Seth Insua reviews J. O. Morgan's At Maldon

(CB editions, 2013)

With his epic poem At Maldon, J. O. Morgan extends a tradition of writing in the dark. His subject is a battle from over a thousand years ago, the facts a mere scattering of stars in immutable black. The little we know for sure is that Viking raiders invaded Britain in the summer of 991. An army of Anglo-Saxons, commanded by Earl Byrhtnoth, was defeated in the devastating battle that ensued beside the River Blackwater near Maldon in Essex. Morgan's key source is a poem written sometime in the next hundred years, of which only a fragment survives. Unusually, it is written by the losers—those of them who lived to tell the tale because they fled the battle's bloody conclusion. As such, as an account of events, it is deeply problematic. Anyone idealistically aspiring to find truth there is ensnared in the circular relationship between history and literature. How much of the poem is fact? How much fiction? Fittingly, all this doubt is infused throughout the "Argument" prefacing Morgan's recent retelling, and indeed, throughout At Maldon itself. If his source material was written by a poet who, like him, was "not permitted onto the field [ . . . ] picking morsels from the aftermath," how could he rely on it to retell the story? On top of this, with the Latin alphabet only introduced by Christian missionaries in the seventh and eighth centuries, the arguably stronger tradition of storytelling by "Chinese whispers"—that is, orally, rather than in writing—may have shaped the version of the battle poem eventually recorded for posterity. The surviving fragment may well just be one poet's rendering of a shared narrative that was really in constant flux: alive fleetingly on the lips of the people, yet frozen in time on the page.

It was this challenge of writing in the dark, rather than a fascination with the physical choreography of battle, that drew Morgan to the story, and ultimately flung him into the same position as his Anglo-Saxon counterpart. Morgan affirms he "liked this idea of saying I was not there at the battle. That poet was not there at the battle. So we have that in common." With the authority of the original poem undermined, later poets like Morgan are liberated from an impulse to "present for posterity the known and dreary facts," to be faithful to the so-called historicity of what came before. In this way, the Anglo-Saxon poem—and any other sources that might be of use—are a springboard for creativity, for a version that will open up the battle anew. So Morgan begins, in lyrical, gloriously idiosyncratic fashion:

Kisses on the nose.

Sugar-lumps suede-lipped from flattened palms.

A drift of dusty perfumes.

This updated form, emulating the alliterative metre of the Anglo-Saxon but in free verse, with an idiomatic looseness and varying stanza and line lengths, provides a fitting vehicle for a poem that, in various ways, eschews the formulas and conventions of its source material.

Many critics have surmised that the Old English poem was fictionalised to transform a defeat into a kind of spiritual victory. Some of its characters are presented with exaggerated heroism, a fact that critic Rosemary Woolf has argued is part of a literary tradition stemming from Tacitus's Germania: representing the heroic moral values of first-century German tribes versus the corrupt Romans. The Vikings use guile ("lytegian"), while Byrhtnoth's men—in the heat of battle—launch into dubiously spontaneous speeches about loyalty and honour. And there are moments of poetic justice: a boy, presumably inexperienced in warfare, plucks a spear from a body only to throw it with deadly accuracy and kill his opponent. As things draw to their bloody end, the poem stresses that some loyal men remain to sacrifice themselves by their leader's side. This contradicts another account of the battle, The Life of St Oswald, in which Byrhtferth claims that everyone fled after the Earl's death, choosing to save themselves from an inevitable defeat. In the role of the reflective moralist, the Anglo-Saxon poet appeals to an audience who would want to give meaning to the senseless tragedy of the battle.

Morgan, on the other hand, pitches his poem at a contemporary audience sceptical of this elevated moralism, perhaps even patronised by it. To do so, he tempers speeches and references to the "bygone bravery" of the dead with the same vivid imagining of concrete particulars that appear in his previous books, the critically acclaimed and prize-winning Natural Mechanical and Long Cuts. In At Maldon, these particulars take the form of prosaic, anachronistic references to individual experience, in which the modern self combines with the historical other. A shield is "a bright umbrella," twirling; the branches of a willow tree are "backcombed"; a teenager's chainmail is padded with "tea-towels" as he "tucks in his shirt and swallows his gum." Formulaic parts of the original text, such as the beasts of battle imagery drawn from the epic tradition, are given the same treatment, with crows like "bits of bin-liner flapping," a "mould spreading over the sky." In telling readers what the battle was like as opposed to what it actually was, in giving impressions with which we can identify and connect (yet that we know are anachronisms and fictions), Morgan achieves the triumphant feat of making a distant historical event and a fragmented literary source not only accessible, but also vividly convincing, vital, and full-blooded. As he puts it, by using imaginative touches to cast "real events in an unreal mould," he hopes to create "accidental truth."

