Eþandun: An Epic Poem in Twelve Parts
I. The Wiltshire Front
The Danes’ conquest of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia has left West Saxon Alfred the sole independent native king. Alfred and his thanes are discussing whether to pay an agreed indemnity when a guardsman announces a visitor. Athelnoth and Wulfhere interview the newcomer, who breaks free and attacks the king. Alfred orders Ealhswith to take their children to Frome for safekeeping.
Pour your glory, Lord, on the struggling king,
who by your hand ransomed the ravaged land;
illuminate the faces of your people,
who bled for you on every slaughterfield;
and kindle, Comforter, our uncouth hearts
that we may burn to do your will and earn
the blessings, not the curses, of our ancestors.
The pagan Danes had conquered the four kingdoms.
Clerics and kings, churls and thanes they’d slain,
while the living they plundered and enslaved.
Alfred, caked with the blood of friend and foe,
tasted the dregs of that envenomed horn,
but, granted faith and craft by our dear Savior,
he steeped old Godrum’s host in faith and fear
and steered the stubborn oarsmen from our soil.
Long years the heathens raged, led by strong kings.
They splashed ashore and seized Northumbria
and crowned a puppet king, who purchased peace.
They martyred Edmund rex and set a puppet
on the East Anglian seat. He purchased peace.
They maimed the Mercian host at holy Repton;
their new-made puppet, quaking, purchased peace.
Alone the West Saxons kept their cyning,
whose throne Woden-descended Cerdic reared
when Arian Theodoric ruled Rome.
Alone the tender mercies of our Father
spared Alfred’s people from the sword of Gorm,
though Alfred too had purchased peace at Wilton,
at Wareham, and again at Exeter.
After seeing the Danes across his border,
trailing them up the Fosse Way to the Thames,
King Alfred, pious Athulf’s youngest son,
retired with his troops to Chippenham,
where Athelwulf had built a hunting lodge.
The Saxon captain loved that timbered den
surrounded by tall trees, where as a boy,
when Osburh lived, his godly Jutish dam,
he’d seen his sister marry Mercian Burgred,
and where his children now scrapped and scrabbled.
The meadows round about fed browsing cattle,
the neighboring woodlands pastured deer and swine,
and brown hares could be taken everywhere.
Standing at ease in his scriptorium,
a beechwood fire crackling at his back,
West Saxon Alfred beamed at Athelnoth,
his minister in Somerton, and said,
“Carissime, companion in our wars,
whose war-lamp lighted heathen fiends to hell,
I plan to put you up for alderman
of Somerset, the land of milk and must.
These slopes and moors that nourish sheeted cattle,
these harbors, markets, turbaries, and mines,
all these we lease to you, which you’ll confirm
with lump amounts I don’t doubt you’ll find.
Werwulf has prepared this charter here,
which only lacks your handwrit or cross.”
As Athelnoth imbibed these heady words
Lord Wulfhere, long-time alderman of Wiltshire
glared at the king from under tangled brows.
“Illustrissime rector,” Wulfhere said,
“son of Athelwulf and seed of Ingeld,
the silver you exact from this young thane
to execute these kingly, lavish grants
will sap the very lifeblood of his office.
Consider sending flooded Somerset
a prince unfettered by such debts and rents,
to wit, my son, the uncle of your nephews.”
King Alfred eyed the graduated candle
as a hound gnawed a loud bone at his feet.
A widow and two sons survived his brother,
King Athelred, who perished after Merton.
She was Wulfhere’s daughter, they his grandsons—
her brother thus was quasi-royalty.
“Eala, these heathen fiends,” said Alfred,
“even in victory, I’m still their slave.
Their lying chief, who breached the peace at Wareham,
punctiliously expects his promised pence.
And I have thirty growing guards to feed.”
“Send twenty of them home,” said prudent Wulfhere.
“And let my Wiltshiremen depart in peace.
