Brunanburh! Brunanburh! Brunanburh! This antique name was once attached to an Anglo-Saxon fortification, in whose locality was fought one of the most important battles in British history (937 AD). A massive showdown, it saw King Athelstan of England face off against a grand alliance of Scots, Vikings & the ‘Northern Welsh’ of Cumbria & Galloway. This confederacy had been galvanized into action by a young Viking prince called Analf Guthfrithson. Normally based in Dublin, Analf had momentarily managed to unite the entire Viking world behind him in an attempt to wrestle back their former control over England which had been lost to Athelstan’s grandfather, Alfred the Great. Despite such powerful forces arrayed against them, the Battle of Brunanburh was a comprehensive victory for the Saxons, since which day the borders of Britain’s three nations have been more or less constant. One could fairly admit that the Battle of Brunanburh was the moment when the British Isles were truly born.
The first mention of Brunanburh in the annals comes within the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that wonderful storehouse of early English history without which the Dark Ages would have been much, much darker. The entry for 937 is actually one of the most famous pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the first & best of a series composed throughout the 10th century. Most entries in the ASC are written in rather mundane prose, but the rendering of certain events in poetry would naturally amplify their cultural importance. It is only through the Pegasus-flight of the poetic voice that humanity may truly record the incredible passions felt in the most turbulent of times. A fine example is the poetry of Wilfred Owen, without whose words our ability to feel the sensations inspired by the trenches of World War One would be much diminished. Similarly, the composer of the Brunanburh poem manages to reflect with consummate skill the spirit of battle, basing his words upon what appears to be genuine eye-witness accuracy.
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
Ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
In battle with sword edges
Around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
They hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard,
It was only befitting their noble descent
From their ancestors that they should often
Defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
Horde and home. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
Fated they fell. The field flowed
With blood of warriors, from sun up
In the morning, when the glorious star
Glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
Eternal lord, till that noble creation
Sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
By spears destroyed; Northern men
Shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
Weary, war sated.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
All day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
With swords sharp from the grinding.
The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play
To any warrior
Who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge
In the bosom of a ship, those who sought land,
Fated to fight. Five lay dead
On the battle-field, young kings,
Put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven
Of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
Sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put
To flight, by need constrained
To the prow of a ship with little company:
He pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
On the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life.
Likewise, there also the old campaigner
Through flight came
To his own region in the north–Constantine–
Hoary warrior. He had no reason to exult
The great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft,
Friends fell on the battle-field,
Killed at strife: even his son, young in battle, he left
In the place of slaughter, ground to pieces with wounds.
That grizzle-haired warrior had no
Reason to boast of sword-slaughter,
Old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf;
With their remnant of an army they had no reason to
Laugh that they were better in deed of war
In battle-field–collision of banners,
Encounter of spears, encounter of men,
Trading of blows–when they played against
The sons of Eadweard on the battle field.
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
Sought Dublin over the deep water,
Over Dinges mere
To return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Likewise the brothers, both together,
King and Prince, sought their home,
West-Saxon land, exultant from battle.
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
The dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
And the dusky-coated one,
The eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
Greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
The wolf in the forest.
Never was there more slaughter
On this island, never yet as many
People killed before this
With sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us
From books, old wisemen,
Since from the east Angles & Saxons came up
Over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
Glorious warriors they took hold of the land.
Leaving aside for a moment the quest for the battlefield’s location (Burnley), I would now like to turn our digressional attention to a certain Egil Skallagrimsson. This guy is a true Icelandic legend, a warrior-poet of the 10th century who is the movie-star of the anonymously-penned 13th century Egil’s Saga. For me, he is the leading contender for authorship of the poem that was used by the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers for 937 AD.
