Love and War In For Whom The Bell Tolls

For Whom The Bell Tolls is the novel that was supposed to win Ernest Hemingway his first Pulitzer Prize in 1941. However, like Sinclair Lewis before him, Hemingway was denied the prize by the President of Columbia University. As the story goes, the 1941 Novel Jury recommended several books for the Pulitzer Prize including, but not primarily, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Upon receiving the Jury’s recommendations the Pulitzer Advisory Board favored the critic’s choice For Whom The Bell Tolls. However, before the Board could complete a vote on the matter they were blocked by one man: the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Butler Murray. He was ex-officio Chairman of the Pulitzer Advisory Board and he objected to the ‘lascivious’ content in the novel (Sound familiar? Nicholas Butler Murray also blocked the Pulitzer Prize from being bestowed upon Sinclair Lewis in 1921 for his novel Main Street. Instead, the 1921 prize was awarded to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence).

Why did no member of the Pulitzer Advisory Board stand up to Nicholas Butler Murray? How was he able to railroad the whole process? His story is worth mentioning as he was a fascinating American figure. Nicholas Butler Murray was viewed as something of an autocratic ruler at Columbia University, often wantonly dismissing staff and faculty, prohibiting entry for Jewish students, in a word – he ruled Columbia with an iron first, and yet he was also a respected American statesman. He was the former running mate of William Howard Taft in the Presidential election of 1912. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 along with Jane Addams, for his efforts as President of the Carnegie Endowment For International for Peace. He helped to negotiate peace in Europe using his elite relationships with leaders like Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nicholas Butler Murray was also a popular cultural figure. Each year The New York Times printed his annual Christmas Greeting to the nation. He is recognized today as the longest serving President of Columbia University (43 years), a tenure which first began with his role as Interim President in 1901 before he was officially elected President of Columbia, serving from 1902-1945. So when Nicholas Butler Murray stood in the doorway of the Pulitzer proceedings refusing to move or relent on the Hemingway question while shouting “I hope you will reconsider before you ask the university to be associated with an award for a work of this nature!” -no one dared to stand against him. The full details of the confrontation were later brought to light in 1962 by Arthur Krock, a New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Board member at the time. As a consequence of the fight, no novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1941.

That year, the Novel Jury welcomed a newcomer: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, to replace Robert M. Lovett from the previous year. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is perhaps best known for bringing the Montessori School system to the United States, but she also achieved other important cultural milestones. She was praised by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the most influential women in America. Alongside Fisher, two veteran Novel Jurists also reprised their roles on the Jury in 1941: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Literature Professor at Columbia University), and Joseph W. Krutch (Literature Professor at Columbia University and naturalist writer). For the Pulitzer Prize the trio also considered several other novels aside from For Whom The Bell Tolls including The Trees by Joseph Conrad, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The Jury apparently reluctantly favored The Trees by Joseph Conrad before the Pulitzer Board unilaterally selected For Whom The Bell Tolls until Nicholas Butler Murray blocked its nomination.

Of course, despite being robbed the first time, Hemingway later won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for The Old Man And The Sea (feel free to read my reflections on The Old Man and the Sea here).


For Whom The Bell Tolls is as tense a novel as it is tender. It is the story of love and war -a soldier’s duty contrasted with a lover’s embrace. The book takes us covertly behind enemy lines during the destructive Spanish Civil War of the 1930s (a war which lasted from 1936-1939). The book spans approximately four days, and within that narrow timeframe a lifetime occurs: we gain a profound and complex glimpse into the nature of heroism and cowardice among ordinary people. Amidst the chaos of war and the looming specter of death, For Whom The Bell Tolls also pulls back the curtain on a budding romance between an American soldier and an innocent Spanish girl.

For context, during the Spanish Civil War, battle lines were drawn between a coalition of conservatives, nationalists, and Catholics, led by the military dictator Francisco Franco; and on the other side, a loose-knit federation of republicans, liberals, communists, and anarchists. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported Franco, while Soviet Russia and Mexico supported the communists, but the United States, England, and France maintained a public stance of neutrality. After years of violence in every major Spanish city, the Spanish Civil War was eventually brought to an end in 1939 with the fascists taking over the country under Francisco Franco. During the war writers like George Orwell pleaded with the West to support the republicans against the fascists (see Homage To Catalonia). The war was later dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for World War II by Claude Bowers, U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

In the novel, Hemingway introduces us to Robert Jordan, a Montana-native and Spanish language professor. Robert Jordan has unfortunately found himself in the midst of the Spanish Civil War while on leave in Spain during the outbreak of the war. He is a volunteer in the International Brigades (a international coalition of fighters organized by communists). During this time Robert Jordan has become an experienced soldier and dynamiter. He is tasked with destroying a key strategic bridge inn order to block supplies and munitions from reaching the fascists through the Sierra de Guadarrama. The order comes from Golz, a Soviet officer.

En route to complete his mission, Robert Jordan encounters an old man named Anselmo who takes Robert Jordan high up into the mountains outside Segovia in central Spain (north of Madrid) where a band of guerrilla warriors is hiding out in a cave from the fascists below. While there, Robert Jordan meets Pablo, a jaded rebel who once led the revolt against fascism but now spends his time ignobly drinking wine and sarcastically deriding the war. He also meets Pablo’s wife, Pilar, a strong-willed woman who serves as the de facto leader of the group in Pablo’s abdication (“Pilar” was a nickname for Hemingway’s third wife, Pauline, and also the name of his fishing boat); a gypsy named Rafael; and several other soldiers like Agustín, El Sordo, Fernando, Andrés, Eladio, Primitivo, and Joaquín. The group exists there by a “miracle” according to El Sordo. The fascists are unaware of their presence. The group quickly grows accustomed to Robert Jordan and they call him “Inglés” or simply “Roberto” (the whole novel is rife with Spanish idioms, including edited obscenities). However, the people in the cave are strange and unfamiliar. All throughout his days in the cave the reader asks: can Robert Jordan really trust these guerrilla fighters? How can we be certain they are not going to sabotage the mission?

The most important character Robert Jordan meets in the cave is María, a young Spanish girl whose town was ravaged by the fascists. She taken alive by the fascists -her hair was hacked off and she was raped, but she was then rescued and cared for by Pilar. Robert Jordan and María quickly strike up a romance, and Pilar essentially gives María to Robert Jordan as his lover with the promise of marriage. Robert Jordan calls María his little “rabbit” and they spend most evenings together in Robert Jordan’s sleeping bag just outside the cave.

While introducing us to the tenderness of Robert Jordan’s new love, the first half of the novel also delivers an extraordinarily tense series of moments. The impending mission to destroy the bridge plagues the reader’s mind. Will the weather be good? Will the fascists retaliate? Will they find the cave before the bridge can be blown? Will Golz call off the mission? Who will die? Who will live? Filled with hope and worry, Robert Jordan hides out with the rebels in the mountains while trying to keep a low profile, careful about what information he reveals. At the same time, skepticism grows regarding Pablo’s loyalties, and Robert Jordan places his faith in Pilar.

Suddenly, Robert Jordan is surprised one morning when an unsuspecting fascist patrolman stumbles onto his outdoor sleeping bag. Robert Jordan quickly leaps up and kills the patrolman. Then a skirmish breaks out across the mountain killing El Sordo’s entire band of fighters. Robert Jordan and the remaining fighters wait a day, and then assault the bridge (undeterred by a momentary lapse of judgment from Pablo when he steals some of Robert Jordan’s explosive equipment in the night, casting it into a ravine. Pablo eventually rejoins the fight in an effort to redeem himself). As the group approaches the bridge, they quietly kill the fascist sentries. Robert Jordan and the old man Anselmo then successfully wire, detonate, and destroy the bridge, but the explosion kills Anselmo along with several others in the process. The remaining guerrillas flee back up into the mountains having completed their mission.

“Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond” (312-313 on the last moments of Sordo’s life during his last stand against advancing fascists before he is killed in a plane raid).

For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the true account of war far greater than mere fact or history: it presents the experience of a soldier in all its complexity. Robert Jordan is a multi-faceted man: he is anxious, confident, distrusting, steadfast, competent, sorrowful, determined, and yet friendly. He is both a lover and a fighter who experiences the great depths of love amidst the heart-pounding threat of war.

“You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in the Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at Leon and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight” (235, on the experience of war).

The question of death, namely what is a good and noble death, also looms large over the novel. Robert Jordan’s father had committed suicide, an act which he considers cowardly. He occasionally reflects on his troubled father throughout the novel. Robert Jordan recalls the story of a compatriot who requested he be shot instead of falling into the hands of the fascists. Instead, Robert Jordan values a man who ends his life fighting without surrender. And Robert Jordan is also contrasted with other characters in the novel, particularly Pablo, who has become cowardly and all-too-comfortable in his hidden cave while drunk in a bowl of wine. Sadly, Pablo’s fear of death has overcome his desire for virtue or honor, and even his own wife does not respect him. In contrast, El Sordo dies bravely in battle. In the end, we are led to believe Robert Jordan dies a good death, as well. Perhaps the most striking moment that discusses a noble versus ignoble death occurs when Pilar recounts the brutal killings of fascists in her town square. Some people go to their death bravely and without fear, while others are weak and cower before the crowd of people.

“‘If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing…'” (106, Pilar sharing a horrific story of anti-fascists, including Pablo, who assassinate sympathetic townsfolk with the fascist cause, one by one. Some die nobly and willingly, while others die in disgrace and dishonor. It is a jarring but instructive scene).

In the end, Robert Jordan ends his life as an honorable man. After blowing up the bridge, and while running back into the mountains, Robert Jordan’s leg is horribly broken in an explosion. He is dragged up to safety by the others but he simply cannot carry on. Knowing his fate, he calmly develops a plan. He says goodbye to his lover, María, and tells Pablo, Pilar, and the others to press on without him. Hemingway dramatically leaves us with this scene in the end: a mortally wounded Robert Jordan waiting beside a tree, feeling his heartbeat against the pine needles on the forest floor, while a fascist cavalry unit turns the corner and Robert Jordan prepares to open fire.

“I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life” (467).


Ernest Hemingway was a lifelong lover of Spain, particularly the encierro in Pamplona. He was a supporter of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (the anti-fascists) -he served as Chair of the Ambulance Committee for the Medical Bureau of the American Friends of Spanish Democracy. He also publicly supported the Spanish Republic in 1937 when he produced an hour-long pseudo-documentary movie The Spanish Earth together with Jörg Ivens and John Dos Passos (read my review of the film here). Hemingway wrote the script and narrated the film (Orson Welles was originally slated too narrate the film). A beautiful technicolor film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls was released in 1943 (read my review of the film here). Hemingway was also a war correspondent reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Association (NANA) between 1937-1938. He left Spain for the last time in 1938 and wrote a series of short stories about the Spanish Civil War before setting himself up at the Hotel Sevilla Biltmore in Havana where he began writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. His writing regimen began at 8:30am and continued until 2pm or 3pm, the same practice he had established when writing A Farewell to Arms.

After traveling in Cuba and Montana, he searched for a title for the novel, first turning to the Bible and Shakespeare, before discovering John Donne’s poem “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in the Oxford Book of English Verse:

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a
Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor
of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death
diminishes me me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

The allusion to John Donne’s poem, which was originally published in 1624 from his presumed deathbed, points us to themes of isolation, death, and the need to belong. The Spanish Civil War offers Robert Jordan the chance to find fraternity and purpose in fighting the threat of fascism. If there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends, then Robert Jordan finds his deepest love on the battlefield of central Spain. His life is an important piece of an intricate puzzle in a worldwide chain of being. The war in Spain is not an island, but rather a part of a broader global conflict set to explode with World War II. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, the idea of war comes to light as a harsh teacher, a bearer of unforgiving truth, a life-affirming cause of brotherhood and meaning in a meaningless world. Love and death have the power to unveil the hidden character of modern man, by testing his prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. War reveals to us the grandeur and also the limits of mankind.


About Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) led a fascinating and storied life. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a small town outside Chicago. He cut his teeth writing as a journalist for the Kansas City Star in 1917. There, he built his signature writing and editing style: concise, direct, and honest sentences that tell the truth above all else.

Hemingway posing for the original dust jacket of For Whom The Bell Tolls

During the outbreak of World War I, Hemingway became a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front but was wounded and sent home. He married his first wife Hadley Richardson and moved to Paris where he joined a circle of post-war artists and critics: Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and others. In Paris, Hemingway began writing his first collections of poetry and short stories. In 1926, he published his first modernist classic, The Sun Also Rises, a reflection of his years as an expat in France and Spain.

In the late 1920s, Hemingway returned to the United States and published his World War I novel, A Farewell To Arms. He had an affair and divorced his first wife to marry Pauline “Fife” Pfeiffer. He then moved to Key West and Cuba. While traveling widely throughout the world, he wrote books about bullfighting (Death In The Afternoon) and an account of big game hunting in Africa (The Green Hills of Africa). Hemingway had another affair and he left his wife for another woman -he remarried a third time, this time to Martha Gellhorn (he dedicated For Whom The Bell Tolls to Martha Gellhorn).

In the 1930s, Hemingway became an international reporter on the Spanish Civil War, which eventually spawned For Whom The Bell Tolls, and with the growing turmoil in Europe, he hand-delivered the novel manuscript to his publisher Max Perkins at Scribner’s in New York in July 1940 (the book would later be praised by two adversaries and American statesmen: John McCain and Barack Obama). Hemingway then hunted U-Boats in the Caribbean and reported on the European front in World War II. He remarried for the fourth and final time to Mary Welsh who remained with him until his death. In 1952 he wrote The Old Man And The Sea. Shortly thereafter, he won the Pulitzer in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in 1954. At the end of his life, Hemingway’s mental health had deteriorated, particularly after he received electroshock treatment. He killed himself by a self-inflicted shotgun blast in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961 -the same way his father had also died (and the way Robert Jordan’s father died in For Whom The Bell Tolls).

For my full notes on Ernest Hemingway’s life, click here.

To read my reflections upon reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom The Bell Tolls. New York, Scribner, 2003.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

The Sicilian Expedition: Alcibiades and Nicias in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War (Books VI-VII)

Thucydides claims the Peloponnesian War is the greatest event or movement in human history, and the most important part of this great war takes place in Books VI-VII: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition.

The Sicilian Expedition represents the turning point in the war. Thucydides begins to explain the expedition by offering a history of the origins of Sicily and its people. He continues by discussing the current zeitgeist in Athens. A rising and powerful love of Athens or a fervent patriotism arises among the Athenians. The old, middle-aged, and young citizens all see an easy occupation of Sicily that will yield great riches and power (i.e. the old and young, rich and poor are all united in support of the expedition as is necessary for an empire), while the skeptics are forced into silence for fear of being unpatriotic.