As for your payment due, damp Somerset
encompasses the Glastonbury hoard,
including Saint David’s giant sapphire.”
The Saxon captain turned to Athelnoth,
a native of the yearly flooded moors.
“Shall we lay hands,” he asked, “on means amassed
for seven centuries by Joseph’s monks?
Demand a gift from Abbot Herefrith?
A sportula to prove his loyalty?”
But Athelnoth was in no mood for jokes.
“Do we defend our altars with our arms,”
he asked, “or yield their riches on demand?
Come spring, old Godrum’s crews will gather here
with whetted shares to plow our people’s flesh.
So why augment the coffers of the devils
with silver you can use to feed your sheep?
Is my lord more honorable than God?”
His features darkening, one finger pointing
upwards like an apostle’s, Alfred said,
“The Romans, hedged about with strangers, found
a haven in their fathers’ treasury.
The Hebrew kings, we read, likewise appeased
the Syrians and fierce Assyrians
with precious metals fetched from the Lord’s temple.
Men pay the stipulated price of peace
to spare themselves the punishments of war.”
“The peace of Wilton,” Wulfhere said, “endured
four priceless years. However much we spent,
the men whose blood we bought must count it cheap.”
Here entered the senior hoard-guard and bowed.
“An East Angle is come from Lundenburg
with gifts, he says, for our anointed king.”
The Athulfing (that’s Alfred) gave a smile.
“Ask and you shall have,” he said. “A wise man
from the east. Invite him back tonight to feast
the first appearance of our living Lord.”
The guardsman paused, then stammered out, “The Angle,
the Angle begs an audience with my lord.
He has a plan to magnify your throne.”
“Don’t see him, Lord,” the Somersetan warned.
(That’s Athelnoth.) “The town is thick with Danes.”
But Wulfhere welcomed gifts from wheresoever
to resupply the king’s depleted means.
“All of you, go, and grill this visitor,”
the Saxon chief impatiently replied.
“But if it’s just another dun from Gorm—
just promise him his patron will be paid.”
The monarch—Alfred—gestured at his candle.
“Now we turn to spiritual things.
Orosius’ first book is almost done.
He says: before our longed-for Savior came,
perpetual war raged among the nations,
at least since bloody Ninus and his queen
bred the lust for conquest in the earth.
He claims that wars grew less calamitous
when God the Son assumed our human form.
I find that doctrine hard to understand.
The Rome he claims the Lord of Heaven shielded
the Huns subdued, the Moors and Vandals stripped,
and Odovacar ruled, a foreign king.
Our worthy fathers worshipped ghosts and devils.
Yet in our time we Christian men have seen
wars as fierce as any our fathers waged.
“All thanks and praise for the Lord’s tender mercy
in ousting cornered Gorm from Exeter,
but we may yet see Godfred’s grandson bring
ruin and death on the West Saxon folk.”
He looked at Athelnoth with kind regard.
“Do read his book, my friend, when you learn to read,
as all our judges must who expound our laws.”
The westerner inclined his head and said,
“The erudition of our lord is known
and would adorn a bishop or a monk.”
“Send in the bishop,” Alfred said to Werwulf
as the scribe closed and stowed the scribbled quire.
“You’ll find His Stoutness camped out in the kitchen,
interpreting the wheeling flocks of cooks.”
An ivory crucifix; a silver scourge;
a reliquary clad in ivory tiles,
each panel crammed with goggling eyes and drawn-out,
knotted, disunited limbs; a glass cup;
a silver dish on which bare shepherds pranced
and women lolled on double-bodied monsters—
these and other works of men, which men
in honor of our Father’s workmanship
have added to his intricate creation,
were spread out on a plain deal table
in the sunken shed the house-guards called the gatehouse,
though Alfred’s lodge had neither gate nor wall.
Two guardsmen eyed the envoy from the east,
a burly champion with raven hair
and features uglier than any man’s.
