Success Is Not Always Available

ÆTHELRED II (c. 978–1016) WAS NICKNAMED “The Unready” for, first, ascending to the throne of England when he was only 12, and secondly, for following a mostly unsuccessful policy of monetary appeasement of Viking invaders — paying them to stay away. Popular opinion over the centuries has generally been unfavourable towards him.

However, historians speculate that Æthelred could have done little else to avoid being overrun. An enduring victory over the Viking hordes was not within reach. Æthelred had few options to fall back on.

Fate, history, or personal circumstances often deal such a difficult hand.

Barred of a military solution, would it have been wiser for Æthelred to step down and let the Danes take over the land and government?

The predicament of this English monarch suggests that sometimes “holding the fort” — holding the kingdom — to the best of our ability, is all we can strive for. That, in certain situations, success is impossible, and all we can aim for is a lesser degree of failure.

Is existence any less worthy in such a case? Are defenders of lost causes — who often find themselves cast in such role by larger-than-life historical forces — any less commendable than the victors? Could they perhaps be even more commendable than their counterparts when they display courage, sacrifice, leadership, and faith against all odds?

In condemning Æthelred we may overlook that our own lives are often subject to forces beyond our control, where plain success is out of reach. Work, relationships, family matters and health issues often present us with quandaries where holding the kingdom is the best we can do. Our struggle in such circumstances may result in “failure” but may be no less heroic—or deem our lives less worthwhile, valuable, or admirable — for it.