into this maelstrom, Alfred saw four elder brothers rise to
power, only to die in the fight for survival. In the year 870,
the young prince forestalled the Danes in battle; but the victory,
sealed with oaths and a fortune in gifts, was short-lived. Eight
years later, the Danish warlord Guthrum, in a surprise attack
over Twelfth Night, captured Alfreds royal hall at Chippenham.
From that vantage, Guthrum had a base from which to secure control
of Wessex, frightening and extorting the people into submission.
was Alfred the Great?
first Viking raiders came to Anglo-Saxon shores in search
of plunder, but later Danish armies wanted more. After
decades of marauding warfare, a full-scale invasion began
in 866an assault that has rightly been called a
blitzkrieg. Northumbria fell in 867, and, according to
legend, its king was tortured and killed. East Anglia
was next to go, with the martyrdom of King Edmund. And
in 876, Mercias ruler fled to Rome, rather than
face the Danish juggernaut. By 878, only Alfreds
kingdom, Wessex, remained.
his nation in panic, Alfred retreated to a nearby marshy area,
quietly regrouped his forces, and, in a surprise attack of his
own, trapped Guthrum in the very same hall. Then Alfred did
something radical: Rather than repeat the failed strategy of
gifts and peace oaths, and rather than incite further violence
by torture and execution, Alfred offered to spare Guthrum and
honor his dominion in East Anglia, if the Danish warlord would
convert to Christianity. And so The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
records that Guthrum, with thirty ranking men, attended a twelve-day
christening event, in which Alfred raised his enemy from the
font as his own godson. If Alfreds gesture was the Marshall
Plan of the Dark Ages, the real miracle is: it worked. Though
long notorious for oath-breaking, the Danes essentially honored
the treaty forged with Alfredaffording Wessex just enough
stability to fortify, rebuild, and flower in renaissance.
is rightly credited with preserving the unique legacy of Christian
Anglo-Saxon culture; yet equally impressive were his contributions
to that legacy. Aspiring to be the King David of his nation,
Alfred personally translated key Biblical and theological texts
into English (a legacy the English Reformation would later claim
as precedent). These texts reveal much about this extraordinary
leader. While Alfred the man is a figure masked in legend, Alfred
the king vigorously argued that the affairs of this world, although
apparently governed by Chance, were ultimately ruled by God.
Thus, he based his writs of military, civil, and moral governance
on Biblical wisdom, which was for Alfred the only sure foundation
for nations and men. And yet, for all his piety, Alfred was
a man of this world. While rejecting arrogance and avarice as
the natural vice of the powerful, Alfred openly valued power:
He honored the heroic virtues of loyalty and fortitude as essential
for the realms defense; he valued wealth as a means of
governance through gift-giving; and he found in humility the
only right ambition, yoked to the service of God.
the Great and Beowulf
might have composed this poem, and for what audience? Because
the world of Beowulf is one in which men alone tell the
stories, we can fairly deduce the poet was almost certainly
a man. He was also learned and dazzlingly inventive: schooled
in heroic lore, Christian theology, and very possibly classical
literature. Not only was he a man of letters, he also possessed
an ear and a sense for oral form no other Anglo-Saxon poet can
rival. His composition in sound is a tour de force, a symphony
of interlacing mood and voice. And he possessed a dramatic sensibility,
preferring to shape his characters through speech and action,
rather than narrative.
Beowulf poet also possessed a keen historical consciousness.
This we know because the subject of his poem is history. Its
central story portrays the life of an individual named Beowulf
and the national histories of Geats and Danes. More broadly,
the poem treats the problem of destiny and doom, the convergence
of historical cause-and-effect in the lives of men and nations.
And on a theological level, Beowulf presents history
through the Biblical perspective of eternity, a vision that
finds inexorable decay in every monument to human glory.
