Sunday, February 28, 2016

An Overview of Robert E. Howard's Poem: "The Ballad of King Geraint" By Barbara Barrett

The Roman Wall

“The Ballad of King Geraint” is an action filled tale of brave knights and feats of derring-do in the battle between King Geraint of Britain and the Saxon hordes who encroached on his kingdom. Many of the participants’ names are familiar to Howard fans.

The poem is twenty-nine pages—too long to reprint. Here are some excerpts as well as a Cast of Characters list:

King Geraint ruled the western land
From the Roman Wall to Channel’s sand;
The Saxons held the eastern coast
By high-beaked galley and spear-tipped host.
They reached their hands from the eastern shore
And flooded the land with fire and gore.

King Geraint marched on the Watling Road,
Along the Ouse his banners showed.
Few his warriors but fierce his lords,
Dipped and reddened their worn swords.
He had scoured the land a-near and far,
He had sold his crown for the thews of war.
Knight and warrior and man-at-arms,
Yeoman drawn from the ravished farms,
Each was armed to suit his need,
Each one rode on a goodly steed.
The hoof-beat thunder sounded far—
So Geraint rode to his last red war.

List of Characters

The poem contains many similar names. In order to follow and understand the battle action, here is a list of which characters fought on what side and in parenthesis who was killed by whom.

On the side of Britain is King Geraint (unknown slayer) with ten knights and 1,000 men.
Angus, a chief of the northern Scot (dies from wounds after the Saxon foot soldiers flee in the third encounter)
Cadallon, the king of Wales (killed by Lodbrog in the third encounter)
Conal, close friend of King Geraint (killed by Oswald in the second encounter)
Conmac flower of knighthood (killed by Eadward in the final battle with King Caewlin) 
Cormac of Cornwall called the Hawk (killed when overwhelmed by the hordes of Saxon foot soldiers in the third encounter)
Donal, the chieftain of Strathclyde (Donal and Hakon the jarl kill each other in the first encounter)
Dulborn, a Pict (Dulborn and Tostig the Raven kill each other in the final battle with King Caewlin)
Nial, brother to Ulster’s king (unknown slayer)
Turlogh of Connacht (sole survivor of Geraint’s men)
Uther, king of Humber, whose kingdom was destroyed by Anlaf (killed by Edric and Athelstane in the third encounter)

Ceawlin, king of the Saxons (survives) with 12,000 warriors. His army was divided into five groups with four commanders and himself. His four commanders are listed in the order they battle King Geraint and his knights.

1. The first encounter, led by Prince Osric, a Jut, ruler from Ouse to Humber, commanding 1000 horsemen. (killed by King Geraint) 

Athelney. berserker (killed by Angus the Scot)
Athelred, cousin to the king, (killed by Donal)
Halfgar, Frisian sea-king (killed by Conal who receives a mortal wound)
Oswick who ravaged London town (killed by King Cadallon of Wales)
Oswy the Jut (killed by Uther)
Otho the thane of the Black Boar’s Tooth (killed by Cormac)
Norseman Rane, (killed by Nial)
Rognor of the golden ring. (killed by Conmac)
Viking Swane. (killed by Turlogh)
Tostig the Ogre, berserker (killed by Dulborn the Pict)

2. The second encounter, led by Oswald, lord of the Sussex plain commanding 1000 horsemen. (killed by King Geraint after Oswald kills Conal)

Aella ruler from Tweed to Tyne (killed by Nial)
Anlaf the Angle who killed Uther’s family and ravaged his kingdom (killed by Uther who cuts off his enemy’s head and displays it)
Athelfrith (killed by Angus)
Godric (killed by Cadallon)
Gulla (killed by Turlogh)
Gurth (killed by Dulborn)
Hakon the jarl (killed by Donal in a charge that kills them both)
Jan the Lith (killed by Angus)
Wulfhere, chieftain of Horsa’s line (killed by Conmac)
Wutholwine (killed by Cormac)

3. The third encounter was led by both Athelstane, a Wessex ealdorman (killed by King Geraint) and Edric of Orkney Isles, a Dane (killed by Nial); they were co-commanders of the 8,000 foot soldiers.