“Our misery still rings in all men’s ears,”
the self-styled Anglian began,
“how Ingwar caught our king and held him prisoner.
At breakfast, Ingwar offered him a berth
as regent while he toured his other holdings,
but Edmund said he’d only take that post
if Ingwar burned his wooden gods and drowned
his sins beneath the Savior’s healing wave.
Nonplussed, the fiend delivered Wuffa’s seed
to the untender mercy of his earls,
who made our holy, Woden-sired lord
a butt for their barbaric bowmanship
and dragged him back to Ingwar to be judged.
“The heathen king intoned a prayer to Grim,
uncaged the eagle in brave Edmund’s back,
then, for good measure, cut off his head.
A huge wolf guided us to the place
where the king’s blood cried to us from the earth.
We fetched his head, still muttering prayers in which
we heard our names, to Bedricworth estate,
where the Most High has worked wonders by it.”
As the great thane spoke, he drew a comb
of horn through the bright wavelets of his mane.
Undazzled, Athelnoth was studying
the steep-sided, transparent chalice
as Wulfhere, Wiltshire’s alderman, drank in
the drollery unfolding in the dish.
“This scene,” said Wulfhere, “lacks the quinotaur,
the spawn or fry of fishy Neptune by
Salacia or Venilia, his consorts.
One foggy day on Gaul’s low-roaring shore,
said misfit, wriggling up from the abyss,
begot Meroveus on a Frankish frow
and thus fathered the Merovingian kings—
whose spines, they say, sprouted a golden pile.
Their blood excited Eadbald of Kent,
who got it from his godly Frankish dam,
to wed his father’s widow, spurn our Lord,
and offer sacrifice to Jutish Thunor.
At least when Alfred’s brother Athelbald
embraced their buried father’s Frankish bride,
he didn’t rebuff our West Saxon prelates.”
The giant’s eyes flared darkly. He declared,
“Thus much of Edmund’s hoard we grabbed and fled
and hid in Lundenburg, gnawing our grief,
until we heard that Athulf’s youngest son,
alone among the island’s Christian kings,
had forced the fiends to fear the Christian sword.
We also heard he’d welcomed Edmund’s brother,
preserving him from bloodthirsty Grim.”
“Our king’s progenitor,” said Athelnoth,
raising the glass cup to the gray-lit doorway.
“He doesn’t drink the blood of Christian princes.”
He passed the chalice to a guard, who peered
through its thick foot as through a plate of ice.
“The Angles beg your king,” the man concluded,
“to drive the devils from our soil and plant
our exiled atheling on Edmund’s throne.
There’s precedent for this request, my friends.
When sturdy Ecgbert freed us from the Mercians,
he installed Athelstan, young Alfred’s brother,
as king over Wuffa’s widowed folk.
Come back, Saxons. Give us Athelstan.”
The Somersetan nodded to the swordsmen,
who grabbed the enormous envoy by the arms.
“You’ve got it wrong, my friend,” said Athelnoth.
“The prince who governed the gull-eating Angles
was Ecgbert’s second son, our Alfred’s uncle—
as any genuine Anglian would know.”
“Unhand the man!” cried Wulfhere, Wulfheard’s son.
“Why vex our guest with genealogy?
Alfred will keep his peace! Gorm will be paid!”
Abruptly roaring in a whirl of hair,
the rower tore his elbows from the guardsmen
and swiftly drew their dragon-patterned swords,
which leapt, as if enchanted, from their sheaths,
uncorking both white throats in that ascent.
As suddenly, he sprang across the room
and lighted like an *alf on the high threshold.
Blotting out the day for half a breath,
his grisly features buried in his shadow,
he vanished, troll-like, in the cloudy light.
Stunned, the Saxons stumbled into the yard,
where thanes and ladies decked in winter pelts
arrived to celebrate Epiphany.
“Invader! Pagan! Dane!” cried Athelnoth,
but his voice fell short in the frozen air.
