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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Of Beasts that Gloat and Plunder

Updated: Jul 7, 2023


The Twa Corbies, preparing to dine on the dead knight below, from “Some British Ballads,” 1919, by Arthur Rackham, (Wikimedia Commons).


At least twice, in the past thousand years (or so), a writer has observed that in war, men can act so much like beasts, that beasts themselves start to seem to act like men. The two writers include philologist and author, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the anonymous poet of a snippet of narrative poetry describing a battle fought in 991 C.E. Tolkien translated and provided explanations of the medieval Englishman’s words and then went further, writing an epilogue to that long-dead poet’s work for the stage. In it, Tolkien delves into themes and linguistic details from the poem by weaving them into his own writing. Gloating birds and wolflike men blend together in Tolkien’s The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.


In a text so interested in the behavior of scavengers, the admonishment not to crow over an unjust killing stands out. Two loyal retainers of the proud earl Beorhtnoth search for his body among scores of English and Viking dead, an act necessitated after Vikings massacred Beorhtnoth’s English defense force earlier in the day in a battle known to us from history and the remnants of a narrative poem called The Battle of Maldon. The scene is eerie. Tolkien calls for the stage to remain in darkness other than the small light of a searcher’s dark lantern. The ground is covered in piles of men and severed limbs. The more timid searcher starts and calls out in fear repeatedly. His comrade offers cold comfort: “The wolves don’t walk as in Woden’s days…If there be any, they’ll be two-legged.”

The comment is prescient, as comments often are in dramas, and the heroes shortly find themselves in a struggle with plunderers, which ends with the timid man dispatching one of the graverobbers. He shouts his success and his companion chides him for responding too aggressively: “Why kill the creatures, or crow about it?” There are no literal crows in his text, but there are in The Battle of Maldon, and in his notes to the poem, published in June under the title The Battle of Maldon, Together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Tolkien responds to the appearance of the carrion birds, along with their typical brethren in Old English poetry, the eagle and the wolf.



Tolkien writes that ravens, eagles and wolves trailed armies and became particularly active on the eve of a battle. Their appearance together, in these circumstances in Old English poetry, is so common that the animals are referred to as “beasts of battle” and their mention before battles became formulaic in poems including any sort of large-scale fighting. Perhaps Tolkien noticed the human qualities the old poets gave the animals. In Aaron K. Hostetter’s translations, the wolf “chant[s] his warsong,” and is joined by the eagle in the poem Elene. The three animals “divide up the carrion” in The Battle of Brunanburh. The slaughtered dead are “a pleasure to wolves, a comfort as well to the slaughter-greedy birds” in Judith. The animals are “eager,” “greedy,” and “rejoice” in the bloodshed.


Of course, Tolkien had a favorite beasts-of-battle passage, and states that it is the Beowulf-poet who “really tunes his imagination on the conventional trappings” of the motif. Tolkien’s own translation of the passage, from his translation of Beowulf, runs thus: “Nor shall the music of the harp awake the warriors, but the dusky raven gloating above the doomed shall speak many things, shall to the eagle tell how it sped him at the carrion feast, when he vied with the wolf in picking bare the slain.” Here the animals reach their most anthropomorphized with the raven becoming the narrator of his own boastful story. The raven, eagle and wolf are in competition for the choicest bits. Returning to Tolkien’s character accused of “crowing” about killing the graverobber, it seems that Tolkien was interested in the semantic possibilities of the word crow, here in an idiom that suggests that crows are braggarts, as the Beowulf-poet suggested.


Wargs, Wolves and Criminals

Illustration from “Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf,” 1899 by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin. (Wikimedia Commons).


Tolkien was also interested in the word wolf, particularly as it applied to wolfish men, and here also he seems to have taken some inspiration from the Maldon-poet, who describes the ravening Viking warriors as waelwulfas, or “slaughter-wolves” as they rush unheeding through the surf at Beorhtnoth’s assembled warriors. Recall also Tolkien’s character warning his comrade of two-legged wolves, which come in the form of English graverobbers, instead of Danish sea-pirates. However, as the Vikings arrived specifically to plunder the English coast and even offer to leave if paid off, is there much of a difference in motive between the Vikings and the native robbers?

