The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth

The Battle of Maldon JRR Tolkien
The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth by J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Grybauskaus
Also by this author: The History of the Hobbit, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The Story Of Kullervo, Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien
Published by HarperCollins on March 30, 2023
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Non-Fiction
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The first-ever standalone edition of one of J.R.R. Tolkien's most important poetic dramas, that explores timely themes such as the nature of heroism and chivalry during war, featuring previously unpublished and never-before-seen texts and drafts.
In 991 AD, Vikings attacked an Anglo-Saxon defense-force led by their duke, Beorhtnoth, resulting in brutal fighting along the banks of the river Blackwater, near Maldon in Essex. The attack is widely considered one of the defining conflicts of tenth-century England, due to it being immortalized in the poem, The Battle of Maldon.
Written shortly after the battle, the poem now survives only as a 325-line fragment, but its value to today is incalculable, not just as a heroic tale but in vividly expressing the lost language of our ancestors and celebrating ideals of loyalty and friendship.
J.R.R. Tolkien considered The Battle of Maldon "the last surviving fragment of ancient English heroic minstrelsy." It would inspire him to compose, during the 1930s, his own dramatic verse-dialogue, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, which imagines the aftermath of the great battle when two of Beorhtnoth's retainers come to retrieve their duke's body.
Leading Tolkien scholar, Peter Grybauskas, presents for the very first time J.R.R. Tolkien's own prose translation of The Battle of Maldon together with the definitive treatment of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth and its accompanying essays; also included and never before published is Tolkien's bravura lecture, "The Tradition of Versification in Old English," a wide-ranging essay on the nature of poetic tradition. Illuminated with insightful notes and commentary, he has produced a definitive critical edition of these works, and argues compellingly that, Beowulf excepted, The Battle of Maldon may well have been "the Old English poem that most influenced Tolkien's fiction," most dramatically within the pages of The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve been a Lord of the Rings fan for just over twenty years now, and if you’re realizing that coincides with the Peter Jackson movie trilogy, you’d be absolutely right. A love of the books soon followed and I’ve read, listened, and watched multiple versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic. This year, I decided to branch out into Tolkien’s lesser-known and more obscure works. Works, I should note, are becoming less obscure thanks to the work of the Tolkien estate and Tolkien scholars. 2023 has granted us a new look at Tolkien’s The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, an alliterative poem/stage play that serves to flesh out the fragmentary Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, which is based on the historical Battle of Maldon on 11th August, 991 A.D. Titled The Battle of Maldon: together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, this volume seeks to show the intersection of Tolkien the Old English scholar with Tolkien the storyteller. It’s a comprehensive but not overwhelming, academic but still accessible work that shows a side of Tolkien that was prominent in life but vastly overshadowed by the Legendarium.

The History of the Poem

The Battle of Maldon took place on 11th August, 991 AD near the town of Maldon in Essex, ending in the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon army and the death of their leader, Earl Beorhtnoth. This battle is the subject of a poem of the same name, of which only 325 lines have survived. Scholars believe that the poem originated in the tenth century and it was almost lost to time in 1731 when the only known manuscript was destroyed in a fire. Fortunately, a copy had been made and that copy was lost until being found in the Bodleian Library at Oxford in the 1930s where the Anglo-Saxon scholar J.R.R. Tolkien taught.

In the 1930s, Tolkien was primarily known as a scholar. He had published some volumes of academic literary criticism and a history in translating Old English mythologies and poetry. In 1925, with E.V. Gordon, he had translated and edited Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and also labored on a translation of Beowulf that led to a published academic lecture on the work in 1937. It was during this time that a long-lost piece of Old English lore was resurrected—and right within the library where Tolkien spent his days. 325 lines be damned, Tolkien was going to tell the full story. Tolkien worked on the poem for two decades, finally publishing it bookended by some academic essays in a professional journal.

After Tolkien’s success with The Lord of the Rings, publishers were willing to publish anything of Tolkien. The Tolkien Reader was the first time the poem was released to a general audience in 1966, compiling it with On Fairy-Stories, Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. It appeared again in 1980’s Poems and Stories, a compilation that dropped On Fairy-Stories and added Smith of Wootton Major. The latest editions of Tree and Leaf, a compilation featuring On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle also include it—though, as this volume mentions, incorrectly calls it Tolkien’s version of The Battle of Maldon. Owing to the poem’s small size, it never had its own standalone volume until now.