Egil was a widely praised poet – he composed his first at the tender age of three – & could well have been commissioned by Athelstan to compose a triumphant piece of propaganda. We know the poem was more or less contemporary to the battle, finding itself inserted into the ASC at least as early as 955, when it was written into the so-called “Parker Chronicle” ( Whitelock 1955). Egil was the best poet of his time & the poem is clearly the best in the Chronicle. Alistair Campbell (1938) notices how the original version of the poem contained many, ‘non-west saxon & archaic forms’ & declares, ‘who the poet was is impossible to say.’ He does, however, go on to describe the spirit of the poet, as in;
Although he owes much to his predecessors, the poet of the Battle of Brunanburh is by no means without merits of his own. He uses the conventional diction neatly & cleverly, & never becomes swamped in phrases… the two feelings which breathe through the poem are scorn & exultation, & they are perfectly expressed. Lastly, despite the wealth of poetic diction at his command, he can be, at times, astonishingly simple & direct; the chief example of this is the description of battle from 20 to 40, where there is little repetition, & nearly every half-line advances the narrative… the poets subjects are the praise of heroes & the glory of victory… his work is a natural product of his age, an age of national triumph, antiquarian interest, & literary enthusiasm
My gut instinct tells me that Egil was the author of the poem, based undeniable facts such as;
1 – Egil fought at Brunanburh
His presence at the battle is without question & recorded extensively in the saga of his life by Snorri Sturlsson
B – Egil stayed at Athelstan’s court
2 year or two after the battle, Egil returned to Athelstan’s court, & I believe it was at this time in & in the post-Brunanburh climate that the poem was produced. Although giving very little detail of Egil’s visit to Athelstan, the Saga definitely places him there, as in;
During the second winter that he was living at Borg after Skallagrim’s death Egil became melancholy, and this was more marked as the winter wore on. And when summer came, Egil let it be known that he meant to make ready his ship for a voyage out in the summer. He then got a crew. He purposed to sail to England. They were thirty men on the ship. Asgerdr remained behind, and took charge of the house. Egil’s purpose was to seek king Athelstan and look after the promise that he had made to Egil at their last parting.
It was late ere Egil was ready, and when he put to sea, the winds delayed him. Autumn then came on, and rough weather set in. They sailed past the north coast of the Orkneys. Egil would not put in there, for he thought king Eric’s power would be supreme all over the islands. Then they sailed southwards past Scotland, and had great storms and cross winds. Weathering the Scotch coast they held on southwards along England; but on the evening of a day, as darkness came on, it blew a gale. Before they were aware, breakers were both seaward and ahead. There was nothing for it but to make for land, and this they did. Under sail they ran ashore, and came to land at Humber-mouth. All the men were saved, and most of the cargo, but as for the ship, that was broken to pieces.
When they found men to speak with, they learnt these tidings, which Egil thought good, that with king Athelstan all was well and with his kingdom… in that same summer when Egil had come to England these tidings were heard from Norway, that Eric Allwise was dead, but the king’s stewards had taken his inheritance, and claimed it for the king. These tidings when Arinbjorn and Thorstein heard, they resolved that Thorstein should go east and see after the inheritance.
So when spring came on and men made ready their ships who meant to travel from land to land, then Thorstein went south to London, and there found king Athelstan. He produced tokens and a message from Arinbjorn to the king and also to Egil, that he might be his advocate with the king, so that king Athelstan might send a message from himself to king Hacon, his foster-son, advising that Thorstein should get his inheritance and possessions in Norway. King Athelstan was easily persuaded to this, because Arinbjorn was known to him for good.
Then came Egil also to speak with king Athelstan, and told him his intention.
‘I wish this summer,’ said he, ‘to go eastwards to Norway and see after the property of which king Eric and Bergonund robbed me. Atli the Short, Bergonund’s brother, is now in possession. I know that, if a message of yours be added, I shall get law in this matter.’
The king said that Egil should rule his own goings. ‘But best, methinks, were it,’ he said, ‘for thee to be with me and be made defender of my land and command my army. I will promote thee to great honour.’
Egil answered: ‘This offer I deem most desirable to take. I will say yea to it and not nay. Yet have I first to go to Iceland, and see after my wife and the property that I have there.’
King Athelstan gave then to Egil a good merchant-ship and a cargo therewith; there was aboard for lading wheat and honey, and much money’s worth in other wares. And when Egil made ready his ship for sea, then Thorstein Eric’s son settled to go with him, he of whom mention was made before, who was afterwards called Thora’s son. And when they were ready they sailed, king Athelstan and Egil parting with much friendship.
3 – The poem is Bookish
Where JD Niles notices that scholars have, ‘drawn attention to the poem’s studied artistry, including its use of syntactic variation, studied antithesis, aural patterning, and an array of rhetorical figures that may be patterned on Latin models,’ Campbell (1938) tells us, ‘the poem is remarkably ‘correct’ in metre : that is to say, its half-verses are constructed with regard to the limitations, & bound together by alliteration with regard to laws, which are found in the earlier Old English poetry… the diction is almost entirely composed of elements to be found in earlier poems…. a large number of word s & expression which forcibly recall the older poetry.’ We must also observe that the poem does not rhyme, with Campbell stating, ‘as a final instance of the conservative nature of the versification of the Battle of Brunanburh, the absence of rhyme must be mentioned.’
