Eþandun: An Epic Poem in Twelve Parts (Bk IV)
IV. In Selwood Forest
Guthrum feasts with his earls in Alfred’s hall. Alfred has found shelter with Denewulf and Beornwulf, two brothers who herd swine in the Selwood. When he recovers from his wounds, Alfred sets out with Beornwulf to find Ealhswith and the bishop.
The heathen king presided on the dais
over his clutch of sanguine heathen earls.
Behind them on the blackened daub, where once
the blackened Saxon dragon hung, the sunlight,
the winter sunlight, pouring from a sky
as blue as any looming over Thule,
deterged and purified the raven flag
partitioned by the rafters’ slanting shadows.
An ox had been prepared for Tyr and Grim,
for Radagast, the Abotritan god,
and Alfred’s threefold Roman mystery,
and meaty steam was wafting from the kettle
when Gormr recognized the Ringsted man.
“Which Hrolf the Giant rules, who married Poppa,”
said Godfred’s grandson with a pondering gaze,
“having killed Count Berengar, her father.”
“Let the fr-frightened foemen fly to Frankland,”
said Hrothulf from his hutch of vulpine furs,
“the St-Stutterer has troubles of his own.”
The earls chuckled. Louis, Charles’s son,
impoverished by his father’s family fighting,
had little chance of freeing that sweet land.
“The Saxons need a Saxon king,” said Wiga,
speaking for his principals in Zealand.
Unseasonably Theodric, the Saxon,
darted a glance at Guthrum, but forthwith
he knew he’d slipped, for now the earls would think
that he himself hankered for Alfred’s office.
The seed of Godfred welcomed the diversion.
Dodging his Nordalbingian ally’s eye,
he turned to questions of good government.
“It’s too early yet to hand out lands,”
he said, “as Halga’s valiant son has done.
If we get fat, we’ll falter like the locals,
which we can ill afford, so many friends—
the Ribe men, the men of holy Viborg—
so many having swallowed Swanage ale.
Our ablest enemies remain at large.
We do not own this country yet, my lords.”
The lords concurred, though Hrothulf flushed and glared.
“Above all else,” continued Godfred’s grandson,
“we must unearth the learned murderer,
King Athulf’s fingerling, the last free king.
I fought him when we fired him from this hall—
I recognized his prattle and his stroke.
Men spotted him at Wodensburg and Frome
or maybe saw his fetch, walking abroad.
If Athulf’s seed is dead, we thank All-Father.
But maybe he escaped across the sea.
His sister, Burgred’s widow, lives in Rome
and his stepmother, Judith, collared Baldwin,
the gallant count of Gessoriacum.
I met the lovers at your uncle’s court,”
the chief remarked to Halga with a grin,
“where Lothar Lothar’s son acknowledged them
to spite his uncle, Charles the Bald, her father.
Karli had rashly nixed the match—her third—
but Lothar got the pope to give his blessing.
All this to say, we might yet see the Saxon
splash ashore with a thousand mailed Franks.”
He tasted, and pursued his meditation.
“He may have joined with Anglian Eadwald.
Or his God may have hidden him in a cave.
He may have flown, bird-like, into the woods.
We must assume that any wolf or bear
or any badger, otter, fox, or squirrel
might be the man who murdered my poor son.
Maybe he hears us now, here in this hall.
The pope declared him consul as a boy
and christened him his spiritual child.
Maybe he granted him spiritual power
over all the elves and devils in this island.”
Confused, the foreign earls lowered their eyes.
“The elf-taught Athulfing,” their captain mused.
“At Merton, the imp stormed like Grim in fury.
I dickered with him, newly smeared, at Wilton.
The youngster would have made an able chief,
had he not been”—Gorm searched for words—“so trusting.”
With shining eyes, he raised Saint Edmund’s cup.
“And this was Alfred’s, for an hour,” he added.
The heathen earls snickered in their beards.
Denewulf and Beornwulf, two brothers,
kept herds of swine among the trunks of Selwood.
As tenants of the abbey, they had served
at Merton with King Athred and at Wilton
and advantageous Exeter with Alfred;
but now the latter captain, Ingeld’s seed,
lay groaning on a pallet in their hall.
He hadn’t found a refuge overseas,
as Godrum speculated with his earls;
he hadn’t donned the fur of wolf or bear;
nor had he quit this realm of bone and blood,
though many nights and days he roamed the town
that holy men returned from there describe
as a strait place of blackness, smoke, and hail.