Thucydides offers two contrasting views on the Sicilian proposition: Nicias, the sober-minded Athenian general (or strategos) who is fervently opposed to interventionism. Nicias was the voice for moderation in Athens. Nicias had negotiated the aptly-named Peace of Nicias previously in 421 BC which paused the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta until the Athenian Sicilian Expedition 421 BC.

In contrast to Nicias’s moderation, Thucydides also shows us Alcibiades, the demagogic follower of Socrates and bombastic son of the old Athenian aristocracy, who successfully takes up the mantel of Pericles. Alcibiades rouses the passions of the Athenian public by claiming an either/or situation with regard to Sicily. The choice is between conquering or being conquered, though the idea that Athens is facing imminent conquest is absurd. Alcibiades is a proponent of aggressive expansionism and, in the end, he wins the day and leads the expedition to Sicily. Consider the way Thucydides describes the general mood of the Athenians regarding the invasion of Sicily:

“Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund to pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet” (6.24).

According to Thucydides, there is a kind of erotic love for conquest that grips the people of Athens, and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as Madison would have called it, takes hold. However, this eroticism takes different forms depending upon age and station: the older men thought their army was so powerful it could not possibly be defeated, those in the prime of their lives were longing for adventure (new things, ‘foreign sights and spectacles’), and the common people and soldiery were hungry for riches and security. In war, each group sees their own deprivation as an opportunity: strength, adventure, and riches, respectively.

At any rate, as happens with the superstitions of crowds, on the eve of the Sicilian Expedition all the stone statues of Hermes, the “Hermae,” are mutilated throughout the city of Athens. And rumors surface about drunken parties in private homes where the Mysteries of profaned (for reference see Socrates in Plato’s Symposium). Immediately, Alcibiades is blamed and it bears a foreboding sign for the expedition, while the enemies of Alcibiades hope to elevate the rule of the People, rather than leaders like Pericles and Alcibiades. These leaders win the moment and Alcibiades is brought to trial but he flees in exile to Sparta -his allegiances now in question, Alcibiades defects to the enemy. Meanwhile, the Sicilian Expedition ends in disaster as the Athenian invasion fails to claim ground, and all the retreating Athenians are slaughtered in Syracuse.

Later, Thucydides makes note of the foremost cause of ruin for the Athenian army:

“Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium [a harbor port near Syracuse where the Athenians retreated], even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; besides the general impression of dismay and discouragement produced upon the army” (7.24).

In response, Athens votes to send a massive force of reinforcements led by the general Demosthenes, not be confused with the great Athenian orator and speechwriter, but the Athenian armies become separated, decimated, enslaved, starved, and both Demosthenes and Nicias are executed. A few Athenian prisoners escape to deliver the dismal news back home in Athens.

Timeline of Events in the Peloponnesian War:

  • 6th-5th Centuries BC: The Peloponnesian League is created and led by Sparta over the surrounding Peloponnesus: Corinth, Elis, Tegea, and others. Also the Delian League was created under the leadership of Athens.

  • 435 BC: The city of Epidamnus, a colony of Corcyra located right at the entrance to the Ionic Gulf, undergoes an internal revolt and requests help from Corcyra which is denied so they request help from soft rival to Corcyra, Corinth. It causes a proxy war between Corinth and Corcyra, with Corcyra winning back its colony. In response Corinth begins building up a vast navy.

  • 433 BC: Both Corinth and Corcyra call upon Athens, a fellow member of the Delian League, for aid. After both making their cases, Athens votes with an eye toward war with the Peloponnesus by siding with Corcyra. However, when both sides do battle, Corinth wins the day so they send reinforcements and the escalation calls upon the Peloponnesian League to break the standing peace treaty.

  • 432 BC: Athens fortifies its new ally Corcyra against Corinthian forces at Potidaea, as well. The Siege of Potidaea brings an end to Sparta’s inaction, with many denouncing Athens. Athens sent a fleet to Potidaea after Sparta and allies encouraged a revolt on the island in response to Athenian support for Corcyra against Corinth. Sparta declares Athens to be the aggressor and declares war on Athens.

    The powerful orator Pericles rises in Athens who is vehemently opposed to any conciliation with Sparta, in contrast to Archidamus King of Sparta, who urges caution, tact, and discipline. Sparta peddles a rumor that Athens is cursed by the goddess (thus subtly implicating Pericles as accursed). Athens, under Pericles, rejects offers to allow the Hellenes to remain free.

  • 431 BC: War begins. Thebes attacks and defeats Plataea, with Athenian help for Plataea arriving too late. Sparta invades Attica. Athens sends a fleet to attack the Pelopponesus and draw troops off their country farms. Pericles delivers his famous “Funeral Oration Speech” in Winter 431 BC.

  • 430 BC: Again Sparta invades Athens and shortly thereafter a great plague falls upon the land “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” It began perhaps in Egypt or Ethiopia and infected Athens through the Piraeus. A rumor spreads that Sparta poisons the water of Athens. The plague brings lawlessness and mass death.

    Pericles “The First Citizen” of Athens delivers a more tempered speech in Summer defending himself and wishing the Athenians had heeded all of his advice and not capitulated in any way to Sparta.

    Athens conquers Potidaea. Sparta attacks Plataea.

  • 428 BC: Sparta invades Athens again, Lesbos revolts from Athens. Mytilene turns to Sparta for help but Athens votes to spare Mytilene against the advice of Cleon a zealot and war hawk.

  • 425 BC: The Athenians outmaneuver the Spartans at Pylos under the generalship of Demosthenes (not be confused with the great Athenian orator).

  • 422 BC: War hawks Cleon (Athens) and Brasidas (Sparta) battle to the death at the Athenian colony of Amphipolis.

  • 421 BC: After the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias is able to negotiate a peace – the Peace of Nicias which lasted six years.

  • 415 BC: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition is undertaken initially by Alcibiades who takes up the expansionist agenda from Pericles and Cleon, but the expedition ends in 413 BC in spectacular failure. Both leaders Nicias and Demosthenes are executed in the surrender at Syracuse.

  • 413 BC: In order to escape punishment in Athens, Alcibiades defects to Sparta and advises them on how to attack Athens. From here, Athens was beset by revolts, both internal and external by allies, as well as a troubling alliance between Persia and Sparta.

  • 407 BC: Alcibiades returns to Athens only to be exiled once again over questions of his loyalty.

  • 404 BC: Athens finally surrenders to Spartan general Lysander who defeated the Athenian navy and claimed the Dardanelles, a chief source of Athenian grain. Amidst death and starvation Athens surrenders. Sparta welcomes Athens into its network of allies but destroys Athens’s wall, navy, and riches.


For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

The Grapes of Wrath: An Epic Dust Bowl Tragedy

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth” (opening lines)

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s epic story of a Dust Bowl migrant family, celebrated its 80th anniversary this year. The novel was originally born out of a series of articles entitled ‘The Harvest Gypsies” published in the The San Francisco News, a former working-class Bay Area rag. The series was coupled with now-famous photographs from Dorothea Lange, including an often-cited photograph of a migrant woman in Nipomo, CA (today an elementary school in Lange’s name stands in Nipomo). Steinbeck was in his 30s at the time of writing “The Harvest Gypsies” articles.