I am a poet myself, & I understand the very tidings of poetic construction. Scholars have observed how the Brunanburh poem is packed full of direct lifts, or half-lifts, from the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature. To my mind, although Egil would have been fluent in Old English, he may not have been so observant in its literature. To remedy this, during the composition of the Brunanburh poem I believe he made use of Athelstan’s library, in order to paint his epic, panygerical pastiche. Where Campbell tells us ‘it is evident that the Battle of Brunanburh shows no changes in the structure of the half-line : all its types can be paralleled in the older poetry, & practically all of them in Beowulf,’ in the poem, 21 half-lines occur identically in other OE poems, such as
eorla dryhten (Beowulf)
on lides bosme (Genesis)
wulf on wealde (Judith)
While 23 half-lines are nigh identical, as in;
faege feollan (Beowulf) = faege gefealled
on folcstede (Judith) = on dam folcstede
bone sweartan hraefn (Soul & body) = bonne se swearta hrefen
4 – The poem is Skaldic
In the 10th century, the Icelandic poets – the Skalds – were the best in Europe, & their professional services were sought by many a wealthy king. Their praise poems were widely sought, & it is in Athelstan’s reign that they first arrive in Britain. That the Brunanburh poem has Skaldic roots is supported by JD Niles, who tells us;
By Old English standards, there is something unconventional about the poet’s voice as well. Granted that the distribution of praise and blame is central to the purposes of early Germanic poetry, still nowhere else in Old English is there such a quintessential poem of boasting and scorn. Athelstan’s triumph is celebrated not by a sober account of his actions, but by exultant allusion to the enemy blood spilled on the field and the number of enemy kings and noblemen cut down. The poet’s bloody-mindedness is matched by his emphasis on the losers’ shame. The survivors take to their ships xwiscmode ‘humiliated’ (56b), while the victors proceed home wiges hremge ‘gloating in battle’ (59b). The satiric element that runs through the poem is most prominent in the threefold repetition “hreman ne £>orfte. . .Gelpan ne J)orfte. . .hlehhanne Jjorftun,” 39b, 44b, 47b (“he had no need to gloat. . .He had no need to boast. . .they had no need to laugh”). The poet here makes sardonic reference to the grief of the aged Scottish king Constantine, who not only lost his son on the battlefield but was unable to recover the young man’s body.
The poet’s brusque indifference to carnage may remind one of the hard, cold tone that is characteristic of skaldic verse more than it calls to mind the heroic spirit of Beowulf or Maldon, let alone the melancholy and philosophical mood in which both the Beowulf poet and the poet of the Wanderer contemplate the spiraling tragedies of earthly mutability.
If Brunanburh has affinities to other early medieval verse, they are to such a poem as the Battle of Hafsfjord rather than to anything in Old English, as Kershaw has pointed out (vii). Both these poems celebrate a decisive battle by which a king established authority over the whole of his realm. In the Norse poem the king is Harald Fairhair, and his opponents are a coalition of Norwegians who opposed his expanding power in 872. Even more than the author of Brunanburh, the Norse poet takes delight in the image of boats manned by fleeing survivors, who in this poem are pelted with stones from behind while the wounded hunch shame-faced under the rowing-benches:
In Hafsfjord as in Brunanburh, the poet follows the customary mode of panegyric and calls attention to the distinguished ancestry of the victorious party: “konungr enn kynstóri,” 1.2 (“the king of noble lineage”). He also alludes in conventional fashion to the din of battle: “ísorn dúõu,” 2.4 (“swords clashed”), “hlömmum vas á hlífum,” 3.4 (“shields clanged together”). Brunanburh resembles nothing else so much as Hafsfjord drawn out to a more substantial and dignified length by an author who had at his command the full resources of Anglo-Saxon poetic speech and used those resources to honor his English king. In commenting on the “elliptical, allusive , non-narrative style” of the six encomiastic poems that are embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Opland suggests that this group of poems emerged due to the influence of the court poetry of the skalds (173). Leaving the other five Chronicle poems aside, since (with the possible exception of the poem on the capture of the Five Boroughs) they do not seem much like Brunanburh except in being occasional pieces, there is reason to think that the Brunanburh poet had at least passing acquaintance with the Norse language and skaldic poetic models. Several of the points of influence have been reviewed by Dietrich Hofmann (165-67); these consist of cnear ‘warship’ (35a) as a loanword, sceard ‘deprived’ (40b) used in a manner suggestive of Old Norse idiom, guöhafoc ‘war-hawk’ (64a) as a kenning for ‘eagle’, and – with less certainty – eorlas (31a) in the Norse sense of ‘jarls’.