“Behold,” said Alfred’s bishop by his side.
Across the mere of pain that heaved around
his wounded eye, the devils worked their blades,
butchering unresisting monks and nuns.
“Behold,” said Godfred’s seed, who gripped his arm.
A buzzing, blubbering chorus filled his ears,
but Alfred sensed it did not emanate
from them the fallen flayed, but from a flock
of captured girls and boys, crammed in a pen.
A squad of devils mocked his impotence
to shield even the weakest of his people.
“Behold,” the devils cried through broken lips,
“behold the unanointed of the Lord!”
One called to Alfred, leaning on his spade:
“Now whither will you fly, O seed of Cerdic,
now that our prince will own your crown forever?”
Throughout these scenes, the Saxon’s absent mate,
her upward-growing form cloaked more obscurely
than the dread night on which the fiends attacked,
loomed motionless before a smoking door.
Each time he felt her there, he turned away.
Three dark and wiry figures caught his eye,
one of whom sprang close and challenged him,
naked, armless, its hideous face one scar,
or many scars, its mouth a lipless fissure.
The mask of hatred, pierced by twin red stars,
bent near, and nearer Alfred, and he feared,
deep in his heart of hearts and ever after,
not what the thing might do, or what it was,
but that his sin had made him one of them.
His head yet racked with seven shades of pain,
one day he raised the lid of his good eye
to the soot-plastered thatch of someone’s roof,
from which soot-crusted hunks of flesh were hung
to frighten famine from a churl’s board.
“He lives,” said Denewulf, “he has returned
like Furseus, whose feast we keep today,
to this sublunary sphere of snow and fire!
Our loaf-ward, bred of Cerdic, has returned,
after many days, across the fetid Styx!”
(For Denewulf had studied with the monks
before his father’s death had fetched him home.)
The Athulfing said nothing, shut his eye,
and drifted on the tide of misery,
his nostrils sniffing swine instead of ocean.
A recollection of the fatal feast,
his guardsmen, nobles, clerics, churls slaughtered,
lurked just beneath his spirit’s swamping hull.
But soon the king began to count the dead
including, probably, his family,
and knew damnation was his sealed fate.
Three times he’d purchased peace from Godfred’s grandson
instead of driving to eradicate him,
like Saul when he neglected killing Agag.
Had cowardice unmanned both king and kingdom?
Had pride enticed him to accept the crown
instead of serving Athred’s sons as regent,
as the famed Jutish thane had served his nephew
when Theodbert the Frank slew Hygelac?
Or was it his campaign of ceaseless lust,
beginning with his father’s Frankish bride
(whom Hincmar consecrated regina),
the glorious, gorgeous, archangelic Judith,
his mother, sister, preceptress, and friend,
whom he’d adored, most sorely, as a boy?
Which soreness he’d compounded in his youth
with every maid and matron he could charm.
Thus day and night he lay, chained to his sins,
afraid to sleep and meet his leering keepers.
Slumped on a chair, his blade bared on his knees,
the stripped branch of Cerdic watched the flames
again engulf the roofs of Chippenham.
Again he fled from Toca’s force at Frome
and Octa’s fallen trunk among the trees—
so little had the waybread and the yarrow
administered by learned Denewulf
dispelled the hurt to the king’s inward eye.
Fingering the steel’s nicks and dints
and the plain legend Charles had had engraved,
et gladius meus non salvabit me,
“and my salvation lies not in my sword,”
he thought of Saul, who leapt on his own weapon,
his armor-bearer fearing to dispatch him;
of morbid, mean Ermanaric, who self-slew
when the Huns overran his Gothic empire;
of Mithridates, under filial siege,
who poisoned daughters, concubines, and wives,
but could not breach the wall of antidotes
in which for forty years he’d soaked his guts;
of Nero, Agrippina’s son, who sinned
with her, his sister, and an altered boy,
declaimed the rape of Troy to flaming piles,
and quashed the Lord’s apostles, Paul and Peter—
even the worst wretch that burdened Rome
cut his own throat when shouted from the palace.
While Alfred wallowed in these dismal studies,
his good eye watched a girl about her work,
fetching eggs and water, sweeping the hearth,
her motions shedding grace, her girlish face
a miracle of budding leaves in springtime
or a sickle moon lighting a waterish haze.
