Anglo-Saxon Sarcasm

Breathing life into Chimera Viking cultures through the traditions of Anglo-Saxon literature.


Whilst investigating options for a Chimera RPG Viking-like setting, we've amassed a body of research regarding the Vikings in specific and the Northmen in general. The historical records, much of which are translated from Old English verse written by Anglo-Saxon and Germanic authors, document the attitudes and lifestyles of the peoples who dwelt in northern England and the Danelands from the 6th through the 10th centuries. As we concentrated on this literary body, one significant element came to the fore: that of the grim, deterministic, and practical style possessed and reflected by the northern authors.

Or, put another way, Anglo-Saxon sarcasm.

Ironic Verse

Much of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic poetry is infused with copious irony. But subtlety is thematic: Viking irony is anything but overt, and it does not present itself in the "Gift of the Magi" sense. Instead, it manifests through the subtle manner borne of gifted word-play—understatement abounds, as does euphemism. These elements, when analysed, reveal an attenuated, but clearly witty, jargon of their own that, in sum, serve, perhaps more than any other collection of factors, to embody the traits and attitudes we ascribe to the Viking peoples in our modern age.

Thus, we focus here on two thematic elements of Anglo-Saxon literature: understatement and euphemism. While we don't expect Chimera players to fully appreciate Anglo-Saxon literature in the scholarly sense (because, hey, this is a game, after all), we do believe that understanding these elements lends strongly to the verisimilitude required to run northern- and Viking-like campaigns.

Indeed, on the topical level, the impression of northern life gleaned from Anglo-Saxon literature provides excellent background information with which to describe various attributes of "Viking campaigns:" furnishings within the thane's meadhall, the sights and smells of the local farming village, the boastful exchanges of embattled heroes, or the tacit majesty of northern countryside during any season.

Below the topical level, though, more subtle aspects of Northman life are glimpsed by the Chimera player. It is on this level that the real flavour and sense of "reality" is found, and if such facets can be introduced into the fantasy Viking campaign, they will colour the milieu brightly. Here we learn what the Northmen believed, spiritually and secularly. We discover what it was that occupied the hours of a Northman's day. It is within this sphere that we discern the motivations of the Viking, whether he be farmer, warrior, thane, or thrall. Most significantly, we are shown Northman values, and the places in life (and beyond life) that housed truth, honour, courage, stoicism, practicality, and vice.

A great many of these values permeate Anglo-Saxon literature in both delicate and overt manifestations. Understatement is consistently used to imply or overtly state such values. Often, authors describe events, thoughts, and actions in a casual manner, suggesting that such actions are less meaningful than they really are. However, in so doing, the author actually affirms that the events and thoughts depicted are quite the opposite: that they are much more significant than their casual reference suggests.


Through the use of understatement, authors of Anglo-Saxon poetry described the grim realities of life with a certain duality: to the Anglo-Saxon audience, the ironic turn of a phrase or understated description would perhaps provoke a sardonic grin, but it would also convey, without ambiguity or subjective opinion, the event or action in factual, objective terminology.

Indeed, the poetry written in the Germanic hero tradition was about purpose in the face of chaos, courage in the face of doom, honour in the face of the reprehensible. Throughout, there is a strong undercurrent of rectitude and decency: honesty, generosity, justice, righteous vengeance, and equitable reciprocation are all hallmarks of the ideal Northman. To the Anglo-Saxon audience, bare honesty is important, and a man is deemed worthy and good if there is virtue and truth in his heart, words, and deeds.

It is therefore understandable as to why the Germanic poets refrained from over-extending the facts of which they wrote. To embellish the telling of a tale or to offer unsubstantiated observations would be not only antithetical to the poetry's goal, but the resultant verse would also offend its audience's sensibilities. If nothing else, Anglo-Saxon poetry is indicative of the dignity and purpose of the people and events it describes; it is not, therefore, a vehicle for hollow boasts, misleading conjecture, or the fantastic recounting of hardly credible activity on the part of its protagonists. Ergo, to the trenchant Anglo-Saxon author, understatement was a tool for tempering reality, not inflating it, and he used such irony to put into perspective the events that shaped the Old English world.

