Battles royal

The statue of King Alfred at Winchester Image: Shutterstock

Eþandun Epic Poem

William. G. Carpenter, Beaver’s Pond Press, 2021, 252pp

LIAM GUILAR finds much to admire in an ambitious new epic of Alfred, but fears it misses the mark

Eþandun is a narrative poem which tells the story of King Alfred’s actions between the Danish raid on Chippenham in midwinter 878 AD and his victory at the battle of Edington about six months later. It advertises itself on its cover as ‘Epic Poem’ .

The orthodox version of literary history is that since the 19th century there has been a ‘lyricization’ of poetry in English. At the beginning of that century poetry was still the main vehicle for narrative, but it was gradually supplanted by the prose novel, until fictional narrative in prose became so common that ‘prose novel’ sounds tautological and ‘lyric’ became the default mode for poetry.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote

I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.

People who may not have read his argument and might have gagged on some of his examples of ‘true poetry’ accepted his claims. At the beginning of the twentieth century the most influential poets wrote long poems but avoided narrative. Despite the continuing popularity of narrative fiction in print and digital media, critics of the stature of Hugh Kenner and Marjorie Perloff were happy to announce that plot is obsolete (Kenner) and narrative is undesirable (Perloff). Post modernists, stuck up their theorised cul de sacs, invented ‘weak narrativity’ which stripped of its verbiage seems to mean telling a story by deliberately not telling a story. The idea that poetry is just another form of entertainment became a heresy.

There’s an element of truth in this potted narrative; it couldn’t be a critical orthodoxy if there weren’t, but poets have gone on writing book length narrative poems in blank verse, strict stanza forms, free verse, or sequences of diverse poems, and in doing so they have moved across most of the existing fictional genres.

One consequence of this historical development is that modern publishers often seem clueless when it comes to promoting a book-length, narrative poem. Eþandun is a good example. It’s an historical novel. The writer has done his research. He knows the period and he has invented a story full of incident and drama that fits within a fixed, historically accurate time frame. We might dispute the credibility of the story, but that’s part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction.

It seems highly unlikely that Alfred hid in Guthrum’s camp disguised as a Welsh bard, even less likely that he became his unofficial adviser, staged a fake séance and debated religion with him. Carpenter’s battle at Edington is a miraculous victory for a vastly outnumbered English army. It was not regarded as miraculous by contemporaries. Anglo-Saxon armies had been trashing Danish armies for decades; the men of Devon destroyed one that same winter and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our major source for the battle, simply records both the raid on Chippenham and the victory at Edington. The personal combat between Alfred and Guthrum seems a definite mistake, historically implausible and anti-climactic, even if the end of Virgil’s epic is ghosting in the background.

But a reader could dispute those parts of the story while enjoying them, with the added pleasure of encountering incidents he or she wouldn’t have imagined. This is fiction, not history and fiction requires incident and drama. Carpenter’s story is full of both.

What percentage of the vast audience for Game of Thrones, Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Lord of the Rings etc. care about the quality of the prose they’re reading? Would they be put off if the lines didn’t go all the way to the right-hand margin? They could enjoy Eþandun and learn about the history of the period while they were doing it without worrying about the quality of the verse. There’s a vast audience out there, but the publisher sticks ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and that means the book will be shunted into the poetry section, if there is one, where its natural readership will not find it. Put ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and the book is reviewed by poetry editors instead of fiction reviewers.

The dust jacket reflects the publisher’s confusion. What does it tell a prospective reader about the book?

The title, Ethandun, spelt Eþandun seems needlessly pedantic. It’s not a famous battle like Hastings. Since most potential readers haven’t heard of it, aren’t going to know the sound value of the thorn (þ) and are going to be confused by the similarity between the a and d in the chosen font, it also seems needlessly uninformative.

If you don’t know what an Eþandun is, the cover picture doesn’t help. It shows a generic ‘couple in the past’. If this is supposed to be Alfred and his wife, the latter is missing for most of the book, and when they do reunite, in the last chapter, Alfred’s loss of an eye has been stressed so often that the fact that he has two in the picture seems incongruous.  

Still seeking enlightenment, one reads the quotes on the back of the dust jacket. Typically, for a narrative poem, there is a failure to give an overview of the story. The only information states:

It is 878 AD. In the struggle between Christian Saxon and pagan Dane, whose endurance, loyalty, and strategy-whose God or gods-will prevail?

