(Also published at http://herenistarionnets.blogspot.com/)
Let the randomness begin!
So this is perhaps not the best essay that I have ever written, and it goes against the grain to disagree with Tolkien, given his great understanding of Anglo-Saxon England and its culture, as well as his knowledge which far exceeds mine. However, with that said, I deeply believe what I have written. Here follows a paper written for my Anglo-Saxon Lit. class at college. The translations are all my own
Ofermod or “Northern Courage”?
The Tragedy of the Heroic Germanic Code in Anglo-Saxon England
“Hyge sceal þy heardra, heorte þy cenre,
mod sceal þy mare þy ure mægen lytlaþ.”
“Mind shall be harder, heart be bolder,
spirit be greater though our strength sinks”
“The Battle of Maldon” (lines 312-13).
So spoke Byrhtwold, Byrhtnoth’s retainer, in what is perhaps the single most famous line of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Scholars had long considered both speech and “The Battle of Maldon” to be a celebration of “northern courage” until J.R.R. Tolkien argued that Byrhtnoth as a superior, and as the commander of a battle troop, had a moral obligation to his men under which “northern courage” had no place. In other words, he had no business letting the Vikings cross the river. Unlike earlier scholars, Tolkien saw the poem as a criticism of Byrhtnoth.
While I do think that Tolkien raised some very important points, and that there is a level to which Byrhtnoth’s’ ofermod drove his deeds too far, I also believe that there an extent to which this ofermod driven action might only seen as a bad thing because they lost. It is likely that had they won, this action would have made him a hero. This same ofermod would have made the warriors famous and their deeds celebrated. Furthermore, I believe Byrhtnoth was caught in a double bind, and that the poem is a celebration of northern courage that recognises that the very system it loves is also fatally flawed.
Tolkien argued that the doctrine of “Northern Courage” only “appears in this clarity, and (approximate) purity, precisely because it is put in the mouth of a subordinate” for whom “personal pride was … at its lowest, and love and loyalty at their highest” (Tolkien 144). Byrhtnoth, on the other hand, as the leader of these men ought to have made their lives his first priority and not let the Vikings come ashore unchallenged. However, I do not see “Maldon” as a criticism of Byrhtnoth in allowing the Vikings to cross the river, but rather a criticism that
“Þa se eorl ongann for his ofermode
aliefan landes to fela laðre þeode.”
“The ealdorman then undertook, for his excessive pride,
to allow too much land to the loathsome people” (89-90).
The issue does not seem to be that he allowed the Vikings to cross at all, but rather that he allowed them “too much land” when they did cross. It is also highly doubtful that the Vikings would have been so intimately acquainted with Byrhtnoth himself that they could devise such a plan as they did:
“ongunnon lytigian þa laðe giestas,
bædon þæt hie upp-gangan agan mosten…”
“The abominable enemies undertook to use guile,
demanded that they be permitted passage to shore… ” (86-87).
Rather, it seems to imply that the Vikings knew that any Anglo-Saxon commander would become recklessly “honourable” when taunted thus, and therefore their request was calculated to be insulting enough to warrant such a response. Such a reading would rely on “northern courage” as a thriving and widespread system of behaviour that encompassed kings and leaders as well as their thanes. While this view does not exonerate Byrhtnoth from sacrificing the lives of his men, it may perhaps explain why only two lines out of more than three hundred focus on Byrhtnoth’s choice to let the Vikings cross, and why the greater part of the poem details instead how bravely the men fought around the body of their fallen lord.
Tolkien, fresh from the horrors of World War I, argued that Byrhtnoth had no right to let the Vikings cross, unchecked, before engaging them in battle, “northern courage” or no. He said:
“ [T]his element of pride, in the form of the desire for honour and glory … tends to grow,
to become a chief motive, driving a man beyond the bleak heroic necessity to excess – to chivalry.
‘Excess’ certainly, even if it be approved by contemporary opinion, when it not
only goes beyond need and duty, but interferes with it” (Tolkien 144).
might fight on level terms, the Vikings were not only stacking matters in their favour (but when have they not), they were also implying that Byrhtnoth and his men were not honourable. It is this last, I believe, that causes Byrhtnoth to act in his ofermod for it has been previously established that “her stent unforcuþ eorl mid his weorde,” or that “here stands an undisgraced ealdorman with his troop” (line 51).
Byrhtnoth can either refuse to let the Vikings pass and continue the fight as it was before, hoping that the Vikings will not sail away, or he can do what he does in the poem, let the Vikings cross and fight a “fair” fight. If he does the former and wins, he and his men will live in the knowledge that the fight was neither strictly “honorable” nor “fair”, even if the whole world praises them for turning aside the Viking threat. For, as Tolkien says, they expect everyone to behave honourably, “even if there [are] no witnesses” (Tolkien 144). Perhaps it is this idea that leads Byrhtnoth to jeopardize his “one object, the defence of the realm from an implacable foe” and leads to, as it turns out, “the ruin of his purpose and duty” (146).
It is easy to say that Byrhtnoth’s actions were “stupid” or “irresponcible” or any other negative term, but our society has so many different “norms” and places so much less emphasis on honour than did the Anglo-Saxons, that we cannot judge them on our terms. Perhaps even Tolkien, who probably could understand the Anglo-Saxon mind set better than anyone else in our time, was so – understandably – influenced by his times and his own experiences, that even he could not fully understand their society as it existed.
Perhaps Byrhtnoth was irresponsible and foolish to let the Vikings cross, and whether he was or not, he lost the battle. Perhaps the poem is a criticism of his actions, or of “northern courage”, or perhaps it is a poem that celebrates this “northern courage” even while seeing its flaws. A poem that can, like “Njal’s Saga”, offer a clear sighted critique on the culture it loves without passing judgement on those caught in the heroic tragedy of “northern courage”, for the poet dwells less on Byrhtnoth’s ofermod than he does on the fierce pride of Byrhtnoth’s retainers.
“Ic þæt gehate, þæt ic heonan nylle
fleon fotes trym, ac wille furðor gan,
wrecan on gewinne minne wine-dryhten.”
“I vow that I will not, from this place,
flee one foot’s tread, but will further go
to avenge in battle my ealdorman and friend”
“… fram ic ne wille,
ac ic me be healfe minum hlaforde,
swa leofum menn licgan þence.”
“… I will not from hence,
for I desire to lie beside my lord,
to lie dead with the dearest of men”
Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
Beorththelm’s Son. Paperback ed. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001. Print.