The devil’s tresses trailing like a banner,
a blooded blade upraised in either hand,
he drove among the nobles like a nightmare.
A guardsman flung a flashing one-edged knife
that struck his back flat-bladed and just hung there,
pointing at the ground, as he beat down
the sentries’ wavering, worm-tinted weapons.
Passing the marshaled tables and high folk,
the Dane raised his eyes to the blackened dragon
that overlooked the hall as blackened hams
and flitches hang from beams like butchered fiends
to frighten famine from a churl’s board.
The oarsman galloped past the bolted storerooms
and suddenly appeared before the king.
He knew him from the Wilton slaughterfield
and Exeter’s and Wareham’s treaty sessions,
and now found him coiled over a table
on which a graduated candle burned.
Lifting his head, the Athulfing disclosed—
or so his foe inferred in the warm gloom—
the dread not only of a beast condemned
to death by bestial enemies or hunters,
but of a dying spearman who conceives
his memory will perish with his breath.
A deerhound, growling, leapt to her four paws
as Alfred’s bishop, known from former fights,
inclined his bulk against a cherry chest
atop which stood a honeycomb of stone.
Against the wall, a monk shook like a sapling,
as if afraid of his own shivering blade.
“Alfred, son of Saxon Athelwulf,”
the stranger cried, “I summon you for murder,
peculation, sorcery, and fraud!”
Before he said it thrice, the deerhound sprang
and clamped the giant’s elbow in her jaws.
His other arm hurled a sword at Alfred,
who ducked behind the shield he yanked upwards,
though the steel boss caught on the table’s rim.
“Heathen!” cried the king. The pirate jeered.
The bishop found his axe behind the chest.
“Behold,” he said, “a people from the north
will come, whose tongue you will not understand—”
The hero howled, flinging flying Frec,
whipping through willow lamina like water
and splitting mitered oak with the strength of ten.
Unfrightened by the fiend’s inhuman fury,
the bishop sank his axe in an outstretched arm.
It gripped an instant in the living bone.
“They ride the earth on horses,” he declaimed,
“a company whose cries roar like the ocean—”
The potent form, contracting, twisted free
and halted, sap spilling from his sleeve.
Now Athelnoth and two fresh guards appeared.
Bawling, the brigand wove his watered wand,
which king and bishop shunned, while Sigewulf
and Wulf went in forthwith. Poor Wulf was fined
a foot, but soon the Somersetan swung
south of Sigewulf’s stroke, which, Sherborne’s shield
discerning, drove his troll-wife down the toll-road
cleared by the killer’s ward as careful Alfred
aimed his edge and nicked the bristled neck. Wulf
lobbed his limb at the snout, Sigewulf struck
brawn, and the bitch chomped the carl’s calf.
He bellowed now, a bear enraged by spears,
while wary Werwulf, who recalled the Danes’
demonic devastation of his house—
a fief of Offa’s line, on Breedon rise,
where Abbot Hædda was the first to rule
and Abbot Eanmund unraveled verse—
the monk approached the sailor, blade held close.
A voice exclaimed, “My lord! My lord!” outside
the shuttered window, or a lull allowed it
to be heard. The voice was the voice of Wulfhere,
who’d thrown a ring of spears around the lodge.
The rower’s glower balked the blood-mad Saxons.
A storm-struck ship, each strake a spouting spring,
he trained his oar on Alfred and declared,
When the Dane sank, the Saxons hacked his shape
beside the cherry-spattered plaster wall
until the soul receded from his eyes
and martial virtue failed in their arms.
Exhausted, they surveyed their outsized foe,
who now sagged like an ox stunned in the shambles,
his brow bent by the honeycomb of stone.
As Frec, the deerhound, sniffed the creeping gore,
the Athulfing caressed her wiry pelage
but quickly hid his unsteady hand.
