Arthur named in ‘Y Gododdin’
(Some of what appears below is also in the blog about Arthurian Poetry, so apologies for the duplication if you’ve read those).
Attributed to the bard/prince Neirin/Aneirin, ‘Y Gododdin’ (The Gododdin) is a British poem (actually a collection of poems), the original parts of which are thought to date to the early 7th century. (Koch, 1999). It tells of a doomed battle at Catraeth (thought by most, but not all, to be Catterick in North Yorkshire) between the men of Gododdin and their allies against the ‘English’ of what would become Northumbria: the Bernicians and the Deirans. In it is contained what is thought to be the earliest reference to Arthur:
Ef gwant tra thrichant echasaf,
Ef lladdai a pherfedd ac eithaf,
Oedd gwiw ym mlaen llu llariaf,
Goddolai o haid meirch y gaeaf.
Gocharai brain du ar fur caer
Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.
Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,
Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.
He charged before three hundred of the finest,
He cut down both centre and wing,
He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,
he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.
He said black ravens on the ramparts of fortress
Though he was no Arthur.
Among the powerful ones in battle,
in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.
(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)
John Koch in his translation of the work conclude that this section is part of the original B Text and not a later addition, as mentioned earlier, although there are other scholars who disagree with him (Isaacs et al). Even if Koch is right, we still can’t be certain, as explored and mentioned in earlier blogs, which Arthur it refers to: an ‘original’ or, possibly, Artúr mac Áedán or even Arthur son of Bicoir, both of whom could have been active in the area. If we knew the exact date of the battle we might have a better chance of coming to some informed conclusion. By this I mean, if the battle or the poem took place before Dalriada became the enemy then it could indeed be referring to him. If it happened after, then it is unlikely. Unless they were in the habit of praising their enemy.
Unless Y Gododdin is referring to someone other than the Arthur of Badon fame he was obviously gaining public attention in the last quarter of the 6th century and the fact that most of the Arthur names occur in the North has led some to the conclusion that he must have originally been from there or had been active there. It would certainly make sense of Aneirin mentioning him if he was also their most famous ‘local’ hero. But ‘local’ could mean anywhere from the Wall northwards.
Richard Barber (The Figure of Arthur) concludes that because the poem deals only with people in the present (or recent past) this Arthur was of the same era. It’s a valid point, but what if there was another reason? What if it was because poems about Arthur, whether based on earlier ones or recently written, were current? This might not only explain why he’s mention in Y Gododdin but why at the same time the name was being given to ‘princes’. If it was ‘known’ that the hero of these poems was also an HIberno-Briton or Cambro-Irish it would give even more reason.
Praise the lord!
Like many great men before him and since, Arthur may have fallen out of favour towards the end of his life or after. It happened to Cromwell and it even happened to Churchill. This could explain the gap between his supposed death and the Arthur names (and poetry) appearing. However, two or three generations later great swathes of Britain were falling under ‘Angle’ and ‘Saxon’ rule. The British probably needed a hero more than ever. Some clever king or his courtly (or warband) bard may have come up with the idea of using Arthur, and a poem, or poems, in the style of newfangled (if they were) battle eulogy, accurate or not, and so it/they was/were composed.
These poems could already have been based on folk memory, unless there was poetry composed during his life and it outlived him, so could themselves have been a corruption – deliberate or otherwise – of events. Even poetry composed during his life would be eulogies. Bards weren’t historian, they were there to prays their lords and make them famous, if they could, and there’s plenty of evidence for the early poetry, if not being changed, then added to by later generations. (See ‘A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem’ blog for further thoughts).
What would be odd is if Badon was added at this point in time (Late 6th century), had he not fought there. Not impossible, but any stories must have been passed down through folklore only two or three generations old, regardless of the poetry. What I do find conceivable, is that it was added much later; after all Badon doesn’t appear to have a rhyming couplet in the Historia Brittonum battle list, although I gave it one in my feeble attempt of a battle poem: Saeson (Saxon). (But it also should be noted that battles could be part of internal rhyming and not just line endings). He could also have gone from being portrayed as fighting at Badon in a poem to being the victor and leader. These poems may have only called him “leader of battle”, but only this ancient audience may have known his true status. There are many poems that don’t call their hero a king, even though we know they were. (See blog ‘Arthur: King or Commander?’)
Such poems, in the latter half of the 6th century, must have been used to inspire the British warriors who found themselves fighting against the powerful and ever expanding English. These hypothetical Arthurian poems (or poem) may have been followed by the rekindling of old stories, some more fanciful than others, and his fame, and the stories, would begin to grow – beyond what he was worth some may have thought – and the poems travelled throughout Britain and beyond, from whichever locale they originated from, recited before battles in certain regions to inspire the combatants. Not every region may have used this hero. Some may have been uncertain about his lineage or his mixed blood origins (if they were), others may have sided with whoever it was that defeated him at Camlann. This is, of course, only if he was historical and not an historicized mythical figure. (See THIS blog for that particular discussion)
The naming game
At the time this hypothetical poem is in circulation (if Koch’s dating is right) a prince was born in Dalriada to a king called Áedán and, if we follow this hypothesis, decided to name his son Arturius after this hero of old, in honour of the fact that he too had an Hiberno-British boy. Not long after (or possibly even before) three hundred miles away in Demetia, a king called Petr has heard the poem and, having a similar mixed blooded (or culturally mixed) son, whom he may have wished greatness upon, names him Arthur also. As, possibly, does a certain Briton of Kintyre called Bicoir. Meanwhile Britons simply didn’t use that name, as far as we know. To begin with, perhaps, because it was thought to be an Hiberno-British name; later it may be because of his mythical greatness.
This hypothetical poem, having reached the North, or having originated from it, is perhaps even recited by a warband bard called Neirin (Aneirin) to inspire the retinues of the Gododdin and their allies against their Bernician, Deiran, Picti, Scotti and probably British foes. Perhaps their forefathers had even fought with him at the Battle of Celidon Wood … if this too wasn’t a later addition or in another region. It would makes sense, in a poem that was about ‘local’ figures of fame. After all, Arthur too supposedly fell in battle and, if those who identify the Battle of Camlan with Camboglanna (Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall are right, it too was in their region. (Lots of “ifs”).
In the great British tradition of the trinity and triad, his fame splits into three different forms: to the peasantry he becomes a stone throwing giant, to the storytellers a fighter of the Otherworld and the supernatural, but to the warband bards and warriors, he remains the ‘leader of battle’, if what came down to Nennius is anything to go by.
But, this is all hypothetical; although it could have as much weight as the Arthur of Y Gododdin being one of these other northern figures. However, if Arthur map Petr came a generation before all these, it could, as Professor Ken Dark suggests, be him. Someone had to have been given the name first and if we didn’t have Arthur being named as the victor at Badon or the infamous battle list, this is who it might point to. As stated in a previous blog, even if the Arthur mentioned in Y Gododdin isn’t an Arthur of Badon, it still doesn’t prove there wasn’t one.
In the the next blog I’ll explore another region that could have given us an Hiberno-British Arthur: the Wall.
Thanks for reading,