Language and the Heroic Code: The Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon uses linguistic tools to glorify the military capabilities of the Saxons, who are in reality the losing side, while minimizing the victory of the invading Vikings. Through use of language the poem eternalizes both individual heroes and traitors, while also reasserting the value of kinship and the promotion of the heroic code. Through denying agency to the Vikings in favor of individual Saxon warriors, the poet glorifies the English troops highlighting the vested political interests of the piece. This is shown through the use of passive voice to describe the loses of the English forces, for example the breaking of English defenses is stated as “Ða wearð borda gebræc (Then shields were broken)” (295). The effect of this is that the agents of the destruction of the “borda” (the subject of the line) are linguistically hidden, downplaying a crucial military loss. This trend is further evidenced in the line “Gar oft þurhwod / fæges feorhhus (The spear often pierced the body of the fated man)” (296-7) whereby the inanimate object of the spears themselves act as the agent of the sentence, as opposed to the Vikings who threw them. Indeed, when the Vikings are referred to in this section, it is often through the use of common nouns such as “brimmen (seamen)” (29); denied both a formal and individual identity they simply become a negative mass. In contrast, the military victories of the English forces are given specific detail, through abundant use of proper nouns, with the heroes being almost sanctified by the poet. For example, the warrior Wistan, “Þurstanes suna” (298), is immediately defined by his ancestral heritage, and his prowess at battle is given specific detail, stating he is the “geþrang” of three Vikings – here the active voice provides both detail and glory to the hero. The marginalization of the Vikings alongside the appraisal of the Saxons feeds into the political purpose of the poem, which could be described as propaganda to unite the people against the enemy. Thus, rather than an objective account of the battle, Maldon shows a prioritizing of Saxon culture and the heroic code, which stressed the importance of loyalty to clan leaders (including after death) and bravery, even in the face of military defeat. By linguistically denying the Vikings agency the poem emphasizes and glorifies the heroes of a losing battle and glosses over the typically crushing nature of military defeat. The power of language in relation to the heroic code is highlighted when brothers Oswald and Eadwold rally support from the men through their words: “Hyra winemagas / wordon bædon (They entreated their dear kinsmen with their words)” (306). The noun “winemagas” acts both as a term of endearment and a description of a social structure that promotes unity and comradery. Moreover, the line feeds into a reoccurring motif, crucially that the power of language can motivate those to fight – for example earlier on in the poem Byrhtnoth rallies his men through similar power of speech. In many respects, this motif reflects the purpose of the piece itself: through language the poet reasserts the importance of Saxon social structures. The use of the first person plural pronoun during Byrhtwold’s speech, such as within the line “Her lið ure ealdor / eall forheawe (Here lies our lord all cut down)” (314), further promotes a sense of community. In contrast to the Vikings, the English forces are presented as a collective entity with a distinguishable identity, one which is formed around social structures – such as the heroic code and kinship – that the poem strives to uphold. The value of the heroic code also feeds into the lexicon, as the Saxons are described as having “stodon fæste (stood fast)” (301) both physically through not deserting the battle and mentally through continuing to uphold the values of the code, namely to preserve honour even after the death of an “ealdor” (314). The correlation of the mental and physical is further suggested by Byrhtwold who takes charge of the poem through his proverbial speech: “Hige sceal þe heardra, / heorte þe cenre Mod screal þe mare, / þe ure mægen lytlað (The mind must be tougher, the heart the bolder, resolve must be greater, as our strength becomes less)” (312-13). The decline of physical strength is correlated with the need for a rise in mental strength, with the poet equating the concrete nouns of “sceal” and “heorte” with the abstract nouns of “screal” and “mægen”. This reinforces the idea that this is both a physical and ideological battle., moreover, the repeated use of comparative adjectives such as “heardra” alongside an imperative reflects the necessity of upholding heroic values. The social significance of the speaker and his speech is shown through his description as an “eald geneat (old retainer)” (310) who speaks “ful baldlice (very boldly)” (311). Firstly, his label of an old retainer gives him authority within the kin social structure and secondly the use of consecutive adverbs (“ful baldlice”) demonstrate this authority. Indeed, this authority is so great that he literally takes charge of the poem a trend that it shown earlier on in the poem with the bravest warriors being granted a voice. This is in contrast to those that pervert the heroic code and desert the battle, as Byhrtwold argues, they will always regret it or “wendan þenceð” (line 316). The use of future tense acts both as a warning and a reference to the fact that those dissenters, such as Godric, will be eternalised within the poem itself for their transgressions. The Battle of Maldon is a poem that juggles with the conflicting forces of telling a story of defeat while also upholding heroic values. The language of the poem reflects this struggle between historical accuracy and “propaganda”, which due ultimately results in the glorification of the Saxons and the marginalization of the Viking forces within the narrative. The influence of the heroic code on both the message and lexis cannot be overstated, particularly the final sections of the extract which promote mental resilience in the face of physical death. Finally, the frequent use of naming in the poem acts as a promotion of the heroes of the tale but also a demonization and warning to those fail to meet the heroic expectations of the social structure.