Over the years Brunanburh has been compared to Norse praise poetry by Alistair Campbell (The Battle of Brunanburh, 1938, 37-38) Nora Kershaw (Anglo_Saxon & Norse Poems 1922, 64-65), Heinrich Naumann (Das Ludwigslied… 1932) & Heinrich Beck (Zur literaturegeschichtlichen… 1974, 37-51). There is a passage from the 10th century Icelanic Skald, Kormákr Ögmundarson, that resonates with some of the language of the Brunanburh poem;
The dew-of-deep wounds (blood) resounded on the beach out of the blow-of-the-sword (wound); I bore the bloody word together with brave men; swords-of-Odin (warriors) bore the broad blood-wand (sword)
There are even a number of echoes between the Brunanburh poem & the poetry composed by Egil himself. Let us compare;
The warriors revenge
is repaid to the king
wolf & eagle stalk
over the kings sons;
Hallvard’s corpse flew
in pieces into the sea
the grey eagle tears
as Travel-quick wounds ES
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
and the dusky-coated one,
the eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
the wolf in the forest. ASC
There the North-men’s chief was put
to flight, by need constrained
to the prow of a ship with little company:
he pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
on the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life. ASC
My mother said
I would be bought
a boat with fine oars
set off with Vikings
stand up on the prow,
command the precious craft,
then enter port ES
The field flowed
with blood of warriors, from sun up
in the morning, when the glorious star
glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
eternal lord, till that noble creation
sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed ASC
there before sunset we will
make noisy clamour of spears ES
They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent
from their ancestors that they should often
defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
horde and home ASC
I have wielded a blood-stained sword
and howling spear; the bird
of carrion followed me
when the Vikings pressed forth;
In fury we fought battles,
fire swept through men’s homes,
we made bloody boodies
slump dead by city gates ES
They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers. ASC
I raise the ring, the clasp that is worn
on the shield-splitting arm ES
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. ASC
The wager of battle who towers
over the land, the royal progeny,
has felled three kings; the realm
passes top the kin of Ella. ES
In his essay ‘Brunanburh 12b-13a & some Skaldic Passages (Master Regis, 1986), on the poem’s use of the verb ‘dennade’ – resounded – Joseph Harris writes; ‘all in all, then, the poetic occurrences of ON dynja tend to support the interpretation of the OE as ‘the earth resounded with blood,’ since we find the same verb in ON collocated with words for earth & with synesthetically resounding blood of battle.’ Harris adds;
Stanza 5 of Egill’s famous poem Hofudlausn, supposedly compsoed in York in 948, has already been juxtaposed to the Brunanburh passage by T.M. Andersson in the course of his discussion of the shining blood on the ‘fields’ of Ludwigsleid. Sigurdur Nordal’s text reads; ‘There where the weary sea-shore lay bathed in blood, it resounded in/on it (the shore) under the banners (when the war-banners were borne forward).’ Harris then writes of an alternative version of the text even more Brunanburhesque; ‘Finnur Jonsson’s interpretation offers a ‘field’ (vollr) that resounds (prymja) ‘in blood’ (i blodi) – feld dennade secga swate.’
5 – Egil was writing court poetry at that very time
Between arriving in Scotland & spending time with Athelstan (as given above) Egil found himself in York with Eric Bloodaxe, & ended up writing a substantial poem there. He’d got himself into a bit of bother alongside a certain Arinbjorn & ended up writing the poem to save their skins. The saga tells us;
Then they went in. Arinbjorn went before the king and saluted him. The king received him, and asked what he would have.
Arinbjorn said: ‘I lead hither one who has come a long way to seek thee in thy place, and to be reconciled to thee. Great is this honour to thee, my lord, when thine enemies travel of their own free will from other lands, and deem they cannot endure thy wrath though thou be nowhere near. Now show thyself princely to this man. Let him get of thee good terms, seeing that he hath so magnified thine honour, as thou now mayst see, by braving many seas and dangers to come hither from his own home. No compulsion drove him to this journey, nought but goodwill to thee.’
