Monday, August 3, 2009

Maldon 991:the Anglo-Saxon art of defiance #1

Ok, so it's August, any excuse to trot this one out. In August 991 an English army under Ealdorman Byrthnoth was defeated by a Viking army at Maldon in modern Essex. The poem, or what's left of it, describes the defeat. It begins as the English army arrive on the banks of the Pant and line up facing the Vikings who are on an island in the estuary.

The vikings send a messenger over who basically says: we don't need to fight, you just give us treasure and we'll trot back to our ships. Under Aethelred the English had been buying them off. Byrthnoth's reply, or a scrambled version of it, has been in my head since I first read it way back in 1980.

A translation won't catch the bitter humour or the absolute resolution of the reply but anyway. What he says is:

"Gehȳrst þū, sǣlida, hwæt þis folc seġeð?
Hī willað ēow tō gafole gāras syllan
ǣttrynne ord and ealde swurd,
þā hereġeatu þe ēow æt hilde ne dēah.
Brimmanna boda, ābēod eft onġēan:
seġe þīnum lēodum miċċle lāþre spell,
þæt hēr stynt unforcūð eorl mid his werode
þe wile ġealgean ēþel þysne,
Æþelrēdes eard ealdres mīnes
folc and foldan. Feallan sceolon
hǣþene æt hilde! Tō hēanliċ mē þinċeð
þæt ġē mid ūrum sceattum tō scype gangon
unbefohtene, nū ġē þus feor hider
on ūrne eard in becōmon.
Ne sceole ġē swā sōfte sinc ġegangan;
ūs sceal ord and ecg ǣr ġesēman
grim gūðplega ǣr wē gofol syllon."

D’you hear, seafarer, what this folk say? As tribute they will give you spears, poisoned points, old swords, war gear that will avail you little in the battle.
Messenger of the seamen, go back and tell your people a far more hateful message: here stands, undaunted, an earl with his troop, who will defend this homeland, the land of Aethelred and my elders, both folk and fold. Heathens shall fall in battle! It would be shameful if you should go back to your ships with our treasures or come any further into our homeland without a fight. Not so softly will you win our treasure. First point and edge in grim battle play will reconcile us before we will give tribute.

There are some grim jokes that don't translate, but there's something magnificent in the defiance. The OE works aloud (he confesses to trying it on a river bank) alternating between tub thumbing heroism and sly humour.

The viking messenger offers him the easy option and he flatly rejects it. At this stage there is no suggestion that if it does come to a battle he can't win or won't win.

There are times such attitudes need evoking...if merely in private situations that are intolerable; a kind of this far; no further and to hell with the consequences.

Later in the poem, in what is usually described as one of the most succinct expressions of the "heroic ethos' in OE poetry, the choice will be much more limited; the consequences far more obviously grim.

But that for later.

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