878 is not a well-known date. If you, reading this, know its significance, you belong to a very, very small group. If on the other hand you know the date, then you know Alfred won. Suggesting there’s any doubt seems counter-productive. Hidden away on the front flap of the dust jacket is a succinct summary of the book. It ends, however, with a piece of strange and highly inaccurate hyperbole: “Eþandun paints Western Christendom in its darkest hour”.

As so often, the choice of approving quotations is also strange. There are two:

Eþandun is a work of genius, of true poetry, and also a staggering piece of historical scholarship. It is utterly original in concept and execution

This tells a potential reader nothing about the poem. As a statement it relies on the reader’s unwillingness to stop and consider it. It’s hard enough to define ‘poetry’ but what is ‘true poetry’? Certainly not the same ‘true poetry’ Poe was promoting. The phrase turns up on a baffling variety of poetry books and should be banned, unless the user is willing to explain exactly what it is supposed to mean. Nor is this a “staggering piece of historical scholarship”. I can’t imagine many historians being staggered by a three-page bibliography.

The second quote is even stranger:

Carpenter’s Alfred is a wannabe medievalist’s delight. We don’t know much about the king who united Britain, but through Carpenter’s eyes, we imagine him.

If this is “a wannabe medievalist’s delight” should the genuine variety steer clear?

“We don’t know much about the King who united Britain.” This is very true. Surprisingly little is known about Athelstan who did ‘unite’ Britain, but he was Alfred’s grandson and this book is not about him, but about Alfred, who didn’t even unite England. We also know more about Alfred than about any other Anglo-Saxon king.

Carpenter knows most of what is known. One of the most striking aspects of this book is that Carpenter achieves that very rare thing: a story set in the ninth century, where the characters’ frame of reference is ninth century. It’s very impressive. It has nothing to do with ‘wannabe medievalists’. But the book’s main strength is also its major weakness. The research hasn’t been integrated into the fabric of the poem. It sits on top of it, calling attention to itself.

On the run from the Danes, Alfred and his retainers are watching them ransack a religious institution, spitting babies on spears and molesting the religious. Alfred’s companion, Octa, wants to leap to the defence of the weak and persecuted.

Can I behold such wickedness’ he murmured

as Athelred’s successor gripped his wrist.

‘You can behold’ said Alfred, ‘and you will’

Alfred’s response is terse and dramatic and suits the situation. It’s also believable. But then Alfred, who is also Athelred’s successor, launches into a 41-line speech, referring Octa to a list of historical situations that may have been much worse than the one they are in. This is not an isolated example. It’s a major stylistic characteristic of the text. Carpenter’s Alfred, like his narrator, has the irritating habit of launching into an historical disquisition at every possible opportunity. The story stops. Alfred speaks. At length. He sounds like a boring pedant. His retainers could have been forgiven for shanking him just so they could eat their meals in peace.

Before the climactic battle, Alfred makes a speech to his gathered troops. In Carpenter’s version of events, this is a desperate moment. He only has 318 fighting men. The model for such speeches in English poetry is Shakespeare’s Henry V. As a piece of ruthless, self-serving rhetorical manipulation Henry’s speech before Agincourt is perfect. But not one of Henry’s imaginary bowmen would have failed to understand everything he said.

Carpenter’s Alfred says all he needs to say in 16 lines and then launches into a history lesson, piling up the examples which include King Ahab’s levies, Matathias’ son, Oswy, Abraham, the council at Nicea, a piece of erudite Greek symbolism courtesy of the Venerable Bede, and some typological exegesis surrounding Melchizedek, with the Spartan Leonidas thrown in at the end for good measure. We don’t know much about the men who made up the Wessex levies at Edington, but they would have been baffled rather than inspired.

The ghost of G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse haunts any poet who attempts the story of King Alfred. Chesterton didn’t claim his story was historically accurate, and he used various ballad-like forms to give his poem an incantatory, dream-like quality. Carpenter opts for blank verse and his handling of this is deft, providing him with an unobtrusive, sometimes elegant vehicle for his narrative. Unfortunately, he breaks this with heavily alliterating lines that sound like fake medieval verse. Perhaps this delights ‘wannabe medievalists’ who have never encountered the real version. It’s difficult to imagine any Anglo-Saxon composing the clumsy equivalent of “Begged to buy his butchered boardmate’s blood.” (p. 46)

Old and Middle English alliterative verse was a flexible and sophisticated way of organising a line and offered subtle possibilities in rhythm and emphasis. It’s very difficult to do in modern English for a variety of reasons. Carpenter has wisely decided not to use it. He opts instead for general alliteration, using it heavily at certain parts of the narrative. Imposed on blank verse this can be disastrous. The drummer is tapping ten or eleven beats and lightly stressing every second one, then suddenly the bass player has decided to stress any random combination of beats. The lines begin to sound ominously like tongue twisters.

