We recently read the Battle of Maldon in my Medieval Literature class. It’s essentially a narrative of a battle between heathen Viking invaders and the Christian Englishmen, resulting in the defeat of the English and tribute – “danegeld” – being paid to the Norsemen.

What people find interesting about the poem is the description of the main character. It portrays Beorhtnoth, the English thane, as a courageous, pious man, who is ‘tricked’ by the Danes into letting them cross a bridge, essentially giving up a defensible position and making it inevitable the Danes would win. By ‘tricked’, I mean the Danes asked him if they could cross and he said yes.

The poem is ambiguous as to whether this was a wrong action or not – the word used to describe his character at that point is “ofermod”. There are no other examples of “ofermod” in Old English, so we just don’t know what it means. It is literally “over-courage”, “over-heart”; but does this mean he has too much courage, i.e. is foolhardy, or that he has an impressive amount of courage, a good thing? No one knows. People read it different ways. (Incidentally, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son”, about the aftermath of this battle, that addresses the ambiguity in question. It’s good, go read it.)

There’s a similar disagreement about the poem “The Windhover”, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom I’m studying for Junior Poet). The word is “buckle”. Does it mean that the thing buckling is collapsing? That it is being bound together, as in buckling a belt? Does it mean “buckle” as in “buckler”, a type of shield? No one knows, and which it is makes a huge difference in how the poem is read.

I’m not sure what to think of ambiguities like that. They are certainly interesting, and make possible multiple interpretations. To that extent, I like them.

But this might be just because I don’t like having a work of literature be too “preachy”, and having ambiguity makes it less preachy – but really, ambiguity only makes it seem less preachy, it doesn’t change the actual meaning of the poem, assuming there is one. After all, it seems like the poet himself knew what the poem ought to have meant, but that we cannot, which is immeasurably frustrating, and implies the poet failed somehow. Especially when which it is doesn’t determine just some nuance of meaning, but how to read the entire poem.

Which is it? Is ambiguity in literature desirable? If so, to what extent? This is a question I haven’t been thinking about for as long as I probably should have been, and I don’t really have an answer formulated yet. I have a gut reaction against books that try to preach a certain moral, and try to avoid doing so in my own stories, but then again most of my favorite books do have messages they’re trying to convey, and I don’t fault them for it. What’s going on here?


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