Friday, October 2, 2009


The Battle of Maldon is probably the second oldest epic poem in the English language (only Beowulf is older). It tells the tale of Earl Britnoth, who fell in battle against the invading Vikings in 991 AD. The poem is so old that it is in Old English, the still Germanic root of our current language. J.R.R. Tolkein was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, and published a translation of the poem.

A story this old only survives if it speaks to something deep in the soul of the people of the time. What spoke to them was how Britnoth's hearth companions - his bodyguard, his huskarls - fought to the death over their slain lord's body. Despite the victory, the Viking army was so mauled that it sailed for home. People remembered their sacrifice because it stood in stark contrast to the cowardly actions of the king.

The 970s were the high water mark of the Anglo-Saxon empire. King Edgar was overlord - Emperor, really - of lesser kings in a united Britain. The realm was powerful, feared, and so at peace.

Until Ethelred the Unready. Coming to the throne as a boy in 979 when his brother Edward was murdered, he had to rely on advisers to defend his kingdom during the 980s. It was a brutal era, and it didn't take long for predictors to start stalking the weakened kingdom.

Ethelred means "noble counsel", from the root raed (council, advice). The Anglo-Saxons were great lovers of puns, and it was gallows humor that gave his nickname: unraed - "no council" - from which we get Unready.
Ethelred! Ethelred!
Spent his royal life in bed;
one shoe off and one shoe on,
greatly loved by everyone.

Ethelred couldn't make up his mind - he couldn't formulate a plan and stick to it. And so he dithered: strong for a time until he met some minor difficulty, then weak when he could have pressed his enemies and won. They smelled blood, and what had started in the 970s as small plunder raids turned into all out invasions by Viking armies intent on inflicting the maximum damage possible.

They were after Danegeld - a ransom for them to go away. Rather than doing their own plundering, they got Ethelred to do it for them: collect taxes to pay them off. The problem, of course is well known. Once you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane. Ethelred found the price kept rising: 10,000 pounds (992), 16,000 (994), 24,000 (1002), 36,000 (1007), 48,000 (1012). At this point, the Vikings wanted the whole prize, and Ethelred had to flee to France the next year.

His cruelty - such as his order to kill all male Danes in his kingdom in 1002 - was something his people could tolerate; indeed, it was a cruel time. His fecklessness was a different story, because he couldn't provide what all leaders must: victory. He couldn't win. Coming to the throne too young, he never learned how to lead.

We're seeing this today, in the Oval Office. The Obama administration is long on promises, but short on victories. They rammed the "stimulus" through Congress (we can blame the Bush administration for the Bank bailout), but since then their agenda has stalled. Cap and Trade is languishing in committee, unlikely to pass. His Health care plan is a shambles, with five competing plans and a fragmented Democratic party that smells defeat in the 2010 elections. We see the echo of Ethelred here: no mandate to buy insurance (candidate Obama), a mandate that people must buy it (today), a required "public option" (April), no required public option (today).

His foreign policy is a disaster: retreat from the Russians (no missile defense in eastern Europe), no sanctions for Iran (even the French are disgusted), retreat from victory in Afghanistan, unable to convince the International Olympic Committee to pick Chicago.

The more people see him - at home and abroad - the less they fear him. Like Ethelred, he may have a ruthless streak, but in October - what should be the high water mark of his power and influence - he seems unready. He thinks too highly of himself but he doesn't know how to accomplish his goals, he keeps changing his goals, his enemies are increasingly confident, and he surrounds himself with unraed - bad council.

We've seen this story before, and it doesn't end well.
þa wearð afeallen þæs folces ealdor, Æþelredes eorl;
Then was the folk’s prince fallen,
Ethelred’s earl. All saw there,
his hearth-companions, that their lord lay.
Then valiant thegns went forth there,

men undaunted eagerly hastened:
they all wished, then, one of two things—
to leave life or loved one avenge.
Britnoth's headless body was brought back to Ely Cathedral, where he lies to this day. On his tomb is carved BRITHNOTHUS, NORTHUMBRIORUM DUX, PRAELIO CAESUS A DANIS A.D. DCCCCXCI. "Britnoth, Duke of Northumbria. He fell in battle against the Danes in the Year of Our Lord 991".

Sacrificed by a feckless leader. May we fare better.


doubletrouble said...

Wicked smaht stuff-- it's good to learn a thing here & there from reading these blog thingies.

Question: with all that nose pointy armor stuff, did anyone say "yer arms' off"?

Ethelred H. 0Bama- nice ring to it though...

Good job.

"Zack" said...

Great post.

Some things we should have only suffered once in our lives...

1) Only one Chrysler bailout
2) Only one Jimmy Carter presidency

Borepatch said...

Thanks, guys. I was wondering if anyone (other than me) would be interested in a Grand Unified Field Theory of Anglo-Saxon naming puns and limited representative government ....


Tangalor said...

(just off work)

Brilliant post, Borepatch. I love learning stuff, and this gets filed in the Dogan.

As you say, SRSLY. Awesome post.

FYI: the first time I saw RAED in words was from Stephen King's Dark Tower series. This post has deepened my awareness of the term. Thanks :)

LSP said...

Never would have thought to make the Ethelred/Obama connection. Nice.

The Czar of Muscovy said...

English major here, and glad to see, with a tear in my eye, that someone is still aware of the real classics.

I had to translate some of this, but the connection did not occur to me. Nicely played, sir.

ajdshootist said...

From one who loves History thank you sir a well writen piece very apt!

Paladin said...

That was cool.... Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The real danger in having a weak leader is that in comparison a marginally better but still ineffective replacement looks a lot better.


Anonymous said...

I don't know much about history even though I enjoy reading it.
I don't get involved in political issues because in the end they are a waste of time but, I do have to say that people are getting what they voted for.