Both bled, both blew, hearts hammered in both breasts

As cupbearers brought them bread and beer

When the alliteration is linked to Carpenter’s habitual circumlocution and used to describe combat, the result is confused:

…and Wulf went in forthwith. Poor Wulf was fined

a foot, but soon the Somersetan swung

south of Sigewulf’s stroke, which, Sherbourne’s shield,

discerning, drove his troll wife down the troll 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 (p. 13)

It’s true that heroic poems from Y Gododdin to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ detail the deaths and deeds of individuals in combat. But the original audiences probably knew the participants, or had heard of them, and were familiar enough with combat to be fascinated by the blow by blow accounts. The descriptions are rarely, if ever, confusing. In the 21st century those conditions don’t apply. “Poor Wulf was fined a foot” sounds needlessly precious and unnecessarily vague: “lobbed his limb at the snout” bordering on parodic. I do not know what “discerning drove his troll wife down the troll road” means.  

Is Eþandun Epic Poem an epic poem? The answer depends on your definition of epic and defining epic is an entertaining critical game, if you enjoy such things. The arguments have produced a small library, like the larger one attempting to define lyric. The standard critical manoeuvre is to survey contending definitions of epic from Aristotle onwards, and then pick whichever one allows the critic or writer to do whatever they were always going to do. Like the attempts to define lyric, the game has little pragmatic value.

Eþandun is certainly a long poem that wants to be taken seriously but it raises the more interesting question of whether or not it is possible, in the 21st century, to write, “A war epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil”, which is the claim on the inside of the dust jacket.

David Jones was probably the last person to achieve this, with In Parenthesis. He was describing a war his readers had fought in. Christopher’s Logue’s War Music is the positive answer to the ‘war poetry’ part of that question. But Logue wasn’t trying to out-Homer Homer. Then is not now, and he built this into his poem, using all the techniques available to a modern English poet.

Virgil’s audience were trained in the use of weapons, and accepted combat as a natural part of their lives. Martial skill was admirable. No one living today has fought in a Dark Age battle. That might be the crucial difference between a Roman aristocrat who has fought in the Empire’s wars listening to the final combat in the Aeneid, and a modern audience reading that passage or Carpenter’s imaginary combats.

For the original audiences of Homer and Virgil, the past was a very different place: gods interacted with humans while larger than life heroes stalked about the earth. In the 21st century we split history, which is (hopefully) evidence-based and factual, from a thing called fiction which is a culturally sanctioned form of lying. The split is very recent, certainly post-medieval. Today we dispute the ‘historicity’ of the Trojan war. If it happened, then it didn’t happen the way it does in the Iliad. We look for evidence it might have happened, framing its possible causes in terms of economics and expansionist politics.

Virgil and Homer were creating poems that sprung from a shared belief in the truth of their stories, built on a shared knowledge of the past. It’s almost impossible for a modern reader not to read the Aeneid as a form of historical fiction – a high-class Roman Marvel Comic with suited superheroes and bickering gods. The suspension of disbelief we’ve learnt from reading and watching fiction automatically takes over. For the original audience this was the foundation story of Rome.

A poem written in the tradition of Virgil would have to negotiate the fact that most people no longer believe gods walk on the earth.; or that victory in battle proves that God prefers your cause to your defeated enemy’s; or that sword swinging killers are sufficient role models for the problems of the world adults live in. Heroes of the superhuman stature of Aeneas or Achilles belong now in the world of fiction and are diminished by this. There was a King Alfred, and he was bound by all the contingent forces of his place and time and essential humanity. He was extra-ordinary. But if we admire Alfred as an historical figure, it’s not because he won a battle, but because of his reforms after Edington. They are hardly material for a dramatic war poem in the style of Virgil.

Carpenter’s Alfred is not the historical man. Nor is he a believable representation of that historical man. However, fiction has requirements history will not provide. Eþandun is historical fiction: entertaining and thought provoking even when it is at its most implausible. Virgil was not writing fiction.