Prof. Eileen Joy
IS-399: Lord of the Rings and Medieval Heroic Poetry
Spring 2008

COURSE NOTES #3: Courage and The Battle of Maldon

Figure 1. site of the Battle of Maldon, Northey Island, Essex

The entry for 991 A.D. in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the following:

A.D. 991. This year was Ipswich plundered; and very soon afterwards was Alderman Britnoth (47) slain at Maldon. In this same year it was resolved that tribute should be given, for the first time, to the Danes, for the great terror they occasioned by the sea-coast. That was first 10,000 pounds. The first who advised this measure was Archbishop Siric.

* * *

from James W. Earl, “Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization,” Thinking About Beowulf [Stanford University Press, 1994]; reprinted in The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, ed. Eileen Joy and Mary Ramsey [West Virginia University Press, 2007]:

“We still live in a largely Anglo-Saxon world, and even over a millennium the child is father to the man. Different as we have become from the Anglo-Saxons and from each other, in our cultural origins we still sometimes see stark enlargements of our deepest traits, which otherwise now go unobserved—though they have hardly disappeared for all that. The hall may have become the office, its rituals a system of contracted salaries, duties, and taxes, the wars corporate (or even academic); but the relations of such traditionally male-dominated institutions to women, the family, and religion remain as teasingly unresolved as ever and are still the subject of much of our literature. So too the broken oath, the failed promise, the conflict of loyalties, the silent hero, the alienation of the individual from society, and the problematic roles of women and kinship in social life.” [p. 265]

Earl wonders how Byrhtnoth [the hero of the Old English poem Battle of Maldon] might have been the “intended audience” for Beowulf, and how might the historical [i.e. “real”] Byrhtnoth identified with the fictional Beowulf [could the poem, further, have somehow inspired the real men fighting at the real Battle of Maldon in 991 C.E. in the same way that The Song of Roland might have inspired the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 C.E.?]:

“. . . whereas tragedy [like Oedipus Rex or King Lear] aims at relieving, in its oddly negative way, certain feelings in the audience temporarily—like a laxative [what Aristotle called “catharsis”]—the epic is more positively ambitious: it aims at structuring and reinforcing prevailing social relations by creating and maintaining certain shared attitudes in the audience. Identification is the means to this end, but it is indirect and complex; it is certainly not a matter of encouraging everyone in the audience to imitate the hero—for what kind of society would that be?” [p. 273]

“Did Beowulf insist on going against the dragon alone, or did his men abandon him? Is his heroism exemplary or cautionary? Is the dragon evil, or is the hero cursed for opening the hoard? Is Beowulf wise, over the hill, kingly, proud or foolish? . . . The Battle of Maldon comes with a similar wrinkle. Byrhtnoth’s ofermod is either “great courage” or “overweening pride,” depending on your attitude (and your glossary)—much as the word “pride” today has two morally opposed meanings, as a secular virtue and a religious vice. Ofermod may be the sin of Satan in the [Old English] poem Genesis, but it is difficult to accuse Byrhtnoth of that. After all, The Battle of Maldon’s famous climactic wisdom . . . , which no one has ever thought to criticize, is “mod sceal þe mare” (“mod must be the more,” line 313a). But then again, is Byrhtnoth not responsible for the lives of his men? Does he not condemn them by the heroic code’s expectation that a warrior will fight to the death when his lord has fallen? . . . the ethic of suicidal heroism is so powerful in Maldon precisely because it is freely chosen.” [p. 275]

“. . . to understand Germanic heroism in whatever form it takes, we must always start by going back to Tacitus for the ideal. His famous formula [in his book Germania] has not yet yielded all its secrets:

It is shameful for the lord to be excelled in valor, shameful for his companions not to match the valor of the lord. Furthermore, it is shocking and disgraceful for all of one’s life to have survived one’s lord and left the battle: the prime obligation of the companions’ allegiance is to protect and guard him and to credit their own brave deeds to his glory: the lord fights for victory, the companions for the lord. . . . Banquets and provisions serve as pay. The wherewithal for generosity is obtained through war and plunder.

This passage illuminates quite brightly . . . the contradiction inherent in the Germanic heroic code. The heroism of Wiglaf [in Beowulf] and of Byrhtnoth’s companions is self-evident, set as it is in high relief against the flight of others. Their heroism is essentially their obedience—faithfulness to their oath, willingness to die for their lord, no matter what the cause, no matter how hopeless. Byrhtnoth’s me die for him and for honor, not for the king, or for England, or Christendom: and their more immediate loyalty (treow), which seems to be the chief point of the narrative, is certainly offered as exemplary. But how do we judge the behavior and heroism of Beowulf and Byrhtnoth themselves? Their valor and generosity . . . are not in question. It is not their fortitudo [“strength”] but their sapientia [“wisdom”] we doubt. On this subject, Tacitus is curiously silent, as are our poems. The “literary problem”—in [Colin] Chase’s words, “whether Beowulf’s behavior at the end of the poem is in fact ideal”—reflects a problem in the heroic ideal itself and cannot be solved.” [p. 276]

“Freud discovered two psychologies in his account of the group: ‘From the first there were two kinds of psychologies, that of the individual members of the group and that of the father, chief, or leader. The members of the group were subject to ties just as we see them today, but the father of the primal horde was free. His intellectual acts were strong and independent even in isolation, and his will needed no reinforcement from others’.” [p. 279]

“When we consider Byrhtnoth . . . the situation is complicated by the fact that he is at once both thegn to King Æthelred [Byrhtnoth was an alderman] and lord to his own men. Thus insofar as he is the king’s man, he too [as a possible reader of Beowulf] would shift his identification toward the faithful Wiglaf. . . . Unquestioning obedience is essential to the system. But insofar as Byrhtnoth himself is a lord, he would also maintain his identification directly with the hero, right through to the end of the poem. That is, his identification would become split.” [p. 280]

“The problem of our individuality in relation to the group cannot be solved; the contradictory relation of our freedom to necessity is a problem that cannot be solved; the ego’s relation to the superego is destined to be ambivalent. These are antinomies we learn to live with. Not fortuitously, this lesson is an epic as well as a tragic theme, and thus a deep theme in Beowulf, which is a hymn to the individual hero as much as to the group he belongs to—and which he transcends, at least in desire.” [pp. 280-81]

“At the Battle of Maldon, Byrhtnoth stumbled into one of those rare moments of lordship’s terrible responsibility, when even in his highly codified world he was free to actually choose between desperate alternatives, to fight or not, to die or not, to commit his men to death or spare their lives, to dare to be more valorous and heroic even than the king. . . . What could Byrhtnoth learn from Beowulf? Be generous, be valorous; not much beyond that. It is true that a code of honor, minimal, contradictory, and extremely subtle, can be deduced from heroic poetry. It is seldom articulated, though, because its first rules seem to be silence and restraint. It is a Hemingway heroism of power, generosity, valor, restraint, treow [“troth” or “pledge”], revenge—and occasionally the nobility of spirit to forgo revenge. But this loose, unformulated code provides little guidance at the heroic moment, when unresolvable conflicts arise and a decision must be made, when responsibility and power fall to you. When you are the hero, there is no one to tell you what to do.” [p. 281]