Notes on The Battle of Maldon

Compiled by Jonathan A. Glenn

Read my translation of the poem.

Commentary

Composed soon after the battle (AD 991) and told from the retainers' point of view.

(Use this link for maps of the region and of the battle site.)

The poem is aristocratic: "Maldon is of the same school as Beowulf and nearer to Beowulf in heroic art and social feeling than any other Old English poem"; and, again, "Maldon is even more directly in the heroic tradition than Beowulf; it is indeed the only purely heroic poem extant in Old English, since Finnesburh and Waldere are too fragmentary for their general scope and quality to be gauged" (E. V. Gordon 23-24). The poem is characterized by restraint (1) in representation of action and (2) in style: "Maldon has less ornament than any other Old English poem, and aims at severe simplicity and directness. . . . The verse of Maldon accordingly lacks the richness of Beowulf or of Cynewulf's poetry, but it is swifter, more forcible, and no less suitable for its purpose than the technically more 'correct' verse of Beowulf." Gordon notes that individual action "often has symbolical significance, representing the action of many" and claims that "there is not a poetically weak passage in the whole poem" (27-29).

Scragg, in his supplement to the 1976 edition of the poem, reviews criticism between 1937 and 1976 and finds three critical positions: (1) emphasis on Byrhtnoð's Fault (ofermod): critics have argued about the meaning of the word and on both sides of the issue; (2) seeing the poem as an ironic comment on the heroic ethos (but note that the authorial comment is straightforwardly in favor of the heroic and that the irony in the poem is of a clear sort); (3) seeing the poem not as a heroic celebration but as one about Christian faith (probably not a strong position).

Outline

[Beginning missing.]

  1. Byrhtnoð arrays his troops (1-25)
    1. The gallant stops hawking
    2. The fyrd 'army' is arrayed
    3. Byrhtnoð joins his Heorðwerod 'hearth-troop; the body of hearth-companions'
  2. Challenges Exchanged (26-62)
    1. Wicinga ar 'Viking messenger'
    2. Byrhtnoð (scornfully): Hi willað eow to gafole garas syllan 'they will to you as tribute give spears' (47)
  3. The standoff (63-95)
    1. Neither troop can reach the other
    2. Viking's guile: They ask safe passage to land (appeal to "fair play").
    3. Byrhtnoð's pride:

      Ða se eorl ongan     for his ofermode
      alyfan landes to fela     laþere ðeode;
      ongan ceallian þa     ofer cald wæter
      Byrhthelmes bearn     (beornas gehlyston):
      'Nu eow is gerymed:     gað ricene to us
      guman to guþe.     God ana wat
      hwa þære wælstowe     wealdan mote.' (89-95)

      [Then the earl for his arrogance
      left too much land to a hostile people.
      Then over cold water Byrhthelm's son
      began to call (men listened):
      "Now you have room: come quickly to us,
      warriors to war. God alone knows
      who may master this battlefield."]

  4. The Battle (96-184)
    1. "Battle-Hedge" set up; Birds of Battle
    2. Fighting described as a series of single combats (which stand for more general conditions). Alistair Campbell considers this evidence of classical influence.
    3. Death of Byrhtnoð: his dying words of thanks to God and encouragement to his Hyssas 'youths'
  5. Folc Totwæmed 'folk/people divided' (185-294)
    1. Flight of Godric, Godwine, and Godwig: the traitors
    2. Beot of the loyal retainers (203 ff.)

      hi woldon þa ealle     oðer twega
      lif forlæten     oððe leofne gewrecan. (207-08)

      [they all wished, then, one of two things--
      to leave life or loved one to avenge.]

    3. Offa's death (the final straw)

      Raðe wearð æt hilde     Offa forheawen.
      He hæfde ðeah geforþod     þæt he his frean gehet,
      swa he beotode ær     wið his beahgifan
      þæt hi sceoldon begen     on burh ridan,
      hale to hame,     oþþe on here crincgan,
      on wælstowe     wundum sweltan.
      He læg ðegenlice     ðeodne gehende. (288-96)

      [Quickly at fight Offa was hewn;
      he had, though, furthered what he promised his lord,
      as he boasted before with his ring-giver,
      that they should both into burg ride
      hale home or in battle fall,
      on the corpse-field with wounds perish.
      He lay thegnly, his lord near.]

  6. Last desperate stand about Byrhtnoð's body (294-325)

    Byrhtwold's famous last words:

    Hige sceal þe heardra,     heorte þe cenre,
    mod sceal þe mare,     þe ure mægen lytlað. (312'13)

    [Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
    mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.]

[End missing]

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Jonathan A. Glenn, University of Central Arkansas

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