The Grapes of Wrath is rife with crass, working-class dialogue and local color. It is, at once, an epic story of the American landscape, yet it is also a sentimental tragedy with overtly political themes. The Grapes of Wrath contains the seed of the illusory westward ramblings of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as well as the heart-wrenching call to action found in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It is, on the surface, a work of partisan advocacy for the ill-treated and overlooked American migrant family. The novel employs an unusual and experimental narrative technique: rather than continuing the linear story of the Joad family, every other chapter paints a broad picture of the era through a panoramic montage. The striking narrative device, borrowed from John Dos Passos’s “USA Trilogy,” offers the reader an oral history of the Dust Bowl using colloquialisms, sights, sounds, ordinary voices, and stream-of-consciousness imagery from the Dust Bowl migrant world. At his wife Carol’s suggestion, Steinbeck took the title for the novel from The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe: “Mine Eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord/ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…”

The Grapes of Wrath is dedicated to Steinbeck’s tutor and researcher Tom Collins (“To Tom, who lived it”). Tom Collins ran several migrant camps in California and he wrote about his work. Steinbeck used some of Collins’s primary source research materials in The Grapes of Wrath. The book was written over a five month period (June-October 1938). Shortly after publication, the novel was banned by several organizations, including the Associated Farmers of California, as well as the Soviet Union (ironically for appearing to show destitute Americans who could nevertheless purchase a car in the capitalist system). Some communities either banned or burned the book, meanwhile the FBI began surveilling John Steinbeck. Farming companies in Kern County, California were vocally opposed to Steinbeck’s portrayal of oppressive farmers and landowners in the novel. In August 1939, the Board of Supervisors of Kern County voted to ban The Grapes of Wrath from county libraries and schools. The controversy in Kern County divided laborers and landowners along political lines, and it eventually helped to create the so-called “Library Bill of Rights” to protect the rights of readers to borrow controversial books. Despite the controversy, some influential figures came to the defense of Steinbeck, including fellow Pulitzer-Prize winner Pearl S. Buck, as well as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The honor of being the best-selling book of 1940 brought with it an urgent demand for a movie. Producer Darryl Zanuck quickly acquired the rights to the story for 20th Century Fox and John Ford soon hastily put the film together in 1940. Despite it being somewhat rushed through production, The Grapes of Wrath is a wonderful film that has continued to be well-celebrated (read my review of the film here). Reportedly, Steinbeck loved Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad. Woody Guthrie later recorded his homage to Steinbeck in his musical defense of the Okies in “The Ballad of Tom Joad” song, and Bruce Springsteen wrote his own song to honor the Dust Bowl with “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (it was later covered in a funk-metal-hip-hop version by Rage Against The Machine).


Following the Civil War, vast numbers of veterans settled on farms along the great plains. Like rugged pioneers and homesteaders, they built up farms on the free land. These legions of farmers and their families – who were composed primarily of Irish, Scotch, English, and German people – became the owners and tenant farmers of Middle America.

In between 1934-1940 a significant and severe drought hit the plains. The drought, coupled with improper dry-farming practices and the introduction of new farming machinery, all caused unsafe quantities of dust to kick up. It forced thousands of families off their land. So the farmers were cast adrift. They migrated westward along the extensive two-lane highway of Route 66 (or “the mother road” as Steinbeck calls it). The road was dangerous and it took travelers through the desert all the way from the plains to the farmland of the California Central Valley. However, many migrants arrived only to find unfriendly landowners coupled with minimal job opportunities and the backdrop of the Great Depression. The newcomers were castigated as “Okies” since many came from Oklahoma, and they lived like squatters in “Hoovervilles” all over the Valley. The banks and landowners got right while the migrants lived in squalid poverty.

“The Bank – or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them” (pages 31-32)

“The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in the bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (page 33).

In the novel, the Joad family loses all their crops in the Dust Bowl and they default on their farm loans. Their farm is repossessed by the bank and they watch their future vanish into a dust cloud. The main character is Tom Joad, a recent parolee who served four years in prison for fighting and killing a man in self-defense. Tom hitchhikes his way home and comes across a fascinating character who plays a quiet but significant role in the novel -Jim Casy, a former preacher who now wrestles with his faith. The two men discover that the Joad family has vacated their home, and are now living at their uncle’s house while planning to head west to California. Members of the family have read advertisements of California that evoke the image of a land of milk and honey, filled with jobs, orchards, vineyards, sunshine and plentiful farmland. Despite being a parolee, Tom Joad decides he will join his family and cross state lines while risking further legal trouble.

A rough map of the Joad family’s travels from Salisaw, Oklahoma, south to Route 66 that took them West to the San Joaquin Valley in California.

The family sets out south from their hometown of Salisaw, Oklahoma: Tom Joad with his new companion, Jim Casy; along with Ma and Pa Joad, Grandpa and Grandma Joad; Tom Joad’s brothers Al, Noah, and Winfield; and Tom Joad’s sisters Ruthie and Rose of Sharon, who is pregnant, plus her new and young husband Connie Rivers. This whole crowd piles into the Joad family’s jalopy and heads down Route 66 toward California with a few meager dollars to their name.

Along the way, they encounter a variety of characters, while spending money sparingly, and both Grandpa and Grandma sadly pass away en route to a foreign land. They are buried unceremoniously along the roadside. Pa quickly grows dismayed at his own inability to provide for his family, so Ma becomes the de facto leader of the Joads. They pass through a series of tent camps amidst growing rumors of hellish conditions in California and no jobs. Some migrants decide to turn back.

“Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans, and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for the land that they took the land – stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarreled over them, those frantic hungry men; and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. They put up houses and barns, they turned the earth and planted crops. And these things were possession, and possession was ownership” (page 231, opening lines of Chapter 19).

“The Spring is beautiful in California. Valleys in which fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. Then the first tendrils of the grapes, swelling from the old gnarled vines, cascade down to cover the trunks. The full green hills are round and soft as breasts. And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants” (page 346, opening lines of Chapter 25).

The Joads cross into California after passing though miles of desert country, and they witness a vast open valley lined with beautiful rows of orchards. ‘Surely there must be jobs here!’ However their optimism quickly vanishes. The Joads bounce around through various migrant tent camps as police come to bully the ‘Okies’ -a pejorative term used to castigate the migrant workers from Oklahoma. In one incident, Joad gets into a squabble and he is forced into hiding while his friend, Jim Casy, takes responsibility for the fight and is hauled off. The Joads quickly learn that there are no jobs in California. There are too many workers, depressed wages, and nowhere to live. However, the Joads are out of money and are growing desperate. They are confused by the anger from wealthy landowners and law enforcement. Consider how the newcomers discuss the rumors of William Randolph Hearst:

“‘They’s a fella, newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres-‘”
Casey looked up quickly. ‘Million acres? What in the worl’ can he do with a million acres?’
‘I dunno. He jus’ got it. Runs a few cattle. Got guards ever’place to keep folks out. Rides aroun’ in a bullet-proof car. I seen pitchers of him. Fat, sof’ fella with little mean eyes an’ a mouth like a ass-hole. Scairt he’s gonna die. Got a million acres an’ scairt of dyin'”
(pg 206).

Shortly after arriving in California, the Joad family quickly disintegrates. Uncle John becomes something of a drunkard, Noah leaves the family to become a fisherman, Connie Rivers abandons his pregnant wife along with the rest of the family, and at the end of the story Rose of Sharon tragically gives birth to a stillborn baby. At one point, the Joads find a home in a government camp, safe from badgering police, however the jobs dry up and unfortunately the Joads are forced to move on. They find another camp that is less desirable with no hot water, a Depression-era “Hooverville.” Miraculously, Tom encounters Jim Casy again who has pursued the life of a union organizer, but Casy is quickly killed by an officer who accuses him of being a “red” (i.e. a communist) so Tom gets into a physical altercation. The fight forces Tom to also abandon the family.

