Category Archives: Stories

The Night Terrors VIII


Millstone 001


As I looked on, the entire congregation was changed in the twinkling of an eye and took on the appearance of a great flock of woolly white sheep.  The prophet took his staff and led them away to one side of the sanctuary.

After this, the angel came to me and held up a bright mirror before my face.  Gazing into it, I saw that my own countenance had changed, and that I had taken on the appearance of a scrawny, straggle-bearded goat.  Withdrawing the mirror, the angel led me apart by myself to the other side of the church.

Then the angel and the prophet and the judge and the jurors came and brought my books and my boxes and my notes and my dulcimer and a great heavy chest in which were laid up all the sorrows and pains of which I had been the cause, and they tied all these on my back.  When this was done, they drove me out of the church, down the twelve flights of marble steps, down to the quay at the rippling water’s edge with the great flock of sheep following close behind.

There they took hold of me and tied a huge mill-stone around my neck and cast me into the sea.  I went down in a cold flurry of dark and ever darker green, in a blinding white fury of foam and brine and bubbles that gave way to blackness as the black waters flooded into my lungs and into my soul and stopped dead like a cold dead stone round the dead and stony coldness of my heart.

* * * * * * * * *

The Night Terrors VII

Judge 001


I mounted the pulpit then.  I stood trembling and looked out over that sea of faces, all so well known to me.  I saw the jury seated in the choir loft.  I recognized my teachers, friends, neighbors, relations, and acquaintances and nodded in acknowledgment of their presence.  And then I spoke.  I told them everything.  I told them how it was true that I had never once in my life acted purely out of love for another human being; how everything I had ever done, no matter how good or kind, had been done with an eye to my own self-interest.  I told them how proud and vain I really was; how I desired above all things to be better than others, to be admired and loved and honored and held in high esteem.  I told them, too, how little regard I had ever had for any of them, how I had cleverly manipulated and used them for my own ends.  I told them how I had been sick with longing for things that were not rightly my own and never could be.  And when I had finished telling them all these things, I came down from the pulpit and stood between the prophet and the angel before the pure and shining whiteness of the linen tablecloth.

The judge spoke:

“You stand condemned,” he said quietly; and though I still could not see his face, I knew it was dark and grim.  “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  By your own words you have been judged.  We find ourselves obliged to sentence you to death!”

“Thank you!” I managed to stammer when I could find my voice at last, and I meant it.  My despair was mingled with a sense of gratitude and relief.  Justice, at least, would be served at last.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Night Terrors VI

Prophet and Angel 001


After another awkward pause the judge’s voice rang out once more.

“If the defense is quite finished,” he cried, “then let the prosecution present its case.”

The brown and aged prophet stepped forward. At his side stood an angel robed in purest white.

“Let all who will come forward to bring charges against this defendant!” called the prophet. A sound like thunder followed, and I turned to see what had caused it. The entire congregation was on its feet.

And so they came. The blind and the lame, the halt and the crippled and the maimed, the homeless and marginalized, the friendless and the poor. One by one they all rose up and condemned me.

“I was hungry,” said one, “and you gave me nothing to eat.”

“I was thirsty,” said another, “and you gave me nothing to drink.”

“But I tried my best — ” I began.

“Objection!” cried the prophet. “To try is not enough!”

“Objection sustained!” ruled the judge. “Proceed.”

Some of my neighbors then took the stand.

“I was a stranger,” said one, “and you did not invite me in or speak to me.”

“I was naked,” said another, “and you did not clothe me; sick, and you failed to visit me.”

“But one can only do so much!” I protested.

“It is not enough,” said my neighbor.

“Your Honor, I object!” said I.

“Objection overruled!” the judge responded. “Proceed.”

My friends came forward then. One by one they took the stand.

“I was in need, and you did not help me,” said one.

“You failed to love me as you loved yourself,” said another.

“You were stubborn, selfish, insubordinate, ruled by vain opinions and imaginations,” added a third.

“I was in prison,” said another, “and you did not visit me.”

And so it went until at last the testimony of the final witness had been heard. Then the ancient prophet bowed his balding head and approached the table with great solemnity.

“Your Honor,” he began, “all that you have heard is but as nothing compared with what is to follow. For there remains yet one more witness whose testimony far outweighs the rest.”

“Who is this witness?” I feebly asked, sick with despair; for I half suspected the answer already, and sensed that my case was lost.

