Analyze the poem "The Battle of Maldon."

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An analysis of the Old English poem "The Battle of Maldon" might include a discussion of its historical background, an explanation of the relationship between the poem's setting and its plot, an evaluation of Bryhtnoth's decision to allow the Vikings to cross the land bridge, a consideration of the Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic, and an explanation of Old English alliteration, meter, motifs, and poetic diction.

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The Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon” describes the historical English battle between the East Saxons and the invading Vikings in 991 and was probably written soon after the battle took place. The poem survives only as a fragment, for it is missing an unknown number of lines both...

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at its beginning and at its end, but it contains almost countless points for analysis, so we will examine only a few samples here.

Let's start with the poem's setting and look at how it contributes to the plot. The Viking invaders are on an island that is connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge accessible only at low tide. Their position is tenuous at best, and they have little chance of victory against the Saxons because only one or two Vikings can cross the land bridge at a time, and these are immediately cut down by the waiting Saxons. So the Vikings make a daring request: the Saxons should allow all of the Viking warriors to cross the land bridge and meet their enemies face to face. What is most surprising, however, is that the commander of the Saxons, Bryhtnoth, agrees! He allows the Vikings to cross unassailed, and therein lies his downfall.

The poet makes a comment about this decision in line 89. He says that Bryhtnoth makes this decision “for his ofermode,” “due to his overweening pride.” Bryhtnoth is too confident, too daring, and it makes him reckless. Scholars have long debated the meaning of the Old English words in this line, but the message is clear: Bryhtnoth has made a costly mistake.

When Bryhtnoth's men realize that the battle is turning against them, they have a decision to make. The warrior ethics of the Anglo-Saxons demand that soldiers defend their commander to the death and even suggest that they remain by his side even after he falls in battle. It is shameful to survive when one's commander does not. Yet this battle occurs toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, and values are beginning to change. When Bryhtnoth falls, some of his men desert the battlefield. This is an almost unthinkable act of cowardice and disloyalty, yet it happens. We hear that Godric jumps onto Bryhtnoth's own horse and rides into the forest. Two of his brothers follow closely behind, for they no longer care for this battle but would rather protect their own lives. Other men hurry away, too, some thinking that Bryhtnoth himself is retreating (Godric is on his horse after all) but others simply forgetting what they owe their commander.

Other Saxons, however, choose to stay and fight to the death, and these exhibit the proud courage of the storied Anglo-Saxon warrior. Several of them speak, proclaiming their loyalty to Bryhtnoth and their commitment to the fight. Their position is summed up by the words of the old soldier Bryhtwold who proclaims, “Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, / mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað,” which means “Resolution should be the tougher, keener the heart, / the mind should be greater when our power diminishes” (lines 312-313). This is the very heart of northern courage, as these soldiers look death in the face and fight on.

Further analysis of “The Battle of Maldon” might closely examine its form in Old English, for it is written in alliterative verse (notice the h-alliteration in the first quoted line in the previous paragraph and the m-alliteration in the second line), and each of its lines is split into two half-lines, most of which follows standard patterns of rhythm and meter. One might also explore the common Old English motifs and images that appear in this poem, including the beasts of battle motif with the circling ravens and eagles in lines 106-107. One can even speak of examples of Old English poetic diction in this poem, including vividly descriptive compounds like “slaughter-wolves” in line 90 (describing the Vikings) and “terror-song” in line 85 (indicating the noise of weapons against armor). The possibilities are endless.

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