Heroism as Defined by Military Action
In Old English Literature, the Anglo-Saxon society portrayed is built upon military achievement in battle and one’s respect for their Lord. Despite this focus, heroic action also occurs in other forms and in contexts outside the battlefield. ‘The Dream of the Rood’ from the Vercelli Book provides a different perspective portraying a heroic action that is at ‘the centre of redemption history’. Furthermore, the heroic action of Wulf in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ in the Exeter Book is done out of love for his partner, rather than a love for his Lord as would be the case with military action. Despite both of these points, symbolic military imagery is used throughout both poems. This is perhaps to portray a different kind of heroic action in a context that a tenth century audience, who would have received these pieces orally, would have been able to understand more comprehensibly.
In the majority of Old English Literature, the text includes a physical battle between two opposing sides, with heroic action very much defined by military action. However, there are exceptions to this, especially in religious literature. ‘The Dream of the Rood’ presents heroic action in the form of a sacrifice of one person rather than a battle involving two armies. Christ is presented as heroic in fulfilling his sacrificial duty to mankind; he is not portrayed as a hero for the action of killing another, but through overcoming the fear of death and giving up his own life for the ‘ransoming of mankind’. The poem reads:‘I saw then the Saviour of mankind Hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb upon me.’ The ‘heroic action’ in this instance is the ascent to the cross that will be his instrument of death, which he does ‘with great zeal’ and with a ‘heroic and voluntary nature’ which presents an aspect of fearlessness as Christ put himself on the cross ‘with great zeal’. A key aspect to this poem is his willingness; he does not stand as a reluctant hero and this only serves to bolster the title further. It is, however, interesting to consider the meaning of ‘Frean’ (line 33) which is used to describe Christ and translates to ‘Saviour’. It also translates to ‘God’, ‘King’ or ‘Lord’. The possible translation of ‘Lord’ introduces a referenced figure that an Anglo-Saxon audience would have been familiar with and could understand; it is to suggest that Christ fights his battles for his people in much the same way that one’s Lord would. Additionally, the first person from the perspective of the anthropomorphized cross dramatizes the event further as the cross seems to share in the heroic action as they are ‘mocked […] together’ (line 48), sharing in the sacrifice to fully portray the suffering Christ also must endure.
This aspect of sacrifice also occurs in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, an Old English elegy. The poem is told from the perspective of a woman who is kept away from her lover and the pain of their separation almost causes her pain. Arguably, the heroic action in this text is enduring this ordeal. This is emphasized through a metaphor: ‘Wulf is on one island, I on another’. The physical distance of being apart from one another reflects the pain of their emotional separation also, perhaps also suggesting that one, or both of them, have been exiled to a place beyond their home land. Furthermore, the female perspective in this elegy presents a new argument: heroic action cannot be limited to heroic action, or indeed any action at all. There is heroism in everyday aspects like this, which is corroborated through the exploration of domestic issues in ‘The Wife’s Lament’. Similarly to ‘The Dream of the Rood’, a sense of duty to her husband is prevalent throughout the text, where ‘Eadwacer’ literally means ‘property watcher’, implying Wulf to be her lover. However, it is worth noting that this interpretation of ‘Wulf and Edwacer’ can be affected by our twenty-first century experience of relationships, and could offer a different meaning to an Anglo-Saxon audience.
