I have just finished reading a rather thought-provoking collection of essays entitled: Beyond the Gododdin, Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales. (ed Alex Woolf, St Andrews 2013, proceedings of a day conference held on 19th February 2005).
The Gododdin is a series of stanzas in medieval Welsh, each about a warrior who came to a sticky end in battle. If taken at face value, the warriors in question were all from the area around what is now Edinburgh. Traditionally, the work is attributed to the poet Aneirin, who is an historical figure who supposedly lived in the late 6th/early 7th century. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y_Gododdin
Firstly, I have to say that the editing of the essays in this recent book about the poem is as slack as you might imagine from the fact that it took them 8 years between the conference and publication. Although as a past editor of conference proceedings myself, I do understand how it can take fooor eeever to get those papers out of the participants.
The manuscript is in the National Library of Wales and the image above is from Wikimedia Commons.
Anyway, this book is all about re-assessing the Gododdin in the light of recent scholarship. The basic points of disagreement revolve around:
1: is there any genuinely 6th/7th century basis to the composition of the poem(s)?
2: what can the work tell us (if anything) about the 6th/7th century?
If I understand the essays correctly (and some read rather more like jazz riffs on a theme of which I am unaware than straight forward academic argument), the linguists tend to doubt the antiquity of whatever lies behind the versions of the poem which have survived and argue for a 9th/10th century original. In contrast, the historians tend to think the subject matter is genuinely very early.
Reading through the essays I was struck by something I have noted about myself before: I tend to believe what I read first and then take up the attitude: ‘well go on, convince me’ about what I read next. So the order of the articles is critical.
Chapter 3, for instance, by Philip Dunshea (‘The meaning of Catraeth: a revised early context for y Gododdin’) argues for a 6th century original for the poem, while the next chapter by O.J. Padel argues on linguistic grounds that the poem cannot possibly have a 6th century original. (‘Aneirin and Taliesin: Sceptical Speculation’).
Well, of course, I believed Dunshea, partly because he reinforces what I want to believe and partly because I read that chapter first. His argument is interesting and (in my view) overcomes a number of problems with earlier interpretations. The warriors, who all die, appear on the face of it to be fighting a battle at Catraeth, generally identified with Catterick in Yorkshire – a rather long way south of Edinburgh. Dunshea argues that the poem is not about one battle but about generalised border skirmishes in a range of locations.
So why does this matter, I hear you ask? Well, two of my main characters are sons of Aneirin; the poems attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin wander in and out of the mouths of several of my characters; and the kind of world conjured up in the poems of Aneirn and Taliesin has had a huge impact on the kind of atmosphere I am trying to create in the books.
I would hate to think that I have been working so hard to conjure up something that was actually 300 or more years too late!