The Trumpet and the Wolf: Noises of Battle in Old English Poetry


Descriptions of battle in Old English poetry frequently refer to noise: clattering weapons, howling beasts, and general clamor. Noises are particularly prominent in the type-scenes of the approach to battle and the beasts of battle, and they help evoke the psychological dimension of fighting, especially the mounting excitement and terror before the clash of armies. Further, beast-cries are often depicted as song; this is heavily ironic, but it also refers self-reflexively to the role of the poet. In Exodus a contrast between trumpets and wolves articulates the drama of the Israelites’ struggle of faith. Trumpets are associated with courage, initiative, and communication, wolf-song with terror, paralysis, and loss of speech. The noisiness of the poem also helps to highlight, however, the poet’s mastery of a complex allegory. An exploration of battle noises enables us to relate Old English poetry to Elaine Scarry’s comments on language and war.

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