“The Men went to Catraeth” becomes more and more complex by the day now … (Rosemary Sutcliff Diary, 29/8/88)

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June 29th Wednesday. Very hot and sultry after the chilly past few days. Geraldine for tea. Long phone call from Dai Evans with the information I asked him to get me about Catreath, the photostats to be posted off to me tomorrow. “The Men went to Catraeth” becomes more and more complex by the day now.

‘Catraeth’ has featured several times in diary entries. “The Men went to Catraeth” is perhaps the provisional title for the chapter Rosemary Sutcliff was writing at this point. In the final version of her award-winning historical novel The Shining Company,which was published in 1990, there is a chapter – this chapter? – called “The Road to Catraeth”.  Set in A.D. 600, the novel was based on Y Gododdin, one of the earliest surviving examples of Welsh poetry. It was transcribed in the twelfth century but commemorated an event in the sixth: “an elegy for slain heroes and a eulogy of their excellence and bravery as fighting men” (in the words of one commentator, here). The poem begins with a fragment of poetry which speaks of Catraeth as the site of a great battle.

Gwyr a aeth Gatraeth gan wawr …
Men went to Catraeth with the dawn,

Their fears disturbed their peace,
A hundred thousand fought three hundred
Bloodily they stained spears,
His was the bravest station in battle,
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mzvynfawr.

The story Rosemary Sutcliff tells in The Shining Company is this.

In northern Britain, Prosper becomes a shield bearer with the Companions, an army made up of three hundred younger sons of minor kings and trained to act as one fighting brotherhood against the invading Saxons. Life is secure until Prince Gorthyn arrives with his hunting party to kill the white hart. Prosper tries to save the unusual beast and, when found out, is surprised to learn that Prince Gorthyn admires his daring. Prosper asks to serve the prince, but it is not until two years later that he receives a summons: King Mynyddog is raising a war host of three hundred younger sons to fight the invading Saxons, and Gorthyn needs a second shieldbearer. Answering the call, Prosper sets out immediately to meet the prince and travel to King Mynyddog’s fortress at Dyn Eidin. For a year the three hundred men – the Companions – and their shieldbearers train until they can think and act as one fighting brotherhood. And when word reaches them that the Saxon leader has taken yet another kingdom, they set out to attack the Saxon stronghold at Catraeth. It is here that Prosper must face his greatest challenge, as treachery strikes the Companions from an unexpected source.

5 comments

  1. The Catterick Garrison is still in operation – it’s the largest BritIsh Army garrison in the world.

    The old Roman fort of Cataractonium will be familiar to those who’ve read “The Shining Company” – it’s the setting for the last desperate stand of the Company against the Saxon forces of Aethelfrith, Lord of Bernicia and Deira.
    “Catreath, Cataractonium as the Romans had called it, was a double cohort fort, and so there was room enough for all of us within the crumbling defences.”

    Cataractonium’s marching camp also makes an appearance:
    “And so, with the forest reaching up towards us, we came to the remains of yet one more fort in that land of lost forts, and made our last night’s camp. It was not much of a fort, maybe only a permanent marching camp in its time, and being on the edge of the forest country the wild had taken it back more completely than those of the high moors…. little remained of the buildings but turf hummocks and bramble domes”.

    Although it isn’t one of the Aquila family sequence, there’s one of those “aha” moments in “Shining Company” which readers of Sutcliff’s work enjoy – a connection made with “Frontier Wolf” (set a couple of centuries earlier) when young Prosper and a couple of companions out on a training exercise camp at the (now ruined) Cramond fort where the action in “Frontier Wolf” takes place. Sutcliff uses the linking device very effectively as a way of emphasizing continuity.

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  2. Given Rosemary Sutcliff’s strong link with the Arthur of legend, it’s interesting to note that “Y Goddodin” may contain the very first mention of Arthur as legendary warrior. If this mention of Arthur formed part of the original poem (there are some likely interpolations in the work as it now stands) it could be the earliest reference to Arthur as a paragon of bravery.

    In stanza 99, the poet praises one of the warriors, Gwawrddur:

    “He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
    Though he was no Arthur
    Among the powerful ones in battle
    In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade”

    This fortress is thought to have been the Roman fort of Cataractonium near the strategic road junction now called Scotch Corner, by the south bank of the River Swale at Catterick Bridge. The fort appears to have been in use well after the Romans left Britain.
    http://www.roman-britain.org/places/cataractonium.htm

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