The swineherd’s wife appeared and cried, “La, cyning!
The cakes I kneaded for Saint Anthony,
the patron saint of porculatio
whose feast we keep today, you’ve let them burn!
Has sorrow so dimmed your remaining light?
Do not lie down among the dead, my lord,
yearning to leave your misery behind.
Rejoice, instead, with us who joy to live,
for whom a glimpse of dove or firecrest
redeems this brief eternity of grief.
Four children we have buried in our yard—
but one remains, as you have but one peephole—
and yet I bless the Lord with every breath.
And when I see a fly caught in the web
a mother spider spun to feed her brood
I do not dwell on how my end will come,
but praise the ways the King of Kings conceived.”
Raising Ecgbert’s sword by hilt and blade,
Alfred pressed the metal to his forehead.
His wounds had knitted into ruby scars,
even the one that cut across his eyeball—
whose putrefaction Denewulf had foiled
by packing it with nettles crushed in salt—
when Alfred, king of all the southern folk,
crawled unassisted from his sodden bed,
breakfasted on rashers, bread, and beer,
and limped across the yard at Denulf’s heels.
Beornwulf and Denewulf’s young daughter,
Denehild, together with their herders,
armed with spears, were leading out the bands
of grumphing porkers eager for their feed—
for beasts did not desert the beaten Saxons
as once they fled when Latins threatened Rome—
and though the twilight, stealing through dark heaven
to seize a forward bridgehead for the sun,
distinguished the unbarbered quadrupeds
from herdsmen dressed in heterogeneous skins,
it lit alike the docked plumes of breath
that flapped alike from snout of man and swine.
As Alfred hobbled after switching trotters,
he heard the birds dispute the porcine clamor
(for treading time, the urgent time, drew near)
as if to celebrate one man’s return
to the Lord’s realm from the dull rounds of men.
A woodwall let loose its rattling patter
and rested as the stock doves cooed and fed
on acorns left by hurried foragers.
A nuthatch launched a trill, to which a chaffinch,
a robin, and a brambling joined their songs,
then floating outwards from a beech tree’s summit,
a mistle-thrush’s flute diffused pure prayer.
Soon Paulus, one of Denewulf’s Welsh hands,
erupted in a bellicose lament
that Athulf’s gleeman formerly had sung,
a hymn of blood to brace an ousted chieftain
who’d lost companions battling with the Danes.
When speaking, Paulus pinched his syllables
in sparing, parsimonious English,
but when he wrapped his breath in British music,
so grand a gift the Lord had granted him,
the glinting tide inspired every hearer
to live as nobly as his fable flowed.
They halted by a brooklet, laced with ice,
whose surface suids shivered with their hooves.
The seed of Ingeld turned to Denewulf.
“Our Savior spared me from the bed of crime
but not our eldest brother, Athelbald,
who went into our father’s widow, thus,
like Reuben, Jacob’s fluid eldest son,
uncovering our father’s nakedness.
Before that deed, he filched our father’s crown.
Do we bear these disasters for his sins?
Though years before, when our good father reigned,
a cleric prophesied of God’s intent,
delivered by an angel in a dream,
to scourge our folk. Crops failed. Cattle died.
Was that because young Athelwulf and Wulfheard
had chased the king of Kent across the Thames?
Or because our father’s father, famous Ecgbert,
fixed his yoke on all the island’s kings?
“Bitter British wizards long foretold
the Saxon chiefs would reign three hundred years.
That time has run. Our godlike ancestor
took office when Theodoric ruled Rome—
Rome, to which Ceadwalla fled from power
and bested Burgred crept in state post-Repton.
Perhaps the King of Kings now summons me
to Leo’s Saracen-built citadel
to yield the sword he belted to my shoulder.”
The swineherd knelt and pulled the king down with him.
“Dear Father, you were wroth with your anointed.
His iron rod you hurled in the dust,
his bones you turned to wax, his heart to water.
Bend his neck to your yoke, yet let him not
glory in having overmastered glory.”
“Amen,” the king replied, crossing his chest.
He struggled upright, clinging to his spear.
“According to the learned African,”
he said, “our life is pain, our death unknown.
I’ve read that Greek philosophers,” he added,
“discovered sacred doctrine unassisted.
Pythagoras commanded, ‘Follow God,’
and Plato claimed a wise man might exhume
the truth implanted in him from his birth.”