“It is yourself!” said the prophet, jabbing a withered, bony finger in my direction. “I adjure you now to take the stand and to speak truth this day in the presence of God and these witnesses!”

* * * * * * * *

The Night Terrors V

O' Carolan 001


The last of my advocates brought my hammered dulcimer and set it up and seated me before it. Then he mounted the pulpit and said, “He is reputed to be something of a musician, Your Honor.”

At the sight of my instrument my spirits rose unexpectedly. I picked up the hammers and with them lightly touched the silver strings. In the loft I saw O’ Carolan’s face brighten as he turned blind eyes toward the enchanting sound.

“The timpan!” he whispered with a smile. Then he took up his harp once more and began to play “O’ Carolan’s Concerto.” I was familiar with the tune, and began to play with him, strong and confident at first, as the combined sounds of the two instruments floated and flew around the length and breadth of the sanctuary and swept upward to the ceiling like two butterflies in bright flight. But halfway into the second section of the tune I lost my place. I could not keep up with the furious pace he set. I faltered, fumbled, and paused; then struck a series of blaringly wrong notes in a desperate attempt to save myself; then stopped dead. O’ Carolan stopped too, and turned a blank, bewildered face in my direction.

“Please, sir,” I said after an awkward silence, “that’s a tune I don’t know well. Can we try another?”

George MacDonald leaned forward in his seat. “‘The Flooers o’ the Forest!’” he eagerly suggested. “Can ye play ‘The Flooers o’ the Forest,’ laddie?”

“N-no, sir,” I stammered, much embarrassed. “I’m afraid I don’t know that one either. But I have been working awfully hard on ‘The Flowers of Edinburgh.’”

“Then play it, by all means!” the old Scotsman said enthusiastically.

So I lifted my hammers once again, and once again let them fall. But though I had practiced it untold times, this time I could not play ‘The Flowers of Edinburgh’ – no, not to save my life. My hands forgot what little skill they had. All the wrong notes rang out strong and clear. The few that were right struck dead as wood on wood. I laid the hammers down and looked up in time to see MacDonald bow his head in dismay.

* * * * * * * *

The Night Terrors IV

MacDonald 001


With rumblings and rustlings and the shutting of many books, everyone sat down again; but I remained standing before the table and heard the judge’s voice spill down over me from above:

“Let the counsel for the defense come forward,” he said.

A few members of my family timidly approached the chancel. They had no formal representation. Instead, one by one they mounted the pulpit, which had been made to serve as the witness stand, and spoke a few words on my behalf.

One of them had brought along a wheelbarrow load of boxes – boxes full of my notebooks, papers, and manuscripts of every kind. Depositing these before the bench as evidence, he said, “Your Honor, this man is a scholar and teacher. He has led many Bible studies.”

A white-wigged, black-jacketed clerk at a desk to one side of the table took note of this, looking unimpressed.

Another of my defenders took a sheaf of papers from one of these boxes and laid it directly on the clerk’s desk.

“He also aspires to write,” he said.

The clerk raised his black, bushy eyebrows and frowned.   Then he instructed the bailiff to take the manuscripts to MacDonald and Bunyan in the choir loft. I saw with what eagerness and good will those two venerable authors received my writings; with what an honest display of hopefulness they opened them and examined their contents. But it was not long before they returned them to the bailiff with looks of bleak disappointment.

* * * * * * * *

The Night Terrors III

Judge 001


We marched straight down the center aisle. The pews were filled, and every face in every pew turned slowly to regard my slow approach. I knew them all, and they knew me; but if ever my eyes met theirs, they suddenly dropped their gaze. It was an expression of shame – shame, not of themselves, but of me.

At last I stood before the chancel. On a lofty platform above me stood the Lord’s Table, draped in a cloth of purest linen that cascaded to my feet in glistening folds of white. So high and elevated was the table that I could not see over the top of it.

A golden-winged angel, robed in white, approached and blew a blast upon a silver trumpet. “All rise!” he cried, and the congregation thundered to its feet. A small door at one side of the chancel opened and a black-robed figure emerged. Such was my position in relation to his that I could not see his face, only his back as he entered. But even his back was terrifying, broad as northern wastes, broad and unfathomable as earth and sea and sky combined, black and deep as night. Over his back rolled the heavy scrolls of his long white wig, white as wool, rippling down like a mighty waterfall. He climbed some steps at the back of the great table and took his seat on a bench behind it.