“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange…In the sould of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Chapter 25, page 349).

In the end, Tom runs away in an effort to prevent his whole family from facing equal punishment if caught. The Joads head to another dusty camp to pick cotton amidst boxcars. Meanwhile, rain comes and forces the Joads out of their meager dwelling. They take shelter at higher ground in a nearby barn where a young boy lies with an old man dying of starvation. Rose of Sharon quietly lays down and feeds the man with her breast milk -a tragic symbol of the desperate need for sustenance and care, while Rose of Sharon “smiles mysteriously.”

“Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one… Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there” (page 419,


The 1940 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The Novel Jury of Jefferson B. Fletcher (Literature Professor at Columbia University), Joseph W. Krutch (Literature Professor at Columbia University and naturalist writer), and Robert M. Lovett (English Professor at the University of Chicago and Associate Editor of The New Republic) returned again. They unanimously selected Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with a few back-up selections: Escape by Ethel Vance, To the End of the World by Helen White, Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield, and Night Riders by Robert Penn Warren. The Pulitzer Advisory Board mostly agreed with the selection, excluding Walter M. Harrison of The Daily Oklahoman. He was concerned about the political consequences of migrant issues and the introduction of what appeared to be erotica. Robert Lincoln O’Brien of The Boston Herald echoed similar sentiments, citing criticisms from both The New York Times and William Randolph Hearst who objected to his portrayal in the book. In the end, the Steinbeck selection won out.


About John Steinbeck
John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born in Salinas, CA in 1902. He was a descendent of German-American immigrants. His father worked for Monterey county and his mother was a school teacher. The Steinbecks were Episcopalians and a young John Steinbeck grew up working on nearby sugar and beet ranches in the small rural community of Spreckels in the heart of the Salinas Valley -“The Salad Bowl of America.”

Steinbeck attended Stanford University but dropped out in 1925 without a degree. He moved to New York City and worked odd jobs while trying to make it as a successful writer. When that failed he returned to California where he worked as a tour guide in Lake Tahoe, CA. There he met his first wife Carol and started a failed business producing mannequins. When their money ran out six months later, Steinbeck and Carol moved back to Pacific Grove, CA into a cottage owned by Steinbeck’s parents -Steinbeck’s family provided the young couple with significant financial support. This much-needed cushion allowed John to continue writing through the Great Depression.

John Steinbeck in 1939

During the decade of the 1930s Steinbeck had a remarkable output of extraordinary books including Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939) a yearlong bestseller which also won the Pulitzer. During this period, he bought a boat and befriended a man named Ed Ricketts, a Monterey-based marine biologist turned philosopher. The two became close friends and took a number of fishing trips together. Ricketts became the inspiration for a character in Cannery Row (1945).

In the 1940s, Steinbeck divorced his wife Carol and moved to the East Coast. He was then remarried to Gwyn but this marriage soon ended in divorce, as well. Steinbeck became a World War II reporter for the New York Herald Tribune -the rag of the so-called “Rockefeller Republicans” or the upper-crust East Coast Republicans. In the course of his reporting he returned home with a number of shrapnel wounds as well as psychological damage. Meanwhile Ed Ricketts tragically died in an accident in 1948. Steinbeck returned to California to be with Ricketts shortly before his untimely death. Steinbeck spent the rest of that year in a deep depression having lost his friend and second wife. In 1950 Steinbeck was married for the third time to Elaine Scott, a Hollywood stage-hand. She divorced her first husband Zachary Scott only a week before her marriage to Steinbeck. The Steinbecks lived happily together in Manhattan until John Steinbeck’s death.

He continued to write in his later years, including notable nonfiction work such as war reporting, stories of fishing trips, a remarkable account of a trip to Soviet Russia, and a highly memorable travelogue while driving across the United States. He was also a reporter on the Vietnam War. He was later criticized as a “hawk” or a supporter of the war. In 1959, Steinbeck published his magnum opus, East of Eden (1959).

In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 1968 of heart disease and heart failure -he was a lifelong smoker. Steinbeck and his third wife are buried in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in the Salinas Valley. A famous museum now stands in Salinas and it is worth a visit for admirers of Steinbeck.


Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Classics, 2002.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Anglo-Saxon England, Part IV

Taking a step back for a moment, we return to the Viking pirates, the fearless thieves of the icy north who surprised much of Western Europe when their long-boats suddenly appeared out of the fog of the Dark Ages, sacking coastal towns, raiding churches, slaughtering and conquering thousands. At the time, the early Christian kingdoms of Western Europe were under two chief assaults: one from Arabic conquerors who invaded Spain and nearly claimed France (if not for Charles Martel “The Hammer” who was the grandfather of Charlemagne). And the other assault was from the Vikings. In England Alfred the Great had beaten back the invading Viking raiders from their near total conquest of the British isles. But who were these seafaring pirates from the north? Why did they leave their northern kingdoms in search of new lands?

The Vikings came westward of their own accord, under no pressure from the steppes of Asia unlike other westward migrating tribes. They quickly made their mark upon the world, rowing across great seas to Iceland, North America, European Russia, and even Constantinople, as well as Normandy. They laid siege upon the civilized world, including Paris, and they pillaged commercial hubs, even settling new cities such as the founding of Dublin.

The Viking soul was encapsulated in their long-ship, fiercely clad in dragon-headed shallow boats, capable of carrying ferocious and greedy pirates up the low lying rivers and streams of England. Their prize of choice was the gold of the church that lay strewn about Christendom largely in undefended coastal churches, abbeys, and monasteries. Their raids on coastal England were made infamous in the eighth century when they sacked Lindisfarne and plundered the church’s riches, killing many of the monks and selling the rest as slaves in the European markets. Eginhard, Charlemagne’s historian and biographer, writes that Viking raids on France were near constant. The 9th and 10th centuries was a terrifying epoch: the age of the Vikings.


By the time Cnut (“Canute”), Prince of Denmark, rose to power following the death of his father Sweyn Forkbeard in AD 1014, the Vikings already owned vast lands across the world. Cnut’s father, Sweyn, was the son of Harold Bluetooth who founded Denmark as a Christian kingdom. At the time, the Vikings possessed a vast seafaring empire that extended from northern Europe to North America, but Sweyn’s crowning achievement was the British isle. Following the second major Viking invasion of England, Cnut made his primary home and capital in England. He preferred the Anglo-Saxon way of life and he hoped to model his kingship upon Edgar and his enviable years of peace. For more than a century, the Vikings had now transformed themselves from pirates into settlers of England.

A medieval re-imaging of Cnut fighting Edmund Ironsides

With the decline and fall of the house of Wessex, coupled with the death of his father, Cnut initially returned home to Denmark, apparently lacking the will to claim England as his own. Before he departed English shores, however, Cnut returned the bodies of his captives, each one horribly mutilated -a dark event that foreshadowed things to come. Cnut returned the following year to England and he battled with Edmund “Ironsides” until a peace was achieved, dividing the two kingdoms north and south, but Edmund’s death shortly thereafter left open the question of the English crown.

