Romanes Eunt Domus.
August 31, 2006 3:28 PM   Subscribe

After the Romans left Britain was divided into a number of Celtic kingdoms that fought with each other and, increasingly, with the Germanic invaders we know as "Anglo-Saxons." The most famous alleged defender of Celtic Britain, of course, is King Arthur, but he's more myth than history. What catches my imagination is The Gododdin (Welsh original, by Aneurin), an epic lament for the band of men who gathered at Eiddyn (Edinburgh, main town of Gododdin) around the year 600 and headed south for a last-ditch battle against the Saxons at Catraeth (probably Catterick in northern Yorkshire), where they were wiped out. One contingent was from Elmet (Elfed in the poem), a kingdom that had been holding the line against the invaders in what's now Yorkshire; once Elmet was conquered, there was no stopping them. And all of this history was basic to the poetry of David Jones, one of the best unknown poets of the previous century, and important to one of the best known, Ted Hughes (book with photos). "Men went to Catraeth, familiar with laughter. The old, the young, the strong, the weak."
posted by languagehat (31 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage at Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: money-changer: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

"I liked that," said Offa, "sing it again."
posted by johnny novak at 4:06 PM on August 31, 2006

an epic lament for the band of men who gathered at Eiddyn (Edinburgh, main town of Gododdin)

aye , that last meetup was a bloody disaster.
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:16 PM on August 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

Beat me to it. Thanks for the links. However, for intriguing historical analysis of Arthur, I recommend Alistair Moffat's book on the subject very highly. Arthur, his theory goes, is not a King, but a military leader. He held the Saxons and the Picts off from Celtic/post-Roman Britain, long enough to build up these weak kingdoms and to help develop identities that have become Scotland and Wales. The key source that identifies the battles he fought in is Nennius.

Even if you think the Arthur stuff is tosh, Moffat's linguistic stuff is gripping, especially on questions like the origins of the words Tyne, Tees, Thames, Tay and Tweed.
posted by imperium at 4:17 PM on August 31, 2006

"Romans go in houses"?
posted by Quietgal at 4:25 PM on August 31, 2006

Awesome post, thanks languagehat. I am still digging through the links.
posted by Falconetti at 4:46 PM on August 31, 2006

posted by Slothrup at 5:05 PM on August 31, 2006

This post is awesome!

If "Mayor Curley" was taken, my username was going to be "Llewelyn The Great."
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:03 PM on August 31, 2006

posted by riotgrrl69 at 6:08 PM on August 31, 2006

great post. thanks, languagehat and imperium.
posted by lord_wolf at 7:02 PM on August 31, 2006

Great post. Thanks, languagehat.
posted by homunculus at 7:02 PM on August 31, 2006

I had a feeling it was from that scene in "Life of Brian", but I forgot just what gobbledygook Brian wrote. No wonder none of the online Latin-English translators could handle it!
posted by Quietgal at 7:36 PM on August 31, 2006

Hitting me right in my favorite reading area again, lh! Thanks very much.
posted by Lynsey at 7:48 PM on August 31, 2006

one of my favorite antiquities ... i once tried to capture the feel of the original, but it's probably impossible in english

a brave young face
in war's grim race
had the rider
of thick maned steed.
a shield; light reed
on his side. for
weapon, blue bright
sword - gold spurs bite
to speed the well
ermine coated
lad. no hatred
i'll show - i'll tell
a poem for you
to grieve you true
to all. i would
rather lay down
your winding gown
before i should
feast you as wed;
have ravens fed
on your fair skin
than see your flight
to spear led fight
friend that owen
loved - oh, how wrong
is your new throng
of grave black birds!
well known to all
is the groundfall
the sad, sad words
marro will hate -
his sole son's fate
posted by pyramid termite at 8:37 PM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

awesome post. I can't even think where you found the time to research and compile this post since you have been so busy at the craft and sullen art yourself.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:52 PM on August 31, 2006

Wonderful post; - Thank you - I think I will be in these links and links of links for a v e r y v e r y l o n g t i m e.
posted by adamvasco at 11:20 PM on August 31, 2006

Thanks for the links. Rosemary Sutcliff has a terribly moving version of The Gododdin - The Shining Company.
posted by paduasoy at 12:36 AM on September 1, 2006

there is a lot of academic debate about the coming of the Anglo Saxons, there are those who argue it was a process of migration and cultural assimilation rather than a violent conquest. This BBC program (scroll down) explores some of the issues.
posted by johnny novak at 12:47 AM on September 1, 2006

I read this post a few hours ago and couldn't post the link that Slothrup did, but nonetheless... If you're at all interested in this, I cannot stress enough you listening to the Test Dept./Brith Gof collaboration "Gododdin". It is an awesome concept and does nothing but praise the vanquished and raises them far above 'just those who have fallen', and into legends and the spearhead of an ideal. And just because this is the 'net: none of those words I use lightly.