In the choir loft sat the twelve jurors. They were drawn from among my friends, relations, neighbors, acquaintances, and mentors. Included in their number were Luther, MacDonald, Bunyan, and O’ Carolan, the blind Irish harper.

A bailiff, dressed in cloth-of-gold, came forward and addressed me:

“You have been brought here to stand trial,” he said. “This day the measure of your worth is to be determined.”

At this, O’ Carolan took up his harp. Hymnals were opened, and the congregation sang “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee,” and “Who is on the Lord’s side? Who for Him will go?” Last of all they sang a hymn with words like these:


O Jesus, Thou art standing outside the fast-closed door,

In lowly patience waiting to pass the threshold o’er.

Shame on us, Christian brothers, His name and sign who bear,

O shame, thrice shame upon us, to keep Him standing there!


* * * * * * * *

The Night Terrors II

The Prophet 001


At my question an ancient-looking man pushed his way to me through the crowd. His beard was of a shocking white in contrast with the nut-brown wrinkle of his face. His robe was of rough homespun, woven throughout and seamless. His eyes were blue and clear as the desert sky as he planted his staff upon the ground between us and spoke.

“This is a day of reckoning,” he croaked. “A day of darkness and not of light; a day of sorrow and not of rejoicing.”

Then, when he had produced chains and shackles from the voluminous folds of his mantle, I was swiftly bound hand and foot. Like an implacable and relentless shepherd he drove me with his staff at the head of that silent multitude, up a massively paved road that led straight from the quay to a city set upon a hill. All along that road, larger than life, stood marble statues of the apostles, saints, and martyrs: Peter, head-downward on the cross; Paul, bowing before the sword; Stephen, Antipas, and James the brother of John; Hus and Cranmer and George Eagles called Trudgeover-the-World. They all stood still and watched me pass, and regarded my going with troubled looks.

At the foot of the hill we began to climb a marble stair that rose by twelve flights of seven steps each to the level of the shining city above. The irons on my arms and legs chafed and cut me and grew heavier with each successive step. At the very top of the stair I saw, when I raised my eyes, a church of many spires and towers looming above me, dignified, forbidding, reverend.

At length we reached the top and stood within the twisted and fluted columns of the church’s portico. At last, a fresh breath of sea air reached me there and ruffled my hair and cooled my sweating head. Then the doors were swung open and I was led inside.

* * * * * * * *

The Night Terrors I

In the boat 2 001


It is said that one cannot dream one’s own death and wake to tell the tale. This is a matter of some concern to me, for if this rule holds true, then I am either dead or dreaming still. Be that as it may, for the time being I choose to live in the often desperate hope that there is in fact a third possibility: that in truth I have passed through the darkest part of the night and planted one foot on the shore of a newly dawning day.

My story begins like this:

When the night was darkest, then I slept. And in my sleep I dreamed a dream. And in my dream I looked, and the sea, dark and alive and flecked with foam, stretched out at my feet and away to a shadowy horizon. I stood in the bows of a little black boat that drove of its own accord through glassy black troughs and over frothy crests of waves.

The char-black sky paled to shades of blue, and as my boat pushed on, without my will or aid, jagged shapes of land rose up before these lighter hues. Dim along the water’s edge I saw, as the curling breakers thrust me to the shore, wharfs and quays of somber iron gray, like battle ships drawn up in warlike array. And all along these quays silent faces watched my approach with deliberate, solemn stares.

At last the boat scraped up against the barnacle-encrusted pilings. Firm and gentle hands reached down and pulled me up and set me on my feet upon the landing. I stood amazed, for every one of the hundreds of faces ranged about me was familiar in some degree. There were friends and family, neighbors and acquaintances, teachers and pastors, leaders and followers. Even the authors of the books that had most influenced me were there: Lewis and Luther, Bunyan and MacDonald, Chesterton and Calvin, Foxe and Blaise Pascal. They all stood so still, as if holding their breath, as if in anxious and silent agreement that I must be the first to speak.

“What day is this?” I blurted out, not knowing why …

* * * * *

Heroic Hope

Viking host 001

Heroic Hope

A Reflection on

The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son

by J. R. R. Tolkien


              Alas, my friend, our lord was at fault …

                           Too proud, too princely!


Darkness, thick as a blanket of fog.  Night on the field of slaughter.  The moon and stars retreat behind a veil of cloud.  The scent of blood rises from the damp and broken earth.  The battle is over.  Victory has gone to the enemy.  Beorhtnoth, son of Beorhthelm, eorl of Essex and thane of King Aethelred II, has fallen in the fight.

