The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, October 31, 2005


A summary I prepared for a friend who's gone to work in Catterick:

Wikipedia has a short summary of the Gododdin here -

However, it does say that Votadini is a Brythonic name when I’ve always understood it to be Latin - it does sound and look Latin, and it seems more likely to me that Votadini is the best approximation the Romans could make of Guotodin, or whatever it was. Any conquering culture makes its own impositions and interpretations, as with the English in Wales (Dovey for Dyfi) or Ireland.

The Triumph Tree: Scotland’s earliest poetry AD 550 - 1350 (Canongate) ed. Thomas Owen Clancy:

“The native peoples of southern Scotland, the northern Britons, were composing and evidently recording poetry in a language which we shall call Welsh (it is often, more accurately, called Cumbric or northern British), from the middle of the sixth century. This poetry provides our best evidence for the warfare against the incoming English of the east which gradually ate away at British territory and the strength of the Welsh language here. The colonising English, who established control over much of the eastern Borders and Lothian, as well as Dumfriesshire and Galloway, have left records of their poetry in both Old English and Latin, largely from the south-western region. It is their dialect of English which, combined with many other influences, wuld evolve into the Scots of the later medieval period and become one of Scotland’s modern national literary languages.” (Introduction, p. 6)

“[…] the action it describes belongs to the strife-ridden sixth century, and to the northern British kingdoms in a century which saw gradual loss of territory to English settlers, both through conquest and perhaps through assimilation. [He may be a good poet and scholar, but his prose sucks - G.] Whatever may have been the actual importance of this battle at the time, it became symbolic of the heroic attempt to halt the English conquest, not least because of Aneirin’s poem.

“[…] 13th-century manuscript known as The Book of Aneirin precedes two separate texts, each by a different scribe, each copying a different earlier text. Both texts are obviously incomplete, each contains material not in the other, and there are often considerable differences between the stanzas common to both. […] It is thus unclear whether it was ever intended as a single poem, or whether it is instead a collection of poems based around the same event.” (Preface to The Gododdin, p. 46)

Gododdin’s picked men on shaggy mounts,

Swan-white steeds, war-harness drawn tight,

And in the vanguard attacking the war-host,

Fighting for Eidyn’s forests and mead.

Through Mynyddawg’s war-plan

Shields went spinning,

Blades descended on pallid cheeks.

They loved […] attacking;

They bore no disgrace, men who would not flee.

B-text, stanza 19, trans. Joseph P. Clancy, p. 72

What the Wikipedia article doesn’t make entirely explicit is that this seems to have been a willing suicidal attack - hence the year spent drinking and feasting in Dun Eidyn. Some way of training - though I wonder if the “year” isn’t poetic, symbolic, e.g. they did a year’s worth of drinking in a few nights before setting off. Then again, maybe we should take it at face value. Also, I remain unconvinced by the references to Arthur, which smack to me of wishful thinking. At the least, there's too much baggage associated with the name for one to be anything other than ultra-cautious.

“…it is possible to see the heroic raid by the Gododdin deep into Yorkshire as an abortive [?] pre-emptive strike against the growing imperial ambitions of the kingdom of Northumbria.” Scotland, Magnus Magnusson, p. 27

The Northumbrian expansion northwards was stopped by the Picts at the battle of Nechtansmere on 20 May 685, when the Angle army was destroyed and the king, Ecgfrith, killed. From then on, Northumbrian power never extended north of the Forth. It's been argued that this battle was so significant that it gave Scotland the chance to become Scotland, although the Picts couldn't have known it at the time.

Interestingly, an old pal of my dad's, a native Fifer, made mention to me a while back that while many of his university colleagues had problems with Beowulf on their English course, it gave him no bother at all. The reason? The dialect where he came from was, in his words, "pure East Anglian".


Aye. October again.


"There are people who still find Defoe hard to take as a novelist, and this is because they have become accustomed to regarding the novel as a form almost aggressively 'literary', full of barely concealed machinery, self-conscious fine writing, the personality of the novelist peeping through as a show-off divine puppet-master, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent. Up to the time of the first dissenting writers (men like Defoe and Bunyan), which happened also to be a time of great literary artificiality, literature had been almost exclusively in the hands of men with a classical education. Elizabethans like Nashe and Dekker and Greene produced, as did Defoe, fictional works about a real, low, smelly London, but always in language - for all its conversational vigour - highly contrived and often reeking of the lamp. And, after Defoe, the novel was again in the hands of the cultivated who could not resist showing off their cultivation. Even Richardson, a very demotic novelist, was all for contrivances and somewhat artificial manipulation. But rarely in Defoe do we find the cranking of the engine of plot, and never the evocation of classical heroes or the sewing on of classical tags. His novels are too much novels to seem like novels to seem like novels; they read like real life. The art is too much concealed to seem like art, and hence the art is frequently discounted."

This from Anthony Burgess's 1966 introduction to Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, which for some reason Penguin have decided to drop in their rejacketed edition in favour of something limp and bloodless by someone you've likely never heard of. Another wee piece of culture bites the dust. I suppose it must be preserved by whatever university has custody of Burgess's papers, which is like saying it's been professionally entombed.

The bit I've quoted dovetails nicely with what I (currently) think of as being fiction at its best - writing which seems to have nothing to do with creating a secondary world which the reader steps in and out of at will, but which invades the world and reshapes it - hence, Burroughs, Ballard, Garner, and probably Ted Hughes and George Mackay Brown. It also reflects my irritation with The Count of Monte Cristo, and the reason why I've had to put it down - just when things get going, Dumas sticks his bloody oar in and writes a page and a half of totally unnecessary dialogue or exposition just to bump up the word-count (he was being paid by the line). Most irritating it is.

* * *

A good gag from Simplicissimus. Our hero, a musketeer during the Thirty Years War, has been reprimanded by the company chaplain for cheating, lying, stealing and playing endless practical jokes of a cruel nature. As a final measure the chaplain threatens to ensure that Simplicissimus is buried outside the churchyard when he dies, which threat Simplicissimus dismisses as readily as he does the chaplain's earlier advice:

"'I am a soldier and I serve the emperor. If I die as a soldier it will not be surprising if I have to find a grave outside the churchyard like other soldiers. We cannot always be buried in consecrated ground, but often have to make do with a pit on the battlefield, a ditch or even the bellies of wolves and carrion crows.'

"With that parting shot I left the chaplain. His zealous efforts got him nothing from me but the refusal of a rabbit he begged me to let him have. I told him it had hung itself in a noose and killed itself and that it would be wrong for one who had given in to despair to be buried in consecrated ground."