Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Y Gododdin

Rate this book
English, Welsh (translation)

205 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 603

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author


12 books3 followers
Aneirin [aˈnɛirɪn] or Neirin was an early historic period Brythonic poet. He is believed to have been a bard or court poet in one of the Cumbric kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd, probably that of Gododdin with its main centre at Dun Eydin (Edinburgh), in modern Scotland.

Aneirin's patrons were the noble Urien and his son, Owain. Owain was slain at the Battle of Catraeth, in which Brythonic warriors of Gododdin fought the Angles of Deira and Bernicia. Nearly all of the Brythonic warriors were slain and their lands were absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Aneirin wrote Y Gododdin after this battle, in remembrance of his fallen patrons and lords, in which he hints that he is likely the sole survivor.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
71 (38%)
4 stars
72 (39%)
3 stars
36 (19%)
2 stars
3 (1%)
1 star
1 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews
Profile Image for Sophie (RedheadReading).
403 reviews65 followers
March 3, 2021
My ideal way of consuming this would be if Paul Bettany read it aloud in character as Chaucer from A Knight's Tale. Whilst I know that's muddling time periods somewhat, it's just because this benefits so well from being spoken and I know he'd do a cracking job!
This functions as elegies to the soldiers who fell in this clash, so I can definitely see how some people wouldn't enjoy as it lacks a driving narrative. However, I just adored experiencing it for what it was. The repetition that is innately a part of poetry that is devised to be performed aloud, the way the number three keeps recurring in different forms, the different metaphors used to describe each warrior's attributes. Whilst they come from very different traditions, it reminded me of The Iliad at times, especially Alice Oswald's reworking called Memorial that stripped away the Troy narrative and instead presented the series of metaphors and epithets focusing on memorialising the fallen soldiers. It was just truly fascinating to read and I couldn't resist performing certain passages for my partner (which I'm sure was appreciated and definitely not annoying...)
Profile Image for Philip of Macedon.
268 reviews63 followers
January 1, 2022
According to tradition there were four great bards of early medieval Welsh poetry: Aneirin, Taliesin, Llywarch Hen, and Myrddin. Each of these men is a blend of legendary figure and historical figure, since little is known for certain about their lives or whether they were in fact the authors of the poems attributed to them. They have been given titles such as “chief of bards” and “prince of bards” for the importance and quality of their work, and the influence they had on later poets. They lived in the 6th and 7th centuries, and as was usual of the time, their works were performed orally and rarely written. All of the surviving manuscripts that include poems attributed to these men are from centuries after their deaths.

Llywarch Hen seems to be the only of these chief bards whose existence is known for sure, with some solid historical evidence of his birth, his death, and a lot of things that came in between. Myrddin lies toward the other end of this legend-history spectrum, as he seems almost entirely a product of legend, as a madman living in the forest, who had the gift of prophecy. This Myrddin is thought to be the origin of Merlin in Arthurian legend.

In the expanse between person of history and person of legend lies both Taliesin and Aneirin. We know some things about each, but our confidence in that information is low, some of it is confusing and foggy, much is based on legend or tradition, and some of it seems contradictory. All of it is pretty remarkable and fascinating, nonetheless.

Aneirin was a war poet, a bard who was present at battles and whose poetry related the events of these battles and their significance. His best known and longest work is his epic-of-elegies, Y Gododdin, telling of the Battle of Cattraeth, and of the fates of many of the chiefs and warriors who died fighting Anglian invaders at their fortress.

The Gododdin were a people situated in the region of south Scotland, north Britain, and it is said that the battle of Cattraeth consisted of warriors from all over Britain, as far away as Wales, uniting to drive off the Anglians who had breached their shores and established a stronghold. This battle is thought to have occurred sometime between the latter quarter of the sixth century and the year 600.

It’s not easy to track down a physical copy of this excellent piece of literary history, as most English translations have long been out of print. Fortunately, MythBank offers pretty affordable and decent copies of the work that is also available on Project Gutenberg. This is a translation from 1852 by Reverend. John Williams (bardic name: ‘Ab Ithel’), M.A. His introduction and copious notes and annotations (and I do mean copious — the notes are longer than the poem, but are incredibly instructive and educational) fill out this work as a grand scholarly accomplishment. The translation is excellent, and almost every line of the poem has explanatory annotations behind it to offer his motivation for translation and interpreting things the way he has.