'Trichant eurdorchog
Gwneddar gwaenog'
'Three hundred, gold torqued warriors
Warlike, splendid in action'

posted by Zack_Replica at 1:18 AM on September 1, 2006

They were very interesting times indeed.
posted by Merlin at 1:52 AM on September 1, 2006

Fantastic resources! One of my more recent favorite subjects to read about. Top-notch FPP indeed.
posted by grubi at 5:09 AM on September 1, 2006

there is a lot of academic debate about the coming of the Anglo Saxons, there are those who argue it was a process of migration and cultural assimilation rather than a violent conquest

Yeah, I know, but I think in our effort to supersede the simple assumptions of our forefathers we may have gone too far in the other direction. I'd say it was a process of migration and cultural assimilation as well as a violent conquest, just as with most similar situations; trade and cultural exchange have always been important, but to ignore the role played by bloody swords would be silly. Those post-Roman Celts didn't just say "Oh, you'd like a few of our kingdoms to till? Sure, come on in, there's room for all!"

pyramid termite: I like that a lot! It captures something of the complex intertwining of rhyme and rhythm in the original. I hereby dub thee bard!

Thanks for the additional links, everyone; I look forward to investigating them.
posted by languagehat at 6:57 AM on September 1, 2006

agreed, the BBC program comes to a similar conclusion, I never went for the rather extreme assimilationist views of Francis Pryor, etc.
posted by johnny novak at 9:49 AM on September 1, 2006

OK, I confess to a humiliating ignorance of Welsh and Celtic sagas, ballads, and history. But the 2 things that struck me most upon a quick skim of "The Gododdin" are:

1. Sub-Roman audiences had a lot more time and patience than us (or at least, me).

2. There's an awful lot of mead in those verses. It seems like all these guys did was fight and hit the sauce. I suppose that was the accepted (poetically stylized) life of a hero back then, but it makes me wonder if the Dutch courage might have been part of the problem. (Going into battle against overwhelming odds makes for great ballads, but rarely acheives any strategic objectives.)

So what am I missing here? Have I just been spoiled by Hollywood, and can no longer perceive epic awesomeness unless it's shown on the wide screen in panoramic glory, with tight closeups and rich soundtrack? If there's magic in those words, it's not coming across on my laptop screen.

I'm serious - please help me understand why "The Gododdin" is good. With no background in Welsh history, nothing here resonates with me. I'm sure that a different telling of the same events would be far more engrossing and moving for me (I will look for The Shining Company next time I'm at the library), but this poem leaves me cold.
posted by Quietgal at 11:31 AM on September 1, 2006

Just got around to reading some of this - nifty!
posted by Smedleyman at 2:38 PM on September 1, 2006

So what am I missing here?

for one thing, the mead wasn't just something they drank ... it was part of a ritual swearing that they would go to battle against the invaders, which is why it's mentioned so much ... it represented a solemn oath

it's not necessary that they did it that morning or the night before, so they needn't have been drunk the day of the battle ... although, considering they were sure to be slaughtered, one could hardly hold it against them if they were

my guess is that the details of the battle were somewhat exaggerated ... poetic license ...

as far as the audience's patience is concerned, it's important to remember that many in that audience were closely or distantly related to the fallen and certainly worried about the germanic hordes they had fought ... also, one of the main functions of a poet in welsh society was to describe the battles that happened in strict and precise prosody that makes formal english poetry sound like babbling ... i've never heard it in welsh, but it seems to me that the rhythm, the intricate repetition of vowels and consonants with rhyme achieves a powerful effect that's impossible to achieve in english ... i just about tore my hair out 8 years ago to come up with something that had barely a hint of the original ... as a technical achievement alone, it's worth a poet's time to study

also, it may well have been set to music

think of it as the gangster rap of the early middle ages ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:00 PM on September 1, 2006

Upscale Saxon mead glasses (late sixth century, ie. roughly contemporary with the Gododdin).
posted by johnny novak at 1:22 AM on September 2, 2006

I guess having some personal connection with the events makes quite a difference, and if it was set to music, the emotional impact would be even greater.

Those upscale mead glasses are surprisingly delicate and fussy - hardly the tankards I pictured our heroes swigging from!
posted by Quietgal at 5:53 PM on September 2, 2006

I read In Parenthesis last year. It's amazing how work like this can simply drop away. Eliot called him a "genius," and confidently remarked in the introduction of the book, "When In Parenthesis is widely enough known -- as it will be in time -- it will no doubt undergo the same sort of detective analysis and exegesis as the later work of James Joyce and the Cantos of Ezra Pound." And that was Eliot. Apparently he is also an amazing visual artists as well. I think his text is so important in part because history like this is forgotten. The Gododdin is crucial to his work and personal history, but it's a largely forgotten document as well.
posted by theantikitty at 6:15 PM on September 22, 2006

David Jones, that is...
posted by theantikitty at 6:16 PM on September 22, 2006

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