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NaPoTraMo 1: Byrhtnoth’s Answer

April 1, 2010

For the first day of NaPoTraMo, I went back to a text I’ve been seeing quite a lot recently, as we’ve been reading it at the last couple of sessions of the Old English reading group: The Battle of Maldon.

It may originally have been much longer, but the bit we have preserved is the story of the titular battle between Vikings and Saxons, which was fought near the modern village of Maldon in AD 991. It begins with the two sides standing on opposite sides of a river, waiting for the tide to ebb so they can ford it, and shouting across at one another. First, a Viking messenger proposes that if the Saxons give them a lot of money, they’ll go away without a fight. Byrhtnoth, leader of the Saxons, responds as follows.

Then Byrhtnoth spoke, and, holding high his shield
Brandished his spear, and with resounding words
Gave him an answer ireful and unswerving:
“Do you hear, seaman, what these people say?
Your tribute we will give to you in spears,
In poisoned points and old ancestral swords,
Our war-gear will not help you in your battles.*
Go back again, seafarers’ spokesman, back;
Tell to your people this unwelcome tale
That, here, unbowed, the earl and company stand,
To here defend this homeland of my lord’s,
Athelred’s country, folk and fields both.
For surely shall the heathens fall in battle –
It were a shame you should return aboard
With but our treasures, and without a fight,
Now you have come so far into our land!
No, you shall not so simply win our treasures:
We shall with point and edge decide between us –
Play the grim game of war – before we pay!

Translates ll. 42-62 of the Old English, available with notes and a minimal glossary here.

* Note to l. 48: in the Old English, Byrhtnoth is punning on the two senses of heregeatu ‘war-gear’: literally, stuff you wear/use in battle, and figuratively, a sort of inheritance tax/duty paid to a lord on the death of one of his retainers. It’s completely impossible to translate, so I’ve gone with rendering the literal sense only, as this still gives a half-decent line.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    April 1, 2010 7:01 pm

    Good stuff! Interesting decision, to translate into blank verse rather than imitating the form of the original. An entirely fair choice, I think, and I imagine it was good fun knocking this version into shape. A good stentorian Shakespearean speech.

    Here’s my piece for the day; it’s also on Expectation, my heaven and dwellingplace (in fact while I’m here, I’ll link to it: )


    Parsifal has vanquished the Girls, their gentle
    Babble, and sweet desire’s precipitous slope
    On which a virgin boy in wantonness may stoop
    To adore their swelling breasts, to love their gentle babble;

    He has vanquished fair Woman and her subtle charms,
    The grasp of her soft hands and her pale throat’s excitement;
    He has vanquished Hell and returns now to his tent
    With a heavy trophy in his boyish arms,

    With the spear that pierced the Flank of the Supreme!
    He has healed the king; see, he himself is king,
    Priest of the sacred Treasure, holy and essential.

    In robes of gold he kneels before the glorious Symbol,
    The vessel pure wherein the royal Blood is gleaming.
    —And O! those children’s voices, singing in the dome!


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