historical sensibility may be our best clue to the poems
origins. For all its inventiveness, Beowulf is built
on one historical fact. The seed of its fictive pearl is Beowulfs
own King Hygelac, a 6th-century pagan marauder who led the earliest
recorded assault by a Nordic warlord on the Christian Franks,
a man who also appears as a giant in the Anglo-Saxon collection
of legendary freaks and wonders, The Book of Monsters. Hygelacs
reputation as a giant in legend and as a marauder in history
is significant in a poem that depicts giants as the enemies
of God and a marauding monster as the child of Cain. Added to
this is a depiction of Danes as pagan warlords, a portrait that
Anglo-Saxon victims of Danish Vikings would have known all too
well. In this regard, the poem is inescapably historical. Indeed,
to approach Beowulf without understanding such identities
is to approach the Gospel of Matthew without knowing who Caesar
The difference is, of course, that Beowulf lacks the
definitive historical verifications that anchor the Christian
narrative in the era of Roman hegemony. Even so, the poem bears
the mark of its maker and its time. The fusion of Christian
and pagan motifs, the remarkable learnedness of the poet, and
especially the poems political, thematic, and theological
patterns, strongly suggest composition during the tumultuous,
nation-making reign of Alfred the Great. The best evidence for
this historical hypothesis is its relevance to a unified interpretive
framethough it is essential to keep in mind that such
relevance does not prove the date of composition (a problem
that is hotly debated and will remain so for the forseeable
future). Nevertheless, several historical observations support
a hypothetical link between the unique circumstances of Alfreds
time and the thematic concerns of the poem.
Alfred suffered Englands most infamous surprise attack
with Guthrums assault on Chippenham at Twelfth Night.
Not only did the assault nearly destroy Alfred and his kingdom,
it very nearly extinguished Christian Anglo-Saxon culture as
well. And more than any other, that traumatic event inspired
Alfreds remarkable commitment to a program of defense.
But if the dread of hall attacks prompted Alfreds decision
to mobilize his nation, such dread is also writ large in Beowulf.
Throughout the poem, hall attacks recur as the central act of
depravity in monstersand men..
complex relationship with his adversaries also relates directly
and uniquely to the poems critical, yet sympathetic, depiction
of Danes. On one hand, the Danes came nearer destroying Alfreds
person and kingdom than they did his predecessors or his near
successors. On the other hand, Alfred claimed close kinship
with the Danes through his Danish progenitor Scyld Scefing.
Alfreds kinship with his kin-killing kinsmen
is mirrored in Beowulfs symbolic structure, especially
in the poems depiction of Grendel as kinsman of Cain,
the first kin-killer.
evidence of linkage is found in the connection between the poems
thematic concerns and the tasks Alfred faced in his treaty with
Guthrum. In order to create a stable relationship with his erstwhile
enemies, Alfred faced two large problems. First, the West-Saxon
king surely had to stay some in his own nation from exacting
vengeance on Danish raiders (a challenge of statecraft amply
demonstrated in modern-day Kosovo, Somalia and Iraq). Even more
difficult, Alfred had to forge an alliance with Viking marauders
who had a history of oath breaking.
relates Alfreds sponsorship of Guthrums conversion
during a twelve-day event that included thirty ranking Danes.6
Was Beowulf inspired by this momentous event? That question
cannot be definitively answered; but there is no doubt, the
poem speaks to the political imperatives Alfred faced at that
time. While honoring the virtues of heroic culture, Beowulfs
narrative unflinchingly illustrates that cultures inability
to stabilize itself against violence (a highly persuasive demonstration
from the standpoint of Danes wanting to stabilize their own
newly-acquired kingdoms). In addition, the poem forcefully elucidates
the high cost of revenge, not only through the monstrous example
of Grendels mother, but especially through Beowulfs
own acts of vengeanceacts that ultimately doom his nation.
Finally, the heros doom-driven revenge is symbolically
enacted against the gold-hoarding dragon (an effective caution
against revenge-taking for a people whose nation had been ravaged
by dragon-toting Vikings).
to be the King David of his nation, Alfred synthesized
the virtues of heroic culture with the peacemaking values of
Biblical culture. In this sense, the final over-arching link
between the king and the poem can be found in three theological
principles expressed by the poet: 1) God acts behind the veneer
of Fate and Fortune; 2) arrogance and avarice are fatal human
flaws; 3) the glory of men, whether as fame or as earthly monument,
must one day pass. Alfred vigorously embraced such views in
his ongoing concern with the problem of right leadership, in
his ambitious program of letters, and in his aspiration to be
the King David of a God-fearing nation. Those same
principles are also expressed in Alfreds translations,
especially of Boethius Consolation of Philosophy
and Pope Gregorys Pastoral Care. If Beowulf might
in part be viewed as a parable illustrating the insufficiency
of heroic culture, Alfreds official definition of leadership
presents a very different set of values than that of the poems
inhabitants. Alfred, who admonished his ministers to shun avarice
and arrogance, who developed legal systems designed to circumvent
cycles of revenge, who rebuilt his kingdom by forging protective
alliances and fostering commerce, presents a highly contrastive
model of leadership to that depicted in the poem.