Maldon: A Supremely Heroic Poem 

The Battle of Maldon is somewhat unique to Anglo-Saxon literature, in that it is found only in a manuscript by itself, which is actually an incomplete copy of the original that was destroyed in a fire.  So, standing alone, this poem of over 320 lines depicts a military defeat of the English forces by Vikings who demanded tribute in exchange for peace, under command of the Earl Byrhtnoth, during the reign of King Aethelred, around the year 990.  The poem is filled with much speech on the part of the English warriors, who, under Byrhtnoth’s order, allow the Vikings to cross a causeway at low tide, which seems to lead to their defeat and the death of Byhrtnoth their lord.
Scholarship on the poem provides us with several differing views of interpretation.  Professor Tolkien maintained that the poem criticized Byrhtnoth for not understanding the importance of the lives of his men as he allows the Vikings to shore in an act of pride, as his “northern heroic spirit” is taken into excess and “chivalry” (Tolkien 21-24).  George Clark’s essay “The Battle of Maldon, A Heroic Poem,” contests that the poem is indeed a heroic poem in which the “the poet intends to praise heroes and condemn cowards” (Clark 57), and thus speaks highly of the heroic spirit (Clark 71).  Another critic has argued that the poem cannot be limited to only a poem about the heroic spirit, and claims that “more than superficial Christian significance” appears in the poem, and that it “develops a pattern of Christian allusions to portray a glorious triumph emerging what may indeed be, in worldly terms, a case of bungled generalship” (Hillman 386).  However, Michael J. Swanson argues that the poem unsuccessfully mixes the heroic elements with the Christian notions, and accuses the poem of having “the appearance of a subject executed in the wrong materials: a poem composed in an heroic vain in an age that was no longer heroic” (Swanson 442, 450).  He points out what he finds a “disturbing ambiguity” in the poem amidst its Christian and heroic elements combined (Swanson 450).

Yet, other criticism offers a resolution to the multiple interpretations offered about Maldon and Swanson’s “disturbing ambiguity.  According to Elizabeth Skylar, “Maldon is a poetic hybrid,” which combines a “conservative” or heroic theme with a poetic style that looks ahead to what would be the “cutting edge” of poetry 200 years later (Skylar 409).  The poem, according to Skylar combines metrical and sound elements that fit at times into Anglo-Saxon methods, and other times into Middle English methods (Skylar 409).  Skylar also maintains this mixing speaks of the poet’s aptitude and not an inability or lack of awareness of ambiguity (Skylar 410), as Sawnson argues.  The Maldon poet recieves the title of “virtuouso of the tradition” from Robert Paysan Creed, who describes how the poet mixed in story and technique, the elements of the Anglo-Saxon tradition with “the limits of the tradition (Creed 40).  This mixing of poetic and cultural tradition leads to “a supremely heroic poem” (Robinson 98), as Fred C. Robinson points out that the poet of Maldon “portrayed the actions of his heroes against a background of divine remoteness…which gave deep meaning to heroic sacrifice” (89).  The arugment in this article states that the Christian elements in the face of such awful battle create an uncertainty about death for the poem’s characters and give them a rationale for the heroic spirit, invoking “the anxieties of the supernatural struggle” (Robinson 85).

So, the existence of more than superficial Christian elements in this heroic poem, which contains aberrations from the normal meter of Angl-Saxon poetry, successfully mixes, according to this argument, two traditions, and creates an ambiguity that adds to the textured meaning of the poem.  In short, the poem seems praise the heroic spirit, as it asks some tough questions about a Christian God in the face of such grim scenes as the poem describes.  And, it is this understanding under which I have heavily operated in crafting this translation, and it is this expertly crafted mix of technique and content that I would hope to capture.
        Having noted that I would hope to capture this “mixing” in Maldon, I should outline exactly what I do intend to do in re-creating this anomaly of an Anglo-Saxon poem in Modern English. My purpose for translating Anglo-Saxon poetry is to create art, as per the New Critical stance of “art for art’s sake.”  The goal is to capture the art and the artistic value of the original piece in Modern English.  This idea works under the assumption that if a work of art is good art in Anglo-Saxon, then is it worth trying to recapture that unique artistry in another language.  The art then exists for the audience too, as art whose aesthetic qualities might be enjoyed as their own reason for being.  Translation then should attempt to retain the essence or artistic “gist” of the original piece while giving new life to its ideas, thematic material, and histories in Modern English. 

