The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son
J. R. R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son




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The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son

Copyright © 1953 by the English Association



 [...] But the songs wither,

and the world worsens. I wish I’d been here,

not left with the luggage and the lazy thralls,

cooks and sutlers! By the Cross, Tída,

I loved him no less than any lord with him;

and a poor freeman may prove in the end

more tough when tested than titled earls

who count back their kin to kings ere Woden.


You can talk, Totta! Your time’ll come,

and it’ll look less easy than lays make it.

Bitter taste has iron, and the bite of swords

is cruel and cold, when you come to it.

Then God guard you, if your glees falter!

When your shield is shivered, between shame and death

is hard choosing.




His head was higher than the helm of kings

with heathen crowns, his heart keener

and his soul clearer than swords of heroes

polished and proven: than plated gold

his worth was greater. From the world has passed

a prince peerless in peace and war,

just in judgment, generous-handed

as the golden lords of long ago.

He has gone to God glory seeking,

Beorhtnoth beloved.


Brave words my lad!

The woven staves have yet worth in them

for woeful hearts. But there’s work to do,

ere the funeral begins.


Ah, worse and worse! The wolvish heathens

have hewn off his head, and the hulk left us

mangled with axes. What a murder it is,

this bloody fighting!


Aye. that’s battle for you,

and no worse today than wars you sing of,

when Fróda fell, and Finn was slain.

The world wept then, as it weeps today:

you can hear the tears through the harp’s twanging.





No rest for you yet! Were you reckoning on bed?

The best you’ll get is the bottom of the cart

with his body for bolster.


You’re a brute, Tída,


It’s only plain language. If a poet sang you:

“I bowed my head on his breast beloved,

and weary of weeping woeful slept I;

thus joined we journeyed, gentle master

and faithful servant, over fen and boulder

to his last resting and love’s ending”,

you’d not call it cruel. I have cares of my own

in my heart, Totta, and my head’s weary.

I am sorry for you, and for myself also.

Sleep, lad, then! Sleep! The slain won’t trouble,

if your head be heavy, or the wheels grumble.


There are candles in the dark and cold voices.

I hear mass chanted for master’s soul

in Ely isle. Thus ages pass,

and men after men. Mourning voices

of women weeping. So the world passes;

day follows day, and the dust gathers,

his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it,

and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle.

So men flicker and in the mirk go out.

The world withers and the wind rises;

the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.

It’s dark! It’s dark, and doom coming!

Is no light left us? A light kindle,

and fan the flame! Lo! Fire now wakens,

hearth is burning, house is lighted,

men there gather. Out of the mists they come

through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth.

Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting:

stern words they sing with strong voices.

Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose,

more proud the spirit as our power lessens!

Mind shall not falter nor mood waver,

though doom shall come and dark conquer.

Note (Hal’s):
The last four lines above first translate and then expand on the famous lines of Beorhtwold in The Battle of Maldon:

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,

mod sceal þe mare þe ure maegen lytlað.

See the next quote.

— end note



The words of Beorhtwold have been held to be the finest expression of the northern heroic spirit, Norse or English; the clearest statement of the doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will. The poem as a whole has been called “the only purely heroic poem extant in Old English”. Yet the doctrine appears in this clarity, and (approximate) purity, precisely because it is put in the mouth of a subordinate, a man for whom the object of his will was decided by another, who had no responsibility downwards, only loyalty upwards. Personal pride was therefore in him at its lowest, and love and loyalty at their highest.

For this “northern heroic spirit” is never quite pure; it is of gold and an alloy. Unalloyed it would direct a man to endure even death unflinching, when necessary: that is when death may help the achievement of some object of will, or when life can only be purchased by denial of what one stands for. But since such conduct is held admirable, the alloy of personal good name was never wholly absent. [...] This motive may, of course, hardly go beyond “conscience”: self-judgement in the light of the opinion of his peers, to which the “hero” himself wholly assents; he would act the same, if there were no witnesses. Yet this element of pride, in the form of the desire for honour and glory, in life and after death, tends to grow, to become a chief motive, driving a man beyond the bleak heroic necessity to excess—to chivalry. “Excess” certainly, even if it be approved by contemporary opinion, when it not only goes beyond need and duty, but interferes with it.

It is the heroism of obedience and love not of pride or wilfulness that is the most heroic and the most moving; from Wiglaf under his kinsman’s shield, to Beorhtwold at Maldon, down to Balaclava, even if it is enshrined in verse no better than The Charge of the Light Brigade.



text checked (see note) Dec 2007

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