Within this power vacuum, Cnut took the throne of England in AD 1016 and thus he became the most powerful monarch in Western Europe, second only to the Holy Roman Emperor. His empire extended from England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden through the important trade routes of the North Sea, the English Channel, and also the Baltic Sea. He quickly put to death Edmund’s brother Eadwig. Edmund’s children were hidden away in eastern Europe (Hungary) while Aethelred’s remaining children sought refuge at the court of Normandy. Cnut’s power was complete, but it was not a cultural revolution. Cnut allowed many existing nobles to live undisturbed and he supported the monasteries to continue as centers of learning. Like all great rulers, Cnut instituted a new code of laws for his kingdom, but the new code was largely based on existing English customs and Christian traditions. It was crafted with the help and support of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York.

A 14th century illustration of Cnut “The Great”

However, England was not to be left untouched for long. Across the Channel the vigorous and rigidly organized Normans were expanding their influence. The kingdom of Normandy was founded as a Viking settlement in the early 10th century and it rapidly grew into a feudal kingdom. The order of Normandy was predicated upon a class of aristocratic nobles who each held land in exchange for military service, and, in turn, these nobles extended sublets on their lands to inferior ranks. The Norman Dukes claimed ultimate control over their courts and property, as well as over the affairs of the churches and monasteries in their region. Between 1028-1035, Robert the Duke of Normandy turned his attention to a serious invasion of England, but his death temporarily suspended the project.

Meanwhile, Cnut had married the sister of Robert, Duke of Normandy, in a unique moment that united two rival kingdoms (Robert’s sister was also previously the wife of Aethelred “The Unready”). Her name was Emma -the bride of two kings of England- who also gave birth to two sons who became future kings of England. Cnut died in 1035 and with him went his imperial ambitions of a Viking England. Cnut was conferred the honorable burial rites of an Anglo-Saxon King -he was buried at Winchester Cathedral in the capital of West Saxony (“Wessex”). He had three sons, all of whom were both “boorish” and “ignorant” according to Winston Churchill. His two sons Harold “Harefoot” (born from his “temporary wife” Aelgifu) and Harthacnut (born from his legitimate wife Emma of Normandy) fought over the crown from the northern and the southern kingdoms. Both respective mothers also played an active role in the dispute between the two brothers. Per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harathcnut “never did anything worthy of a king while he reigned.”

At the same time, Alfred “the innocent prince” and Edward, both sons of Aethelred and Emma, were still exiled in Normandy. In 1036 Alfred hastened home under the auspices of visiting his again-widowed mother. Meanwhile, a powerful Wessex earl named Godwin, was gaining support among the Danish faction to claim the crown. He shrewdly took Alfred under his wing, promising him protection, and then sprang a trap on the young prince -Godwin’s men suddenly slaughtered Alfred’s attendants (some were sold for money, while others were beheaded, mutilated, and scalped). Godwin’s men then tied Alfred naked to a horse and blinded him. The poor young prince was henceforth relegated to a lowly life. He lived out the remainder of his short life in the monastery at Ely.

Godwin had thus solidified his power and left vacant the throne of England, but in times of great anarchy, as the situation in 11th century England clearly indicated, the people demanded a sense of stability, and no image was more stable than the sixth generation from the bloodline of Alfred the Great. Knowing this truism, Godwin strongly encouraged (some might say threatened) Aethelred and Emma’s other son, Edward, to return to England and become king. His only obligation was to meet Godwin’s demands, the first of which was preventing any Norman influence at his court. And so it was, in 1042 that Edward “The Confessor,” as he was later dubbed for his supposed piety, the great-great-great-grandson of Alfred the Great took the throne and ruled under the firm control of Godwin and his family.

According to tradition, Edward The Confessor was a “kindly, weak, chubby, albino” per Winston Churchill. He was raised at the court of the Normans, and was forced to wed the daughter of Godwin, though it was merely a political marriage. During his reign, Edward gradually allowed certain Norman customs to filter into the courts and the churches of England, at least as much as the Earl Godwin would allow. Meanwhile, Godwin had been supplanting the landed gentry with his own family ties in an effort to secure his power. This drew the ire of the Norman presence and in 1051 a crisis struck. The Norman faction successfully banished Godwin from England. Godwin fled with his son Harold (“Godwinson”) to Flanders where they raised an army and returned to England, demanding the succession of the throne. Edward was obliged to give it to them at the sword’s edge. Godwin died only seven months later, and for the next thirteen years Harold essentially served as the ruler of England, though Edward The Confessor still retained the title of king. Harold ruled freely despite opposition from his brother Tostig, the Anglo-Danish earls and the many Normans still living on the island who supported the court of Edward the Confessor.

Harold meeting Edward The Confessor as featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, a vast embroidery depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England

As time passed, Edward The Confessor’s many frailties were forgiven by the people because of his devout virtues (hence the moniker “The Confessor”). He lived out his last days much like a monk (Winston Churchill draws comparisons between Edward the Confessor and the latter Henry VI). However, all the vitality from the reign of Alfred The Great was now vanished from his royal house. All that remained of the fierce King Alfred was a sickly boy and his sister, alongside an aging sovereign. England was growing weak. The earls ruled their lands with complete impunity, the royal bureaucracy was a mess, coastal defenses were gradually neglected, but the church continued to grow in eminence.

In the middle of the 11th century Edward The Confessor began constructing a Romanesque abbey. It was built on the site near where a Benedictine monks once had a monastic church. The impressive abbey became known as Westminster Abbey. It was completed shortly before Edward’s death and he was buried in the Abbey one week after he died. His successor Harold was likely crowned in the Abbey, however the first known monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey was William The Conqueror.

Contemporary historians have instructed us that Edward The Confessor was effeminate and weak, but the legend of his piety, carefully crafted by the church, paints the picture of a quietly virtuous Christian king; and somewhere in the middle of these two portraits we receive the story of an aging monarch on his deathbed, whispering the prophecy of a coming apocalypse for England. Thus, in January of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kingship ended, the flame of Alfred The Great was extinguished upon the death of Edward The Confessor. In the years to come, Edward would be enshrined at Westminster as a center for pilgrimage (the shrine was constructed many years after his death) and even a cult arose in his name. The name “Edward The Confessor” would recall fond memories for both the Saxons, as well as the Normans, during times of duress, and as time went by, Edward became “Saint” Edward The Confessor, the patron saint of England until the English appropriated St. George during the Hundred Years War -a figure that Winston Churchill finds far more suitable to the island’s “needs, mood, and character” than Edward the Confessor.

“The figure of Edward the Confessor comes down to us faint, misty, frail. The medieval legend, carefully fostered by the Church, whose devoted servant he was, surpassed the man. The lights of Saxon England were going out, and in the gathering darkness a gentle, grey-beard prophet foretold the end. When on his death-bed Edward spoke of a time of evil that was coming upon the land his inspired muttering struck terror into the hearers… Thus on January 5, 1066, ended the line of the Saxon kings” (Winton Churchill 62-63).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Anglo-Saxon England, Part III

After the death of Alfred The Great, his bloodline would produce a series of warrior kings that were destined to conquer the Danes and dominate the British isle. The dream of a unified Aengla Land would fall to his son Edward “The Elder.” Edward continued his father’s uncompromising resistance to the Danes, and he gained ground in Northumbria. But not all Saxons were as willing to submit to the vast expansion of West Saxony, especially the unique culture of Northumbria, where the spirit of resistance to southern dominance would take hold, a legacy that is still with us today.

Shortly after Edward The Elder assumed the throne in AD 874 rebellion ensued. In the heat of a quarrel, Edward’s cousin, Ethelwald fled to the Danelaw territory and he roused the resentment of the Danes against his cousin. The rebellion was quickly quashed and a treaty was signed in AD 886 on the basis of Alfred’s previous treaty with the Danes. Again, the Danes broke the treaty in AD 910 but, once again, Edward The Elder prevented their ambitions.