Y Gododdin is, all things considered, completely incredible. It is 53 stanzas of varying length, most of which serve as an elegy for a warrior or a chieftain who was slain in the Battle of Cattraeth. Taken together, they comprise an epic of valour and war.

Despite what might sound like a repetitive and redundant formula, it is anything but. It is lively, dramatic, intense, filled with powerful imagery and violence and deeds of heroism and courage and death and elements of legend. A warrior’s manner or appearance or regalia or deeds are often detailed, as is their character or their habit or their way of drinking and living, or their skill in battle, or what role they might have played in the broader society, then what particular accomplishment they might have had in this battle, how they fought or what courage they showed, and often ending with an evocative account of their defeat, and who they left behind, who will mourn their passing. This is all done with striking poetic eloquence and economy.

The poem is heavy with tragedy, since this was a battle the people of Gododdin lost after a grueling seven-day slaughter. There are many references to ravens feasting upon the dead, allusions to other beasts delighting in the buffet of gore, as well as a mountain of ambiguity in who or what the poet is referring to in certain stanzas — sometimes it could be a name for a person unknown to history, or it could be a geographic feature, or an action undertaken by men, or an animal, or some act of nature. This greatly affects how the translation goes and how the poem feels, which the annotations offer great insight on. It never occurred to me that some of this ancient complexity could so significantly impact how we interpret whole sections of a work.

For example, there are many stanzas which refer to the merry-making and mead-drinking that these chiefs partake in. Some historians think that this heavy drinking was occurring before each battle, and certain lines make it sound that way, suggesting it is a poison that foreshadows their doom, or as something handicapping them against a strong enemy, or as a sort of liquid courage that cowardly warriors gulped down to face the enemy. So a popular interpretation is that the people of Gododdin may have lost the battle because they were drunk the whole time. But there is enough ambiguity in the poem to make this questionable.

Williams explains that, first of all, there likely would not have been enough alcohol for all the warriors to partake, probably enough only for the chieftains. The chieftains being the only drunk ones wouldn’t have made them lose the battle. Also, it isn’t clear if Aneirin is saying that everyone is drinking and having fun immediately before they run off to drunkenly thrust their spears and lances into their enemies, or if he is simply contrasting their light-hearted drinking in times of peace with their fierceness in battle, and their general manner of being light of worry even in the face of certain death. All of this makes the theory that they were drunk for the whole fight a lot less sturdy.

The author of the poem often refers to himself as Aneirin, which is probably the strongest piece of evidence we will ever get that he was its author. We also know that Aneirin, being a bard who was not allowed to carry weapons, and therefore the laws of battle prohibiting him from being killed, was captured at some point in the battle and was imprisoned underground for a time. He gives some space to this in his poem, and hits on some of the dark and vicious emotions that such a situation would arouse, as well as remarking on the fortitude and resilience he exercised in these circumstances.

Many figures who are known from Welsh and Scottish history are referred to in the poem, and here there is ambiguity too, as the translator attempts to figure out who these people are based on how their names appear, based on their actions or relations, if they are the same persons referred to in other works around the same time, and does a splendid job building a pretty coherent picture of who is who, what is what, and placing everything and everyone in its proper context.

Also here are some people from legend, who are thought to have not really existed, or were thought to be based upon people who had. One of the most noteworthy is a supposed mention of King Arthur. This occurs toward the end of the poem, and the mention is made in passing, comparing another warrior to him (“Though he was no Arthur”). Scholars seem to disagree about whether this was referring to King Arthur of legend or to some other Arthur. There’s really no way to know, given its brevity. If it is a reference to the King Arthur of legend, however, it is one of the very first in recorded literature. It also comes only a few decades after the supposed death of Arthur, in 537 AD, at the Battle of Camlann. It’s noteworthy for appearing centuries before most other mentions of the legendary king.

A few of the other pseudo-historical and legendary figures mentioned or alluded to in the poem are characters who were part of Arthur’s court or relatives of people who compose part of that legendary cycle. Other people are folk heroes who might or might not have existed. I don’t know enough about this era or the history of the people to say much more than I have, but the annotations are so good they are in effect a small but dense, coherent history book on the battle, its key people, and some of the general history of the region. These notes also provide enlightening explanations of the poetic forms the author used, compares and contrasts certain lines or features with works from the other great Welsh bards, and serves as a great supplement to what is a deep, magnificent work of medieval Welsh poetry that fortunately has not been forgotten to history.
Profile Image for Karen Floyd.
371 reviews20 followers
April 4, 2008
This is a difficult book to review. There is much more commentary than there is poem. I kept waiting for the commentary to end so I could just read the poem, but it didn't. I finally realized that I was reading the poem, that's what the bits in quotes were, and understood just how fragmentary is what has come down to us. In addition, some of the poem is beyond the reach of current translators, so they can only make well-educated suppositions about what some words are and what they mean. People stopped speaking the language of The Gotoddin a very long time ago; it's older than Beowulf.