I believe that this artistic endeavor should be attempted by paying special attention to the vibrant Anglo Saxon sounds, textures, and images, while also attempting to bring new life to, when possible, the catalogue of Anglo-Saxon creative devices including heroic elements, cryptic or riddle-like language, word-crafting, and musicality.  In short, I would desire the translator to preserve the unique elements of a piece of Anglo-Saxon art.  These unique elements could also be described as what make the piece of art transcend being a potential mundane arrangement of words.
        A few extra comments are needed to describe how I approach the techniques of Maldon, as I already presented my agreement with the arguments that describe how the poem mixes techniques that were both old and very new for the period.  For example, the poem does not contain many kennings or compound words compared to other Anglo-Saxon poems, but contains examples of actual end-rime and aberrations from the alliterative meter, which were entirely uncommon to Anglo-Saxon poetry.  So, in these instances I have tried to show to at least some extent a mixing of techniques, or perhaps by deviating line lengths, or riming, for example.  This presented an interesting problem as I translated this poem into Modern English poetry, as rule breaking is so common in contemporary poetry, and a mixing of style a common occurrence.  I of course had to consider how to capture this “mix” without completely compromising the aesthetic value of the poem or confusing the reader beyond an ability to read the poem successfully.
        Also, I should discuss, in reference to applying my criteria to the specific techniques in Maldon, the word “ofermod,” which appears in line 89 of the poem and around which revolve most of the arguments about interpreting the poem.  Scholarship is again divided about how to understand this word.  Tolkien put forth that it means “pride,” and that it represents a fault in Byrhtnoth ( 21).  In 1976 Helmut Gneuss affirmed the idea that “ofermod” should be translated as pride to convey an understanding of too much self-confidence (Gneuss 130).  However, both Gneuss in his own argument and James W. Earl in a note point out a lack of “force” in the argument in favor of defining “ofermod” as “pride” (Earl 80).  Earl goes on to say how the word probably does not carry any religious connotation, but better fits with the interpretations that hinge on the heroic spirit, maintaining that while there are “no solutions” (Earl 81), “in war…you cannot have too much mod” (Earl 80).  This statement implies that the word should not negatively twist the reader’s feelings towards Byrhtnoth, as the word “mod” refers to “mood,” or “spirit,” as if to imply that Byrhtnoth, to use a colloquialism that describes the phenomenon well, was “pumped up.”  So, having considered this scholarship I have attempted to preserve the heroic spirit in the poem, and translated “ofermod” as “pulsing blood-mood.” 

Finally, other translators have tackled The Battle of Maldon achieving various effects.  Among those I glossed include S.A.J. Bradley’s prose translation and Michael Alexander’s verse translation, as well as the well-known translation of Kevin Crosley Holland.  Bradley’s translation I found mostly accurate in capturing the textured meanings and connotations of words, but, as prose, lacks any sense of musicality, and fails to capture the “mix” of styles so essential to the construction of the poem.  Alexander’s translation attempts to preserve meter and sound quite a bit, but perhaps too much, as often images and words become obscure amidst a need to add another foot or alliterating syllable to the strict meter the translation attempts to follow. Crossley-Holland’s translation, though generally quite accurate, appears somewhat dy at time, and unreflective of the rhythm or the word choice of the original.  His rendering of lines 9 and 10 as “That the boy’s behavior was a testament/that he would not be weak in the turmoil of battle” (Crossley-Holland), elongates the Anglo-Saxon line, and does not capture a quick strong tone of the line.  And although his rendering is accurate and in parts quite poetic, preserving some of the original alliteration, this style is not varied throughout the translation. According to the scholarship glossed here, I would find a need to mix style more often and more effectively.  I think I would like to see more attempts to re-capture a variety of the artistic elements found in the original text, and not just focus on one of the things that make the poem such a unique piece of art and Anglo-Saxon creativity. 

My desire is that my translation can meet the standard I have set for it. 

Works Cited

Clark, George.  “The Battle of Maldon: A Heroic Poem.”  Speculum: A Journal of Medieval

Studies  43 (1968):  52-71.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin.  “The Battle of Maldon.”  The Battle of Maldon and Other Old English

Poems.  ed. Bruce Mitchell.  NY: St. Martin’s, 1965.

Creed, Robert Payson.  “The Battle of Maldon and Beowulfian Prosody.”  Prosody and Poetics

in the Early Middle Ages: Essays in Memoriam of C.B. Hieatt.  ed. M.J. Toswell.  Toronto: U Toronto P, 1995. 23-41.

Earl, James W.  “The Battle of Maldon line 86: OE lytegian = Lat. Litigare?.”  Old English and

New” Studies in Language and Linguistics in Honor of Frederick C. Cassidy.  ed. Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringler.  NY: Garland, 1992.  76-82.

Gneuss, Helmut.  “The Battle of Maldon Line 89: Byrhtnoth’s Ofermode Once Again.”  Studies

in Philology 73 (1976): 117-137.

Hillman, Richard.  “Defeat and Victory in the Battle of Maldon: the Christian Resonances

Reconsidered.”  English Studies in Canada 11.4 (1985): Dec.  385-395.

Robinson, Fred C.  “God, Death, and Loyalty in The Battle Of Maldon.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar

and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam.  ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell.  New York: Cornell UP, 1979. 76-98.

Skylar, Elizabeth S.  “The Battle of Maldon and The Popular Tradition: Some Rhymed

Formulas.”  Philological Quarterly  78.1-2 (1999): 151-169.

Swanton, Michael J.  “The Battle of Maldon: A Literary Caveat.”  Journal of English and

Germanic Philology 67 (1968): 441-450.

Tolkien, J.R.R..  “The Homecoming of Beornoth Beorthelm’s Son.”  The Tolkien Reader.  New

York: Ballantine Books, 1989. 

Works Consulted

Alexander, Michael.  The Earliest English Poems.  California: University of California Press,


Bradley, S.A.J..  “The Battle of Maldon.”  Anglo-Saxon Poetry.  ed. and trans. S.A.J. Bradley.

Rutland, Vermont: J.M. Dent, 1998.  518-528.

Hall, J.R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge University Press,


Mitchel, Bruce and Fred. C. Robinson.  A Guide to Old English Sixth Edition.  Mass: Blackwell

Publishers Inc., 2002.