Anglo-Saxon Heroic Poetry
Heroic poetry is a narrative verse that is elevated in mood and uses a dignified, dramatic, and formal style to describe the deeds of aristocratic warriors and rulers. It is usually composed without the aid of writing and is chanted or recited to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. It is transmitted orally from bard to bard over generations.
More often than not, literature is a product of the society. For the same reason, it is supposed to and it really does mirror the contemporary conventions and ideals of a society as well as the temperament of a particular community. So, Anglo Saxon literature frequently took up the theme of fights and hostilities, in which the nobility of a character was brought out through a display of courage, valour, loyalty to the lord and the community and a thirst for glory. Glory was the most coveted thing because death lurked everywhere. Attainment of glory meant a claim to immortality. The heroic poetries of the Anglo Saxon period reflected such ideals.
The most remarkable heroic poetries of this period are Beowulf, The Battle of Brunanburh, The Fight at Finnsburh, Waldhere and The Battle of Maldon.
Beowulf is a heroic poem of 3182 lines found in a manuscript of the 10th century. It narrates two significant events in the life of a Geatish hero called Beowulf. The first happens when young Beowulf fights and kills Grendel, monster who has been raiding Heorot, the banquet hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. When Grendel’s mother kills one of Hrothgar’s noblemen to avenge her son’s death, Beowulf journey’s to her sub-aquatic den and kills her with a magic sward. Beowulf is showered with honour and rewards before he returns to his homeland.
The second incident takes place when Beowulf has reigned for many years showing an instance of ideal kingship. He is old and yet he has to fight a fire-spitting dragon that jeopardises his kingdom. Beowulf dies but only after slaying the monster and securing its large hoard of treasure for his people.
Waldhere comprises two short fragments that exist in a manuscript of the 10th century. Critics assume that these fragments, to telling 63 lines, could be a part of a larger poem – perhaps an epic of 1000 lines. Waldhere, the son of a King of Aquitaine was given up to Attila the Hun and became one of his generals in his later life because of his prowess. In this poem he escapes with Hiltgund, a princess of Burgundy, to whom he has been betrothed as a child. They are attacked and wounded Waldhere kills his enemies. But they are somehow able to continue their journey and happily married at the end.
The Battle of Brunanburh, founded in four manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, deals with the battle fought in 937 at Brunanburh between the English under Athelstan, the grandson of King Alfred and the Danes, under Anlaf and Dublin, in alliance with the Scots led by Constantine II and Welsh. The poem celebrates the victory of Athelstan and his brother Edmund and rings with a note of patriotism. But, the poem has not been sobered by any clergyman and so, it ecstatically portrays the grotesque scenes of bloodshed and butchery.
The Fight at Finnsburh depicts the Anglo-Saxon feuds and the plight of women married to the enemies to assuage hostility – as they have to lose kinsmen on both sides when war broke out again. This is a 48 line poem, of course a fragment, dealing with part of the tragic story of Finn and Hildeburh. An attempt is made to heal the long standing feud between the Danes and Frisians by the marriage of the Frisian King Finn to Hildeburh, the sister of Hnaef, the King of the Half-Danes. Apparently after a period of peace the feud resumes and results in the death of Hildeburh’s son, brother and husband.
The Battle of Maldon is a story of defeat but also that of glory as the defeat is the outcome of the magnanimity of Byrhtnoth who allows his enemies, the invading Danes to cross the river safely out of generosity before the fight begins. Byrhtnoth dies but remains as embodiment of noble swordsmanship. The second half of the poem is concerned with fidelity of his followers who remain determined to avenge their leader’s death.
Thus, the heroic poetries of the Anglo-Saxon period capture a few moments and thoughts of an age and confers on them the immortality of art.