The Gododdin: Heroic Defeat and Arthur

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The Germanic “settlers” were pushing the Britons ever westward and northward. The Britons were desperate, having lost their dux bellorum, Arthur. They held out. They fought on.

It wasn’t enough. The Angle might was too much, especially in the north. But pockets of resistance remained.

The Gododdin kingdom remained a stronghold in northern Britain. In fact, warriors from this kingdom launched a counterattack on the Angles in about 600. The result was catastrophe. Under the leadership of the Goddodin king, Mynyddawg Mwynfawr, a force of 300 Celtic warriors met thousands of Angles on the field of battle near Catterick, in Yorkshire. Only a handful of the Celts survived.

Their story lived on in the hearts and minds of the survivors. An epic poem was written about this famous battle. Its name was Y Gododdin. Its author was Aneirin.

In this famous, mesmerizing poem, Aneirin tells us that the warriors feasted and boasted for almost a year before setting off on their epic crusade. The poem suggests that the number of warriors was not exactly the number of men who fought. Some men traveled with a retinuesquires and servants and suchwhom, presumably, would have fought if the going got tough (which it most certainly did). Thus, the number of Britons who fought at Catterick that day could have been a lot higher. But the Angle strength numbered in the thousands; some sources say as many as 10,000 from the Germanic tribes were involved. Clearly, the odds were overwhelmingly against the force from Gododdin.

The poem also tells us that the British faced attrition just getting to the main Anglish force. Several stanzas talk of heroes falling one by one, while “Seven times their own number of English they slew.” It is clear, then, that the Britons were on a sort of holy crusade, determined to create the kind of victory that Arthur had achieved a century before.

We are left, then, with an epic poem that succeeds on many levels at voicing the frustration felt by the people of the time, describing the heroic but desperate and futile attempt at stemming the Germanic tide, and keeping the names of the heroes alive for future generations to venerate.

Speaking of Arthur, he is indeed mentioned in the poem. This is the first known reference to the legendary king, and he acquits himself quite well. A warrior named Gwawrddur is described as being in the thick of the fighting and doing quite well. Further, it is said that “although he was not Arthur, he fed the black ravens.”

The black ravens, of course, eat corpses. This was Aneirin’s way of saying that Gwawrddur killed many Angles.

The mention of Arthur has two elements that need examining:

First, Arthur is mentioned by name. He is not referred to any other way. Yet, he is implicitly revered as a great hero. Gwawrddur is killing his fair share of Angles, yet he isn’t Arthur. The implication is that Arthur was a great hero indeed.

Secondly, because the name Arthur was used without any sort of descriptive title, it suggests that the readers of the poem would have known exactly who Arthur was. (Some may argue that the absence of a title like king or dux bellorum proves that Arthur wasn’t either or these things. The counterargumentthat everyone knew he was a great warrior and kingis more convincing.)

So Y Gododdin recounts the tale of a small band of determined British trying to recapture Arthur’s magic by challenging a much larger Anglish force but being horribly defeated.