A glimmer of yellow in the distance:  the beam of an unshuttered dark-lantern comes swinging through the gloom.  In its dim light two bent figures pick their way over the black waste, banging their boots against broken shields, kicking the crests of crushed helms:  Totta, the minstrel’s son, his heart quivering like a harp-string, his sixteen-year-old head full of the words of heroic songs; Tida, the hard-handed old ceorl, tiller of the ground, grim veteran of more Viking raids than he cares to recall.  The one hums a tentative tune.  The other coughs and curses as he slips in the mud and trips over a severed arm.

“We must be getting close,” mutters the old man.  “He’s sure to lie where the fighting was thickest.”

“Never one for the rearguard,” agrees Totta.  “Not the tall lord Beorhtnoth!  His sword was always first in the fray!  He scorned to take advantage of a foe.  We had the heathen at bay, Tida – hemmed in between the inlet and the sea – and he let them cross the causeway!  That’s the old heroic code for you!”

Tida spits.  “That’s stupidity.  We were outnumbered, boy.  But look -–”  He stops short and holds the lantern aloft.  “I believe we’ve found our man at last.”

Totta kneels, peering closely at the body.  “Can’t you be sure?”

“Could be,” says Tida wryly, “if they’d left him his head.  Still, mangled as he is, I’d know our lord anywhere.  Here’s his gold-hilted sword to prove it.  Help me heave him up, lad.  We’ll get him into the wagon.  For all his pride and excess I loved the man, and I mean to see him given a Christian burial.”

Night sounds mingle with the huff of their labored breathing.  Totta chants an ancient verse while they lug the dead man along:  “Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.

“No place for pagan heroism here, boy,” growls Tida as they trundle the corpse into the cart.  “These are Christian times.  Lord Beorhtnoth made a mistake, that’s all.  Good men died because of it.  We’ve got to live with it.”

But as they rattle down the road to the abbey church, Totta raises his head from the wagon bed.  “Do you see, Tida?” he calls.  “Men are coming in out of the darkness!  A fire is kindled on the hearth!  There are lights in the windows!  Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.

“Hush!” shouts the driver as a wheel shudders in a rut.  “I want to hear the singing of the monks!”


*  *  *  * *


Amazing, isn’t it? – our human penchant for blending personal ambition with devotion to Christ.  We’re like the twelve apostles in this regard:  even as Jesus was marching up the road to Golgotha, His eyes fixed unflinchingly upon the cross, they were jockeying for positions of honor and glory in the coming kingdom (Mark 9:33-34).  They had their own ideas about what it meant to be a “hero” in God’s economy.  Their Master’s thoughts, of course, were moving along a very different track.

This is the theme that J. R. R. Tolkien explores in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son[i], a short poetic drama that highlights the author’s talents both as storyteller and as Anglo-Saxon scholar.  Tolkien brings two radically different concepts of heroism – Christ’s and the world’s – into sharp contrast when young Totta recalls this line from the Old English poetic tradition:  “Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.

Here in a nutshell is the value system that breathes through the narratives of Beowulf, the Eddas, and the Volsunga Saga:  the ideal of the Teutonic hero as a fierce and fearless fighter who never gives up and never backs down no matter what the odds.  Tolkien calls this “the doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will.”[ii]  It includes the notion that greater glory goes to the man who takes the greater risk – even when it’s an unnecessary risk.

The Anglo-Saxon earl Beorhtnoth took such a risk.  History tells us that he was a devout Christian man.  But he was also clearly a man of his time:  a warrior chieftain who accepted unquestioningly his culture’s notions of chivalry and honor.  Like so many of us, he held his Christianity in a hybridized form.  His dedication to the cause of Christ, though sincere, was mingled with strong elements of pride, self-will, and regard for social approval.  Beorhtnoth’s zeal for defending the faith against Viking invaders was colored by an equally powerful desire for heroic glory.  And that desire drove him to make a foolish decision:  to prove his hardihood, he permitted the Northmen to cross an important line of defense unhindered.

