Sunday, December 2, 2012

Anglo-Saxon Songs and Sagas

Book Review: Anglo-Saxon Sagas and Songs by Christopher Webster
(Kindle Edition 2011)

This is a cool read of interpretive Anglo-Saxon works. The time frame of the stories is 449 CE to 1066 CE, from the first wave of migration to Britain to the Norman Conquest. The stories and poems are closely and sometimes loosely based on previous sagas, chronicles, and historical data. The book contains 13 separate pieces and most can be regarded as embellishments based on the historical documents, chronicles, and sagas. I think that this type of writing which includes the various novelized versions of epics and sagas can be quite valuable especially if it is well-rooted in history and true to the stories at hand. Tales woven into a more contemporary language style and with carefully selected embellishments can be more readable. These stories are in a general chronological order.

The first tale – Skald – is loosely based on a fragment of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem known as “The Finnesburh Fragment.” This is the story of the rise of the warrior Hengest after the death of his leader Hnaef. Historically, Hengest, as a mercenary, is thought to have begun the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain circa 449 CE. Here we learn of the power of the skald, the harper-poet who wields the weapon of words. The story revolves around an annual Anglo visit to Frisia to celebrate the ending of an old feud and ensure continued peace through feasting together. Skaldic tales and riddles were shared. Drunkeness resulted in the old feud resurfacing with a contingent of the host attacking the guest. The story revolves around a young skald and a young warrior who learn fast about battle, medicine, and skaldery. The value of courage is here explored.

The next tale is – Hengest’s Last Battle – and is based on Layamon’s “Brut” (c. 1180). This is about a battle in which the first wave of Anglo-Saxons are repelled by a resurgent native British leader – equated to the legendary Arthur. This is thought to be the Battle of Mount Badon. The author composed the poem in classic Anglo-Saxon/Middle English alliterative style with some rhyme thrown in. This is the same verse form used by Layamon. Hengest the heathen is captured in the battle and brought to the king where he is killed and then given back to the Angles to be cremated as no disrespect should be shown the dead.

The next tale is - Frodo, the Dragon Slayer – and comes from the Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) from Saxo Grammaticus. This is the likely source of Tolkien’s hero of “Lord of the Rings.” This is the story of Frodo the warrior then king of the Heathobards who went to an island to slay a dragon who lived in a cave under a mountain and who also guarded great treasures that Frodo could use for his ailing tribespeople. He was aided by a one-eyed boatman akin to Odin and his sword called Gram. He is able to kill the dragon by striking a vulnerable part of the lower belly. In these respects and many others the story is very similar to that of the dragonslayer Sigurd in the Eddas and the Saga of the Volsungs. There are also overlaps to the Beowulf Saga.

The Lay of Beow is a short poem of the legendary Beow who intermingles with historical characters of the 6th century in the Beowulf saga. The tale simply tells of the slaying of the dragon Grendel by Beowulf.

Next we have a story of the legendary Germanic warrior Starkath, hinted at in Beowulf and whose deeds are recounted in the Gesta Danorum. He was said to come from Finland or Estonia but ended up on a Viking expedition coming from Norway to England. This is an interesting story with several twists of fate. Starkath is also a warrior tied to Woden by fate. Woden predicted that his three-fold gift of warrior prowess came with the price of three evil deeds that would befall him. The first one occurs when he was on a Viking expedition to England and they were held from sailing by a westerly wind. They decided to do a blot rite to Njord, the god of wind, and his four stags of Yggdrasil and to Vestri, the dwarf who rules the west wind. The rite included a mock hanging of whoever drew the short straw. King Vikar drew it. Something went wrong as a wind blew up and knocked the boat around and the king was hanged. After that a storm rose up and Starkath ended up washing ashore alone on the English coast. He ends up serving Frodo as a thegn (warrior). Frodo gives him a sword inscribed with runes, called Snake of Wounds. He was cursed by a temple priest when raiding in Uppsala in Sweden to not die in battle nor enter Valahalla. His raid of the temple was considered the second of his evil deeds. After the battle death of Frodo, his son Ingeld became king but preferred pleasure to battle so Starkath went off to serve the King of the Swedes. Afterward he had heard that Ingleld formed a marriage with Freawayu of the Scyldings, so he returned to Daneland to rouse Ingeld to seek revenge against the Scyldings who had killed his father Frodo. This he was able to do as Ingeld rose up and slew many of the Scyldings unawares. Unfortunately, Starkath then realized that this was the third of his evil deeds as forging a peace through a marriage to a former enemy is a form of wergild – an honorable pact, one that was broken at his urging.

The Lay of Ingeld – utilizes material from Beowulf, the Gesta Danorum, Hrolfr Kraki’s Saga, and the Poetic Edda. This is the same story as above with the addition of the Heathobards’ excursion led by Ingeld and Starkath against the Danes. The Heathobards prevail and complete vengeance is secured but Starkath does not die in the battle as he had hoped.

Next is a saga of King Arthur from the Anglo point of view based on Layamon’s ‘Brut’. When Arthur was fighting Romans Modred seized the kingdom of the Britons and sought the aid of Angle warriors. Arthur won the first battle then they regrouped to build a bigger army which included Irish, Scots, and Picts. The Angles under Childric sent for ships from Saxland promising land to the victors. Mordred marched without Childric and the Angles to meet Arthur as the ships had yet to arrive. A great battle was fought where both Mordred and Arthur were killed and both armies devastated. This allowed the Angles to settle more land unchallenged and to drive the Britons into Wales and Cornwall. Childric set up court at the old fortress of Hengest. The saga of Childric was not sung – perhaps due to the way he won the kingdom. Only a few lines from a chronicle tell of his deeds. His son Cynric is one of the first documented kings in Anglo-Saxon history.

Next is a rather humorous tale called – King Alfred Burns the Cakes – based on three sources: Allport’s ‘History of Conisborough’ (1913), Robert de Brunne’s verse chronicle ‘History of Ingland’ (1338), and Bishop Asser’s “Life of King Alfred’ (893). The author tells the tale in verse in the Yorkshire dialect, which he notes is dying out. King Alfred fought many battles with the Danes but in one he lost and was forced to travel in disguise to the north. He stayed with cowherd peasants for a few days. The wife of the cowherd there asked him to watch some cakes that were cooking but with the future of his people on his mind he inadvertently let them burn and was scolded by the woman. This scolding taught him that wallowing in his worry was of no use and he went forth and gathered a new army and defeated Guthrum and the Danes, afterward making peace with Guthrum and converting him to Christianity and so the raids from the Danes decreased.

Next is the story of Haldane of Doncaster which the author pieced together from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Piers Langtoft (1307).  Here King Egbert of England is planning a meeting with the Northumbrians to make them his subjects when Frithbard the Viking is making a raid along the Northumbrian coast. The Vikings outnumbered them so they retreated. Meanwhile Haldane of Doncaster was trying to round up men to fight with little luck until he rallied them by carrying around a large cross from the church and imploring them to come and fight the heathens. The Vikings with their berserkers were in pursuit of the retreating Egbert. Haldane led the charge killing many much like a berserker himself. Finally, Ethelwulf came with the rest of Egbert’s army and the Vikings fled. At this news the Northumbrians submitted to the king and from then on Egbert was known as the “Lord of all Britain.”

The Lay of Ellendune is next told – a story similar to the previous where Ellendune is a battle site between King Egbert of Wessex and Beornwulf of Mercia in 825. This battle also helped Egbert to be named ruler over of all England. This allowed the English to be more united against Viking raids.

The Battle of Maldon is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle but the author adds to a missing beginning and ending. The year was 991 and Ethelrod was king. The Viking Olag Tryggvason was coming along the coast with 93 ships. The Vikings won the battle and tribute but lost so many men that they went back to Denmark never to return.

Next is a curious story called – Thormod the Skald – based on the British ballad of Thomas the Rhymer. The author calls this an Anglo-Saxonized version which presumably is not historic but invented by himself though he suggests that such tales may have been told as a change of pace alternative to songs of battles and heroes. In the story Thormod is taken by the Queen of the Elves to Alfheim to serve her for seven years.

The next tale is called – the Saga of Sigurd – and explores the possible fate of some Anglo-Saxon warriors after their defeat by the Norman conquest of 1066. It is said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that a comet (a long-haired star) appeared that year that was taken to be an ill omen. King Harold was killed in the Battle of Hastings and some of the Anglo-Saxon warriors fled north. The rebellion was a lost cause so Sigurd the Earl and others took refuge with the Danes and sailed on to Denmark. Not wanting to stay there he heard of warriors going to the exotic East to help defend Miklagard, the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople, as mercenaries. This was the Varangian Guard. Sigurd decided to join this venture as it was said many of the English ended up there along with Scandinavians from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. First they sailed through the Baltic and made their way to Novgorod in Russia, a city the Varangians called Holmgard. Then they sailed down the Dniepper River for hundreds of miles to stranger and warmer lands and to the Black Sea. In the story Sigurd is sent by a Byzantine general to guard an outlying province called Cherson that was often attacked by the Goths. After Sigurd was treated to the delights and decadence of the great city he went north and found the Goths were farming the green lands and decided this suited him. According to the story, many English followed this route and the area became known as Nova Anglia (New England). I don’t know how true this is but it is interesting how people mixed in various ways and times.

Finally there is some fate-verse for the reader. Overall, a nice set of properly embellished historical warrior tales based on authentic sources.

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