For example, in The Battle of Maldon1, the author describes the retreat of the Englishmen: "Then turned away from battle those that would not stay." (185) To elaborate on the implied cowardice of the Englishmen would be to state more than is known, thus risking the mis-representation of the truth. After all, the Englishmens' flight clearly indicates their preference to remove themselves from danger. But how they come to their decision, and how intense their sense of self-preservation is unknown. Nor are these details likely to be of import to the author's audience; it is simply enough to know that the Englishmen fled (incidentally bolstering their Viking opponent, Olaf the Dane's, chance of success and pending victory). Hence, we are given the most objective, most honest, and most distilled account possible. Indeed, as The Battle of Maldon continues, we read of more individualised retreats of English defenders:

"Godwine and Godwig not caring for battle,
But turned away from this battlefield and to the forest fled,
Seeking a place of safety and to protect their lives." (192-94)

Further examples of understatement are found in Beowulf 2, an Old English poem that chronicles the exploits and rise to power of the Geat title character. As the monstrous Grendel commits the bloody and savage murder of 30 thanes in Hrothgar's mead-hall, Heorot, the author writes flatly of Grendel:

"Unhallowed wight,
Grim and greedy, he grasped betimes,
Wrathful, reckless, from resting-places,
Thirty of the thanes, and thence he rushed
Fain of his fell spoil, faring homeward,
Laden with slaughter, his lair to seek." (120-25)

Later, Wulfgar, herald of the Danish King, Hrothgar (Lord of Heorot), beseeches Beowulf and the East-Danes to come to the aid against the terror of Grendel by asking: "Whence, now, bear ye burnished shields, harness grey and helmets grim, spears in multitude?" (333-35) As the saga progresses, Beowulf battles a dragon. Against the drake's fiery breath, "The shield protected soul and body a shorter while for the hero-king than his heart desired." (2570-72) As combat ensues, Beowulf's sword blow to the dragon is weak: "Its edge was turned brown blade, on the bone, and bit more feebly than its noble master had need of then in his baleful stress." (2577-80)

As with the example from The Battle of Maldon, the author's depiction of events is succinct, non-editorialised, and factual. Yet while the events described are anything but mundane, they are described indistinctly: understatement rules the verse. Murder committed by a fearsome troll is euphemised; a desperate request for the East-Dane's martial aid is made to sound like a casual (albeit royal) invitation; and a battle between warrior and fire-breathing dragon is treated with commentary typical of a modern sporting match (perhaps even less so). Indeed, each might form the basis for a role-playing session in any campaign setting, but the Anglo-Saxon treatment of such lends each a dignified credence instead of a noncredible sensationalism.


A more subtle vehicle for irony typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the "kenning," a formal compound metaphor that uses common words to describe simple, everyday concepts. It is through the oft complex combinations of these common words, however, that the kenning supports the ironic traditions of Old Germanic literature.

To understand the role of the kenning, one must realise that the compound metaphor is not merely a word substitution. Instead, the kenning frequently represents more than the actual subject of the metaphor itself by implying the potential of the idea or object it describes. In short, the whole of the kenning is greater than the sum of its parts. The resulting construction therefore provides an intimate, contextual detail and a significantly emotional connotation that a less formal metaphor could not accomplish.

In Beowulf, for example, the feud between the Heatho-Bard, Ingeld, and his father-in-law, Hrothgar, is referred to as "sword-hate," which conveys more than mere violence and more than just enmity. Instead, the audience is left with images of emotional hostility that culminate in force of arms. Beowulf himself describes the battle history of the Heatho-Bards as "shield-play," indicating an almost light-hearted view of warfare, but at the same time implying their traditionally defensive posture in combat.

Many of the Anglo-Saxon works are rife with kennings; two pieces, The Wanderer3 and The Battle of Maldon, include several fine examples (as encapsulated in Appendix A).

In the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition, we've come up with a few examples of our own, as found in Appendix B.

Conclusions and Endnotes

Through the use of understatement and euphemism, as cited in the examples above, and as found in the body of Anglo-Saxon literature, the spirit of the Northmen (if you will) may be found. Use phrases, dialogue, epitaphs, and castigations based on the above, and your Northman campaign will flourish in the process.