It was a disastrous choice.  A mistake, plain and simple.  So argues Tida, the pragmatic old farmer, as Tolkien’s dramatic account of the battle’s aftermath unfolds.  Nor is that all, says the old man:  Lord Beorhtnoth’s action was also profoundly un-Christian.  For Christian heroism has nothing to do with glory-seeking, risk-taking, and deeds of derring-do.  Christian heroism does not rush in where angels fear to tread or take steps that place others in danger.  Christian heroism is a matter of rolling up your sleeves, wading into the mess, and picking up the pieces.  It’s a question of becoming humble enough to serve.

“You will indeed drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus told James and John when they came seeking seats of honor at His right hand.  Then He turned and addressed the twelve in the following words:


     You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.  (Mark 10:42-44) 


Herein lies the tragedy of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s son:  his unnecessary death did not ransom anyone.  Unlike the Hero of Calvary, he won his badge of glory at the cost of other men’s lives.  He may have been a hero in terms of the old Germanic code, but from the perspective of God’s kingdom he was an abject failure.

Or was he?  That’s the poignant question with which Tolkien ends his little play.  Totta’s quotation of the memorable line casts a shadow of bright doubt upon the story’s bleak conclusion; for he seems to imply that there may be another way of understanding the words of the ancient code.  “Will shall be the harder, heart the keener, spirit the greater as our power lessens.”  Didn’t the apostle Paul say something to the same effect? – “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

This is how the final journey of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s son is transformed from a tragedy into a genuine homecoming.  By his flaws and faults and regrettable demise the old chieftain reminds us that Christian heroism is not a matter of strength and “indomitable will” but of undying hope against all odds – hope in the face of defeat and death.  For it is only when the battle has been lost and the darkness has fallen that most of us even begin to tread the path to eternal glory.  Only then do we realize that it is not self-will, but the sufficiency of Another that sustains us.



The true hero is lowly enough to look up. 


[i] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, New York:  Ballantine Books, 1966; 3-24.

[ii] Ibid., 20.

The Battle of Maldon, Part 2

Viking host 001


Thus they stood firm,              strong-hearted,

Young heroes in battle.            Earnestly there they contended

To see who with the sword-point        might first of all

Win the prize of life                 from doomed men,                                                                  

The lives of warriors with weapons.                The slain fell to earth.

But the men stood steadfast;                Beorhtnoth spurred them on,

Bidding each of the young men           to set his heart on the battle,

Everyone who would win       glory from the Danes.


Then on came a hardened warrior,      upheaved his weapon,                                

Hunkered behind his shield,    and strode against the chief.

Just as resolute            the eorl charged the churl:

Either to the other        evil intended.

Then hurled the sea-warrior    a southern-made spear,                                               

Thus wounding          the lord of warriors;                                                                          

But Beorhtnoth thrust back with his shield     so that the shaft to-burst,           

Shivering the spear      and making it spring back again.

Filled with fury was the warrior:        with his spear he stung

The Viking proud,       the one who had him wounded.

Wise was the chief:      in he thrust in the javelin;                                                          

Right through the young fighter’s neck          his hand guided it                               

Until it reached the life-source             of his sudden enemy.

Then another shaft      he swiftly shot,

Bursting the byrnie,    wounding the man in the breast

Through the linked rings;        at his heart stood                                                             

The poisoned point.     The eorl was all the blither.                               

He laughed, brave man that he was,    giving thanks to the Creator

For the good day’s work          the Lord had given him.


Then one of the Vikings          let go a dart from his hand.

From his palm it flew;              straight on it went,                                                                 

Right through Beorhtnoth, the noble thane of Aethelred.              

At his side stood          a barely grown youth,

A mere boy in the battle,          who full bravely

Drew from the warrior            the bloody spear –

Wulfstan’s bairn,         Wulfmaer the Young;                                                                         

Back again he shot the spear                swift against the foe;

In went the point         so that on the earth lay

That very man who lately had             so terribly pierced his lord.                 

At this a crafty fighter drew near to the eorl,

Intending his arm-rings          to bring away,                                                                        

His armor and ring-mail         and ornamented shield.          

Then from the sheath               Beorhtnoth drew his sword,

Broad and bright-edged,          and struck the man upon the byrnie;

But one of the shipmen            deftly hindered him,

Injuring the eorl’s arm with his blow.                                                                         

Then to the earth                     fell the gold-hilted sword,

Nor might he any longer         hold the hard blade

Nor weapon wield.                  Yet still he spoke a word,

That hearty warrior,                encouraging the young men

And bidding the good comrades          to go forth.                                                                   


Then, when he could no longer on his feet      securely stand,

Beorhtnoth looked to the heavens        and said:

“I thank Thee,             Ruler of peoples,

For all the joys             that I in the world have known.