Then the king looked round, and saw over men’s heads where Egil stood. The king knew him at once, and, darting a keen glance at him, said: ‘How wert thou so bold, Egil, that thou daredst to come before me? Thy last parting from me was such that of life thou couldst have from me no hope.’
Then went Egil up to the table, and clasped the foot of the king. He then sang:
‘With cross-winds far cruising
I came on my wave-horse,
Eric England’s warder
Eager soon to see.
Now wielder of wound-flash,
Wight dauntless in daring,
That strong strand of Harold’s
Stout lineage I meet.’
King Eric said: ‘I need not to count the crimes on thy hands, for they are so many and great that each one might well warrant that thou go not hence alive. Thou hast nothing else to expect but that here thou must die. This thou mightest know before, that thou wouldst get no terms from me.’
Gunnhilda said: ‘Why shall not Egil be slain at once? Rememberest thou no more, O king, what Egil hath done to thee—slain thy friends and kin, ay, even thine own son to boot, and cursed thyself? Where ever was it known that a king was thus dealt with?’
Arinbjorn said: ‘If Egil have spoken evil of the king, for that he can now atone in words of praise that shall live for all time.’
Gunnhilda said: ‘We will hear none of his praise. O king, bid Egil be led out and beheaded. I will neither hear his words nor see him.’
Then said Arinbjorn: ‘The king will not let himself be egged on to all thy dastardly work. He will not have Egil slain by night, for night-slaying is murder.’
The king said: ‘So shall it be, Arinbjorn, as thou demandest. Egil shall live this night. Take thou him home with thee, and bring him to me in the morning.’
Arinbjorn thanked the king for his words: ‘We hope, my lord, that henceforth Egil’s cause will take a better turn. And though Egil has done great wrong against thee, yet look thou on this, that he has suffered much from thee and thy kin. King Harold thy father took the life of Thorolf, a man of renown, Egil’s father’s brother, for the slander of bad men, for no crime at all. And thou, O king, didst break the law in Egil’s case for the sake of Bergonund; nay further thou didst wish to doom his death, and didst slay his men, and plunder all his goods, and withal didst make him an outlaw and drive him from the land. And Egil is one who will stand no teasing. But in every cause under judgment one must look on the act with its reasons. I will now have Egil in keeping for the night.’
Then Arinbjorn and Egil went back to the house, and when they came in they two went into a small upper room and talked over this matter. Arinbjorn said: ‘The king just now was very wroth, yet methought his mood rather softened before the end, and fortune will now decide what may be the upshot. I know that Gunnhilda will set all her mind on marring your cause. Now I would fain that we take this counsel: that you be awake through the night, and compose a song of praise about king Eric. I should think it had best be a poem of twenty stanzas, and you might recite it to-morrow when we come before the king. Thus did Bragi my kinsman, when he was under the wrath of Bjorn king of Sweden; he composed a poem of praise about him in one night, and for it received his head. Now may we also have the same luck with the king, that you may make your peace with him, if you can offer him the poem of praise.’
Egil said: ‘I shall try this counsel that you wish, but ’twas the last thing I ever meant, to sing king Eric’s praises.’
Arinbjorn bade him try.
Then Arinbjorn went away, and had food and drink carried to the upper room. Egil was there alone for the night. Arinbjorn went to his men, and they sate over drink till midnight. Then Arinbjorn and his men went to the sleeping chambers, but before undressing he went up to the room to Egil, and asked how he was getting on with the poem.
Egil said that nothing was done. ‘Here,’ said he, ‘has sate a swallow by the window and twittered all night, so that I have never got rest for that same.’
Whereupon Arinbjorn went away and out by the door leading up to the house-roof, and he sate by the window of the upper room where the bird had before sate. He saw that something of a shape witch-possest moved away from the roof. Arinbjorn sate there by the window all night till dawn. But after Arinbjorn had come there, Egil composed all the poem, and got it so by heart that he could recite it in the morning when he met Arinbjorn. They watched for a fit time to go before the king.
King Eric went to table according to his wont, and much people were with him. And when Arinbjorn knew this, then went he with all his followers fully armed to the king’s palace while the king sate at table…. then Egil advanced before him and began the poem, and recited in a loud voice, and at once won silence.
‘Westward I sailed the wave,
Within me Odin gave
The sea of song I bear
(So ’tis my wont to fare):
I launched my floating oak
When loosening ice-floes broke,
My mind a galleon fraught
With load of minstrel thought.