Edward strengthened his power over Mercia when his sister married the Earl Ethelred of Mercia, thus she became known as the “Lady of the Mercians.” However, Ethelred died the following year in AD 911 and his widow, Ethelfleda, succeeded him. Together, brother and sister (Edward and Ethelfleda) conquered the remaining kingdoms of Aengla Land, subduing the Danes and unifying the land.

Edward “The Elder” ended his reign in peace and he passed his vast new kingdom in AD 924 to a third remarkable sovereign, Athelstan. He only reigned for six years, but his time on the throne was certainly not uneventful -he is often considered by some to be the first true king of a unified England. His new power as King of England was quickly tested. All the northern forces mustered against him -Celtic, Danish, and Norwegian forces along with the leadership of Constantine, king of the Scots, and Olaf of Dublin, coupled with Viking reinforcements. The battle occurred and in AD 927 and it was fierce. Ultimately, Athelstan won the day, but the Scots, the Celts, and the Danes resented him for years to come. The conflict was documented in the epic war poem for the Battle of Brunanburh found within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (at an unknown location). It was a decisive victory, leaving Athelstan king of the continent. Constantine retreated further north, and Olaf retreated Dublin.

Athelstan presents a book to St. Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria

Athelstan quickly modeled himself as a European monarch, marrying his three sisters to powerful continental families: one to the Carolingian king, Charles the Simple; one to the Capetian, Hugh the Great; and one to Otto the Saxon, a future Holy Roman Emperor. Athelstan was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund, a child of eighteen who was the son of Edward the Elder. The young king was quickly put to the test. He fought against a northern rebellion in the east Midlands. With the advent of each new West Saxon monarch came a rebellion from the north that was quickly put down.

For eighty years, five warrior kings Alfred, Edward, Athelstan, Edmund and Edred (also a son of Edward the Elder) fought and held off the invading Danes. However, this costly security also saw the birth of literacy and education throughout the realm. Both Latin and English were taught side by side, religion flourished as new churches were constructed, and the production of ornate golden books that were distributed widely (these books were greatly in demand across continental Europe). The Anglo-Saxons gave birth to English literature.

The illuminated manuscript of the Codex Aureus, filled with ornately decorated versions of the gospels, likely created in Canterbury in the mid-8th century

Following the assassination of Edmund in AD 932, came the short reign of the young and sickly king, Edred, who was promptly followed by his even younger teenage nephew, Eadwig, about whom legend recounts a story of him departing his own coronation ceremony with one, or perhaps two, young women for an evening of licentiousness. This was a foreboding sign of the decay of the House of Wessex. St. Dunstan, a Bishop at several abbeys including Gloucester, Worcester, London, and eventually Archbishop of Canterbury, caught the young king in the act and scolded him (legend holds the young king was in bed with his future wife and her mother). The act gained infamy throughout the noblemen. But Eadwig was a headstrong child and he furiously chased Dunstan, a trusted advisor to several English kings, straight out of England to Flanders. However, his exile would not be long. A revolt of noblemen, Mercians, and Northumbrians ended the reign of Eadwig, and instead instated Edgar “The Peaceful” in AD 959. As his moniker denotes, Edgar oversaw a largely peaceful era. Having won over the northerners, rebellion was quelled for the time being. He reinstated the authority of the Benedictines -the Bishop of Worcester, the Archbishop of York, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edgar was crowned at Bath in the magnificent Christian abbey alongside the ruins of Roman Britain, under the ecclesiastical mastery of St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. He swore a threefold oath: to the church of God and the Christian people in true peace, to forbid rapacity and iniquity, and to pursue justice mercifully and equitably. He was anointed and crowned amidst a singing choir, and he was given the sacred ring, sword, crown, scepter, and rod. It was the first documented coronation ceremony that spawned many similar ceremonies in the future, including Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on June 2nd, 1953.

The end of Edgar’s reign came with the catastrophic decline of authority and the end of the warrior kings of West Saxony (Wessex). In years to come, his kingship would be fondly remembered. Shortly after Edgar’s death, a conflict ensued between Edward “The Martyr,” a tumultuous young boy when he became king whose reign quickly ended when he was stabbed to death by compatriots of his step-brother Aethelred (some believe it was actually Aethelred’s mother, Edward’s step-mother who committed the deed). Next came the ill-fated rule of Aethelred “The Unready” (whose moniker literally means the “ill-counseled”). Winston Churchill calls him “a child, a weakling, a vacillator, a faithless, feckless creature” (56). He came to power in a culture of disapproving nobles -many of whom praised the innocence of young Edward who was murdered. Aethelred was forced to declare Edward a martyr. He was a most unwise and unlucky ruler.

When the Danes began invading again, Aethelred believed he could simply pay them off with Danegold. On St. Brice’s Day AD 1002, after a second attack and a corresponding bribe, Aethelred suddenly became paranoid of further Danish rebellions. He had convinced himself that a conspiracy was afoot -an uprising of Danes in the lands of Wessex. For years, the English forces had gathered many Danish mercenaries who stood among the English ranks. With this in mind, Aethelred tragically and shamefully ordered the killing of all Danes living peaceably on his lands. In the tumult of killings, the sister of Sweyn, King of the Danes and wife of a Viking leader, was killed. Sweyn vowed vengeance on Aethelred and his house. In AD 1013, Sweyn invaded England and gained the submission of much of the island, forcing Aethelred to flee to Normandy where he had family connections. England was in chaos.

A map of the British Isles in the 10th century

Surprisingly, Sweyn suddenly died in AD 1014, and his son Cnut returned to Denmark. The nobles reluctantly asked Aethelred to return to the throne from Normandy, and the end of his reign was marred by ongoing attacks from Cnut and his alliance with Norway. Aethelred’s son Edmund II “Ironsides” took the throne following his father’s death in AD 1016. He had spend the previous several years in open rebellion of his father, rousing the hopes of the hinterland. Edmund was a more skilled military tactician than his father, but his efforts were too little too late by the time he claimed the throne. The Danes had already pillaged much of England under Cnut. Amidst the fighting, Edmund Ironsides was able to broker a peace agreement, but he suddenly died after having ruled less than 1 year in 1016.

England was left in a fragile state, it was ripe for the plucking by the Danes.


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, “The Battle of Maldon” poem, and William of Malmesbury (the reputable 12th century English historian).

Alfred the Great (871-899)

I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works

-Author’s note in Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy

Alfred (or “Aelfred) is the only king of England ever to be given the epithet “The Great.” He earned his moniker as a result of a fervent defense of the homeland against the invading Danes (or Vikings and Norsemen, “North Men” from Scandinavia), as well as his support for literacy, education, the arts, and architecture. Alfred is popularly the most celebrated of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and with good reason.

Alfred was the fifth and youngest son of King Aethelwulf of the House of Wessex, and he was clearly the favorite child. Bright, learned, well-traveled, and curious, Alfred lived a charmed life. He was known to have a keen mind from a young age -entirely memorizing books of poetry. In AD 855 he traveled to Rome with his father on a pilgrimage. They visited the court of Charles the Bald, of the Frankish King, and Alfred gained an appreciation for Charles’s grandfather, Charlemagne.

Alfred’s father, Aethelwulf died shortly after their return to Wessex in AD 858 and Alfred’s three older brothers each assumed the throne in succession (a fourth brother died before their father Aethelwulf’s death).