Now I have, Merciful Creator,     most need                                                                   

That Thou to my spirit            grant good,

That my soul to Thee               might depart,

Into Thy kingdom,                  Lord of angels,

To go in peace.            I only ask of Thee

That these Hell-fiends              may not prevail.”                                                                     


Then they hewed him,             those heathen cutthroats,

And both of the men                who by him stood …


*  *  *  *  *


(At this point many of Beorhtnoth’s men flee the field.  But others – especially his loyal thanes – press on, resolving to die beside their fallen lord rather than abandon him.  They make one last desperate stand.  One of their number, Beorhtwold, cries out as his comrades fall on every side:)


“Will shall be the harder        heart the keener                                                          

Spirit the greater         as our power lessens!

Here lies our prince                 all forhewn,

A good man on the ground;                may he ever mourn                                                     

Who now from this war-play              thinks to go.

I am old of years.                     I will not go away,

But intend by the side of my own lord,

A man so well-beloved,            to lie me down.”


(The manuscript cuts off as they prepare to fight to the bitter end …)          



The Battle of Maldon, Part 1

Viking host 001

Selections from

The Battle of Maldon

Newly translated from the Anglo-Saxon by

Jim Ware

 (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 …)


Green Isle of the West

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 Delightful is that land beyond all dreams,

    There all the year the fruit is on the tree.

 Nor pain nor sickness knows the dweller there,

    Death nor decay come near him never more.



Uncanny tales are told of the birth and lineage of Oisin, son of Fionn MacCumhail; for it is said that his mother, Saba, was of the people of the Sidhe.  But stranger yet is the story of his going from this world.

It was of a summer’s morning when Oisin, warrior, poet, and chief of Ireland’s bards, went to hunt by the shores of Lough Lena with his father and his father’s men, that bold band of heroes known as the Fianna.

Searching after game, Fionn became aware of a dark spot in the mist.  As he watched, the shadow grew and assumed the form of an approaching rider.  Then a window opened in the haze and a bright figure emerged:  a lovely golden-haired maiden on a tall white horse.  On her head she wore a circlet of gleaming gold, and in her hand she held a blossoming hawthorn branch.

“Do you know who I am, Fionn son of Cumhail?” she said, riding straight up to the Fianna.

“And how should I be knowing that?” answered Fionn.

“I am Niamh of the Golden Hair, daughter of the king of Tir-Na-nOg, the Land of Youth in the Green Isle of the West.  I have come a long way to find you.”

“There was little need,” said Fionn.  “What is it you want?”

She smiled.  “The love of your son.”  Then, turning to the young man, she said, “Will you come with me, Oisin, to my father’s country?”

Oisin could not speak.  Without so much as a glance at his father, he took her hand and swung up into the saddle behind her.  Then, as the Fianna watched, Niamh shook the bridle, wheeled the horse about, and dashed away.

It was the last time Fionn ever saw his son alive on earth.



Ever since Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, their children and heirs have been wishing and hoping, working and striving, pouring out their hearts in an effort to find a way back to the Garden.  Somewhere, they are sure, there must be a homeland more perfectly suited to their longings and conformed to the inner landscape of their souls.  Indeed, they half remember it in dreams … and in the stories they tell.

Celtic lore tells of a verdant spot beyond the boundaries of this world, a place where time is not, where joys never end, and where youth, health, and abundant life fill every crack and cranny of the soul to overflowing.  It is called the Green Isle of the West.

In the haunting tale of Oisin and Niamh, a Person from that Green Isle – that Wood Beyond the World, that Well at the World’s End – emerges out of the eternal mist and invites a bewildered mortal to come away with her to a land of heartbreaking beauty and everlasting life.  When presented with this opportunity, Oisin – son of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn MacCumhail, and chief of the poets of Erin – never hesitates.  Eagerly he responds to the call of his otherworldly wooer.  His eyes fixed upon hers, he forsakes his father, leaves his friends behind, and ventures into the West with the golden-haired girl.

Who can blame him?

There is a Green Island in the West.  And though, since the shape of the world was changed, it has slipped below the horizon of human sight, we can and will reach it if, like Oisin, we respond to the call of the One who has come forth from that Isle to bid us return with Him.

He stands at the door and knocks.


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(Adapted from The Stone of Destiny and God of the Fairy Tale