  1. The Battle of Maldon appears to have been written sometime around 1000 AD and recounts an invasion of Danish raiders against Byrhtnoth, the ealdorman (earl) of Essex, in 991 AD. The invasion begins as a party of Danish raiders approaches a natural land bridge created by the low tide at the river Pant (Blackwater) and demand tribute from the Englishmen who have assembled to protect their holdings. Byrhtnoth (c. 926-91 AD) refuses to be extorted and sends three stolid and trusted retainers to defend the causeway. These three successfully defend the land bridge, repulsing the invaders easily. Before long, the Viking commander, witnessing the slaughter of his own men against Byrhtnoth's ultimately defensible position, demands an honourable fight by requesting free passage over the causeway. In his pride, Byrhtnoth magnanimously allows the Danes to cross as a gesture of fairness. As the Danes rush to and press the attack, many of the English defenders fall under the onslaught, ultimately fleeing the battlefield, and Byrhtnoth is killed in the ensuing fight. The Battle of Maldon does not end with Byrhtnoth's death; instead, the latter quarter of the work is a tribute to the courage and resolve of Byrhtnoth's closest and most loyal retainers, who vow to stand their ground against the Danes in an ill-fated effort to avenge their lord's fall. Modern translations are based on an incomplete, 325-line transcript of an original manuscript that was destroyed in a fire at the Cotton Library, Ashburnham House, 1731 AD.
  2. The events recounted in Beowulf have been dated to the 6th century (via a reference to one Hygelac, who became King of the Geats after the death of his brother, Hæðcyn4, during the Battle of Ravenswood, 510 AD), but much of the piece appears to have been drawn from themes common to Germanic and Norse mythology. The first part of the piece describes the savaging of the Hall of Heorot by Grendel the monster, and the subsequent appeal of the Danish King, Hrothgar, to Beowulf the Geat for aid against this monstrous threat. Beowulf successfully overcomes Grendel, and later defeats Grendel's mother, another monstrous creature, who comes to Heorot to avenge her son's death. In the following years, Beowulf becomes King of the Geats, and his heroic career culminates in a battle with a fire-breathing dragon who has terrorised the Geats for some time. In this battle, both Beowulf and the dragon perish, destroyed by one another. Beowulf may have been written as early as the 8th century, a supposition predicated on the strong Christian commentary found within the 3,182-line piece, for it was during this time when England's converstion from paganism to Christianity was gaining significant popularity. This latter point was championed in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Monsters and the Critics (1936 AD), wherein Tolkien argued that the "superhuman opposition of the heathen monsters elevate the poem to its heroic stature." The surviving manuscript represents the salvage from the same fire that destroyed The Battle of Maldon in 1731.
  3. The Wanderer is a short (115-line) poem probably written during the 10th century. It chronicles the misery and woe of a man who has lost his lord, and the work offers an unquestionably bleak outlook on life's transience as a result. Topically, the lamentations of the speaker may be taken literally (i.e., as the words of vassal without a liege), but deeper consideration of the work reveals the emptiness of life for a Christian soul without a  redemptor God. An excellent example of Anglo-Saxon verse, it is nevertheless a piece that the Reader should avoid after receiving bad news, separating from a significant other, or losing a beloved pet.
  4. Old English characters in proper names have been retained in this article. For those unfamiliar with Old English, here are a few items of note:
    • The Germanic rune character "æ" is a digraph for "ae" in ligature form. The name of the rune is æsc (pronounced "ash") and represents the vowel sound found in "cat" and "apple." The ligature appears occasionally today in Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, though where it was used in Anglo-Frisian, it was frequently dipicted in digraph form only (i.e., "ae").
    • The Germanic rune character "ð" is called "eth" and represents the hard "th" sound as in the words "the" and "then" (as opposed to "þ," or "thorn," which represents the soft "th" sound as in "hearth" or "thorough"). It is still used in Icelandic, though it does not appear at all in modern English writing.
    • The "g" is typically pronounced as a modern "y." Thus, the Geats (of whom Beowulf was king) were pronounced "Yeats."

Works Cited

  • Airflow Design. "The Battle of Maldon." The Battle of Maldon 991 AD. (1998).
  • David, Alfred and E. Talbot Donaldson. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Fifth Edition. Ontario: Penguin Books, 1986. [ISBN: 0-393-95469-2, 0-393-95476-5 (pbk.)]
  • Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Fifth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. [ISBN: 0-19-866130-4]
  • Lancashire, Ian. "Beowulf.". Representative Poetry Online. (28 August 2002).
  • Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo. The Origins and Development of the English Language. Third Edition. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. [ISBN: 0-15-567608-3]
  • Thompson, H.J. Carol. "Yggdrasil, World Ash Tree." Earth Dance. (2001).
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics. London: HarperCollins, 1997. [ISBN 0-261-10263-X (pbk.)]

