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Oaths in The Battle of Maldon

Stephen Harris

University of Massachusetts

In 1968, in a remark as wise as it is learned, Professor George Clark wrote of The Battle of Maldon that “what the poet does not create does not exist even if history inspires hispoem.” Readers of the poem have been mulling this over for forty years. The poet’s words are all that we have, and each word bears the weight of the poet’s impress. The battle itself is lost to time, and what appears in the poem is at best a recreation. The historical information it affords us has been subject, to some degree, to alteration by imagination, to the formulae of verse, and to the genre’s chartered streets, in William Blake’s phrase. Professor Clark has therefore asked readers to seek “the meaning of the events the poem imaginatively recreates.” He is careful to remind us that Maldon is not a poem of more recent vintage, but one steeped in medieval topoi. As a consequence, readers need to be alert to mediating assumptions about contemporary literary art, especially as regards ambiguity, structure,authorial intent, and the role of poetry in society. For example, contemporary readers often see in Maldon a nominally fragmented, aesthetically cohesive package which narrates an experience of loyalty. We often presume that a poem is about something more abstract than itself, what is commonly called its theme. In Maldon, that theme is thought to be loyalty. An abstract Loyalty allows us to gauge the success or failure of the poem’s characters. We ask whether this character or that character is loyal, and what is suggested more generally about loyalty. As one consequence of assuming a governing theme of loyalty, we implicitly allow that each character chooses to honor his obligation or not. This choice, any choice per se, makes the moral world of the poem ambivalent; and Maldon as it is read today is considered didactic insofar as it allows its readers to navigate vicariously ambivalent or conflicting loyalties. Thus, the speeches of the retainers are often explained as each man’s declared choice to fight on, to be loyal.

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