Sin, Immortality and Good Teeth: How Apples Still Drive Us  

How many lunch boxes have apples in them, I wonder. Not as squashy as bananas or plums, not as juicy as satsumas or peaches, apples are the perfect travelling fruit. As children we were told that they kept our teeth clean. Even better than that, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Statistically, that claim has been proven to be true. Though nobody is really sure why, as apples are not the most vitamin-enriched fruits when compared to bananas or oranges. Perhaps they have some divine nutrient.

We are all aware of the apple being the fruit that led mankind into sin when Eve offered it to Adam. The Anglo-Saxons and Norse folk believed in a goddess called Idunn who kept some very special apples. They had the power of eternal youth and the gods needed them to keep alive, as the Norse and Anglo-Saxon gods were not immortal as many other gods appear to be. The god of mischief, Loki, had fun with Idunn and the magic apples, according to the Old Norse manuscripts. Idunn is a major feature in my book The Dark Garden.

26 September is the birthday of another special apple person, a man known as Johnny Appleseed. His real name was John Chapman and for forty years he travelled through America planting apple trees and handing out apple tree seeds. More than this, he continued to take care of the saplings as they grew, pruning and caring for them and helping the new settlers to create orchards. Born in 1774, Johnny Appleseed has become an American folk hero.

In a month’s time we will be celebrating harvest by playing ‘duck-apple’ where we will try to catch floating apples with our teeth – more about that in October. The best thing about apples? Apple pie with custard. Mmm…

The Battle of Maldon

On 10 August 991 a battle took place between the Anglo-Saxons, led by Ealdorman Brithnoth, and Viking invaders: the Battle of Maldon.  The most significant thing about this battle is that there was a poem written about it. Sadly, the beginning and ending are lost and only three hundred and twenty five lines remain. But it gives a great insight to the Anglo-Saxons approach (as it is from their perspective) as well as practices of the times. The Anglo-Saxons were defeated by the Vikings in case you were wondering.

Part I. Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Wilfrid Berridge.


Then he ordered each of his warriors his horse to loose
Far off to send it and forth to go,
To be mindful of his hands and of his high heart.
Then did Offa’s Kinsman first know
That the earl would not brook cowardice,
Loosed he from his hands his darling to fly,
His Hawk to the wood, and to the battle strode.
From that one could tell that the chieftain would never
Weaken in the warfare – when he his weapons seized.
And after him Edric chose his chief to follow,
His friend in the fight – then ‘gan he forth to bear
The spear to the strife – high spirit had he,
So long as he with his hands to hold was able
His buckler and broadsword; his boast he fulfilled
That he by his friend’s side should fight.


Then did Brithnoth begin his men to bestow –
He rode up and counselled them – his soldiers he taught
How they should stand, and their standing to keep,
And bade them their round shields rightly to hold
Fast to their forearms, that they flinch not at all.
And when he had his folk fairly bestowed
He lighted there with his people, where he would liefest be
Where he knew his own troops were most to be trusted.


Then stood forth on the strand and sternly spake
The messenger of the Vikings, delivered his tidings;
He boastfully spoke, for the seafarers
Their sentence to the earl, where he stood on the shore.
“They sent me to thee, those bold seamen,
And bade me to say that thou must send swiftly
Ring-money for pledges. For you were it better
That you buy off this spear-rush with your tax,
Than that we should have so hard a battle.
What need we to vex us, if you will agree?
We will for this gold a sure compact make
If thou wilt agree to it – thou that art strongest.
If that thou be willing thy people to redeem,
To yield to the seamen at their own choice
Tribute for a truce, and so take peace of us,
Then will we with the tax to ship betake us
To sail on the sea – and hold truce with you.
Brithnoth made answer – his buckler he grasped,
Brandished his slender spear – and spoke.
“Hearest thou, sea-robber, what this people say?
For tribute they’re ready to give you their spears,
The edge poison-bitter, and the ancient sword.
War-gear that will bring you no profit in the fight.
Thou messenger of the seamen, back with thy message.
Tell to thy people, these far more hateful tidings,
There stands here a good earl in the midst of his men,
Who will this country ever defend,
The kingdom of Aethelred, mine overlord,
The folk and the ground – but they shall fall,
The foemen in the fight; too shameful methinks
That ye with our tribute, to ship should be gone
Without a blow struck – now that ye have thus far
Made your incoming into our land.
Nor shall ye so softly carry off our riches.
Sooner shall point and edge reconcile us,
Grim warplay indeed – before we give tribute.”
Bade he then to bear the shields, the warriors to go,
So that they on the river’s bank all stood.


Nor could for the water, the army come at the other,
For there came flowing, flood after ebb;
Locked were the ocean-streams, and too long it seemed
Until they together might carry their spears.
There by Panta’s stream in array they bestood,
Essex men’s rank, and the men from the ships,
Nor might any one of them injure the other
Except where from arrow’s flight one had his death.
The flood went out – the pirates stood ready.
Full many of the Vikings, eager for battle.


Then bade the men’s saviour, one to hold the bridge,
A warrior war-hardened, that was Wulfstan hight [1],
Courageous mid his kin – he was Ceola’s son,
Who the first foeman with his spear did fell
That bravest stepped forth upon the bridge.
There stood with Wulfstan warriors goodly
Aelfere and Maccus, high hearted both,
That never at the ford would turn them to flight,
But they steadfastly ‘gainst their foes made defence,
While their weapons to wield they were able.


When they saw that, and keenly espied
That bitter bridge-guardians there they met
Then began they to feign – those loathed guests –
And begged that they might some foothold get,
To fare over the ford – the foemen to lead.


Then did the earl, in his overweening heart
Lend land too much to that loathed people.
Then ‘gan he call out – across the cold water
Brighthelm’s son, and all the band listened.
“Now room is meted you, come swiftly to us,
Warriors to war. Only God knows
Who at the end shall possess this fight’s field”.
Then went the war wolves – for water they recked not.
The troop of the pirates, west over Panta.
Over the shining water they carried their shields
Seamen to the shore, their bucklers they shouldered.
There against the raiders ready stood
Brithnoth with his band, and with the bucklers bade
Form the shield wall, and make firm the ranks
Fast against the foes. Then was fighting nigh,
Fame in the fight – now was the hour come
When that the feymen [2] must fall.

1 ‘hight’ = archaic, literary word meaning ‘named’ or ‘called’

2 ‘feymen’ = ‘doomed men’ destined to die in the battle