Appendix A: Kennings from Anglo-Saxon Literature

The kennings below are examples found in The Battle of Maldon and The Wanderer.

Ash-spear: A spear made from ash wood (spears were common Northman weapons, as they were simple to fashion, relatively inexpensive, and easy to wield. In Nordic mythology, Yggdrisil, the world tree, was an ash (though some legends describe it as an oak); wielding an ash-spear would connote the marriage of the mundane with the supernatural and clearly have significance in terms of strength and power)

Battle-leader: A thane; a commander of warriors

Battle-line: A formation of warriors

Battle-play: Warfare, combat

Battle-rush: A charge to attack

Bridge-defenders: Guards of any strategic crossing

Bright-edged: A blade finely wrought and quite sharp

Dwelling-place: House, home, or mead-hall

Earth-pit: A grave

Earth-walker: An itinerant or exile; a homeless person

Feasting-seat: A seat at a thane's table (q.v., "mead-hall," below)

File-hard:Describes a sharpened weapon point (this implies a metal edge and not a fire-hardened wooden point, suggesting some degree of wealth in warfare)

Frost-fall: A covering of snow or ice

Fully-fixed: Preordained, pre-destined

Gold-friend: Dear companion, or adventuring comrade with whomone seeks treasure or booty

Gold-hilted: A fine or expensive weapon (like "bright-edged," above, this implies an above-average arm)

Grim-ground: Forged with a sombre purpose

Hall-floor: A safe home and hearth

Hall-warriors: A thane's houseguard or personal bodyguard

Heart-case: One's heart of hearts; the location of one's innermost thoughts and emotions

Hearth-companion: Member of one's household, or fellow retainer of a common thane

Hoard-case:Treasure chest or storage for valuables (in The Wanderer, this refers to the area of the protagonist's mind wherein is kept his inner-most thoughts (q.v., "heart-case," above))

Hot-hearted: Rash, passionate

Life-house: A man's chest, specifically his heart

Mail-shirt: Chain mail armour covering the torso

Mead-hall: A thane's common room, where much feasting and revelry occurs

Middle-earth: The world (in Nordic mythology, the universe was divided into three partitions: Asgard, representing the heavens or realm of the gods at the top; Niflheim, representing the underworld at the bottom; and Midgard, representing the physical world of mortals in between)

Night-shadow: The darkness of night, with the implication of a sinister aspect that light and daytime dispels

Ring-giver: A retainer's thane, who might give loyal warriors valuable rings as a sign of favour or reward

Sea-wanderers: Ocean-faring explorers or raiders

Shield-wall: A line of defenders

Sure-minded: Alternately stubborn or full of conviction

Slaughter-bed: The spot on a battlefield where a warrior falls

Slaughter-place: A battlefield

Slaughter-shaft: A shafted weapon that has killed a warrior; an arrow or spear

Slaughter-wolves: Highly aggressive attackers

Southern-made: In The Battle of Maldon, the Northmen are known to prefer weapons and armour made in England or France (hence "southern-made"); this kenning may be altered to suit the geography of individual campaigns

Spear-assault: An attack or raid

Spear-bearer: A thane's retainer

Treasure-giver: A thane who pays his warriors in plundered reasure or spoils of battle

War-chief: A thane; a commander of warriors

War-gear: Weapons and armour

War-hard: Experienced in combat

War-hedge: A defensive formation

War-play: Warfare, combat

War-slaughter: Battle carnage, casualties of battle

Winter-sad: Bitterly sorrowful and full of dispair, with no hope for joy; the death of happiness

Worldly-prosperous: Blessed with material wealth; wealthy

Appendix B: Kennings We Created

Frost-worn: A rugged northern warrior

Heart-pierced: Dead of wounds sustained in combat

Honey-addled: Drunk from mead

Marriage-bed-bounty: The child borne of a wedding's connsumation

Sea-weary: Recuperating after a season of raiding

Song-lore: A saga or history presented in musical form

Tale-bearer: A skald (this has a precedent in Nordic mythology in the form of Ratatosk, who was known as the Squirrel Tale-bearer, who constantly skittered up and down the tree Yggdrasil to taunt both the dragon/serpent Nidhoggr at the bottom and the wise, unnamed eagle who perches at the top. As Ratatosk represents strife, this kenning may have negative connotations for Northman bards

Thatch-warmed: A farmer or homesteader dwelling in a comfortable longhouse; a wealthy labourer

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