The Battle of Maldon
Newly translated from the Anglo-Saxon by
(In preparation for an upcoming reflection on a lesser-known work of J. R. R. Tolkien)
On the 10th or 11th of August, AD 991, longships carrying as many as 4,000 Vikings sailed up to an island in the Blackwater River (then called the Panta) in Essex, England. Here the invaders waited, knowing that at low tide the river would leave a land bridge between the island and the Essex shore. No sooner had they arrived than the Anglo-Saxon ealdorman Beorhtnoth, thane of King Aethelred the Unready, came to meet them with a small contingent of Saxon warriors.
This is where the 325-line fragment of Old English poetry known as The Battle of Maldon begins …
Out went the tide; the seamen ready stood,
A multitude of Vikings impatient for the strife.
Then Beorhtnoth, Protector of men, commanded a battle-hardened warrior,
Wulfstan his name, — that was Ceola’s son,
Brave among his kin — to hold the bridge.
The first man to set foot upon the bridge, boldest of them all,
He shot down with the shaft of his spear.
There beside Wulfstan, the undaunted warrior,
Stood Aelfere and Maccus, a hearty pair.
Unwilling they to take flight at the ford.
Steadfast instead they stood firm against the foe
Just so long as they were able to wield their weapons.
When the enemy understood and presently perceived
That here they would find bitter bridge-wards,
Those unwelcome guests betook themselves to trickery:
They bid the English grant them leave to come ashore,
Over the ford to fare, and bring up their foot-troops.
Then it was that the eorl, out of overweening pride,
Conceded too much ground to the hostile host.
Then it was that Beorhthelm’s bairn began calling to them
Over the cold water — the men listened:
“Now you have room enough; come quickly to us,
Warriors to the fight! God alone knows
Who will command the field of slaughter!”
Then the war-wolves raged, recking not the waves;
West over Pantan the Viking troop
Carried their shields; across the bright water
The shipmen to the land bore the linden boards.
There against the grim foe, proud and prepared,
Stood Beorhtnoth and his men. With bucklers he bade them
Make up the phalanx and hold back that troop,
Firm against the foe. Then the battle closed.
There was glory in the strife. The time had come
That doomed men there should fall.
There was the hue and cry upheaved, the ravens wheeled,
The eagle yearning for carrion. A cry was raised on earth.
Then from their hands men soon let fly
File-hardened shafts and grimly ground spears;
Bows were busy. The shield received the spearhead.
Bitter was the battle-rush. Heroes fell
On either hand. Young men lay dead.
Wounded was Wulfmaer – he chose the bed of slaughter;
He, Beorhtnoth’s kinsman, his sister’s son,
Was by the sword sorely forhewn.
And there the Vikings received their due:
I heard that Eadweard slew a man
Straightly with his sword, spared not the stroke,
So that at his feet the fey champion fell.
For this his Lord thanked him,
Faithful chamberlain, when he had space …
(To be continued …)