‘A prince doth hold me guest,
Praise be his due confess’d:
Of Odin’s mead let draught
In England now be quaff’d.
Laud bear I to the king,
Loudly his honour sing;
Silence I crave around,
My song of praise is found.
‘Sire, mark the tale I tell,
Such heed beseems thee well;
Better I chaunt my strain,
If stillness hush’d I gain.
The monarch’s wars in word
Widely have peoples heard,
But Odin saw alone
Bodies before him strown.
‘Swell’d of swords the sound
Smiting bucklers round,
Fiercely waxed the fray,
Forward the king made way.
Struck the ear (while blood
Streamed from glaives in flood)
Iron hailstorm’s song,
Heavy, loud and long.
‘Lances, a woven fence,
Well-ordered bristle dense;
On royal ships in line
Exulting spearmen shine.
Soon dark with bloody stain
Seethed there an angry main,
With war-fleet’s thundering sound,
With wounds and din around.
‘Of men many a rank
Mid showering darts sank:
Glory and fame
Gat Eric’s name.
‘More may yet be told,
An men silence hold:
Further feats and glory,
Fame hath noised in story.
Warriors’ wounds were rife,
Where the chief waged strife;
Shivered swords with stroke
On blue shield-rims broke.
‘Breast-plates ringing crashed,
Burning helm-fire flashed,
Biting point of glaive
Bloody wound did grave.
Odin’s oaks (they say)
In that iron-play
Baldric’s crystal blade
Bowed and prostrate laid.
‘Spears crossing dashed,
Glory and fame
Gat Eric’s name.
‘Red blade the king did wield,
Ravens flocked o’er the field.
Dripping spears flew madly,
Darts with aim full deadly.
Scotland’s scourge let feed
Wolf, the Ogress’ steed:
For erne of downtrod dead
Dainty meal was spread.
O’er corse-strown lanes,
Found flesh-fowl’s bill
Of blood its fill.
While deep the wound
He delves, around
Grim raven’s beak
‘Axe furnished feast
For Ogress’ beast:
Eric on the wave
To wolves flesh-banquet gave.
‘Javelins flying sped,
Peace affrighted fled;
Bows were bent amain,
Wolves were battle-fain:
Spears in shivers split,
Sword-teeth keenly bit;
Archers’ strings loud sang,
Arrows forward sprang.
‘He back his buckler flings
From arm beset with rings,
Spiller of foemen’s blood.
(Witness true I bear),
East o’er billows came
Eric’s sounding name.
‘Bent the king his yew,
Bees wound-bearing flew:
Eric on the wave
To wolves flesh-banquet gave.
‘Yet to make more plain
I to men were fain
High-soul’d mood of king,
But must swiftly sing.
Weapons when he takes,
The battle-goddess wakes,
On ships’ shielded side
Streams the battle-tide.
‘Gems from wrist he gives,
Glittering armlets rives:
Loves not hoarding miser.
Frodi’s flour of gold
Gladdens rovers bold;
Prince bestoweth scorning
‘Foemen might not stand
For his deathful brand;
Yew-bow loudly sang,
Sword-blades meeting rang.
Lances aye were cast,
Still he the land held fast,
Proud Eric prince renowned;
And praise his feats hath crowned.
‘Monarch, at thy will
Judge my minstrel skill:
Silence thus to find
Sweetly cheered my mind.
Moved my mouth with word
From my heart’s ground stirred,
Draught of Odin’s wave
Due to warrior brave.
‘Silence I have broken,
A sovereign’s glory spoken:
Words I knew well-fitting
Praise from heart I bring,
Praise to honoured king:
Plain I sang and clear
Song that all could hear.’
King Eric sate upright while Egil recited the poem, and looked keenly at him. And when the song of praise was ended, then spake the king: ‘Right well was the poem recited; and now, Arinbjorn, I have resolved about the cause between me and Egil, how it shall go. Thou hast pleaded Egil’s cause with great eagerness, since thou offerest to risk a conflict with me. Now shall I for thy sake do what thou hast asked, letting Egil go from my land safe and unhurt. But thou, Egil, so order thy going that, after leaving my presence and this hall, thou never come before my eyes, nor my sons’ eyes, nor be ever in the way of myself or my people. But I give thee now thy head this time for this reason, that thou camest freely into my power. I will do no dastardly deed on thee; yet know thou this for sure, that this is no reconciliation with me or my sons or any of our kin who wish to wreak their vengeance.’
