The Battle of Maldon is a kind of ballad, although it may well be classed as an important heroic or narrative poem of the Anglo-Saxon people, to be placed only after Beowulf.
The unknown poet of The Battle of Maldon relates the story of a national defeat. The poem celebrates the gallant fight and the heroic death of Earl Byrhtnoth the old chief of the East Saxon in the battle, fought at Maldon, in 991. A band of Vikings, led, perhaps, by the Norwegian lord Ulaf Tryggvesson, landed on the coast of Essex. In his attempt to repulse that band of aggressive pirates, he went forth with his men and allowed the invaders to cross the sea, against his own interest, so that the battle might be fought on the same ground and with the same advantage to both the parties.
The poem describes the combat between the two forces, lasting for a long time, but ultimately the Danes had the better of the situation and gained ground over the Englishmen. Of course, Byrhtnoth and his followers fought boldly against the heavy odds, as they were gradually out-numbered by the enemy. Ultimately, the Earl received a fatal blow and fell dead on the bank of the stream, after inspiring his countrymen to fight and die to vindicate national honour.
The Battle of Maldon, like The Battle of Brunanburh, may be classed as a war-poem. Yet, it is entirely different, both in spirit and in tone, from the other. Like the other poem, it has also some historical interest and indicates the beginning of the Danish conquest of England. As a matter of fact, the incident, narrated in The Battle of Maldon took place a few years after that, described in The Battle of Brunanburh. The Battle of Brunanburh vindicates the triumph of English nationalism over Danish aggressiveness, while The Battle of Maldon shows the ultimate surrender of the English tradition to Danish ambition.
The Battle of Maldon bears out the inspiring chivalrous spirit. It is essentially idealistic. It is, as noted, inspired by the Christian moral of dedication and self-sacrifice to the noble and worthy causes of life. The Battle of Maldon bears a close resemblance to the celebrated French epic, Roland. There is, indeed, much that is almost identical in both the works. The hero of this poem is inspired by chivalrous pride and honour and die heroically with a selfless and dedicated spirit and win deathless glory in death. Like Roland, The Battle of Maldon also expresses the Christian sentiment of noble sacrifice and indomitable courage.
Of course, the French epic is not all similar to the English song. Roland is an epic of growth and has the prestige of a legend, while The Battle of Maldon is a poetical rendering of a bare history. Moreover, unlike Roland, The Battle of Maldon has the characteristic gloominess and the melancholy strain of Anglo-Saxon poetry and lacks the universality as well as the brightness of epic poetry.
The Battle of Maldon, along with The Battle of Brunanburh, occupies a unique position in the poetical literature of England in the pre-conquest time. Between Beowulf and Wace’s Song of Hastings, it stands out as an unmatched non-Christian work. It has the characteristic of an epic-narrative and bears a close resemblance to the Iliad in the description of the battle scene. It has also a truly épical mark in the unfolding of its story and also in the fineness of its alliterative-verse. At the same time, the poem has the extreme simplicity of epical poetry and is essentially national in outlook. Of course, the poem runs to only 300 lines and has no characteristic beginning, middle, or end of epic poetry.
Indeed, The Battle of Maldon is a rare work of the Anglo-Saxon period. It stands out singularly as a triumph of native Anglo-Saxon poetry and indicates the capability of this poetry attaining, without foreign assistance or imitation, an unexpected Renaissance in the national literature of England in the Anglo- Saxon period.