Sometime around age 15 I took home Vol. 49 of the Harvard Classics from the Fort Collins (Colo.) public library and read for the first time Beowulf and The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel. (The Ring saga is in there too, but I had already encountered it.)
Beowulf is an understandable story, while The Destruction at least introduced me to the concept of geis, which is actually fairly troublesome when you are that age and trying to figure out where the walls are.
Not until my undergraduate years did I discover The Gododdin, which is totally different from the above. Like petals on a blood-soaked daisy, it is a series of short elegies for warriors who fought and died (more or less to the last man) at the battle of Catterick, c. 570 CE in what is now Yorkshire. (Poetic samples are at the link above.)
There is no narrative; it is as though you had short poems about Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, George Washington, Daniel Morgan, Benedict Arnold, Baron Von Steuben, John Paul Jones, etc., without needing to tell the reader about the American Revolution.
Many critics as well as authors of fiction based on the poem tend to create dichotomies about it such as these:
- It’s the Romano-Celtic (mostly Christian) British versus the (Pagan) Anglo-Saxons, with the Celts carrying faded remnants of Imperial Britannia and the Saxons representing ignorance and barbarism.
- It represents a nonlinear “Celtic” way of thinking versus the linearity of, say, Beowulf.
- It is typical of how glorifying “beautiful losers” is part of the Celtic soul or something.
- It demonstrates the tactical deficiency of mounted fighters without stirrups against the Anglo-Saxon “shield wall.” (But cf. Battle of Hastings.)
Recently I picked up John Koch’s The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (University of Wales Press, 1997).
I have no background in the Welsh language, so I cannot really follow his discussions of changes in phonetics and orthography over many centuries, nor the 24 types of medieval Welsh poetic meter, for example.
But I do appreciate the point he made about 6th century versus medieval nationalism. In the 6th or 7th centuries, there was none. What is now England and Scotland contained many little kingdoms — and yes, some were ruled by Old Welsh-speakers and some by Old English-speakers, but they did not line up neatly on ethnic lines.
He argues that there were other Celto-British forces, allied with the Saxons, on the winning side at Catterick, and that another Old Welsh poem represents their heroic versifying about their victory. So much for beautiful losers.
Later, by the Middle Ages (13th century), when the line between England and Wales was drawn on the map and a greater sense of separation existed, The Gododdin was cast as Celts versus Saxons and used to reinforce that sense of separation.
Once again, the lesson is to be careful about projecting our categories backwards on the past, especially on the distant and mostly unrecorded past.