4. The final battle was led by King Ceawlin himself with 2000 horsemen. Under his immediate command were:
Asgar, (killed by Turlogh)

Athelgard (killed by Nial)

Athelwald (killed by Turlogh)

Dirck (killed by Geraint)
Eadelberht from the banks of Trent (killed by Cadallon)
Eadmund of York (survived Turlogh’s blow)
Eadward of Northumbria (killed by Dulborn)
Eadwig (killed by Geraint)
Ealdred, jarl from the Isle of Wight (killed by Geraint)
Fulk of Sussex (killed by Dulborn)
Godwine of Mercia (killed by Cadallon)
Leofwine of Helgoland on the king’s left hand (killed by Geraint)
Lodbrog (killed by Cadallon’s men after he killed Cadallon)
Osgar of Kent (killed by Dulborn) 
Rane the Wolf (killed by Nial)
Sweyn of Kent (killed by Nial)
Tostig the Raven (Dulborn and Tostig kill each other in a charge during this battle)
Ulf, the king’s brother, on his right hand (killed by Conmac)

The Battles

During the first encounter, Prince Osric and all his lords are killed by King Geraint and his knights. Conal is severely wounded but continues to ride by Geraint’s side. After the battle with Osric, the death count according to Howard:

A hundred Britons and Welsh lie dead,
But the shattered Saxons have turned and fled,
Those who are left alive to flee;
Most of them sleep with Eternity.

The second encounter is between King Geraint and Oswald of Sussex and his lords. Conal is badly wounded but manages to stop a blow by Oswald that is aimed at Geraint’s back. Conal is killed and Geraint kills Oswald. When this battle is over, Howard tells us the cost to King Geraint and his men and foretells the next battle:

Of all that rode across the plain
Six hundred men alone remain;
Donal and Conal both lie slain.
Uther’s armor is hacked to a shred;
Crest to heel he is grim and red.
But he holds aloft dark Anlaf’s head.
Seven deep wounds now sap his life
But he heeds them not as he seeks the strife.
And he laughs a laugh so wild and grim,
His comrades glance askance at him.
Dulborn, Cormac and Angus bleed
But of their wounds they take no heed.
Now front them on the open plain,
The heavy-armed ceorls of Athelstane
With his comrade Edric the Red, the Dane.
They have locked their shields in a solid wall
Their spears a-bristle above them all.

The third encounter of Geraint and his knights is against the 8,000 foot soldiers. The battle is fierce and heavy and almost all of King Geraint’s knights and soldiers are killed before the Saxons once again flee.

The Britons have cleft through the Saxon ranks;
Few there are left of that bold phalanx.
Geraint is wounded in the knee,
Not a knight from a gash is free.
Thrice was Dulborn’s charger slain
But riderless horses race the plain.
Each time the black axe hewed a course
And gained the wielder another horse.
The ranks of the men-at-arms are reft;
Scarce two hundred now are left.
But behind them the shattered Saxon horde
Reels like a dragon broken and gored.
Their leaders and half their comrades slain
They break and eddy and swirl in vain,
And stream in flight across the plain.

Before Geraint faces Ceawlin and his 2,000 horsemen in the final battle, he bids his own knights and warriors to return to their lands and live.

