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.