The bishop bent and bound Wulf’s footloose stump,
then parted the marauder’s tattered tunic,
uncovering his bloody bearskin vest.
“It’s Attila,” he said. “We should have known
this face from Wareham, Exeter, and Wilton.
The Lord, in his wisdom, blinded our eyes.”
“Perhaps King Edmund truly sent this devil,”
the monk said shakily, “to warn our king.”
Alfred answered, eyes fixed on the corpse,
“King Cwichelm sent Lord Eomer to slay
Edwin, Northumbria’s then-pagan king.
This was in early days. We too were pagans.
Feigning an embassy at Eastertide,
Eomer thrust clear through Lord Lilla’s flank
and pricked the warlord with his poisoned blade.
Bedridden with a fever, Edwin swore
to serve the Lord if he might right that crime,
and the Lord God agreed. Great Edwin whipped us.
Five West Saxon kings fell in one fight.
But Edwin’s blest successor, holy Oswald,
sponsored our King Cynegils at the font,
since when we Saxons serve the one true Ruler.”
In the unlit abutment of the passage
that ran along the north wing of the lodge,
the seed of Ingeld faced the studded door.
“It’s me,” he called, his man’s voice immured
by the close wattle walls and pented roof.
He’d scrubbed his hands and hurried through the hall,
but a fresh terror shook him where he stood.
What if another devil, a berserker,
had dropped into his bower through the thatch?
What an imprudent, giddy fool he’d been
to bring his wife and pups to Chippenham!
He heard a muffled bump as one within
unset the wooden bar. “Come in, O king,”
he heard his helpmeet utter, his blood still
thumping in his ears. The stiff hinges squealed,
and there, lit by twilight from the smoke hole,
stood Ealhswith, his hardy Mercian darling.
She aimed a one-edged blade a forearm long
straight at his throat and squinted past his ear.
With eyes of wintry blue, a brow of cloud,
and resolution blazoned in her port;
with mane the tint of stripped woods in the distance
curtained by a screen of blowing snow;
with chalk-white shift that hid the fruitful corpus
from which their youngest guzzler sucked his substance,
she seemed the incarnation of that Wisdom
Boethius, the senator, adored
before Theodoric, the Gothic king,
the savior and the conqueror of Rome,
disposed of him for loving his own country—
though long before young Alfred heard the name
of that afflicted, steady matron, Wisdom,
the daughter and the handmaid of the Father,
this daughter of a Mercian alderman
and a Mercian lady sprung from royal blood,
by the sole grace of him who brought him to her,
had purified his disreputable youth.
Reluctantly, she angled down her blade
as Hilda, her companion, lowered her bow
and Alfred’s elder children sheathed their knives
and grimaced at the king, portraying courage.
Meanwhile, Alfred’s guileless younger girls
struggled, sniffling, out from under the bed
and the babe bawled on Athelflaed’s small breast.
She was anxious Alfred’s eldest child.
“Just so, my cubs,” the Athulfing affirmed,
caressing fragrant heads and narrow shoulders,
“just so, my little thanes, you’ll guard and shield
your mother, and each other, from the devils.”
Hot tears of pity started in his eyes
for the miserable wilderness of ills
that lay in wait to ravage their young lives.
“Our Lady loves you yet,” said Ealhswith,
stitching a quick cross to her gem-strewn chest.
“Are all the devils dead and damned?” asked Hilda.
“There was only one,” the Saxon captain said.
“He called, ‘I come, Lord Woden,’ as he fell—
in that he spoke the truth—then flew to hell.”
He grinned to reassure the staring children.
“Our Savior’s offered grace astonished him,”
he said, “as when the Lombard giant raised
his sword to slaughter Sanctulus of Norsia.
The heathen strangers gathered in the square,
expecting to enjoy a good beheading,
but when the giant’s weapon ripped the sky
the Benedictine bellowed, ‘Hold, Saint John!’
