Review: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son (1953)
A while ago, I took a look at Tolkien’s various non-Middle-earth stories:
Well and good. But there is, alas, one work that was arguably missing from that survey: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son (1953), Tolkien’s strange attempt at a play script. Or, at least an alliterative Anglo-Saxon-style poem in dialogue format.
In much the same way as Leaf By Niggle serves as a fictional (indeed, allegorical) attempt to illustrate a point made in Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories essay, Homecoming exists less as an independent work, and more in service of a wider analytical purpose – specifically, a critical study of the Northern Theory of Courage. In fact, Homecoming is arguably more tied to its parent material than Niggle is. Sure, you can read it without Tolkien’s accompanying Ofermod essay, but you would be missing a fair amount of the thematic discussion.
(I read it as part of the Tree and Leaf collection, which combines the relevant materials).
To recap, the play takes place in the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon (991). A nasty band of Danish/Norwegian Vikings have previously turned up in Essex, and defeated the local Saxons, under Beorhtnoth. Beorhtnoth had allowed the invaders to cross an easily-defended causeway, in order that there might be a fair and honourable fight… which resulted in not only his own death, but the death of his own men too. Our protagonists, the older Tidwald and the younger Torhthelm, have now been tasked with fetching Beorhtnoth’s corpse for burial.
Torhthelm is very much into the glamour of heroism, to the point where he confuses battle-field scroungers with Danes, and kills them with Beorhtnoth’s sword. He thinks Great Deeds of Battle are to be celebrated in song, and glorious oaths kept:
TORHTHELM: “As lays remind us, ‘what at the mead man vows, when morning comes let him with deed answer, or his drink vomit and a sot be shown.’ 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!”
Tidwald, by contrast, takes a good deal more cautious – and less romantic – view of proceedings. While he never gets too overtly critical of the dead Earl (of course not. He’s a farmer), he does explicitly call Beorhtnoth’s decision an error, and shakes his head at all this unhinged glory-seeking. And whereas Torhthelm is waxing poetic about centuries of warriors, Tidwald points out that dead peasants are never memorialised by babbling poets, and reminds his colleague that they have a job to do. He also has something to say about Torhthelm’s lust for battle:
TIDWALD: “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.”
Recall, of course, that Tolkien himself was a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, and as such knew better than most that the reality of war is a terrible business.
There is also a strange section towards the end of Homecoming, where the two men are carting the corpse back to the monks for burial. Torhthelm, drowsing off, appears to be psychologically channelling memories of Ragnarök… and responds with what amounts to a pure summation of the Northern Theory of Courage:
TORHTHELM: “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.”
(The first line is actually a direct quote from the original Battle of Maldon poem, quoting the subordinate Beorhtwold. The overall emphasis is, of course, about fighting on in the face of inevitable defeat).
Needless to say, a bump in the road jolts Torhthelm out of it, and Tidwald describes the sentiment as uncomfortably pagan. The poem/play then ends with a Latin chant from off-screen monks.
As I have noted previously, Tolkien found the Northern Theory of Courage morbidly fascinating, in both a philosophical and artistic sense. And yet, as seen in this poetic dialogue, he does not treat it as something to be endorsed, especially when alloyed with the ‘base metal’ of excessive hunger for glory. Tolkien’s own experiences further mean he cannot have romanticised it – certainly not in the ‘stand and fight’ nonsense of Peter Jackson. Yet the concept sometimes hovers like a ghost in the background of Tolkien’s other fiction, rather like how it hovers in Torhthelm’s cultural folk-memory. Sensible figures like Tidwald (or Gandalf!) might take issue with it, pointing out the real-world ramifications, but the fatalistic implications of the Northern Theory of Courage cannot quite be erased from the minds of Men, or even Elves.
Baldor (of Paths of the Dead fame), Folca (Rohirric King, slain by a boar), Boromir, and even kindly old Theoden have this strange tension between poetic valour and disregard for good sense. Fingolfin and Eowyn actually manage to alloy their courage with a different sort of base metal – despair in the face of disaster, rather than desire for glory. Only Eomer, who would fight on at Pelennor Fields in the face of all Sauron’s might, can really be said to demonstrate a truly positive variant of this form of heroism.
Even then, it is perhaps worth remembering Tolkien’s cautionary note in his Ofermod essay – unalloyed displays of such heroism are truly the domain of subordinates, tasked with following their leader’s will to whatever end, not their leadership. Beorhtwold was braver than his foolish Earl, and whereas Theoden is no fool, and made the correct call to aid Minas Tirith, Eomer himself enters the Battle as a subordinate.
In that sense? The synthesis of Torhthelm and Tidwald’s viewpoints – of fatalistic courage in the face of inevitable defeat, and of sense enough to act purely for the benefit of others, and not personal glory – might well be summarised in the character of Samwise Gamgee. A curious thought.