The result is moments that feel startlingly immediate, that straddle history in unexpected images, that shock the archaic up-to-date, and render characters who jump, vital and stark, straight off the page. Where the Anglo-Saxon poem presents an emphatically bloody picture of battle—for instance, in the repeated line, "Wæl feol on eorþan," where slaughter ("wæl") falls to the ground in blunt synecdoche for felled bodies—Morgan's poem again delves into the individual experiences of the warriors. Oswold and Eadwold, brothers with "ripe red cheeks," "tight white teeth," and "blazing big blue eyes," play the battle like a game:

'Pick out the fattest Viking you can find.
Then count to twelve before you tag me in.'
                                [ . . . ]
'Hold hands so I won't lose you in the crush.
Swap places so they can't tell who is who.'

The action is interspersed with these rich portraits, imbuing the contiguous death with a sense of loss that is arguably lacking in the original poem.

The deeper, more nuanced shades of Morgan's story are epitomised in his resolution, especially when contrasted with the ending of the Anglo-Saxon poem. The latter finishes when a man called Godric, whose alter ego led the desertion earlier in the battle, bravely executes a number of Vikings before he is finally killed himself. His defeat is presented by favourably comparing those who fled with those who stayed: "Næs þæt na se Godric þe ða guðe forbeah" (literally, "He was not that Godric who fled from the battle"). It is propagandistic: condemnatory of those who saved themselves, celebratory of the Godric who put his faith in the comitatus above all else and stayed to die. Yet in Morgan's poem, we quietly observe the cowardly Godric many years later, in a nursing home, his bedpan being emptied. He has lived a long life, and of the battle, merely says that "many men / owe their long lives to me." There's no judgement in the poem's account of his life as he "marries, loves, tries fatherhood," as he "sweats his life into his job," and inevitably, as "his coffin is lowered. / And dirt is kicked into the hole." Likewise, the Godric who remains behind is slowly buried under bodies in a matter-of-fact death scene free of the original's overstated moralism:

As this Godric is knocked down
by a blow to the head
intended for somebody else
[ . . . ]
As he is buried under bodies newly dead,
and hears the rumour of the fight above,
the rhythm of hit after hit,
as calm, as constant, as familiar
as the soft wet tap of rain upon a roof.

Delicately executed, these final lines are tactile, sensual, bleak, frightening. Above all, they have the immediacy of reality. And for Godric, as the ordinariness of life fades around him, his experiences quickly become distant. What happened to him is merely a "rumour," as it is for all those storytellers who might try to relate it—and find themselves dependent on the power of their imaginations.

There's something very Anglo-Saxon about Morgan's re-imaginative process, and not just in the freedom afforded by the oral tradition of storytelling. Alfred, the late ninth-century king of the West Saxons, inaugurated a project to translate classical works "that all men should know" into the vernacular in an attempt to promote a revival of learning. But his editions were closer to reinterpretations than direct translations, showing great artistic flair and individuality. In fact, our word "translate" did not exist in English at the time when Alfred was writing: it seems to have entered the language from Latin around the year 1300, while "paraphrase" is even later, first recorded in the sixteenth century. The Old English word for what Alfred was doing was "(a)wendan," "to turn," a term covering both translation and paraphrase, as can be demonstrated from his prefatory letter to the Pastoral Care. "I began to translate into English the book which in Latin is called Pastoralis," he says, "sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense." In spite of this claim, straight word-for-word translation does not appear more than sporadically in the literary prose of his reign. Instead, his source material was a launching pad for what he wanted to say himself. In view of the enormous respect afforded to the authority of original texts in the early Middle Ages, these liberties taken with translation were extraordinary for the time.

And the Anglo-Saxon practice of re-imagination proves to have unanticipated power. Morgan's earlier work, based on the life of his friend Rocky, is biographical. But in writing about Rocky, Morgan has described how he found himself adding little invented details, and surprisingly, some of these subsequently found their way into Rocky's own accounts of his past. They have merged with historical fact. By the same token, Morgan's At Maldon is now a version of the history of the Battle of Maldon, and a potent one: it is the invented details, the anachronisms and concrete particulars, that bring the story to life in an unprecedented way, imprinting themselves on the reader's mind as the real moments, the parts we can see and feel and hear. These are the parts that seem genuine, like memories. Charles Boyle has remarked that At Maldon is "clearly not a translation in the way of, say, Armitage's The Death of King Arthur." But in so many ways, it is still a translation, perhaps a closer translation in spirit than a direct one would have been, exemplifying the Anglo-Saxon tradition of "wendan." By reimagining the poem to appeal to contemporaries, by adopting the open-ended dynamism of Anglo-Saxon storytelling traditions, by aligning himself with the original poem's author and embracing the freedom of not knowing the truth, Morgan goes the same way as his Anglo-Saxon predecessor. The result, as he puts it so neatly, "becomes the history it tries to tell."