Then sang Egil:
‘Loth am I in nowise,
Though in features loathly,
Helm-capt head in pardon
From high king to take.
Who can boast that ever
Better gift he won him,
From a lordly sovereign’s
Arinbjorn thanked the king with many fair words for the honour and friendship that he had shown him. Then they two, Arinbjorn and Egil, went back to Arinbjorn’s house. After that Arinbjorn bade horses be made ready for his people. He rode away with Egil, and a hundred fully armed men with him. Arinbjorn rode with that force till they came to king Athelstan, where they were well received. The king asked Egil to remain with him, and inquired how it had gone between him and king Eric. Whereupon Egil sang:
‘Egil his eyes black-browed
From Eric, raven’s friend,
Welcomed. Wise help therein
Wife’s loyal kin lent.
My head, throne of helmet,
An heritage noble,
As erst, from rough rainstorm
To rescue I knew.’
I know thats quite a large extract, but its all pretty interesting stuff. I’ve put it in early to show how there is so much to the Brunanburh case as yet to be uncovered. Up until now, the best academics in the field halted before the Brunanburh poem’s author & declared him ‘unknowable.’ However, by simply suggesting that it could be Egil , suddenly all the strands of evidence suddenly coalesce & make him the clear favorite.
More evidence can be seen when immediately after the battle, Egil is writing militaristic, kenning-heavy praise poetry to Athelstan, as in;
Low now this scion royal
Earls three hath laid. To Ella
Earth must obedient bow.
Lavish of gold, kin-glorious,
Great Athelstan victorious,
Surely, I swear, all humbled
To such high monarch yields.’
But this is the burden in the poem:
‘Reindeer-trod hills obey
Bold Athelstan’s high sway.’
Then gave Athelstan further to Egil as poet’s meed two gold rings, each weighing a mark, and therewith a costly cloak that the king himself had formerly worn.
This giving of rings even fits in with the ASC poem’s, ‘In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors, ring-giver to men.’ Using all this as a platform for investigation, I wondered if it could be at all possible that Egil Skallagrimsson could also have penned the great Old English epic – Beowulf. In support let us examine the following ‘flags.’
1 – Beowulf uses Icelandic folk motifs
In the introduction to Beowulf, edited by CL Wren & WF Bolton, we read the following passages;
The saga of the historical & well-authenticated Icelandic hero Grettir… attributes to him two fights against supernatural beings – the one closely resembling Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, & the other that which he had with Grendel’s mother in the demon-haunted mere. The resemblances are too close to be fortuitous; & one must suppose common folklorist elements lying behind both – since the late thirteenth-century Grettissaga cannot be supposed to have ‘borrowed’ these ideas from Beowulf, which was not known in Iceland.
What this tells us is that the author of the Icelandic Grettissaga was using the same motifs as the author of Beowulf, a situation which has baffled the academics. Peter A Jorgensen (Grendel, Grettir & Two Skaldic Stanzas: Scripta Islandica 24 / 1973) writes, ‘the most striking parallels are to be found in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel in the beleaguered Heorot, in which the hero eventually kills the intruder by tearing off its arm, & in Grettir’s fight with a monster in the harassed house at Sandhaugar, where the marauder is dispatched in the identical manner.’
If we see these folk-motifs as purely Icelandic, then we may assume that the author of Beowulf had access to Icelandic material – & thus most probably Icelandic.
2 – Haeft-mece / Heptisax
There was evidently something important about a long-handled sword in the folk material which lies behind a fight with Grendel’s mother: for in Beowulf we find the unique haeft-mece & in Grettissaga an otherwise unrecorded instrument called a heptisax plays a part in the fight of Grettir against the female monster. Jorgenson writes that most convincing;
is the occurrence of the much-discussed nonce word heptisax, found both in the second stanza & in the alleged prose expansion of the verses, corresponding to its generally accepted counterpart in Old English, the hapax legomenon Haeftmece (in Beowulf line 1457). It seems highly improbable that the word should occur only once in all of the extensive battle descriptions in Old Icelandic prose &, by chance, at precisely the same point in a narrative where the corresponding English text employs the cognate form.
There is a difference between the two poems, for in Beowulf it is the eponymous hero who uses the haeftmece, while in the Grettissaga it is the monster who wields the heptisax. In his paper Jorgenson concludes that, ‘the material to which the skaldic verses are eventually indebted stems from the same legend which also became part of the Beowulf epic.’ Again, we may suggest that the Beowulf author had access to Icelandic material – & was thus most probably Icelandic.
