The Battle of Maldon is an Anglo-Saxon war poem. Heroic battles were common in the Anglo-Saxon era because powerful kings were always seeking to expand their kingdoms, which invariably led to general instability. Military campaigns or battles were the foremost means of conquest and each conquest produced heroes who must have shown loyalty to their kings by fighting their foes to finish even at the expense of their own lives. To be honourable would mean to be willing to defend ones land, its people and the king. In this text, we shall see how Anglo-Saxon warriors engaged in warfare. The poem is about an old man named Bryhtnoth and his retainers, petty noblemen of Essex, fighting and dying in a local battle which may be called a scuffle of no great importance. We shall look at the poem and its heroic style.
What is Heroic Poetry?
Heroic poetry is a long narrative verse that is elevated in mood and uses a dignified, dramatic, and formal style to describe the deeds of aristocratic warriors and rulers, it is usually composed without the aid of writing and is chanted or recited to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. It is transmitted orally from bard to bard over generations.
Heroic poetry ranges from ancient to modern works produced over a widespread geographic area. It includes what are probably the earliest forms of this verse, panegyrics praising a hero’s lineage and deeds, funeral arrangements or lines composed on a hero’s death. Homer relates that when Hector’s body was brought home “they laid it upon the bed and seated minstrels round it to lead the dirge”.
Another type of heroic poetry is the short, dramatic lay devoted to a single event, such as the Old English “Battle of Maldon” (c. 991), describing a Viking raid on Essex, or the Old High German “Hildebrandslied” (c. 800), dealing with a duel between father and son. The mature form of heroic poetry is the full-scale epic.
The heroic age varies in different native literatures. The heroic poetry of the German, Scandinavian, and English peoples deals chiefly with a period from the 4th to the 6th century AD, the time of the great migrations of the Germanic people. Though some of the heroes portrayed are historical personages, their actions are often combined and related for artistic purposes with no regard for actual historical chronology.
Nevertheless, a heroic tale is assumed by the poet and his listeners to be somehow true. Its style is impersonal and objective, and the graphic realism of its details gives it an air of probability that outweighs the occasional intrusion of marvelous elements. None of the mundane details of the hero’s acts and none of the amenities connected with them are slighted. The listener is told how the hero looks, what he wears, what he eats, and how he sleeps.
The Battle of Maldon: A Heroic Poem
The battle of Maldon actually took place between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons. In August AD 991, a large fleet of Viking ships, led by the Norwegian Olaf Trygvasson, came to the River Blackwater, near Maldon in Essex, to be met by a smaller force of Englishmen. The poem, The Battle of Maldon, tells how the Vikings crossed the causeway over the river, and in the ensuing fight, the leader of the English Earldoman Byrhtnoth, was killed, and the English force defeated. The English defeat is not difficult to explain. They were outnumbered, Byrhtnot allowed the Vikings to cross the causeway, and many of the English forces fled when Byrthnoth was killed.
According to www.ringnett.com, depending on how big the ships were, the Vikings would have had a force of between 1,800 and 3,700 warriors. In a note, J. Campbell suggests that if Byrhtnoth’s host was recruited from Essex on the five hide system, then there would have been about 600-700 men (Cooper, 1993: 90). This contrast in force of numbers must have contributed to the defeat of Earldoman Byrhtonoth and his men. Analysis of the poem matched with archaeology reveals that most of the fighting was around the mouth of the causeway over the River Pante between the mainland and Northey Island in the Blackwater estuary. The Vikings had landed and disembarked on Northey Island. This indicates that most of the fighting would have been in a relatively small area, and this would have been a disadvantage for the defending English.
The main factor that cost the English the battle was that Byrhtnoth invited the Vikings to cross the ford, a seemingly reckless thing to do. The poem states that it was ‘foolhardy pride’ that made him invite the enemy onto firm ground (line 89). However, it has been suggested that because of the shallow draughts of the Viking ships, Byrhtnoth may have thought that in the dark they would be able to go further upriver and put in there, and so get around him and his troops (see “Battle of Maldon” in www.ringnett.com). Scraggy agrees with this.
He says that Byrhtnoth’s forces in their original position had stalemated the Vikings. He could keep them on the Island, but could not force them to engage nor prevent them from evacuating by ship. Withdrawing and letting the Vikings over the causeway was the only way to bring them to battle, thus to a certain extent securing the safety of the town of Maldon (Scragg, 1991:148). R. Elliot suggests that it may have “Byrhtnoth’s very English belief in fair play, that it wasn’t cricket to let the other side just sit there that made him take this fatal step”.
Had Byrhtnoth not invited the enemy onto the battle ground and waited until the tide had gone out before starting the battle, reinforcements may have had time to arrive, helping to balance the forces. Nevertheless, for whatever reason he did it, inviting the Vikings onto the mainland sacrificed a very good position, and gave up what small advantage that the English had.
The Battle of Maldon contains qualities that most heroic poems contain. Almost always, heroic poems narrate the deeds of dead warriors or achievers who may have died struggling. We can see how the bard or the poet narrates the deeds of Byrhtnoth in battle. The poet uses both dramatic and formal styles. The dramatic style makes the words of Byrhtnoth sound and clear.
