Monday, August 10, 2009

maldon 991:the Anglo-Saxon art of defiance #2

Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.

Says it all really.

Rebuffed by the English(see part one) the vikings try to force the causeway but are stopped. The messenger returns. No flowery speeches this time. Let us across and we’ll settle this. Byrthnoth agrees. Then,

Wōdon þā wælwulfas (for wætere ne murnon),
wīċinga werod west ofer Pantan,
ofer scīr wæter scyldas wēgon,
lidmen tō lande linde bǣron.

I know it’s a fantasy of mine, but I can hear the “hateful strangers” wading silently, purposefully, across the bright water. You can feel the rustle and clatter running through the East Saxon lines as the “sailors come to land, bearing shields”

The battle goes wrong for the English. Byrthnoth, who is old enough for a free bus pass, is killed, and our poet says, with characteristic economy:

Hī bugon þā fram beaduwe þe þǣr bēon noldon.
(They turned then from the battle, who did not wish to be there)

Seeing someone riding off on Byrthnoth’s distinctive horse, many think he has fled and run after him. But not all the army flees. Byrthnoth’s closest friends and retainers decide to stay. They have boasted they will not leave their lord, their ring giver, dead on the field, and now they keep their promise. Making good your boast, is a theme that runs through Anglo-Saxon poetry. When Beowulf arrives in heorot he makes his boast that he will kill Grendle, without weapons, knowing the consequences of failure.

The poem orders and tidies. We’re reading about a group of men hacking away like lunatics in an abattoir; but their resolution is shaped by the poem’s formal movement. The narrative breaks down into a series of individual vignettes as each man speaks, then steps forward.

But the old retainer's words are still the most succinct definition of resolution that you could hope for:

"Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.
(Thought shall be sterner, heart harder, courage greater, as our might lessens)
Peter Baker suggests; ...because our might lessens)

Kipling states something similar in a very different poem:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

which may have lead to Pink Floyd’s,

“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”

But there is nothing quiet or desperate about the retainers at Maldon. They are at the point where, as Peter Baker points out, physical ability is now largely irrelevant: they know they are not leaving. They are not “hanging on” because there is nothing to hang on for, what matters to them and to the poet, is the will-power to make good a promise.

In the win win world of negotiate and counsel, I’m sure someone would tell those who fled that it was ok really, they were expressing themselves. The value system that might condemn them is merely historically contingent and culturally defined and therefore not necessarily objective and worth worrying about. In fact the ones at fault are the blind fools who weren't critical enough of the dominant hegemonic discourse to see through the way in which ideology had conditioned and manipulated them to behave like obedient puppies serving the self interest of the ruling elites.

But I think there may be something to be said for holding to a considered line, if you’re willing to accept the consequences.

The problem being to find a line which, after long and serious consideration, might be worth holding.

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