3 – Compensation
In Beowulf, where Hrothgar pays compensation for the death of Beowulf’s warrior, Hondscioh, at the hands of Grendel, there is a parallel in Egil’s Saga. Here, Athelstan grants Egil two chests of silver as compensation for the death of Throrolf.
4 – The Dates fit
Egil was clearly around in the mid 900s, a period when the English had a great respect for the Danes. Nicholas Jacobs (Anglo-Danish relations, poetic archaism & the Date of Beowulf:Poetica 8 1977) writes; ‘from 927 onwards the Danes constitute a widely accepted element in English society, & an English poem complimentary to them is conceivable at least Down to the resumption of raids in 980.’ Roberta Frank (Skaldic Verse & the Date of Beowulf), remarks, ‘no linguistic or historical fact compels us to anchor Beowulf before the tenth century; if we do so, it is more from our emotional commitment to an early date rather than from hard evidence. Our one secure terminus is the palaeographic dating of the manuscript to around the year 1000.’
In her THE DATE OF “BEOWULF” RECONSIDERED: The Tenth Century? (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen Vol. 82, No. 3 (1981), chas some interesting findings in relation to Beowulf’s 10th century origins. She writes;
Battle poems & occasional poems were certainly a feature of Scandinavian culture, however. Eric Bloodaxe was said to have spared Egil Skallagrimsson’s life in return for a eulogy, & Snorri Sturluson recounts that at the battle of Stamford Bridge Harald Hardrada encouraged his troops by extemporising verses in two different styles. Panegyrics of Athelstan survive in English & Latin, & William of Malmesbury comments on Athelstan: ‘Nemo literatius rempublicam administravit.’ It appears therefore we cannot rule out the tenth century from c.930 onwards on cultural grounds.
Where Walter Goffart estimated that Beowulf could not have been written with these historical details before 923 (Johnston Staver, Ruth (2005) : Placing Beowulf on a Timeline – A Companion To Beowulf), Jacobs gives us a probable terminus ad quem of the poem when he writes, ‘the first reference by a skald to an event associated with one of the Scyldings of Beowulf occurs around 965 when Eyvindr Skaldaspillir calls gold ‘the seed corn of Fyrisplains’ alluding to the story.‘ Eyvindr was the court poet of Hakon the Good, the English-speaking foster-son of Athelstan, who may well have heard the poem at first hand. His epithet skáldaspillir means literally ‘spoiler of poets’ – which could mean plagarist.
This means that the poem was written between 923 & 965. Returning to Frank for a moment, she tells us ‘the political geography of Beowulf fits comfortably into the period between Alfred & Aethelweard,’ & also suggests the presence of the Geats in Beowulf is a 10th century skaldic theme; ‘The fact that the Geats held together as a people into the eleventh century does not pinpoint the date of Beowulf, but it does suggest that they were as known & topical in the tenth century as in any preceding one – & perhaps more so.’
5 – The Language
The Beowulf poem uses a conglomerate of Anglo-Saxon dialects, suggesting its author was Bookish rather than a native speaker. Klaeber points to an ‘unnatural medley of spellings’ & its ‘mixture of forms, early & late, West Saxon, Northumbriam, Mercian, Kentish & Saxon patois.’ Elsewhere S.O. Andrews comments on some late stylistic features such as the temporal clauses.
Patricia Poussa adds that the poet could possibly be ‘introducing deliberate archaisms, based on written sources.’ Perhaps it was while visiting Athelstan’s royal library that Egil found these ‘written sources’ to help his creation of the poem, including the Liber Monstrorum, which refers to Hygelac the king of the Geats & his last raid, as does Beowulf. He might also have looked the Blickling Homilies, number 17, from which the description of Grendel’s Mere seems to have been taken. According to Carleton Brown, ‘the phrases common to the two texts… not only demonstrate the far closer relationship of the Homily to Beowulf than to the Visio, but also make it evident that the Homilist’s source was in English.’
All this essay is meant to do is scrape a little topsoil off the Egil-wrote-Beowulf theory. The thing is, he was the greatest poet of the age, he did spend time at the Royal English Courts, the Beowulf poem does contain Icelandic motifs & the poem seems to have been composed in his lifetime. This definitely makes him a serious contender not to be dismissed with ease.
July 14th 2020