You’ve probably heard of Sir Walter Scott, arguably one of the two or three most famous Scottish poets, and author of Ivanhoe, The Lady of the Lake, and many poems about Scotland, Britain, and their history. Scott was a lawyer, judge, and administrator, and his literature, including novels, short stories, plays, and poetry, often reflected on themes of patriotism and the history of Scotland and Britain.
You might not understand his works as well if you’re completely unfamiliar with that history, so here’s a primer on the Anglo-Saxons and why a Scot would write a song about them.
The Roman Empire began its conquest of the island of Great Britain around 43 CE, though they had already been taking serious steps toward occupation for decades at that point. They ruled groups of indigenous peoples who were Celtic, Pictish, and Gaelic in origin, among others.
The invaders left around 410 CE. Well, that set of invaders left, anyway. The legend of Britain’s founding begins with another invasion, that of the Angles and the Saxons from the 5th Century to the 7th Century.
Among the legends of the Anglo-Saxons is the story of Hengist and Horsa, legendary brothers who led some of those first invasions of the Germanic peoples onto the British Isle. According to the Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and other historical sources, these two men came to the island to aid the Britons in defeating their enemies, particularly the Picts. But as more and more of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (another Germanic tribe) came to Britain to aid in the cause, the more comfortable they became in the lands themselves. Eventually, they fought the native Britons, and won. Horsa died in battle against the Britons, but Hengist was said to have become the first King of Kent.
Each man’s name has an etymological connection to the word “horse”; the brothers are said to have been descended from Woden/Odin, famously associated with horses. There are arguments both for and against these men being actual historical figures.
Sir Walter Scott, in “Saxon War Song,” is encouraging his readers to embrace their Anglo-Saxon ancestors. The “white dragon” is an ancient symbol of the Anglo-Saxons, and Hengist and Horsa brought their cultural traditions to Britain, from their strength at arms to their mythology and style of poetry – Beowulf, after all, is a British poem in the Anglo-Saxon language written about legendary events in Denmark and Sweden.
Whether the poem is inspirational, of course, depends on the reader’s familiarity with Hengist, Valhalla, and the white dragon, and their love for their Anglo-Saxon cultural history. Perhaps you’ll find yourself inspired, or be reminded of patriotic poetry from other cultural traditions. In any case, enjoy.
Whet the bright steel,
Sons of the White Dragon!
Kindle the torch,
Daughter of Hengist!
The steel glimmers not for the carving of the banquet,
It is hard, broad, and sharply pointed;
The torch goeth not to the bridal chamber,
It steams and glitters blue with sulphur.
Whet the steel, the raven croaks!
Light the torch, Zernebock is yelling!
Whet the steel, sons of the Dragon!
Kindle the torch, daughter of Hengist!
The black cloud is low over the thane’s castle
The eagle screams – he rides on its bosom.
Scream not, grey rider of the sable cloud,
Thy banquet is prepared!
The maidens of Valhalla look forth,
The race of Hengist will send them guests.
Shake your black tresses, maidens of Valhalla!
And strike your loud timbrels for joy!
Many a haughty step bends to your halls,
Many a helmed head.
Dark sits the evening upon the thanes castle,
The black clouds gather round;
Soon shall they be red as the blood of the valiant!
The destroyer of forests shall shake his red crest against them.
He, the bright consumer of palaces,
Broad waves he his blazing banner,
Red, wide and dusky,
Over the strife of the valiant:
His joy is in the clashing swords and broken bucklers;
He loves to lick the hissing blood as it bursts warm from the wound!
All must perish!
The sword cleaveth the helmet;
The strong armour is pierced by the lance;
Fire devoureth the dwelling of princes,
Engines break down the fences of the battle.
All must perish!
The race of Hengist is gone –
The name of Horsa is no more!
Shrink not then from your doom, sons of the sword!
Let your blades drink blood like wine;
Feast ye in the banquet of slaughter,
By the light of the blazing halls!
Strong be your swords while your blood is warm,
And spare neither for pity nor fear,
For vengeance hath but an hour;
Strong hate itself shall expire
I also must perish.