“I wouldn’t swear to that,” said Denewulf,
rising to face the king, his breath a cloud.
“The Holy Spirit is a mystery.
Someday, perhaps, it may reveal its ways.
See that goldcrest, the kinglet of this wood,
creaking on the twig there up above?
A fretful thing, the stature of a hatchling,
yet he constructs the most exquisite nest
of all the feathered builders in this temple,
and his industrious head is capped with flame.”
The dawn was past and Denulf’s hall was empty
when Alfred woke, his soul cumbered with gloom.
He padded the hard ground out to the woodshed,
where pecking wrens and titmice fled his step,
hefted Denewulf’s cold wedge on his palm,
and tapped it through the bark of an oak log.
Heaving the maul and grimacing at twinges
that swarmed him like the Roman guardsman’s arrows,
he muttered “Athelwulf” and swung the sledge.
The log cracked, uncovering its core,
while the shock jarred the marrow of his bones.
He set the wedge, acknowledged “Ecgbert,” swung.
“Ealhmund—Eafa—Eoppa,” he said,
for each name landing a ringing blow.
Dropping his torn cloak, he wiped his forehead.
Another eight concussions drove his count
to Cerdic, who, like Brutus come from Rome
or like Anchises’ scion out of Troy
or like the son of Nun who scouted Canaan,
arrived, grappled, and planted a new people.
“Elesa—Esla—Gewis, our eponym.”
Five more reports brought Alfred’s reckoning
to Baldaeg’s father, son of Frealaf,
the all-discerning, king-begetting chieftain.
Here Alfred leaned the helve against the shed.
A chillness wafted from that parent’s barrow.
The fiends cared not a whit for kindred blood
when offering West Saxon souls to Grim.
Fourteen more thunderstrokes rewound the cord
to Noah, who survived the earth’s demise
and took the law of slaughter from the Father.
Nine more good hits and Alfred, drenched with sweat,
affirmed the name of our enduring sire,
progenitor of Saxon, Jute, and Dane,
the outlawed king whose seed has never failed,
whose name contains the quarters of the earth—
for the east Anatole, the west Disis,
Arctos the north, the south Mesembria—
whose father was none other than our God.
His scion stacked the clean splits on the pile
and hugged a load to heap beside the hearth.
His gashes smarting, weeping for relief,
he fueled the fire and furled himself in his cloak.
Exhausted, Alfred heard the Baptist’s words
admonish him, “The Lord can raise up children
to Father Cerdic even from these sticks.”
As Beornwulf set pickets in the trees
to ward off wolves and bears, as well as boars
who yet in rut in the midwinter season
might yet get wild piglets on his sows,
the king employed himself in setting snares,
then built a blaze to warm the men at dinner.
Their oatcakes, cheese, and ale brought to mind
the happy days before men hewed their foes
and plowed the waves to harvest gold and slaves.
The meal done, he found a kicking hare
suspended from the gallows of a shrub
and ran back to the grove to show his prize
to Denewulf’s young daughter, Denehild,
who, seeing the king’s face alive with glee,
his eye bright, his scars flushed in the chill,
ingenuously mirrored his emotion
and lighted on the turf as in a dream.
A squirrel objected sharply from a branch,
and the girl’s charges gruntled where they grazed,
but after several kisses and caresses
the Athulfing pushed Denehild away.
Their twisted clothing binding them like gyves,
they spouted clots of vapor at the clouds
and felt the stony soil goad their cloaks.
“Forgive me,” said the son of Jutish Osburh,
watching two gilts tussle over the hare.
“It is a sin for us to couple thus.
When I was weak, I took food from your hand.
Recalling Baldhild, whom we feast today,
I stumbled into the pit that spoiled my youth,
and though I long ago disowned those vices,
my cursed whims still hiss as I pass
or tug my sleeve and murmur, ‘Here I am.’”
They stood and shook crumbs of leaves from their wraps.
“But vile as it is to sin in sleep,”
the Athulfing went on, “enticed by dreams
of those we know or those we wish to know;
as foolish as it is to fornicate
in a cavern mouth lit by Juno’s lightning;
how baser still to stray in open daylight!
Your beauty charmed me; I became a beast,
but like Ulysses’ luckless rowers, whom
the false sun god’s daughter turned to swine,
by the Lord’s grace, my soul remained unchanged.
‘If eye offend,’ they tell us, ‘pluck it out.’
