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The Beginning of English Literature– Heroic Poetry

England, previously known as Albion, was inhabited by the Celts, when in 440 AD came the marauding pirates of the Northern seas and modern Scandinavian countries – the Angels, the Saxons, the Jules and the Frisians. By 600 AD these Germanic tribes had occupied large swathes of land and the term “Anglo – Saxon” was coined for them. Major kingdoms included Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. Due to their heroic culture, the army was the chief occupation. This period is mostly characterized by oral literature recited from mnemonic memory, by a “Scop” (contractual court-poet), reciting in public the heroism and patriotism of warriors, sometimes accompanied by the harp. These poems are fragmented at times owing to decay, lack of reproduction and the Cottonian Fire of 1731.

“Battle of Maldon” is one such heroic poem, having its underpinning in a battle between the Celts and the Vikings in 991 AD on the south-western bank of the Blackwater Estuary (then called “Panta”). It furnishes an account of the “ealdorman” (nobleman) of Essex – Byrhtnoth, and the commander of the English “fyrd” (army). The poem commences with a gutsy assertion by the ideal leader when the Viking ambassador demands fealty of submission. Byrhtnoth proclaims:

“Now hear you, sailor,
What we Saxons say. We’ll tender you tribute,
We’ll pay you your price; but with seasoned swords –
And with sharpened spears…
We’ll defend this domain…”

However Byrhtnoth’s valiance is blemished by “ofermode” or hubris. He underestimates the fiends and walks right into their trap – taking up their offer of a fair and square battle. He clears the embanked causeway and allows the Vikings to regroup in a tactical setback, without consulting the “Witan” Council of Elders. The Vikings, with their “lytegian” (cunning) decimate the Celts. However, a strong sense of “commitatus loyalty” (lord-retainer relationship) exists for King Aethelred as the Celts put up a brave fight. Byrhtnoth is martyred with a poisoned spear.

The poem is unequivocal on the themes of valiance, determination, patriotism, loyalty and martial spirit. It has a theme in pride. A man can be bold and resolved, but still endure defeat owing to faulty judgment. The account is embellished with myriad speeches comprising one-fourth of the poem bearing semblance to a Homeric epic. There’s a three-fold division scheme – English have the upper hand (l 1-95), mistake in generalship (l 96 – 184), the English lose the day (l 185 – 325).

By fighting the “saelida” (pirate) Anlaf, Byrhtnoth proves that death over dishonour is the ultimate vindication of the hubris and his death testifies to that. As pointed out by Katherine O’ Brien O’ Keefe, Byrhtnoth’s last words to the Vikings were –

“God alone knows who will control the place of slaughter.”

The battle of Bruanburh, was fought in 937 AD with Wessex and Mercia against Constantine, the monarch of Scotland (who had sworn fealty to Aethelstan) allied with Anlaf (Vikings). Aethelstan, son of King Alfred was an able administrator. There is a depiction of the espionage system. One of Aethlestan’s “fyrd” had recognized his masqueraded former lord, the Danish King, spying on the English army. The soldier remained silent and disclosed the identity of the King on the day before the battle. Shocked and surprised the King questioned him –

“Why didst thou, let him go free?”

The soldier replied –

“Had I betrayed him whose man I once was, wouldst thou whose man I am now trusted me?”

The answer impressed the King and he embraced his warrior. The English emerged triumphant. This was the “sodfaestra Dom” (reward of the just).

This poem, once again, is based on the theme of ‘Commitatus Loyalty’ and brings out a unique nature to it. It ends on a note of victory portraying a vivid picture on the battlefront. The spirited war poem is treated with a tinge of savage irony.

“The Battle of Finnesburh” delineates the failed matrimonial alliance between the Frisians and the Danes. The Frisian king was married to a Dane princess, Hidleburh. Hildeburh’s family was invited to the Frisian’s kingdom. The unarmed Frisian prince is attacked by armed enemies in the dead of the night in an open hall. The Danes showed unparalleled valiance in the standoff and “commitatus loyalty” to their leader. Finn’s son and the Dane prince, Hanef are slaughtered in the blood feud. Hanef’s death is avenged by his retainer, Hengest, who recovers the lost self-respect of the Danes after decimating his enemies after a temporary peace treaty. The entire Kingdom is demolished –

“Fire swallowed up all
The greediest of foes, their glory was past,
When Finnsburh was burned down”

The theme is essentially the concept of “Wergild” where Hengest avenges Hanef by killing Finn. Despite the “geofeohtan dom” (glory in battle), there is only loss as it depicts the woeful condition of widows and children in an elegiac undercurrent of treatment.

Beowulf, the first epic poem in English Literature, was composed in the Mervian dialect in 750 AD and preserved in Cotton Vitellus XV manuscript. It is bifurcated first into a description of Heorot, the Danish King Hrothgar’s court. The King is distraught by the “feond mancynnes” (foe of man), a diabolical and cannibal ogre who wreaks havoc by devouring men alive. The poet describes the monster Grendel as a “wanderer from hell”. Grendel the troll, is born of darkness which is the opposite of light; a forlorn outcast envious of mankind’s prosperity. The only man who can defeat him is Beowulf, son of Hrethrel, nephew of Hygellac who is the King of Geats. The sea warden hails Beowulf’s dramatic entry in the Danish Kingdom as a premonition of his victory.

Beowulf, with a grip of 30 men in one arm, kills Grendel single-handedly in manual combat. He even slays Grendel’s mother in her lair by a magical sword. Heorot breaks into jubilation and Beowulf returns with lavish gifts. In the second section, Beowulf as the aged king of Geats having already avenged the death of Hygellac, swears to bring down the antagonized, fire-breathing dragon that has been awakened by the stealth of a “cup” from the treasure it guards. He succumbs to injuries despite killing the dragon. On the eve of his death he remarks –

“I awaited my destiny on Earth,
Though sick with mortal wounds,
I rejoice.”

The irony of the poem is an instance of “transgression of commitatus loyalty” as many warriors flee from battle, all except Wiglaf who eulogizes him. Beowulf’s subjects pronounce him an example of “lofgeormost” (most eager for eternal glory). Beowulf’s treatment is on an expansive, epic scale and it seems to be a foreign adaptation of Scandinavian sagas. It uses concrete phrases, picturesque compounds and rich digressions.

Waldere, is an eponymous poem where the protagonist is held captive with the Burgundian princess, Hidlegund and a Frank warrior, Hagen – in the court of Attila, the Hun chief. Waldere and Hidlegund, the two lovers escape with a horde of riches. During their flight they are attacked by the Frank King Guthere along with Hagen and eleven other warriors. In the second fragment, both the parties brag their powers and resist each other. Guthere’s men are slain and a fierce battle ensues in which all three men sustain grave injuries. The battle ends peacefully.

The most eminent poems are preserved in the nearly extinct manuscripts “The Beowulf Manuscript”, “The Exeter Book”, “Vercelli Book” and “Junius Manuscript”. Characterized by the common themes of personal freedom, struggle for glory, responsiveness to nature, reverence for womanhood and unflinching loyalty, one cannot really speak in terms of facts as they form a part of oral tradition penned much later in 10th Century AD. However, J.R.R Tolkien reminds us that abstract ideological interpretation of such poems runs the risk of killing its imaginative beauty and splendour. As remarked by Fred. C .Robinson –

“…even the most shining moments in heroic world are darkened by prospects of ineluctable tragedies…”

Picture Courtesy- Wikipedia



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