Old English Heroic Poetry
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 indomitable spirit of the hardy races has been reflected in their literature which they mainly brought mentally from their respective mainland
The most remarkable heroic poetries of this period are Beowulf, Waldhere, The Battle of Brunanburh, The Fight at Finnsburh, and The Battle of Maldon.
Beowulf is a heroic poem of 3182 lines found in the Nowell codex. It tells of two major events in the life of the Geatish hero Beowulf: the first when, in his youth, he fights and kills first Grendel, a monster who has been attacking Heorot, the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, and then Grendel’s mother who comes the next night to avenge her son; the second, 50 years later, when Beowulf, who has for a long time been king of the Geats, fights a dragon who has attacked his people, in a combat in which both Beowulf and the dragon are mortally wounded.
Waldere consists of two fragments, some sixty-three lines in all, telling of some of the exploits of Walter of Aquitaine. The work has vigour and power, and it is to be greatly regretted that so little is preserved. It might well have been one of the finest of narrative pieces.
The Battle of Brunanburh 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 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.
Almost all the Old English heroic poems are anonymous in nature. The common theme among them is valour and heroism. Among these heroic poems Beowulf is definitely the finest creation, other poems also give us a glimpse of the lifestyle of the early ancestors of the English race.