The eagle-eyed apostle, peering earthwards,
inhibited the foreign ogre’s stroke.
He strained, he shook, he groaned to heave his steel,
but the keen blade just glittered in the sky,
like Joshua’s sun glorying over Gibeon.
The monk refused to loose the Lombard’s limb
until he swore to injure no more Christians.
He swore, and his rigidity was healed.”
Thus earnest Alfred entertained his issue,
relating lore from Gregory the Great,
then seized his lady’s forearms in his palms.
“Ealhswith,” he said, “the mailed Danes
could strike this market town at any hour.
Accompany these little ones to Frome,
where Aldhelm’s abbey walls will shelter them.”
His bride replied, “If pagan Godrum comes,
won’t we be safer here in Chippenham?
The devils feed on feebleness, not strength.”
“Leof,” Hilda said, “you’ve got your levies.
You’ve got your guardsmen, paid to shield your hide.”
“We want to stay with you,” said Athelflaed.
“We want to slaughter sailors,” Edward cried.
The Saxon chief confessed to Ealhswith,
“A grievous sin it was to bring you here.
I’ll meet you at the Feast of the Conversion.
If I don’t show, you get this crew to Sherborne.
Lord Athelheah will ship you overseas.”
How changed she was, the Mercian girl he loved,
with thinning cheeks and smaller, harder limbs.
He saw her search his face for a reprieve.
“I would go with you, if I could,” he said.
“Together we could pray in holy Romeburg,
where Leo crowned me consul of Britannia—
where the Romans still show the ship that bore
Father Aeneas up the muddy Tiber.”
His sister lived at Rome, where Mercian Burgred
absconded on a hurried pilgrimage
when Halfdan’s rowers maimed the Mercian host.
“Or we could sail to Jerusalem,”
he said, “our mother, bride of our dear Lord,
to venerate his empty sepulcher.”
The king recalled that Saxon Willibald,
a Hampshire monk, had roamed the Holy Land
when Athelheard was king, succeeding Ini.
He’d seen the low cave where Christ was born,
the riverbank where John acknowledged him,
the hill on which he died so hideously,
and the new tomb in which he was interred.
After a ten-year stint in Subiaco,
that brother served Archbishop Boniface,
himself a Devon monk, Wynfrith by name,
who placed him in a new Bavarian see.
Before the heathen Frisians murdered him,
Saint Boniface, a friend of Charles the Hammer,
had set the Frankish crown on Pippin’s brow
(the shamming Childeric having been deposed),
who left it to his son, a greater Charles,
whom grateful poets glorify as David.
And so a lad from Saxon Crediton
was midwife to a resurrected empire.
As Ealhswith studied her husband’s features,
her scalding feelings overflowed her eyes.
His robe hung slack on his scarecrow shoulders,
even after seven years as king.
“My precious boy,” she said to boost his spirits,
“we pray the almighty Thunderer for courage.”
Thus spoke his wife, to whom the king replied,
“By my age, Ceadwalla was dead in Rome,
where Sergius the First baptized him Peter.
Besides recovering our Chiltern lands,
where the pale, leafless ghost orchid grows,
he built on our inheritance from Cerdic
by overrunning Sussex, Wight, and Kent.”
He stopped, his poor spirit drained of words.
His cwene clutched clumsily at his fingers.
William G. Carpenter taught literature at various universities before receiving his J.D. at Boalt Hall. His translation of the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood was published in the Sewanee Theological Review. He will give a paper on "Frederick Turner and the Persistence of Epic" as part of the 14th Annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference which will take place online June 14-16, 2021. Eþandun: Epic Poem (Beaver's Pond Press, 2021), hardbound with illustrations by Miko Simmons, is available at www.williamgcarpenter.com and from Amazon. The e-book is available on Amazon and from other e-book outlets.
I really enjoyed this-- especially since after watching The Last Kingdom! This is excellent. Absolutely brilliant.