The Battle of Brunanburg
Washington State University
THE BATTLE OF BRUNANBURG
This poem is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937. It celebrates the military victory of Æthelstan and his brother Edmund over the Scot Constantine, the Welsh, and the Norwegians — an event by which Alfred the Great and his successors, having freed their West Saxon kingdom from the threat of Danish conquest, gradually gained power over the whole of England and secured themselves against enemies abroad.
Judging from the diction and the battle phraseology, the poet seems to have read the Venerable Bede, the Chronicle, and other older poems. Was this poem intended for a place in the Chronicle? The length, the degree of elaboration, and the poetic form itself distinguish it from the usual meager and perfunctory annals. Was it a recent, self-sufficient, independent compostion shoved into the Chronicle because of its ardor?
If you’re on kenning alert, you’ll have noticed that Æthelstan is called a “beahgifa” (“ring-giver”; 2), the shield is a “heatholinde” (“war-linden”; 6), battle is called “handplegan” (“hand-play”; 25), and the enemies are called “Scotta leode and scipflotan” (“Scottish people and shipfloaters”; 11) — this last effectively rotten-sounding. The translation “sailors” for these Vikings isn’t as derogatory as the spitting contempt implicit in “shipfloaters”!
We get examples of “litotes” too: “He needed not boast, / this gray-haired soldier, of the clashing of swords, / the evil old man, not Anlaf either. / With their army remnants they could not laugh / that in the war-work they were superior…” (45-48).
The memorable images here are not those of victory and celebration, and the poem does not provide much regarding the feelings of the victors. Instead, the victory is defined by the extent of the waste and devastation, like at the end of action movies when no one has anything to say and no real perspective. “They left behind them to share the corpses / the dark-coated swarthy raven, / horn-beaked, and the gray-coated / eagle, white-tailed, to possess the carrion, / the greedy war-hawk and that gray wild beast, / the wolf in the forest” (60-65). These are the battlefield scavengers who appear repeatedly in early English poetry.
As for “the dreary spear-survivors” (54), we have another effective Anglo-Saxon term in “dreorig” = dreary or dejected. But “dreor” also means blood, so we can take this to mean additionally that the survivors are bloody too.
But best of all, consider the final sentence:
Never was slaughter the greater
on this island, never yet
a people cut down before this
with the edges of swords, as books tell us,
old wisemen, since eastward hither
the Angles and Saxons had come up
over the broad waters, had sought Britain,
the proud war-smiths, conquered the Welsh,
the earls, eager for glory, had seized this land.
This rather undermines the previous ethical justification for defending the land! And the hypocrisy echoes through the ages in such manifestations as anti-immigration shrieking.
In other words, ends the Anglo-Saxon poet-chronicler, never was there a more glorious battle against a bunch of slimy invaders since, uh, we were the invaders….
The Battle of Brunanburg. Medieval English Literature. Ed. Thomas J. Garbáty. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1984. 49-52.
Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr. “Old English Heroic Literature.” Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature. Ed. David Johnson and Elaine Treharne. NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. 75-90.