21 September 2017

ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν, or not



By the time the Iliad reaches Book 9 the war is going so badly for the Achaeans without Achilles that even Agamemnon is willing to beg him to come back. Since great kings do not generally do their own begging -- see Book 24, however -- Agamemnon sends Aias, Odysseus, and Phoenix, Achilles' old tutor, with promises of vast amends, to win Achilles over. When the three emissaries reach the tent of Achilles, they find him preoccupied with the very sort of heroics they hope for from him:
Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας:
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν
They came to the huts and ships of the Myrmidons,
And found him taking pleasure in a clear toned lyre,
both fair and ingenious, and upon it was a silver bridge.
He chose it from the spoils when he took the city of Eëtion;
With this he delighted his heart, and sang the glorious deeds of men.
(Iliad ix.185-89)
Over a thousand years later another poet far from Troy was singing of men's glory, but not only that. In The Battle of Maldon the anonymous poet takes a moment to make sure that others remembered the names and lineage of three brothers who ran away:
Hi bugon þa fram beaduwe þe þær beon noldon.
þær wearð Oddan bearn ærest on fleame,
Godric fram guþe, and þone godan forlet
þe him mænigne oft mear gesealde;
he gehleop þone eoh þe ahte his hlaford,
on þam gerædum þe hit riht ne wæs,
and his broðru mid him begen ærndon,
Godwine and Godwig, guþe ne gymdon,
ac wendon fram þam wige and þone wudu sohton,
flugon on þæt fæsten and hyra feore burgon,
and manna ma þonne hit ænig mæð wære,
gyf hi þa geearnunga ealle gemundon
þe he him to duguþe gedon hæfde.
Swa him Offa on dæg ær asæde
on þam meþelstede, þa he gemot hæfde,
þæt þær modiglice manega spræcon
þe eft æt þearfe þolian noldon. 
Then those who had no wish to be there turned from the battle.
There, Godric, the son of Odda, proved first in flight
From battle, and forsook the good man
Who had often given him many a horse;
Godric leaped on the horse which his lord owned,
Onto the saddle which it was not his right to mount,
And both his brothers galloped off with him:
Godwin and Godwig, of battle they took no heed,
And went from the conflict and headed for the woods;
They fled to its fastness and saved their lives,
And more men than was at all right followed,
Had they kept in mind all gracious acts
Which their lord had done for them and their benefit.
So Offa had told Byrthnoth one day
At the meeting place, when he held an assembly,
That many would speak boldly there
Words they would not live up to at need.
(185-201)

Nor was this the poet's last word on the feckless sons of Odda. He returned to them twice more in the extant text. At lines 237-42 he points out that Godric's flight on his lord's horse had misled his men into thinking that it was Byrtnoth himself who was deserting them. This caused the shield-wall to break. And he later mentioned another man named Godric, son of Æþelgar, whom he hastens to identify as 'not the Godric who avoided the battle' (325).

My first reaction as I read about the feckless sons of Odda was amusement. I thought of 'Brave Sir Robin' in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and of the scene in the Star Trek (TOS) episode, 'Bread and Circuses', where the master of ceremonies threatens a gladiator who will not fight with 'You bring this networks ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you.' But as I read on, one warrior after another, old and young, stepped forward and was named with his lineage. Each vowed to avenge his lord, then plunged into the battle and died. The more I read of these men, the more hostile and personal the lines directed at Godric, Godwin, and Godwig seemed. The author of Maldon is unknown, and the poem's date disputed, but anger at treachery can linger for generations. And it can linger even longer in the memory of a people that feels disinherited and oppressed. Whenever the poet wrote it, his wrath at Odda's sons seems keen. He tried to make sure that the evil these men did lived after them, as surely as he sang the glorious deeds of the other men who died that day. For today at least he has done both. 

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