That said, I found it fascinating. I had not known there was so much information about Britain in the so-called Dark Ages. The Gododdin itself is a lament for the British killed in the Battle of Catraeth (c. 600AD)in which they were making a preemptive attack against the Anglo-Saxons who were rapidly taking over their country. In the end the attack failed and only a few men survived, one of them the poet Aneirin who wrote the poem. (Is that a redundant phrase? Because it could have another poet than Aneirin who wrote the poem. Anyway-) The elegies in the poem were composed so that those who died would not be forgotten. And I should not have said "written" earlier. The poem was first written down several hundred years after it was composed.

An interesting difference between British and Anglo-Saxon bards is that while the Anglo-Saxons had the frame of a story but were supposed to fill in the details and embroider it as they performed, British bards had to memorize all the poems, because they were not supposed to deviate a whit from the exact words of the original. Never use the words "oral society" in a negative manner again!

It's an all to brief glimpse into fascinating world, full of fragments of brilliant images.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
526 reviews243 followers
December 28, 2013
Y Gododdin constitutes the oldest extant collection of Welsh verse of note. Attributed to Aneirin, it is a collection of elegiac verses memorializing three hundred Celtic heroes who fell in battle against a much larger invading army of Anglo-Saxons sometime around the sixth century CE.

Ironically, the striking and crystalline verse reminds me of nothing so much as the Anglo-Saxon poetry of around that time, such as the anonymous masterpiece "The Seafarer."

The images of heroes dying gloriously in battle is evoked with images of startling clarity and emotional power.

Consider stanza 64:

"A fitting song of a noble host:
The sound of fire and thunder and flood-tide,
Excelling in courage, a horseman in the turmoil,
A blood-shedding reaper, he longed for war.
The warrior tirelessly rushed to battle
In whatever land he heard tidings of it.
With his shield on his shoulder he would take up a spear
As if it were sparking wine from glass vessels.
There was silver around his mead, gold was his due;
Gwaednerth son of Llywri had been reared on wine."

There is nothing by way of an early epic to be found here. The frame of these elegies is simple - warriors were summoned together by the lord Mynyddog, who hosted them in training and in feast for a year's time at Gododdin, before they set out to meet the enemy at Catraeth, where they died. Individual warriors are recalled and their virtues praised with expressive and sometimes-formulaic language.

What is conveyed is themes and motifs of an early medieval warrior heroic ethos reflected with ingenious and deeply-felt images and words. It's a sublime window into times long past.
185 reviews3 followers
October 24, 2018
V good. Epic and heroic and all that business.
Profile Image for Judyta Szacillo.
183 reviews27 followers
July 16, 2022
A collection of early medieval Welsh death-poems, written between the 7th and the 11th century (the dating is still being disputed).
Contains some fine examples of the merging of ancient heroic poetry and medieval Christian interpolations.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
March 6, 2014

300 ptII?

Although some titles include wordings such as 'Scottish poem', this work is rooted in the Welsh because the lowlands of what is now Scotland were Welsh at the time. Not that I can see the intelligentsia of either country calling for pistols at dawn or rolling up their shirts for a bout of fisticuffs in this day and age.

*cups ear to listen*

What? they do still want a barney! lol. Anyway, this programme is not the actual poem, rather it is the history surrounding the work.

The blurb - Poet Gwyneth Lewis explores the origins and meaning of the Gododdin, a sixth-century Welsh poem elegising the slain British warriors who made a last stand against the Saxons in the famous Battle of Catterick.

Fourteen centuries ago an elite band of three hundred warriors set out from Edinburgh and marched south to Catterick in Yorkshire to meet a force of 10,000 Saxons in a bloody pitched battle. At the end of a week of ferocious combat all but three of the 300 lay dead and, with them, the last hope of the Old North - the original Britons - against the Saxon invaders. But the battle left an enduring literary legacy: one of the three survivors, Aneirin, fled back to Edinburgh and composed the Gododdin, an epic poem to commemorate his fallen comrades.

