Ideals of Heroism and Anglo-Saxon Battle Poetry

Anglo-Saxon battle poetry is characterized by several specific traits, all of which point to values idealized by the surrounding culture. One of these is strength, both mental and physical. “Judith” provides an excellent example of mental strength, as the titular protagonist defeats the wicked Holofernes by outsmarting him and his men. In Judith’s example, her mental strength defeats the physical strength of Holofernes’ army, but in other battle poetry, physical strength is key.  For example, the speaker of “The Battle of Brunanburh” says “We the West-Saxons/Long as the daylight/Lasted, in companies/Troubled the track of/The host that we hated; Grimly with swords that were sharp/from the grindstone/Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.” The speaker and his company needed physical strength to pursue and kill their enemies. Another characteristic to these battle poems is the role of a single, heroic leader. For example, Beowulf’s heroism and leadership becomes the solution when Hrothgar cannot keep his people safe.  And when Judith steps up as a leader for her people, her heroic actions are contrasted by Holofernes’ poor leadership ability, his drunkenness that ultimately leads to his downfall and the net surrounding his bed that delays his army. Not only are these characteristics common to all battle poetry, but they’re also set up as the ideal, and their opposites are ridiculed.  In “The Battle of Maldon,” “three who did not wish to be there” fled the battle, and the author shames them for leaving “more men than was in any way right, if they remembered all the favors he had done for their benefit” (5).  They are not just being shamed for their flight, however, but also for their disloyalty and for breaking the Anglo-Saxon code of avenging fallen comrades. In “Beowulf,” this code also contributes to the reader’s perception of Hrothgar as an inept leader, since he cannot avenge the deaths of his people by killing Grendel.

Ultimately, Anglo-Saxon sets up mental and physical strength, leadership abilities, loyalty and the ability to avenge as characteristics of a hero, and these ideals of heroism seem to stand side by side with the Anglo-Saxon understanding of Christianity.  With pagan religions of Vikings being in such close context, Christianity becomes part of the battle, and Christian heroism plays an important role as a defense mechanism against Viking paganism.  For this reason, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon battle poetry is often tied to the poem’s hero and the hero’s success, infused in a prayer before a battle or a victory speech afterwards. Furthermore, fighting in battle was portrayed as an act of  God,  vengeance a responsibility as a Christian. This is seen in “The Battle of Maldon,” when “the retainers began to fight hardily, fierce spear-bearers, and prayed God that they might avenge their patron and bring destruction to their enemies” (5). When these battles are given spiritual significance, martyrdom becomes an appealing aspect of Christianity because dying in battle, especially when avenging a comrade, is elevated to a defense of Christianity and straight passage to heaven.

Anglo-Saxon poetry was not only appealing because of the values it espoused but also because of its construction, marked by stressed syllables, alliteration, and half-lines separated by caesuras. These characteristics align with the oral nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as it was composed for recitation rather than for a written book of poetry. If poetry was only preserved in memory, these characteristics made it easier to remember. Another poetic characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry is kennings, or when two descriptive words are used instead of an actual name. Sometimes these kennings are simply used to paint a picture for the audience, like in “Judith” with the lines “but behind them flew/the eagle eager for food, dewy-winged/with dark plumage; the horn-beaked bird/sang a battle-song” (Greenblatt 114). “dewy-winged” and “horn-beaked” create a more elaborate image for a listening audience. Kennings also helped along the heroic ideals because of the substitution of descriptive, powerful, awe-inspiring words for single word nouns. All of these characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry worked together to make the poetry story-like and appealing to a listening, as opposed to a reading, audience. Moreover, ultimately the emphasis was placed on characteristics of the hero, like strength, courage, and loyalty, and these ideals were so emphasized that they were also rooted in Anglo-Saxon Christianity.


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