In the mid 9th century the Danes began to raid England. They were lured from their homes in present-day Denmark and Norway by the promise of riches strewn about the English isle in defenseless castles and monasteries. For many kingdoms, there was little time to prepare, however the kingdom of Wessex found a measure of success against the Danes. Alfred quickly learned the art of war alongside his brother Aethelred. The Danes began by raiding the coasts, including an infamous raid on Lindisfarne island, the seat of Christian culture in Northumbria. There they stole riches and torched buildings (“Viking” is a word that comes down to us meaning something akin to “pirate”). The monks of Lindisfarne carried away the bones of St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan, the Celtic patron saint of Northumbria and the founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne. However some of these same Vikings later returned to Northumbria from the cold shores of Denmark and Norway after finding the English soil and climate more hospitable. What began as wanton acts of piracy gradually became a process of invasion and settlement. Their newly acquired lands became known as Danelaw.

In 865-866 a “Great Army” arrived in East Anglia and overwhelmed the region. From there, they ventured north to York and took the city, thus conquering Northumbria. When an attempt to re-gain the city by King Aella had failed, he was captured and, according to legend, Aella was mercilessly tortured and executed in the hideously gruesome procedure known as the “blood eagle.” From the mid-860s onward, the Danes were dominant under the leadership of Ivar “The Boneless.” After conquering all surrounding kingdoms, the Danes eventually turned their gaze southwest to Wessex.


Meanwhile Alfred had married a Mercian noblewoman, Ealhswith in AD 867. Asser, Alfred’s medieval biographer, notes that Alfred suffered from some sort of affliction, perhaps what we might call a psycho-somatic illness. Asser writes that Alfred’s illness was particularly acute on the day of his wedding.

AD 871 became known as the ‘Year of Battles’ as the Danes and Wessex squared off. After the death of his elder brother Aethelred, Alfred assumed the throne in his early twenties. He came to power with a kingdom in chaos and under threat. Following an immediate string of disappointing losses to the Danes, young Alfred was forced to negotiate a peace for five years, but his battle with the Danes would continue for years to come. He paid them off with the “Danegold” and they “swore upon the holy ring” not to invade Wessex again -a foreboding act of treachery. The Danes retreated north divided their forces and the new Viking leader Guthrum led his forces back southward into Wessex territory. In this milieu Alfred became a skilled military leader, defending his burhs (or as we now know them as “burroughs”). He used a variety of tactics to starve out and terrorize the invading Danes, and he also built up the Wessex naval forces, hence Alfred is known as the father of the British navy (one of the earliest American naval vessels was also called the U.S.S. Alfred).

However, Alfred continued to suffer crushing losses as well as a surprise attack that put him on the run on the Twelfth Night Christmas holiday. Thus during the Christmas of AD 878, Alfred went incognito tailing Guthrum through Wessex while the Danes ventured deep into his kingdom. Alfred was forced to travel undercover ‘into the wilderness’ through the marshes as he fell back to Athelney. There is an old popular legend in which Alfred, dressed as a commoner, was taken in by a swineherd and while sitting pensively he was scolded by the lady of the house whose bread-cakes had started to burn.

Alfred was also a man of the people. In order to build up defenses against the Danes, he strengthened relationships with the surrounding shires (or what we today might call counties). Historically, Wessex was divided into five shires: Somerset, Devonshire, Wilshit, Dorset, and Hampshire. Each shire was governed with open-air juries led by ealdermen -a relic of the early Anglo-Saxon era.

From the egalitarian, ealderman-led communities of rural Wessex, Alfred was able to regather his forces and launch a final, all-out campaign against Guthrum and the Danes. The two armies met likely on a hill above Edington in AD 878 (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests they fought over a legendary ‘Stone of Egbert’) where a savage and bloody battle was fought for the soul of Wessex. Guthrum knew all that stood in the way of a Viking conquest of England was Alfred and his army, and the men of Wessex knew this was their last chance to fight for an independent kingdom. Hundreds of years later, mutilated bodies buried in the dirt were uncovered, revealing what must have been a harrowing day. The Battle of Edington, as it has come to be known, was the turning point in Alfred’s reign as king. After a score of latter victories, Alfred successfully muted the advance of the Norsemen, pushing them back to eastern England and redefining the borders.

The battle was an extraordinary success for Wessex. It unified Alfred’s leadership over his nobles, put the Danes on the run, and as part of Guthrum’s surrender, the Danes were forced to convert to Christianity. It was baptism by the sword. Alfred had succeeded where his predecessors had stalled. However despite the new peace agreement, Alfred was prepped for war. he built up his extensive fortifications throughout the burhs of Wessex, which successfully held off the Danes for years to come.

Woodforde, Samuel; King Alfred ‘The Great’ (846/849-899); National Trust, Stourhead; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/king-alfred-the-great-846849899-101256

Alfred is known widely for his enlightened disposition -his advocacy for reading, writing, and learning. Despite latter day interpolations, and Asser’s enthusiastic but less-than-truthful picture of the king, Alfred only learned to read in early adulthood. However, he was a profound reformer and an advocate of an english renaissance in literacy education -perhaps drawing inspiration from Charlemagne before him. He built a new court school, in the manner of Charlemagne. He translated several Latin texts into Old English, including Pope Gregory the Great’s On Pastoral Care (a manual for clergy which he eagerly distributed to his bishops), Boethius’s On The Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s writings, and other Biblical texts, like the Latin Psalters. Alfred was also the patron of the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Alfred was great legal reformer, issuing a legal code (the Doom Book, or “book of laws”). At the outset of his laws, Alfred highlights several ancestral kings he bases his new Christian laws upon -Ine, Offa, and even Aethelbert. While his elder brother, Aethelred, was an inwardly pious leader, the flame of the intellect and the liberal arts took hold of Alfred’s mind. They were distinct in their approach to kingship.

After the defeat of the Danes at Edington, each of the fortified burhs grew into a rapidly urbanized marketplaces and communities under the direction of the king, and thus trade in Wessex flourished. The crown jewel of the burhs was London, formerly Londinium under the Romans, and Lundenwic under the rule of Offa, and Mercia, before it feel into the hands of the Vikings, but Alfred’s reclamation of the port city was a re-founding of sorts for this future capital.

Of Alfred’s general demeanor, Asser writes:

Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour…[and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.

— Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge translation of Asser’s Life of Alfred 1983, pp. 74–75

Alfred died on October 26, 899 at the age of either 50 or 51. He had five sons, including Edward “The Elder” who succeeded Alfred as king of Wessex. Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, would later unify the kingdoms under one single banner -he is sometimes considered the first king of England.

Finally, there is a controversy regarding Albert’s final resting place. He was buried at Hyde Abbey, a medieval Benedictine monastery in Winchester, the capital of Wessex (Alfred’s body was moved to the newly re-consecrated abbey during the reign of his son Edward “The Elder”). However, hundreds of years later King Henry VIII made the fateful decision to destroy many Catholic churches, monasteries, and abbeys throughout the land as part of his personal conflict with Catholicism. Hyde Abbey was unfortunately one of those churches that was destroyed. For over 250 years, the final resting place of Alfred and his son Edward was forgotten. Eventually, in the late 18th century, the county acquired the land where Hyde Abbey once stood with the hopes of constructing a prison. The future convicts were put to work digging the foundation of the new prison edifice. As the prisoners dug deeper, they likely destroyed the interred bones of Alfred, the greatest king of Anglo-Saxon England (there were reports among the prisoners of discovering gold and all manner of treasure beneath the surface).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great. Asser was a monk of St. David’s.