Gwyneth follows the war band from the Edinburgh stronghold where they spent a year feasting and drinking mead to the landscape of northern England where they met their fate. As she travels she discovers new insights into contemporary Britain from a sixth-century poem written in Welsh about a group of warriors from Scotland who fought a battle in Yorkshire.

Broadcast on:
BBC Radio 3, 10:00pm Sunday 10th January 2010

Really interesting!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Trisha.
4,744 reviews167 followers
April 24, 2015
" There was food for the ravens, the raven there did triumph."

I'm sad to admit this is my first gamble into Celtic older reading. I tried to imagine this as a bard song, something sung at a community hall area where everyone is drunk on mead (beer) and telling stories.

And this is quite a story. So many deaths, so many widows. There is so much blood on the ground, you can almost see it all. The poem is well done but I"m sure there are about a 1000 other details I missed since I'm not used to reading like this.

I think the piece that kept me going was just imagining the Raven Boys digging through old poems of war and really digging all the references to wolves and birds of prey - and of course, Ravens.
Profile Image for Old-Barbarossa.
295 reviews1 follower
June 8, 2008
Written in Welsh in what became Scotland, it's about a last stand action of a band of (probably) Romano-Brit cavalry against a huge Anglosaxon warband in what is now Yorkshire. The poem is a eulogy for the fallen. It was written as the nations that became Scotland, Wales, and England were still forming and in a state of flux, before the ideas of them even had taken shape. Like a British Illiad. Catraeth saw only one that went South return home, probably the bard Aneirin that composed it.
"Many a mother with tears in her eyes..."
Profile Image for Colin.
37 reviews6 followers
January 31, 2016
This was not quite what I was expecting as there is no story or narrative, just a series of elegies for soldiers who were killed at the battle of Catraeth, each verse describing the qualities of each one, (although in fairly formulaic terms according to the editor rather than realistic descriptions), so it does get rather repetitive, with only occasional glimpses into what actually occurred. however I have only read the English translation (which is printed side by side with the Welsh) so obviously most of the poetic quality has been lost. The poem only takes up a small part of the book, the introduction gives the background to the poem and the book is worth buying just for this, giving the historical background and textual history (the poem was originally composed after the battle in 600 then transmitted orally until written down then preserved in Wales in a 13th century manuscript) Although this is in the Welsh Classics series the Gododdin were a people who lived in what is now southern Scotland (who spoke a form of Welsh, as all of Britain did before the arrival of the Anglo saxons in England and Gaelic speakers in Scotland) and the battle described took place at Catraeth - which is the Welsh name for Catterick so the poem ought to be much better known in England. As the blurb on the book says this is the earliest major work of literature in a native language of the British Isles and is of "vast cultural importance"
Profile Image for Emily Altman.
45 reviews2 followers
September 17, 2022
Beautiful imagery especially for being a collection of eulogies. I didn't understand good chunks of it and had to look up an awful lot as I went along, but there was still plenty to keep me interested. This pulled me in, at the end of the first stanza:

A dear comrade, Owain;
Vile, his cover of crows.
Ghastly to me that ground,
Slain, Marro's only son.
Profile Image for Dodd.
1 review1 follower
April 4, 2023
Deep in Brittonic history. Fascinating in its own details of 6-7th century fight for the land and people of Gododdin from waves of invaders. Aneirin is a person that will go down beyond history's reach.
Profile Image for Tullius.
68 reviews1 follower
May 2, 2022
Purely an interesting dive into Post-Roman Britain.
Profile Image for GRANT.
191 reviews3 followers
April 15, 2020
I would like to rate this book higher and maybe in format it is only a two-star. This is a reprint of an expired copyright without even the original copyright page to identify the translator (the Rev. John Williams), publisher (Longman & Co., London), etc. (1852) even though with the copyright long expired, they could have included it! The e-book version, free at: gutenberg.org/files/9842/9842-h/9842-...
may be the best way to read it as the online version lets you click back and forth in very copious footnotes. In the reprint version, you have to hold a bookmark or thumb in three different places without any page numbers. And I only have two thumbs.

Anyway, on content it deserves five stars. It is a fascinating look at early medieval heroic poetry extolling the fame and deaths of the British warriors from Din Eiden (Edinburgh) as they expire before the Angles (Saxons) at Cattraeth which was probably in northern Yorkshire. The warriors are supposedly Christian but very much into the blood and guts of heroic battle. They drank a lot and killed a lot. But the hints at what the culture was in those ancient days among our fathers' fathers and mothers is wonderful!

