Masefield's Midsummer Night

BADON HILL

Loki the Dragon killer mustered men
To harry through the western isles agen.

Five thousand raiders in a hundred ships
Sailed with him to put Britain in eclipse.

For many days they loitered to the south,
Pausing to raid at every river-mouth.

Always they met good fortune and good reive.
Kol, with his pirates, joined them in the Sleeve.

They sacked the Roman seaport: they laid bare
Down to its plinth, the marble-covered phare.

Then, growing bold, they sacked Augusta town.
Temples of many gods came crashing down.

Then Loki said, "My grand-dad, in his prime,
Burned a great city into building lime.

Upstream it was and many miles from here.
No man has harried there this many a year.

Then, as his gang dissolved, he went alone
Upstream from there, exploring the unknown,

And reached a reed-mere, whence a trackway led
Up to an ancient fort called Badon Head.

And looking thence (he said) beheld what we
Dream of perhaps but very seldom see :--

Sway-footed cows in thousands deep in grass,
Unraided reiving such as never was,

And distant downland stretching, green with keep,
White as its chalk with moving flocks of sheep.


He swore to raid there with a gang, but Fate
That loves but ruins boldness, shut the gate . . . .

Ambrose the Briton maimed him with a spear
So that he lingered helpless many a year

And never came to keep his oath, nor saw
That land again, that pasture without flaw;

Nor did his son, my father: no one has;
Unraided lie those pastures of deep grass.

Now I will raid them: you and I, my spears,
Will make the greatest raid of fifty years.

We will go up the river, we will take
That land and sack it for my grand-dad's sake."

"Right," Wolf the Red Fang said; "But people tell
Those Westers' leader is a cub of hell.

Arthur, they call him: people get their fill
Coming for cattle against Arthur's will."

"Arthur to Hel," said Loki; "I shall go."
"Right," Red Fang answered; "I have warned you though."


Upstream they rowed their Dragons: on the banks
The horsemen scouted, keeping clear their flanks.

O'er many a mudbank jammed with rotting drift
The harnessed horses gave the ships a lift.

After some days, King Loki trod the wracked
Shell of the city that his grand-dad sacked;

Then on he passed, now poling, now with oars,
Now dragged by horse-teams straining on the shores;

Now sailing, till he sailed into the green
Reed-shadowed mere his ancestor had seen.

There was the trackway, there the Badon Hill
Notched on the skyline by its rampart still.

"This is the place," said Loki. "Here we'll drive
Those sway-foot cattle to the ships alive."


He moored his ships and marched his men ashore.
He eyed those pastures of his ancestor.

No herd, no head, was in those miles of grass.
The fields were empty as the downland was.

No smoke from any house, no noise of men,
Empty the cottage as the cattle-pen.

King Loki pitched his awnings in the camp,
And bade his men new-palisade the ramp.

He said to Wolf the Red Fang, "Mount and scout
West, with the horse, to seek the cattle out."

"Right," Wolf the Red Fang said: "But Arthur calls
All cattle in, and shuts it within walls,

Soon as he hears of wolf-packs near the house.
Mounting and scouting will not bring you cows."

"Mount," Loki said. "I do not ask advice."
"Right," the Wolf answered. "Now I've warned you twice."


Wolf Red Fang took the horse into the west,
Over green pastures better than the best.

Green though the pastures were, that summer land
Was bare of people as a desert sand.

No scout of all his raiding horsemen heard
Voice of aught living save the summer bird.

Nothing was heard by them, and nothing seen
Save summer blue above the summer green.

Nothing but summer greenness stretching on
Marked by the tracks by which the herds had gone.

"Where have they gone?" they murmured. "We have come
Heel-scenting, sure, or we'd have met with some."

And others said, "We must be under curse. .
Let's back to camp before we meet with worse."

But Wolf replied, "A man who won't believe
Has got to learn: come, ride ahead and reive."

The sun declined, the misty west grew red,
But still no cattle, not a single head.

The dusk grew dim: they trembled as they rode,
For no dog barked at all, and no light showed.

At star-time they unsaddled for the night
Beside a chalk-brook, water-crowfoot-white.

They did not help again in Loki's plan,
Arthur at dawn destroyed them to a man.


Arthur pushed onward: before dawn next day
He eyed the reed-mere where the longships lay;

Those servants of the water-spooning oar
Lay flank to flanks their noses from the shore.

Their pine-plank, painted red, the hot July
Had burned to be like bonework, blister dry.

Up in the pirate's camp no watch was kept,
Drunk Kol was dicing, drunken Loki slept.

Arthur and Lancelot the son of Ban
Took burning touchwood in an iron pan;

They slid into the water among reed,
No pirate saw their coming, none gave heed.

They pushed their gear before them on a raft,
The ripples spread in little gleams that laught.

The weather Dragon-ship rose overhead
Like a house-pale, sun-blistered, painted red.

Arthur and Lancelot together smeared
Tar to the leadings whence her hawsers veered,

Then heaping twigs and pine-cones, they gave touch,
And blew, until the little flames took clutch.

No watcher heard or saw them, no one came.
The little flame became a bigger flame.

It spread along the seams and thrust its tongues
Out, till the straikings looked like ladder-rungs.

First, the wind bowed it down, then, at a gust
The flame, that had been greedy, became lust;

And like a wave that lifts against a rock
Up, into shattering shining at the shock,

So it upshattered into spangs of flame
That writhelled red, and settled, and laid claim

And tore the Dragon's planking from her bones
Roaring: the Dragon sighed with little moans.

Now swearing pirates ran to fight the flame
And Arthur's archers shot them as they came.

And Loki, rising from his drunken sweven,
Saw all his longships blazing red to heaven

And Arthur's army coming with a will
Straight from the fire up the Badon Hill.


All Britons know the stories that are told
Of Arthur's battle for that pirates' hold :--

How first he tried the flank, and failed, and then
Tried at the gate and was repulsed agen;

How at the broken stakes where flints were flying,
He burst a way among the dead and dying,

And held the gap, the while his meyny all
Shovelled and picked, to totter down the wall;

How Loki charged and beat him headlong thence
With pirates in a spear-gang matted dense;

How Lancelot and Hector and Gawaine
Routed the spears and bore him back again;

And how they beat a little breach and stood
Crouched under lifted shields to make it good;

While from the upper wall about their ears
Came flying flints and fire, darts and spears.

And how that lower ditch was filled with dead
Men taking death there like their daily bread.

How Loki, growing anxious, strove to cut
His passage out but had his pathway shut;

How thrice he tried, with three defeats, and each
Time found him fewer, with a bigger breach.

Then how, like wolves entrapped, those pirates raged,
Horseless, without a navy, foodless, caged,
With Loki sorely wounded and Kol killed.


Men also tell how Arthur's fifers thrilled
Along his front, in that late afternoon,
While all his army, in a demi-lune,

Trod to that fifing up the slope and stayed;
And how the trumpets all together brayed

Along the front, and all the army swarmed
Upward together, till the wall was stormed;

Till, on the crest, beyond the tumbled pales,
They saw all-glorious Fortune turn her scales;

And how the horse came thrusting to the wrench,
Trampling the rampart fallen in the trench;

And how the trumpets all together blew,
And Arthur's army charged and overthrew~


Under the grasses where the cattle browse,
King Loki's army keep eternal house

In Badon earth, for none escaped alive.
Thereafter Arthur's realm was free to thrive.

For many years, no pirates had the will
To band against him, after Badon Hill.