Thomas Honegger, ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’
Thomas Honegger, a professor of English medieval studies, examines the historical context of this work and explains the importance of ofermod ‘over-reaching pride’ in Tolkien’s interpretation of events.
A dramatic dialogue
The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, first published in Essays and Studies by members of the English Association in 1953, opens with an introduction about the historical background, which is followed by the text of the dramatic dialogue. The piece concludes with a note on the Old English term ofermod (usually rendered as ‘pride, insolence’).
The background, and inspiration for Tolkien’s Homecoming is the Old English heroic poem The Battle of Maldon, which describes the events of the historic battle near Maldon in AD 991. But it is a typical text by J.R.R. Tolkien, which the author himself linked to his two main essays on literature, that ‘to my mind really do flow together: Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics; the essay On Fairy-stories; and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. The first deals with the contact of the “heroic” with fairy-story; the second primarily with fairy-story; and the last with “heroism and chivalry”.’
The central part of Homecoming is the dramatic dialogue between two Anglo-Saxons who (in Tolkien’s fiction) had been sent by the monks of the Abbey of Ely to recover the body of the nobleman Beorhtnoth from the battlefield near Maldon. They are called Tída (short for Tídwald), an older and more experienced man, and Totta (short for Torhthelm), a young man whose imagination seems to be inspired by an uncritical assimilation of the Old English heroic poetic tradition.
The two men have come down from Maldon and, in the darkness of the night, are searching among the fallen for the corpse of Beorhtnoth. They find his gold-ornamented sword and his badly mutilated body and start to carry it back towards their vehicle. Scavengers frighten the over-imaginative Totta into attacking and killing one of them – a deed, as Tída points out, both needless and unheroic.
Once they have reached the cart, Totta settles down with the body in the back and, falling asleep, has an apocalyptic vision which he renders in heroic language. A bump on the road wakes him up and as they approach Ely, they can hear the Dirige chanted by the monks – an antiphony sung for the dead.
Background and portent
It is assumed that The Battle of Maldon was composed shortly after the event by someone who witnessed the battle or had contact with the survivors. Tolkien, in his early drafts of Homecoming, identified Totta as the author of The Battle of Maldon – an identification later abandoned since it would contradict his view of the poem as a work that is subtly critical of Beorhtnoth’s role.
The Battle of Maldon describes how the Essex (in the eastern part of England) army under the command of the lord Beorhtnoth suffered a disastrous defeat against the Viking forces who, after ravaging the surrounding countryside, had come up the river Pante (now called the Blackwater). While the Viking invaders encamped on an island in the river, Beorhtnoth and his men occupied the bankside opposite and took control of the causeway that connects the island with the mainland. Seeing their strategically disadvantageous situation, the Scandinavians – far more numerous – asked Beorhtnoth to allow them to cross and confront the Anglo-Saxons in ‘fair’ fight. Beorhtnoth, in his ofermod (a term whose interpretation is crucial for Tolkien’s understanding of the Old English poem) allowed them to do so and in the ensuing battle the Anglo-Saxons were routed, Beorhtnoth killed and his household-retainers, refusing to surrender or to flee, made their last stand over the body of their beloved lord.
Ofermod and The Lord of the Rings
E.V. Gordon, with whom Tolkien had collaborated on the 1925 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published an edition of The Battle of Maldon in 1937. He argued that it should be seen as an example of the northern heroic spirit, which makes men refuse to surrender even when facing overwhelming odds. Tolkien, in his Homecoming, seems to give his own interpretation of the poem’s attitude towards Beorhtnoth on the one hand, and his retainers on the other. The poetic glorification of war by the young and imaginative Totta is contrasted with the grim realities of the battlefield and Tída’s down-to-earth mature realism. As Tom Shippey has argued, Tolkien attempts thus to reconcile his own conceptions with the fact that Old English heroic poetry is, to a large extent, presenting a pagan view of heroism unacceptable to Christians. Tolkien, in the third part of his text (the note entitled Ofermod), discusses the interpretation of Old English ofermod, a term that has been variously interpreted as denoting ‘pride’, ‘overreaching pride’, ‘over-confidence’ etc. He argues that the poet of The Battle of Maldon implicitly criticises Beorhtnoth’s decision to allow the Vikings to cross the causeway by connecting it to ofermod. Beorhtnoth, as the leader of the Essex army, so Tolkien states, had no right to neglect his responsibilities towards his land and people in favour of personal striving for glory and reputation. True and unmitigated heroism is found rather with those of Beorhtnoth’s retainers who refuse to flee or surrender after their lord’s death.
The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son is thus not merely a ‘sequel’ to the Old English The Battle of Maldon; rather, it might be first considered an attempt to come to terms with the problems Old English heroic poetry presents to a Christian reader and, in view of Tolkien’s creative writings, also to a Christian author. But more importantly, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, this ‘dramatic dialogue on the nature of the “heroic” and the “chivalrous”’ (as Tolkien puts it, in a letter in 1955) echoes strikingly with The Lord of the Rings, published only a year later, by its reflections on heroism and man, on war and death, on excessive pride and power, on poetry and reputation, on the role of a leader and the use of strength.