And I admit that I didn't read all the Welsh. But it is amazing that it can be understood in modern Welsh (my knowledge is very rudimentary) and that this poem in several versions from the 13th Century conveys represents a form of Welsh written as early as the 9th Century and a likely oral tradition back centuries more. (Scholars debate on these points.) The battle may have actually happened and would have been in the 6th Century. This is all so amazingly vague to make it all the more fascinating!

The footnotes make all the more interesting even if they are not all readily understood. The bits of tentative Welsh-language interpretation are interesting as well as the historical speculation. Then there are the references to classic legend in the Mabinogion and tales of King Arthur.

I had heard that there is only a disputed reference to Arthur here - and I am sufficiently well-read to understand that there is no identifiable, historical Arthur and likely never will be - but there are numerous references to Arthur's knights and companions! Something is going on here. The fascinating mystery only deepens the more I read.

I'd like to find a good, modern translation and analysis. Please comment with any suggestions.
Profile Image for Basicallyrun.
63 reviews3 followers
December 6, 2011
I, um, really like reading translators' notes. It is a weakness. But they do take up rather more pages than the actual poem, so I feel justified. And what I found interesting is that the translators here basically say, on several occasions, 'we have no idea whether this word is a proper name, a misspelled version of X, a word we no longer know the meaning of, or what'. So some of the named heroes are only named because we know that name actually existed, from contemporary works, or because no one's been named yet in this stanza and no other word quite works as a name. I find it fascinating but then, I do want to spend the next three years of my life studying this stuff so I think I'm entitled to.
Profile Image for Terence Gallagher.
Author 3 books2 followers
January 24, 2018
Excellent exposition of The Gododdin, one of the oldest poems extant in Welsh, which serves as an elegy not only for the named heroes who perished in an expedition against English Northumbria, but also for the entire kingdom and people who disappeared from history shortly afterward. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson begins the volume with a very clear exposition of the poem's historical background and of the tricky state of the text as we have it (two versions mingled together.) He finishes with the translation often very tentative. It is a bit disappointing, but I suppose unavoidable, that so much of the translation has to be conjectural, and that some passages are simply incomprehensible. Nevertheless, Prof. Jackson is an ideal guide.
Profile Image for Flint Johnson.
82 reviews3 followers
July 17, 2013
As an academic book it is still the gold standard of British poetry. Jackson did his best to reconstruct the poem's two extant versions, its history and context using his not inconsiderable skills as a linguist, manuscript expert, and historian. Yup, it is dry reading. Painfully so if one is not already familiar with the materials (the notes are his in-depth analyses and explanations for his language. On the other hand, it is an excellent piece of scholarly work still useful forty years after publication. Very few academic pieces can claim that.
Profile Image for Tony DeHaan.
163 reviews1 follower
October 14, 2019
A poem from the 6th century, relating the Battle of Cattraeth by the poet Aneirin. An informative introduction, the original Welsh text, the English translation, and a very extensive section with very interesting annotations. So why, you may wonder, only two stars? Because the most important stanza (number 98) has been omitted! For is in that stanza where we find the first mention of Arthur that we know of. A grave and shameful editorial error that should not have been made! Bring back proofreading I say!
Profile Image for Old-Barbarossa.
295 reviews1 follower
October 6, 2009
The old tale of Edinburgh boys heading South for a rammy with some troublesome AngloSaxons.
Good background to the poems.
Sets them out with the B text first then the A as Jackson argues that the B is probably the older and more oral.
This and The Gododdin (which has parallel text in Old Welsh) cover all you need as a general reader on the subject, and probably more.
Profile Image for Maxfield.
67 reviews
January 3, 2012
A true classic. I read the John Williams (1811-1862) translation which has an excellent preface. Come for the tantalizing references to Urien and stay for the knee-deep pools of gore and a lesson about the dangers of drinking mead before wine.
Profile Image for YZ.
Author 7 books94 followers
December 2, 2007
Recommended by Mr. Fakes.

My "review:"
But we can no longer write poems like this.
1,065 reviews72 followers
October 21, 2017
This is greatly improved by purposely misunderstanding "van of battle" (i.e. vanguard), because then you get to imagine CAMPERVAN JOUSTING and it's much funnier.
Profile Image for Ciarán Crawley.
13 reviews
February 13, 2019
I primarily read this for a Typography Project, but I've enjoyed being able to read a part of Welsh ancient history. Its unfortunate more context cannot be taken as its one of few documents detailing this event, but it is rich and fully human in its grieving those who are lost.
Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.