You can see that mine’s been plucked out already.
Besides,” the king concluded with a smile,
“I’d owe your father, under my own law,
ten dozen solidi in minted coin
(a hundred in the old tolfraedic reckoning),
which I don’t have just now.”
The girl replied,
“My lord is a most careful husbandman.”
“Unlike the Roman law,” the king continued,
“ours would impose no penalty on you.
Popilia, Minucia, and Sextilia
were three polluted virgins they interred.”
The swineherd’s daughter said, “Your humble maid
begs leave, lord king, to plead in her defense.
A gilt in season traipses past her suitor,
draws none too near, but tarries none too far.
She shuns his eye, but in good time she stands.
My lord has tracked his handmaid with that eye,
that eye as blue as shadow cast on snow,
from dark to dark as her ripe hour simmered.
Please overlook your lowly thrall’s default,
bred by the lowly mores of the herders.
We butcher hogs that balk at breeding sows.”
As day declined, they gathered in the herd
and ambled home along the hardening path.
A din of discord drifted from the steading,
so Beornwulf and Alfred ran ahead
to find herdsmen hammering Denulf’s door.
Beornwulf, scuffing a whitestone trough
across the yard, smashed the planks from their hinges
and plunged, bellowing, into belowground gloom.
The boars’ lord bear-hugged the beefy brigand
that buffeted his brother. Baldaeg’s boy
(viz., Alfred) faced the other fiend, whose features
the master’s mate had marred. The massive man,
fetching the felon’s flayer, led the edge
along the curved equator of his paunch.
The pigman then pivoted where his partner
held the other harrier at bay,
a haft of horn in one hand, one hand un-
gloved by Alfred’s gar. The grim gumfrea
treenailed the intruder to a stud,
at which the tall one took his tool and with it
notched the navigator’s neck, good night.
Blowing noisily, they stretched the sailors,
side by side like two devoted friends.
Denulf said, “At the hand of each man’s brother
will I require the life of man. Amen.”
“I’m off tomorrow,” Athulf’s lad decreed.
“When Valens, after the fight at Hadrianople,
fled and hid himself in a lone farmhouse,
the Goths sniffed him out and burned it down.
I must find Athelheah to take the tiller,
should our Redeemer summon me to Rome.
And if the Lord,” he said, crossing his chest,
“has spared our little ones, they’ll be with him.”
Said Denewulf, “I won’t detain my chief.
But give us time to raise a following
to undertake a sharp strike at the fiends.
As all West Saxons know, or ought to know,
a swineherd slew the usurper Sigebert,
rightly requiting his ring-giver’s killer.”
To which the last of Ecgbert’s grandsons answered,
“I’ll just take Beornwulf, if you don’t mind.
We’ll fare on foot to filter past the devils.”
“On foot is fitting,” Denewulf reflected.
“But here’s another stratagem to put
the uncouth crewmen off your scent.”
One rower they arrayed in Alfred’s shirt
and mail coat; then the hands haled his corpse
across the yard, ahead of Denehild
who bore, with more than noble dignity,
the monarch’s helmet, folded cloak, and sword.
Behind her, Denewulf advised the king,
“If someone else spots stricken Smoke, we’ll say
we buried you—and claim King Godrum’s bounty.”
“Five pounds in gold,” the seed of Ingeld said.
“How cruelly prices rise in troubled times.
The priests paid only thirty pence for our Lord.”
They rolled the rower’s relics in the cloak
and wedged him in the trench the hinds had hacked.
Young Denehild, kneeling down at the lip,
with two hands laid the scabbard on his breast
while the sun, now submerged behind the trees,
daubed their wattled twigs with copper fire.
Tossing a clod that thumped the devil’s helm,
the seed of Ingeld felt a purl of fear,
as if to swindle death required him
again to lose his children, wife, and hall
and see his best-loved friends drowned in their blood.
Indeed, two ravens, peering from a limb,
seemed unconcerned by Denewulf’s deceit
and calmly took in all they saw and heard
to bring the news to all-knowing Woden.
Returning from the sham-Saxon’s howe,
they passed a pen where barrows shrieked and shoved,
watched by Welshmen leaning on the rail.
“What of the other rower?” asked the king.
Denewulf flung a long thumb at the swine.
William G. Carpenter taught literature at various universities and currently practices law in Minneapolis. His translation of The Dream of the Rood was published in the Sewanee Theological Review. 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.