Despite the presented arguments that show heroic action in forms other than military expertise, there remain military references throughout both texts. As discussed, this is likely to translate other genres of poems, such as religious texts and elegies, in to contexts that are understandable to an audience of the time. In ‘The Dream of the Rood’, there is imagery surrounding gold and riches, suggesting the presence of a military-accomplished Lord who has gained these wares from his defeated enemies. In ‘The Wanderer’, a Lord is described as a ‘treasure-giver’ as they would distribute the wealth gained from their enemies in the aftermath of a victory. This brings a layered meaning to the cross in ‘The Dream of the Rood’ that is ‘honoured with garments’. Whilst this is a sign of victory, it is complicated here as Christ must first sacrifice himself because Christianity can be victorious in their salvation. Additionally, the anthropomorphism of the cross highlights the military language used as it describes in first person how it was ‘all wounded with arrows’. Through this description of the nails in Christ in a military context, it suggests a war between God and the Romans that placed him on the cross. Unlike the original Bible story, Christ’s journey to Golgotha is not described and instead replaced with the cross being ‘ripped up by [it’s] roots’, the violent, war-like vocabulary implying once again an enemy is present. This imagery introduces the Romans as the enemy, which returns the poem to the familiar place of a battlefield. It is this presence of another party that suggests military involvement as it no longer remains the ‘young hero’ sacrificing himself, but murder in the name of war.
In addition, the female perspective that ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ is told from uses military achievement in a different manner. One assumes that Wulf is not Edwacer’s lover, and whilst he is not described as a Lord, he is described as ‘the battle-bold’. In an Anglo- Saxon society, prestige was awarded through military achievement. Therefore in this instance, if Wulf is brave in battle then this is also means he is worthy as a suitor. Her lover is elevated in the eyes of the speaker through his heroic actions for love: he literally risks his life in seeing his lover: ‘They will kill him if he comes into their troop’. Once again, the use of martial language emphasizes the importance of military action in the Old English vocabulary to communicate heroic action. Furthermore, the danger he places himself in is emphasized through of the Old English ‘apecgan’, of which literally means ‘to kill’ or ‘to consume’, foreboding as to the terrible death that could ensue. Therefore, Wulf is presented as heroic in a military sense to the extent that he is described as brave and his warrior skills have kept him alive. However, ultimately his heroic actions are in the name of love and, whilst they are described in a military context, are not defined my military action.
A further aspect of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ that shows that heroic action is defined by military action is seen through the anthropomorphism of the wooden cross, as was discussed briefly in a previous paragraph. Swanton comments: ‘the attributions of personality, and therefore volition, allows a moral as well as physical parallel to be established between Christ and the cross’.In light of this, the ‘physical parallel’ felt between the human and non-human object imbues the cross with a sense of Christ’s duty, shown as it ‘did not dare to bend’ (line 45). Whilst this action seems to stand as religious duty as a monument of the Church, it’s role as an aid to his death also transforms this duty in to something distinctly more military. Furthermore, as an inanimate object, the cross can share in the ‘moral’ attributes of Christ but cannot physically carry out heroic actions, perhaps a limitation due to the fact it bears human characteristics but is not human. Therefore, it can be argued that heroic action from the cross simply isn’t possible, and that it is only through the poem’s anthropomorphism that this illusion is given. This argument therefore remains in question as to whether the cross can be seen as executing heroic action, military or otherwise. It seems more, in this instance, that the humanization of the inanimate object serves more to empathize and emphasize the suffering of Christ rather than show its individual achievements.
To conclude, the predominant focus within Old English Literature does undoubtedly lie with military achievement and the label of ‘hero’ in relation to action within battle. Even when there is no physical battle within the text, a battle either with oneself or one’s lover directs the discourse back in to this military context. The differentiating factor shown for heroic action, however, is the motivation. In a military situation, the motivation to show heroic behavior is to serve one’s Lord and people. In other genres, such as religious texts and elegies, the motivation in their heroic behavior is different and therefore shapes how they show they are a true hero.
Calder, D. & Greenfield, S. A new Critical History of Old English Literature (New York & London: New York University Press, 1986)
Paw, B. ‘Biblical Literature: The New Testament’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature Malcolm Godden & Michael Lapidge (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Swanton, M. (ed.) The Dream of the Rood(Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1987)
Treharne, E. (ed.) Old and Middle English c.890-c.1450 an anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2007)
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In Old English Literature, the Anglo-Saxon society portrayed is built upon military achievement in battle and one’s respect for their Lord. Despite this focus, heroic action also occurs in other […]