Monday, 13 May 2013
Making Sense of "Y Gododdin"
So I've been reviewing the historical sources for Arthur. I've looked at what many scholars consider to be the sole historical sources, and then I've explored the others. The latter have a great deal to tell us about Arthur but are usually ignored.
They are ignored for one of two reasons:
1) scholars have not understood the context of the sources and have therefore wrongly assigned them;
2) scholars don't want to entertain the merest possibility that Arthur wasn't a Romanised Christian operating in southern Britain in the late 5th/early 6th centuries.
Evidence which does not support the latter view tends to be discounted as inadmissable. If it is considered at all. But basically, it does not correspond to the Arthurian stereotype.
In fact, there is no evidence at all for an Arthur active in the south. None. Not a shred.
There is, however, plenty of evidence to link him with the North. And not in the early 6th century, but in the last quarter of that century.
Take Y Gododdin. This was composed by Aneirin, a princely poet of North Britain, and was probably first sung in or near Edinburgh in about the year 600.
Of the two surviving versions of Y Gododdin (the "title" refers to the warriors of Lothian, of which the capital was Edinburgh, the site of Arthur's Seat), the oldest includes a direct reference to Arthur. Here it is in the original Old Welsh:
Gochore brein du ar uur
Caer cein bei ef arthur
Rug ciuin uerthi ig disur ...
(These are the last words to appear on the page of the Y Gododdin text in the photo above).
This was translated by W.F. Skene in the 19th century thus:
Black ravens croaked on the wall
Of the beautiful Caer. He was an Arthur
In the midst of the exhausting conflict ...
Skene's translation gives the impression that a certain warrior of the Britons was so impressive that he was "an Arthur". That was too much for some scholars, who have tended to translate the original passage along the following lines:
He glutted black ravens on the rampart
Of the fortress, though he was no Arthur
He did mighty deeds in battle ...
So, the warrior in question was "no Arthur". He was good, but he wasn't that good. And the implication appears to be that "Arthur", whoever he was, was a sort of yardstick by which warriors were measured (and apparently found wanting). It follows that this original Arthur had belonged to another time and place. It is as if we might say of someone today, "He was a great president, though he was no Lincoln."
I've long had a problem with this familiar interpretation of Aneirin's lines. Not least of all because I couldn't see where the negative element in the lines came in. I couldn't understand where the scholarly translators had found that negative. If the lines did in fact mean "he was no Arthur", you'd expect something in the original words to indicate "no" or "not". But that negative is nowhere to be seen.
Unless the scholars were interpreting the Welsh word cein by way of the Germanic kein. Which would be a peculiar thing to do. Like using a Danish dictionary to translate a statement in French.
Here's what I make of the lines, from the Old Welsh original:
Black ravens sang [praises] over the man-servant
Of Cian's fortress; he blamed Arthur,
The dogs cursed in return for our wailing ...
Okay, that's a very different interpretation. It assumes that Gochore relates to the archaic Welsh gochanu, "to sing, to praise", and that uur should not be read as mur ("wall") but as [g]wr ("vassal"). There is a translation in there which comes by way of Irish/Scottish Gaelic: cein, a variant of the genitive form of Cian, a personal name. But then, Welsh and Gaelic are related - as Celtic languages - while English is a Germanic language and is unlikely to offer many clues as to the meaning of Y Gododdin in its original Welsh.
The half-line bei ef arthur comes out as "he blamed Arthur" (Welsh beio, "to blame", "to accuse", with ef being the third person masculine pronoun, "he").
Now, this interpretation brings Arthur somewhat closer to the action. Whatever had happened, the individual being described by Aneirin at this stage in his elegy "blamed Arthur" for it. The "Black ravens" were warriors (they appear elsewhere in Arthurian literature, as in the Dream of Rhonabwy, a story from the Mabinogion, in which Arthur's soldiers attack, and are they attacked by, the "ravens" of Owain son of Urien). They were singing and wailing. A funeral ceremony is suggested. But somebody there blamed Arthur. The "dogs" who cursed the warriors in response to their songs of praise appear to have taken the side of whoever it was who blamed Arthur for whatever it was that had happened.
Arthur, then, was not some heroic figure of legend or distant memory. He was, according to one view, the cause of the military catastrophe, the devastating defeat, described by the poet Aneirin. Whatever had gone wrong at that final battle - which saw the effective annihilation of the army of Lothian - Arthur was held responsible for it (at least by the individual who had his cursing "dogs" with him).
There is more that I could say about the scenario as hinted at in those few words from the ancient Welsh poem. A description, along with partial explanation, is given in my book The King Arthur Conspiracy, and was partly drawn from the poetry of Taliesin, a contemporary of Arthur who also warrants a mention in Y Gododdin.
The point to make here, though, is that consistently translating the Y Gododdin lines through mere guesswork (inserting negatives which aren't there, for example) leads to gross misinterpretations. And those, in turn, distance us from Arthur by excluding - and/or misrepresenting - the available evidence.
The only real reason why scholars have misinterpreted the lines, making out that they mean something very different to what they actually say, is because they don't want to countenance an Arthur of the North.
Whereas the North is, in fact, precisely where Arthur is to be found. In the company of those other warriors named in Y Gododdin who are also named in the legends of Arthur.
So please, folks, can we stop pretending that Arthur's contemporary poets said something which they manifestly didn't? We cannot ignore, dismiss or disallow a vitally important poem like Y Gododdin just because we're not prepared to translate it properly.
Unless, of course, the plan is to avoid identifying Arthur. And why, I wonder, would anyone want to do that.
NB: It has been pointed out to me, quite rightly, that the actual words in the Y Gododdin text are caer ceni bei ef arthur. I had, at the time, gone with Professor W.F. Skene's interpretation, substituting cein (cain - 'fair', 'beautiful') for ceni.
The meaning of ceni is unclear. It could relate to caen, plural caenau, or cen, indicating a 'layer' or 'coating'. Caer ceni might therefore be the 'layered fort'. There is also cyni - 'anguish', 'adversity' - suggesting a 'Fort of Distress', which would be appropriate.
Another possibility, though, is that ceni was a sort of loan word from the Irish. The Gaelic ceann - genitive and plural cinn - derives from the Old Irish cenn, a 'head', 'chief', 'commander', 'headland', 'point' or 'extremity'. The suffix i might therefore be recognised as I, the Gaelic name for the Isle of Iona, where (I believe) Arthur was buried.
This offers a couple of possible interpretations for the Y Gododdin lines:
"Black ravens sang [praises] over the man-servant
Of the fortress of the Chief-of-Iona/Far end of Iona. He blamed Arthur ..."
"Black ravens sang [praises] over the man
Of the fortress. The Master-of-Iona, he blamed Arthur;
The dogs cursed in return for our weeping ..."
Getting this right is important, of course. The art of translation demands both accuracy and an awareness of context. Understanding Y Gododdin, or any other poem of time, requires more than just a rendering of the old Welsh words into new English ones - for that, on its own, can be misleading. We need to understand, as far as possible, the circumstances in which the poem was composed. It is this lack of understanding which, I would say, has led scholars to try and interpose a distance between Arthur and Y Gododdin. Remove that artificial distance, and the poem begins to yield up its treasures.