason that his legend has endured for over a millennium. Subsequent ages and generations have been free to adopt the Arthurian legend as their own and apply their own brand to the stories, something you might not necessarily be able to do as easily with a ‘real’ historical figure.

  5. Thanks for posting this interesting information.
    I’m not a historian, but this reference to Arthur to me in this poem seems entirely out of place…..as if it was added in later in the various transcriptions that took place over several hundred years. The reason I say that is the name following it, “Gwawrddur”, is very much Votadini version of “arthur”. Remember, the subject of the verse is Gwawrddur, not Arthur, so why would the poet mention Arthur by name unless there was a reason beyond battle heroics shared by all these men? If the name, Gwawrddur, was indeed an early form (or the source) of the Arthurian name, or was possibly a point of confusion, that might explain the reasoning for a later scribe to drop that note in there. Its possible even he too saw the similarity and added it to the poem.

    I’m just speculating here, but I have always felt the source of the Arthurian tradition came from northern Gododdin/Scottish battle figure. But got confused later with Gildas’s “Ambrosius Aurelianus”, who was the true leader of the Brits against the Saxons in southern England, and their defeat at Badon. The two combined formed the legendary figure. Gildas explicitly tells us Ambrosius was the hero and leader against the Saxons. His victory led to a 50 year period of peace. And he led many of the Celtic tribes. But the Scottish Arthur (Gwawrddur) likely was a local Votadini hero, who’s small band survived the early six century Northumbrian invaders long enough to perish in some small siege far to the north. His name survived but his deeds likely forgotten if we had not had later historians reciting Gildas’s Ambrosius’s story. That’s just my thoughts based what the literature appears to tell us.

  6. You ask who, if anyone, was Arthur? he was Arthur Mac Aedan circa 559 to 596.
    Was he a sixth-century dux bellorum (leader of battles)?
    He was the son of Aedan, king of Scots, he led armies in one Scots civil war battle;
    five against the Picts, four against the Angles, and two against Picts and Angles.

    Where do all the other parts of the legend come in – Guenevere, Lancelot Camelot, Excalibur and all the rest?
    G = wife Pictish aristocracy, Stirling area, buried Perth area; L = angle exiled chief, also called Hering C = just north of Dunadd, Argyll Ex = ex cal ibur sword from scotland caledonia and ibur iber hibernia ireland.

    If he really did live and die, then where is he buried?
    On Avalon ie iona wit the rest of his family according to the records!
    see Finding Arthur and Finding Merlin – this fight is fought.

  7. A fascinating post, thanks! I enjoyed reading the comments almost as much – was there ever a figure of legend that could rouse so much passionate interest and debate?
    Whether or not we can now prove him to be a ‘real’ historical figure, what is certain is that even In Henry II’s day, the power of his legend – a king that would return to save and defend the people (particularly the Welsh?) was enough of a political anxiety for even a king to arrange a rather suspicious ‘discovery’ of a tomb and bones. The newly discovered tomb may have brought the pilgrims (and their money) back to Galstonbury site after the church had burned down, but for Henry the prize was psychological. If you have the hero’s bones, clearly he is unequivocally dead, and won’t be returning anytime soon to challenge the status quo 🙂

    The story of Arthur is endlessly fascinating in so many ways – for me, not least in the way older Celtic legends seem to also have been grafted onto Arthur. There can be no doubt that Arthur must have been a well-recognised and well-loved figure in one form or another in oral traditions before the first scraps of written references ever surfaced – Geoffrey’s amalgamation of these into one written tale achieved startling popularity and success even in its day, especially if you consider that the printing press had not yet been invented.

    Looking forward to reading more here 🙂

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