The Bravery of Byrtnoth

When reading The Battle of Maldon, I found myself attempting to grade the noble Byrhtnoth using the heroic code as a rubric. Initially, I doled out poor marks, labeling Byrhtnoth as a failure according to the heroic code. However, after reexamining the poem and critiquing my own verdict, I concluded that Byrhtnoth instead served an unfit king, and is unfairly cast as a disappointment during the Battle of Maldon. In fact, Byrhtnoth is fiercely heroic and notably brave, exemplified by his willingness to commit entirely to a fight in spite of the resoundingly unfavorable odds, his ability to command an amount of respect from his thanes that is awe-inspiring, and his devoted dedication and understanding of the heroic code.

In the moments that precede the Battle of Maldon, a vivid picture is painted. From the opening lines of the poem, it is apparent that the Anglo-Saxon army is far from elite. The bold Byrhtnoth begins “to array the troops,” who are clearly greenhorn soldiers (17). Inexperienced in the art of war, the protector of heroes shows the soldiers “how they should stand” and instructs them on the proper way “to hold their shields securely” (18,20). It would be easy to criticize Byrhtnoth for the deficiencies of the assembled men, as I initially did; however, there is a certain nobility and admiration associated with dedicating to the cause in spite of the disadvantages. Despite leading a group of (arguably) misfits into battle, Byrtnoth commits to the battle ahead, impressively dismissing a messenger who attempts to make a deal: “a truce in exchange for gold” (35). He instead bids the seafarer to relay a message. Byrtnoth makes a formal boast that is both brave and pragmatic. In short, the tremendous thane pledges to “defend his homeland,” he never promises that the English will emerge victorious, however (52). This willingness to die for his own lord, who is visibly absent from the battle, exemplifies Byrtnoth’s bravery and his readiness to fully honor the comitatus; even if his lord did not entirely deserve this level of commitment.

Throughout the battle, Byrtnoth commands a great deal of respect from his thanes, especially following his death, which is remarkable. I found this intriguing because the reverence shown by the English soldiers rivals that of the typical lord/thane relationship, so much so that I initially believed Byrtnoth to be a king rather than a lord. Following an impressive battle advance, Byrtnoth is eventually struck down and “departs in peace” (179). The poet takes great care to convey that two fellow soldiers, Wulmar and Ælfnoth, “both lay dead / and gave up their lives” fighting beside Byrtnoth (183-184). The fact that these men were willing to die in battle alongside Byrtnoth speaks volumes to the amount of respect these men had for the “noble thane of Æthelred” (151). As the remaining soldiers discover that Byrtnoth has fallen, they each make a final boast and charge valiantly into battle to avenge him. An additional aspect that deserves mention which also illustrates the influence that Byrtnoth held over fellow soldiers occurs after his death. When those who were against the battle see that Byrtnoth has been slain, they abandon their fellow thanes. In the heat of battle, many English soldiers mistake a fleeing man for Byrtnoth, they, too, follow suit. I find it interesting that these men would choose to abandon battle and risk possible exile. This willingness illustrates that these thanes respected Byrtnoth more than they feared breaking the heroic code.

Even in death, Byrtnoth is able to sway the Anglo-Saxon soldiers, a feat that great kings could not even accomplish when alive. A great point of debate, and arguably the turning point of the battle occurs when Byrtnoth grants passage to the Vikings, allowing them to approach. This “overconfidence” can be labeled as one of Byrtnoth’s flaws. However, in accordance with the heroic code, this eagerness to “bring on the battle” exemplifies how a heroic man should view a fight (89,94). While it might not be the smartest decision, it is a choice that leaves no doubt in regard to Byrtnoth’s bravery and desire to construct his own legend. When a battle looms ominously in the distance, warriors embrace it, and only cowards avoid it. Governed by a set of principles that values fame, Byrtnoth was proactive in his war strategy, inviting the enemy. The battle itself was inevitable, but Byrtnoth’s enterprising attitude to wield his own wyrd illustrates his understanding of the heroic code and his deep commitment to these governing guidelines.

It is too easy to simply dismiss Byrtnoth for his miscalculation during battle. Instead, Byrtnoth should be graded against the principles of the entire heroic code. His ferocious bravery, his capacity to command an amazing amount of respect in spite of his miscalculation, and his deep understanding and commitment to the heroic code are tangible evidence that Byrtnoth was a close human representation of the heroic code and should not be labeled a failure. The legend that surrounds his name should be one constructed entirely of fame. Weaving his legend with shameful seams is too easy, and does not take into account the entirety of the heroic code.