- Refining the Gold:Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon, and the Northern Theory of Courage
In a work filled with acts of courage and even self-sacrifice, few such acts in The Lord of the Rings are more memorable than Gandalf's confrontation with the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm. Blocking the Balrog with his body, his power, and his full authority as one of the Istari, he buys time for the rest of the Fellowship to escape, at the cost (however temporarily) of his own life.
Like many other aspects of Tolkien's work, this scene, as Alexander Bruce has demonstrated in a 2007 article, was shaped in part by Tolkien's reading of a text important in his professional life, in this case The Battle of Maldon. Bruce argues convincingly that Gandalf's refusal to allow his enemy to cross the bridge is a pointed response to a crucial moment in Maldon when the English earl Byrhtnoth allows such a crossing. While Bruce's article is an important contribution to our growing understanding of the role of Maldon, it gives only a partial picture of that role. In addition to revising Byrhnoth's behavior in this scene, Tolkien elsewhere rewrites the actions of most of the other characters in the poem. While some of these connections have been noted in earlier criticism, some have not, and those that have need to be examined in detail in order to more fully appreciate how Tolkien's wrestling with the poem, which is evident in his other work, played out in his fiction.
Tolkien's relationship with the Old English poem was long and intimate. It was surely a part of his teaching repertoire; his friend and erstwhile collaborator on the edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight produced its standard scholarly edition; and, of course, he wrote a sequel-cum-commentary, "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm's Son," a work whose drafts span a period of perhaps twenty years. (It was published in 1953 but begun in some form as early as 1930: see Honegger). The Battle of Maldon also appears, explicitly, in Tolkien's professional writing, especially in the context of discussing the nature of Germanic heroism. In particular, he refers to it in the important lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (read as the Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy on November 25, 1936, and published in the following year), and discusses it at greater length in "Ofermod," an essay which forms the third part of "Homecoming." It is intriguing that the composition of these academic works and of "Homecoming" roughly frame the period of the composition of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a fact which suggests the possibility that the evolution of [End Page 91] his thinking about heroism took place on parallel tracks: in the critical writing and in the major fiction.1 Indeed, the work of Tom Shippey on "Homecoming" suggests that Maldon was the poem that most intensely encapsulated the dilemma with which Germanic heroic literature presented the Christian Tolkien: "Tolkien's problem as regards the heroic literature of antiquity was, I would say, on the one hand great professional liking, and on the other extreme ideological aversion" ("Heroes" 282). It would hardly be surprising to find it working on his imagination as he created numerous heroic characters and opportunities for heroism in his own fiction; it might be more surprising not to.
In this article, therefore, I intend not only to add to the growing evidence that Maldon deserves to be included in the list of important pre-texts that Tolkien is carefully re-writing, but also to consider that re-writing as part of a larger concern with redefining the heroic. I will also argue for a view of how Tolkien resolved his conflicting feelings toward the heroism of Maldon that differs somewhat from the one Tom Shippey has offered. I share Shippey's sense that Tolkien struggled mightily with this and had to work hard to reconcile his admiration for this form of heroism with his Christian beliefs. But for Shippey, his solution in "Home-coming" was...