Lexical structure in The Battle of Maldon


  • Alex I. Jones


The poem known as The Battle of Maldon tells in circumstantial detail the story of one of the many English defeats at the hands of the Northmen during the long and ill-starred reign of Aethelred. Though the poem is not without its moments of clumsiness,and bathos lines 5 and 6 and line 325 spring to mind, as do the awkward jingles of lines 271, 282, and 2991 - the episode it describes has all the power of classic tragedy as it moves from the fatal self-confidence of Byrhtnoth to his death, the breaking of the English ranks in the following confusion, and the final unforgettable enunciation of the heroic values by Byrhtwold, the old and hardened warrior steadfast in the face of the inevitable. But what, finally, is the poem about? If the battle is its topos, what is its purpose? It does not seem appropriate as a memorial piece for Byrhtnoth: there is no encomium on the fallen leader, though undoubtedly his followers hold him in high esteem. If it is a celebration of heroism and the heroic values it is a deeply ironical one - generosity and honour seem to lead to collective and individual disaster. There is no sign here of the give and take that is so affecting in the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard; here a society is confronted with treachery within and savagery without and crumbles before them. Again, the poem is not a Christian one in the sense that as a whole it dramatizes a religious message: it is not overtly an exemplum. Although the contrast is drawn between Byrhtnoth in prayer for his soul (11. 173-80) and the hapene scealcas (l. 181 ), the English never claim to be fighting for christendom, but for their king and their land.