It gives the opportunity for Byrhtnoth to make his speech. This style will enable the poem to be easily adapted into drama. The poet’s narrative technique is also formal. He seems not too familiar with the hero. He recounts his strengths and weaknesses objectively. His journalistic documentation of the poem makes it different from a full-fledged epic poem. The next sub-topic will elucidate more on the nature of heroic poetry as exemplified in The Battle of Maldon.
Heroic Style in The Battle of Maldon
All heroic poems have some relationship with history, either genuine history or what is believed to be genuine history; but only in “Maldon” is the history so recent as to make the account of the battle almost a news story. Research shows that English chroniclers and Scandinavian skalds often produced occasional verse in celebration of particular events, but such verse is likely to be a collection of the facile phrases of official court eulogy or of patriotic propaganda.
The structure of the poem falls into two parts: the first part deals with the beginning of the battle and the death of Byrhtnoth; the second part describes the individual speeches and actions of the surviving retainers. These two parts are noticeably different in style and tone.
The focus in the first part is mainly on Byrhtnoth and his activities as a leader. He orders his retainers into formation, gives elementary instruction to the crowd of untrained peasants who make up the army, and serves spokesman for his people. He, at first, orders the ford to be held and then allows the Vikings access to the mainland.
In a general way, the poem is dominated by what we might call simply the realistic style – plain, concrete, sometimes almost like prose, and with very few of the noun-compounds so common in most Old English verse. The following passage points to this:
When they (the Vikings) understood and saw clearly that they were meeting fierce defenders of the bridge, the hateful strangers began to use trickery and asked to have access (to the shore), to go over the ford and bring their troops.
In itself this style is rather remarkable, for it could not have been easy to use the Old English poetic style, with its unfortunate tendency to dissolve frequently into echoing and eddying variations, to tell a plain tale with such economy. The poet may have intentionally used the broken style to signify the fall of the Anglo-Saxon. Nevertheless the starting of the poem seems the poem may have been abridged as it begins with ellipsis before we are being introduced to the main action of the warriors on the field.
…. Was broken.
He bade a warrior abandon his horse
And hurry forward to join the fighters,
That the poem makes use of prosaic diction in some places does not lessen its weight of being categorized as a heroic poem. This is because as the poem progresses the prosaic style becomes elevated most especially in the way Byrhtnoth Viking messenger:
Byrhtnoth addressed him, brandished his shield
Shook pliant ash-spear, speaking with words
Enraged and resolute, gave him answer:
‘Hear you, sea-rover, what my people say?
The tribute they’ll send you is tribute of spears,
Ancient sword-edge and poisoned point,
Weapons availing you little in war!
Pirate messenger, publish this answer,
Proclaim to your people tidings more grim;
Here stands no ignoble eorl with his army
Guarding my lord aEthelred’s country and coast
His land and his folk. The heathen shall fall
In the clash of battle. Too shameful it seems
That you with your tribute should take your ships
Unfought when thus far you have invaded our land.
You shall not so easily take our treasure,
But sword edge and spear-point first shall decide,
The grim play of battle, ere tribute is granted.’
There is a marked tendency in Maldon” for these two styles to alternate, an alternation which usually coincides with shifts from action to summarizing reflection, or from personal encounters in battle to mass “tactical” movements, or from concrete details to generalizations. Epic diction become noticeably more frequent as the poem goes on, not only in set-pieces like the passage quoted but also in the language of the speeches and particularly in the highly stylized way of describing the fighting. This increasing use of epic diction is very much related to the meaning of the poem. A real historical event is being raised to a higher level of significance; the actions thus become increasingly symbolic; the ordinary identifiable men of Essex approach and enter the world of heroes, the world of legend.
The pattern of the poem from line 40 may be described as an elevation of style, if we may extend style to mean a way of acting as well as a way of speaking. It is the heroic style itself which is embodied in the figure of Byrhtnoth, both in the way he speaks and in the way he acts. He is the pattern and formula for the rest. He acts and talks like a hero. Ho encourages his soldiers and sthrenghten them. When he is dying, his courage never ceases. He speaks boldly for the repose of his soul if he dies.
Like Beowulf when he encounters Unferth at King Hrothgar’s court, Byrhtnoth is faced with a verbal challenge. The Viking messenger’s speech (29-41) is a master-piece of insult, deliberately infuriating in its arrogance and its tone of contemptuous wheedling. The heroic verbal response is unquestionably demanded. Like Beowulf, Byrhtnoth meets his challenge perfectly. He can match irony with even greater irony. Like the spear which Wulfmaer later draws from Byrhtnoth’s body and sends back to kill a Viking, the barbed words of the Viking’s challenge are deftly caught, ironically accepted, and sent back in a notable display of heroic wit.
Just like Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon is another Anglo-Saxon war poem which ends tragically. The poem’s simplicity and directness point to the fact that the Anglo-Saxon poet has created a heroic poem out of brute fact. He has been able to forego the great resources of the epic poets- the romantic glamour of antiquity and strange beings, or the plot and characters already long cherished by the audience.
In this article, we have been able to see what heroic poetry is all about. We also discussed The Battle of Maldon as a heroic poem. We were able to also trace the history of England to the period of several battles between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxon.