restricted access Some things the Maldon poet did not say
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Some things the Maid on poet did not say Our response to the poem in which the battle of Maldon is recorded must accommodate the analytical problems implicit in considering a battle fought over a thousand years ago and a poem which is not much younger.1 To attempt any assessment of the poet's artistry requires us to pick a cautious path through the minefield of historical fact and poetic tradition, a path obscured as much by the poet's ability to merge the two as by our ignorance of what the poet could expect his audience to know of either. Yet there is a balance between poem and fact: when w e look below the obviously literary surface, w e find it to be solidly based on fact, and the verifiable fact may in turn illumine an aspect of the poet's artistry. In other words, when the poet appears to withhold comment on information he could reasonably be expected to possess, his silences should be considered, as much as his overt statements, for their contribution to the poem's meaning and artistic stature. Such a reading makes complex demands upon the modern reader, requiring us to identify,first,what the poet does say; second, what he might have said; and third, why he did not say it. Initially, therefore, w e have to locate the poet's intention in writing the poem at all, why he chose to accord an account of a comparatively minor skirmish the dignified heroic treatment worthy of legendary heroes from the Germanic past. Whatever the date of the poem, it cannot be earlier than the battle of 991 it records. The glorification of heroism it contains is thus somewhat incongruous in the context of treachery, cowardice, and inefficiency which characterizes /Ethelred's reign, and this incongruity suggests that one aspect of the poet's intention was simply the general one of nationalistic propaganda. A second aspect, however, one not incompatible with thefirst,is that of eulogy. The widow of the central figure, Byrhtnoth, commissioned a tapestry commemorating his life and death,2 and, in view of the local connections of 1 See for example the collections of essays in The Battle of Maldon AD 99 Donald Scragg, Oxford, 1991, and 'The Battle of Maldon': Fiction and Fact, ed. Janet Cooper, London, 1993. Line references to the poem are taken from The Battle of Maldon, ed. D. G. Scragg, Manchester, 1981. 2 See Liber Eliensis, ed. E. O. Blake, London, 1962, 2, p. 136, and also C. R. Dodwell, Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective, Manchester, 1982, p. 135. P A R E R G O N ns 13.1, July 1995 70 M. A. L. Locherbie-Cameron many of the named warriors in the poem, it seems probable that the poet's immediate intention was to honour the great magnate by transforming his death in battle into the stuff of epic. Such an assumed purpose goes some way towards explaining the poem's odd blend of apparent fidelity to historic fact with the stuff of creative literature, such as stock characters, situations, and phrases. Byrhtnoth's death in 991 in battle at Maldon, a matter of historic fact,3 acquires grandeur from its context, both in its inclusion amongst the heroic deaths of other identifiable warriors and in its firm positioning within the world of Germanic hero through the use, albeit sparing, of heroic formulae appropriate to a commemorative poem. More importantly, however, if, as seems clear, eulogy was in fact the poet's purpose, the very nature of the poem joins the arguments I have produced elsewhere for a date of composition close to the actual battle, and thus of the poem's reliability as a record.4 To have any value, eulogy must be based on fact, not fiction. If the poet was writing soon after the battle, he is likely to have got his facts right, because the detail would be a matter of common knowledge; if, on the other hand, he simply made up all the detail and invented appropriate characters, then the poem must be late enough for the fiction not to be questioned. And three general...