How to Write an Ancient Celtic Poem
“Just grab a bottle of scotch, hide yourself away somewhere for a couple of days, and write the bloody thing.” This was the sage advice dispensed by a friend of mine as we were discussing the practical challenges of composing ancient Celtic verse. At the time, I had been working on my debut novel for well over a decade—it had already been through numerous cycles of rewriting and revision—and I was ready to try a different approach. At the heart of my new concept for the novel was to be a poem called The Song of Lailoken, an imagined literary discovery on which crucial aspects of the narrative would turn. These verses were to tell the story of certain battles fought in a distant time by a hero known as Arthur. If I could not get them right, the novel would begin to feel hollow and implausible.
So, how does one write a poem that is to be ascribed, fictionally speaking, to an ancient Celtic bard? I turned first to Aneirin and Taliesin, the famous poets of dark-age Britain whose work has miraculously survived in certain rare Welsh manuscripts. I tried to channel some essence of the old British mythology through my brain. In my mind’s eye, “I flew north to Plynlimon Hill, where Cai and Bedwyr sat on a cairn in the strongest wind the world had ever seen.” I read and reread the bleak lines of Aneirin’s Y Gododdin, a series of elegies to the men of the Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin who died fighting the Angles of Deira and Bernicia at a place called Catraeth in or around the year 600 AD.
Men went to Catraeth, keen their war-band.
Pale mead their portion, it was poison.
Three hundred under orders to fight.
And after celebration, silence.
I went back still further than this, to the Irish epic called the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which tells of a war waged against the people of Ulster by Queen Medb of Connacht, opposed only by the teenage hero Cú Chulainn. I imagined my own poem, like the Táin, as a work transmitted over many generations through the Celtic oral tradition, and wondered how much of the bard’s original language might have been preserved. I spent some time with Homer, whose work was first captured in just such a fashion. I worried excessively over questions of meter and alliteration and rhyme. At one point, I tried an interdisciplinary approach, formulating the poem as a kind of inverse problem such as one finds frequently in physics and engineering. If we knew what impression my lost poem had made on later readers, what might we infer about its original content?
At this point, it was time to return to the whisky bottle. I recall that it was Lagavulin, or perhaps Ardbeg: something appropriately peaty, anyway, redolent of windswept western shores and the slow, earthy accretions of the years.
About Finding Camlann
Finding Camlann: A Novel
W.W. Norton & Company, January 7, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages
An ancient poem and a mysterious burial inspire an enthralling historical and literary quest.
Despite the wealth of scholarship that pretends to offer proof, archaeologist Donald Gladstone knows there is no solid evidence that a real King Arthur ever existed. Still, the great popular tales spun by medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, and embroidered by Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, and so many others, must have found their inspiration somewhere. A dramatic archaeological find at Stonehenge and the rediscovery of an old Welsh battle poem, buried among the manuscripts of the Bodleian Library, open up enticing—and misleading—new possibilities.
When the beguiling Julia Llewellyn, a linguist working on the Oxford English Dictionary, joins Donald on the trail of clues, their fervent enthusiasms, unusual gifts, and unfulfilled yearnings prove a combustible mix. Their impassioned search for truths buried deep in the past, amid the secret places and half-forgotten legends of the British countryside, must ultimately transform them—and all our understandings of the origins of Arthur.
An intellectual and emotional journey of myriad pleasures, Finding Camlann is at its heart a love story—not only of romantic love but also the love between parents and grown children; the intense feelings of professors and students; the love of language, place, and home; and the thrill of scholarly research and detective work. Throughout, Sean Pidgeon’s lyrical prose brings together history, myth, and dream, sweeping the reader into the mysteries of the past and the pure delight of storytelling.
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