Structure of The Book

The Battle of Maldon together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth is divided into three sections. First is the full text of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son as it first appeared in print. This includes Tolkien’s introductory essay about Beorhtnoth’s death, the poem, and a concluding academic essay. This covers the first 50 pages of the book.

The Homecoming of Beohthnoth Beorhthelm’s Son is an alliterative poem, written as a stage play. It’s the story of two characters—Tida and Totta—who are sent to retrieve the body of the slain Beorhtnoth from the battlefield at Maldon. Tolkien uses the dialogue to offer a critique of Beorhtnoth’s actions in battle. In the ancient poem, it is alleged that the Viking invaders had to cross a narrow causeway. Beorhtnoth could have used the causeway as a bottleneck to pick off invaders and hold the line, but instead allowed them to cross to make it a “fair” fight. Totta is the young idealist romantic who believes the actions to have been tragically noble; Tida is the old realist, hardened by battle, who believes the actions to have been folly. The play ends with them loading the ealdorman’s body onto a cart and heading toward the nearby abbey at Ely. (Sidenote: As an American living in the UK, I will never get used to places near me being referenced in ancient literature. Ely is a short drive away from me. I’ve stood in the cathedral in front of where Beorhtnoth was interred.)

The second section concerns the ancient Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, with an introductory note edited from Tolkien’s extant academic writings and lectures on the poem, Tolkien’s own prose translations of the poem, and concluding explanatory notes. This is a relatively short passage, at just under 30 pages.

The third section of the book is a reprint of Tolkien’s lecture ‘The Tradition of Versification in Old English.’ This is easily the most academic section of the book and is included not only because it pads the book’s length but because Tolkien references The Battle of Maldon throughout the lecture and gives us insight into the importance of the poem to Tolkien both personally and professionally.

The book’s fourth and final section are a selection of appendices, some of which include miscellaneous writings from Tolkien that reference Maldon and early drafts of The Homecoming. The latter, in particular, shows Tolkien’s meandering creative process and the journey the poem book to its final published form. A final appendix offers readers a connection to Middle Earth, discussing how the poem may have influenced Tolkien’s legendarium and drawing some thematic comparisons between The Homecoming and various events in The Lord of the Rings and other Middle Earth stories. It is interesting to see how Tolkien’s worldview so permeates his work, yet never feels like a retread of the same story or the same message. Neither does it seem like Grybauskas is grasping at straws to attempt to connect this rather obscure work to Tolkien’s most famous.

A Critique

I’ve heard the accusation that some of the recent releases from HarperCollins and The Tolkien Estate are nothing more than cash grabs. I don’t find that to be true. It is accurate that The Homecoming alone is not a book-length tale, but the academic extras aren’t just there to fill pages, the tell the story of Tolkien—his creative process, his understanding of writing fiction as an act of sub-creation, his work as an academic, the themes that inspired and drove him, and much more. This is a more academic work. If you want just the story, then one of the earlier compilations will probably do you better. But The Battle of Maldon together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth isn’t just about reprinting a story, it’s about understanding Tolkien’s legacy. This book, coming around the 70th anniversary of the first time the poem was released, showcases Tolkien in all his academic and storytelling complexity.

This is one of Tolkien’s most obscure works—misunderstood and overlooked by many, its publishers included—and now it is finally getting the spotlight it deserves. Editor Peter Grybauskas has accomplished a masterwork in sifting through Tolkien’s archives at the Bodleian and ensuring that, even in the introductions, it is Tolkien’s voice that shines through.

I’m glad for this volume and I’m glad to see interest in Tolkien’s work extending beyond Middle Earth, though Valinor knows there’s words and worlds enough to explore there for a lifetime. The Battle of Maldon together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth is a book that’s for the Tolkien fan. It’s as much—probably more—about honoring Tolkien’s legacy as an academic as it is about sharing a good story. If you want just the story, one of the earlier compilations will do you well. If you want to step into the mind of Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon is exactly how you do that.