11 February 2009

Beorhtwold on Perelandra

A few years ago, I reread the second book in C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy, Perelandra (NY: Scribner, 1996), for the first time since I was perhaps 13. This time, it reminded me a good deal of Paradise Lost, as well as Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost and Discarded Image. But there was one specific allusion which, I was especially pleased to find, I knew with some precision. Once Ransom has begun physically to fight with the possessed Weston, ‘the Un-man’, he describes how the fight carries on to the point that he becomes more and more exhausted and desperate. Then, on p. 132, he tell us this: ‘Once he was actually astride the enemy’s chest, squeezing its throat with both hands and—he found to his surprise—shouting a line out of The Battle of Maldon: but it tore his arms so with its nails and so pounded his back with its knees that he was thrown off’ (p. 132).

Fortunately, I had become somewhat familiar with the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, in the intervening years since my first reading. Furthermore, two lines in particular had come to my attention, since Tolkien refers to them in the little introduction to his verse play, ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’ (The Tolkien Reader [NY: Ballantine, 1966], p. 5):

Near the end of the surviving fragment an old retainer, Beorhtwold, as he prepares to die in the last desperate stand, utters the famous words, a summing up of the heroic code,...:

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.

‘Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.’

It is here implied, as is indeed probable, that these words were not ‘original’, but an ancient and honoured expression of heroic will; Beorhtwold is all the more, not the less, likely for that reason actually to have used them in his last hour.

I cannot help but think that these are quite likely the words Ransom found himself shouting as he grew increasingly exhausted fighting Weston. Here they are in context (Kevin Crossley-Holland, trans. and ed., The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology [Oxford: Oxford U, 1984], p. 19):

Byrhtwold grasped his shield and spoke.
He was an old companion. He brandished his ash-spear
and most boldly urged on the warriors:
‘Mind must be the firmer, heart the more fierce,
courage the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Here lies our leader, hewn down,
an heroic man in the dust.
He who now longs to escape will lament for ever.
I am old. I will not go from here,
but I mean to lie by the side of my lord,
lie in the dust with the man I loved so dearly.’

Incidentally, if one were to read the Wikipedia article on The Battle of Maldon, one would be misinformed that—'In one episode of the science fiction novel Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, the protagonist (a philologist from Cambridge transported to the planet Venus) recites "The Battle of Maldon" in order to keep up his courage while wandering dark tunnels deep under the alien planet's surface.' But, having gone to the trouble of consulting the book before beginning to write, we know better:

He recited all that he could remember of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Æneid, the Chanson de Roland, Paradise Lost, the Kalevala, the Hunting of the Snark, and a rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman. He tried to spend as long as he could hunting for the lines he could not remember. (Lewis, p. 148)


I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

I stumbled across your blog in my attempts to put together a powerpoint presentation (I am applying deconstruction theory to The Battle of Maldon). This is a charming and interesting blog--I wil be sure to visit more often!

Regarding the image of the poem you've posted: I've seen this in a few other places (via google image search), but I'm unable to locate its source. Is this THE transcript?


aaronandbrighid said...

Crazy Beeyotch> Thank you for your kind comments--your ready compliments belie your username! ;-) Please do visit again. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I can't tell you more about this image. I believe I found it on a Flicker page that turned up in a Google images search for 'battle' and 'maldon'. A quick glance at that page, however, suggests to me that it is likely a modern transcription and not an authentic Anglo-Saxon manuscript. I noticed that the next image there was a page of Tengwar calligraphy (Tolkien's elvish script), and people that do Tengwar calligraphy often like to do Anglo-Saxon calligraphy as well. I wish you success in your presentation!