“Here the war and my kingdom ends.
“Many have died in this red fray,
“More shall die ere the death of day.
“Turn, I beg you, your steeds toward home;
“Seek your safety beyond the foam.
“Naught is left for a crownless king
“But a kingly death where the broadswords sing.
“But there is no need for you all to die;
“Turn, I beg you, to safety fly.”
Cadallon’s hauberk was seeping red;
But he laughed like a wolf as he shook his head:
“I turn my back when my foes are dead.
“I am a king in my own land
“Though my only crown is a bloody brand.
“I only wish to charge and close
“And gain to the thickest of my foes.”
From his battered Welsh a fierce yell rose.
Said Conmac: “With my last-drawn breath
“I follow my king to life or death.”
Nial’s eyes blazed with a light
Mystic, more than mortal sight.
“Never in all the world,” said he,
“Is one who touches in chivalry,
“Knighthood, honor without taint,
“And kingly courage, thou, Geraint!
“Come weal or evil, time or tide,
“Shoulder to shoulder with you I ride,
“And in death I will still be at your side.”
Few were Turlogh’s words and brief
As well befitted a Gaelic chief:
“While Geraint lives I follow the king.”
Dulborn made his black axe sing
In a whistling arc through the parting air.
He shook back his tangled mane of hair.
Fiercely laughed in the battle joy
And the primal lust to rend and destroy.
“We waste good time in words,” he said,
“Let us ride in and smite them dead.”
So shoulder to shoulder the warriors rein
For the last red charge on that red plain.
Oh, who the minstrel that might sing
The last great fight of the British king!

A Saxon King
Conmac, Cadallon, Dulborn and Geraint’s soldiers are all killed. For the final charge, Geraint has only two knights left. Turlogh on his black horse, Nial on his red steed. They, along with Geraint on his white horse, charge into the battle once again. The British king has his sword at King Ceawlin’s throat twice but it is deflected by Eadmund of York. Ceawlin’s chiefs take their king “out of reach of the British king.”

When Turlogh and Eadmund begin their blows, a mysterious mist that “hid friends from friends and foes from foes” falls on the battleground.

When the mist lifts Howard narrates that “no man knows how King Geraint has died.” Close by his side lies Nial and they are surrounded in death by:

The greatest chiefs of the Saxon king,
Who fell where they his way had barred:
Eadwig, Ealdred and Athelgard,
Athelwald and the wolfish Rane,
Asgar and Dirck the Wessex thane,
Eadmund of York and the Kentish Sweyn.

York survives his wounds. The sole survivor from Geraint’s ten knights and one thousand soldiers is Turlogh of Connacht.

Turlogh reined the mighty black
And the weary, torn ranks gave back
Before the charger’s thundering rush,
So Turlogh crashed through the serried crush.
They saw the black steed sweeping by,
The black knight etched against the sky,
Lifting a great black axe on high.
They shrank aside, they held their breath,
They thought him a thunderbolt of Death;
The ranks gave way, they made him room,
They thought him a harbinger of Doom.
A grim black phantom of Death and Fate,
Born in the worlds of Night and Hate.
So Turlogh rode, the single knight
Left alive from that terrible fight,
And vanished from the Saxons’ sight.

Geraint, with his wife Enid,
from The Idylls of the King
REH often blends fiction with history and I found a couple historical entries for King Geraint on the internet. This version seems to fit the poem more accurately but it’s probable that Frank Coffman has more background info on the poem.

Geraint (died 710) was a King of Dumnonia who ruled in the early 8th century. During his reign, it is believed that he repeatedly came into conflict with the neighboring Anglo-Saxon Wessex. Geraint was the last recorded king of a unified Dumnonia. Subsequent kings reigned over a reduced area eventually encompassing the present day Cornwall. (Wikipedia)

In the section “Longer Narratives: Howard and Epic Song” from his Robert E Howard Selected Poems, Frank Coffman states “The Ballad of King Geraint” is:
..... the closest to the heroic-epic tradition of the poets of Howard’s immediately previous generations: G. K. Chesterton [The Ballad of the White Horse] and William Morris [Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs] and Alfred, Lord Tennyson [The Idylls of the King.]
Frank also mentions C.K. Scott-Moncrieff’s 1919 translation of the French national epic, The Song of Roland and G. K. Chesterton’s Introduction to the book.
As Chesterton points out in his introductory, The Roland is a poem set on “that high note of the forlorn hope, of a host at bay and a battle against odds without end….” And that is certainly the “high note” in Howard’s “Geraint.” As Chesterton also maintains in that fine introduction to The Roland: “a man does not sing unless he has something to sing about.” And Robert E. Howard both discovered and invented things about which to sing. 

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