It should be noted that waelwulfas, though literally means slaughter-wolves, conveyed the poetic meaning of warriors, and similar compounds meant to convey warriors can be found in other extant texts, such as heorowulfas, “sword-wolves” or “battle-wolves” used to describe pharaoh’s soldiers in the Old English version of the Exodus story. The word wulf itself was a popular name for men in Old English poetry and features in many compounds. Two men, Wulfstan and Wulfmaer, fight on the English side in “The Battle of Maldon.” Consider also Beowulf, perhaps the most famous -wulf of all.


Linguistic anthropologist and Tolkien aficionado Marc Zender suggested that Tolkien showed interest in the etymologies of the words crow and raven in his more popular fiction, The Lord of the Rings. In a lecture I attended at Harvard University in 2011, Zender pointed to Tolkien’s invention of a word for crow in Sindarin Elvish: crebain, a plural form from which close-readers of Sindarin can assume the unattested singular form, craban. For raven, the old Germanic languages have hrabn-, hrafn, and hraefn. Curiously, even though craban seems closer to the Germanic words for raven, Tolkien glosses the word as crow in English. Like the camp-following ravens of Old English poetry, Tolkien’s crebain take on a militaristic posture by traveling in “regiments.” Tolkien uses the word regiments twice to describe their movement, eschewing the English expression, murder of crows. The ominous birds appear in the chapter titled “The Ring Goes South,” in the second book of The Fellowship of the Ring.


The editor of Tolkien’s The Battle of Maldon, Together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Peter Grybauskas, also points out that Tolkien had an interest in the older forms of the word wolf, inventing warg from Old Norse vargr or Old English wearg, which are words that could mean wolf or human outlaw, or criminal. Tolkien’s wargs certainly seem inspired by the beasts of battle passages. In The Hobbit, the wargs work with the goblins and “shared the plunder” with them. The wargs speak a “dreadful language” and, using human-like ingenuity, set guards below the company of dwarves in the tree before Gandalf frightens them off in the chapter titled, “Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire.”


Finally, Tolkien himself suggests a direct link between the gloating raven of Old English poetry and birds of the folk tradition that brings us the ballads, “Three Ravens” and “Twa Corbies,” including this stanza:


Twa Corbies

Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een,

Wi’ ae lock o’ his gowden hair

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.


The songs are about crows or ravens discussing the eating of a knight and seem to relate to one another in that they both refer to the knight’s hawks, hounds and lady, who in “The Three Ravens” version protect the knight’s body, but in the “Twa Corbies,” have abandoned his body to the crows.


Statue of Byrhtnoth in Maldon, made by John Doubleday. The text of The Battle of Maldon refers to the doomed leader by the West Saxon spelling in which the only existing manuscript of the poem is written. Tolkien amended the spelling to Beorhtnoth to reflect the East Saxon dialect that scholars believe the poem was originally written. (Source: Wikipedia.)


But in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth and in history, the doomed earl is not left to scavengers. In the manner of Tolkien’s more famous work, loyal and loving followers stand by his side to the death and even after. The two men retrieve Beorhtnoth’s body from the pile of corpses that cover him. He lies beneath the men who fought first to support him, then avenge him, and the Viking dead they took with them. The searchers carry his heavy bulk to a wagon bound for the monks who will tend to him, and lay him to rest, singing over his bones. Evil men and beasts exist in Tolkien’s works, but they are often overcome by loving friends, who fight on when hope seems dimmest. In this they embody the most famous quote from The Battle of Maldon, a speech by an aged servant determined to fight to the death to stand with his leader: “The mind must be harder, the heart braver, courage greater, as our might diminishes.”


In Practical Mythology, Ben Hellman writes about the intersections of society, art and folklore. If you know of a story that suits Practical Mythology, email the idea to newenglandbard@gmail.com.

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