One of the most intriguing stories referred to in Old English heroic poetry is whatever happend at Finnsburg, between Hnæf , Finn and Hengest. The story is referred to in Beowulf, the so-called Finnsburg Fragment, and Widsith, but the events are rather difficult to piece together. For all who have ever struggled making sense of Finnsburg, here is an attempt at a comic strip reconstruction.
“gid oft wrecen” (Beowulf, l. 1065b): A Tale Often Recited
After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, there is much rejoicing in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. During the festivities, a minstrel performs a well-known tale, a “gid oft wrecen” (l. 1065b): a tale often recited. The Beowulf poet certainly assumed his audience to be familiar with the contents of this tale, since what follows is a rather enigmatic summary of events of something that took place in Frisia, concerning Finn, Hnæf and Hengest (ll. 1063-1159). The basic premise of the story is somewhat clear: a feud between Danes and Frisians had been solved by a political marriage between the Frisian prince Finn and the Danish princess Hildeburh; a visit by Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf to Finnsburg renewed the hostilities and resulted in the death of Hnæf and Hildeburh’s son among others; although a new truce was made, Finn is killed the following year and Hildeburh is brought back to Denmark. The exact particulars of the story, however, are only alluded to and many scholars have tried to figure out what exactly happened (chief among them, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien in the posthumous work Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, ed. A. Bliss (1982)).
That the story of Finnsburg was indeed well known and often recited, becomes clear from the Finnsburg Fragment. The Finnsburg Fragment was found on a loose manuscript folio, once kept at Lambeth Palace and edited by the George Hickes in 1705 (the manuscript folio has since been lost). The Fragment consists of 48 lines of Old English poetry, which outline how a band of warriors led by Hnæf are attacked by Frisians, near Finnsburg. the text breaks off when a certain “folces hyrde” [leader of people, possibly Hnæf] is mortally wounded. As such, the Finnsburg Fragment fills in some of the details that are lacking in the summary of the minstrel’s tale in Beowulf, which in turn provides information about the cause and outcome of the fight which are not mentioned in the extant text of the Finnsburg Fragment.
Yet a third text to testify to the circulation of this story in Anglo-Saxon England is the poem Widsith. This poem which is something of a catalogue of people, kings and heroes that the traveling poet Widsith [wide-jouney] had supposedly met over the years. Among the heroes mentioned in Widsith are the Frisian “Finn Folcwalding” [Finn, son of Folcwald] (l. 27), “Hnæf” who ruled the Hocings (l. 29) and “Sæferð” (l. 31) who ruled the Sycgs. These heroes can all be identified with people mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and/or the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. The story of Finnsburg, then, was well known indeed, even if the particulars still elude scholars today (matters are made worse by apparent errors in the extant texts of the Finnsburg Fragment and the lines in Beowulf, which cause even more confusion and uncertainty).
The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
The comic strip below, extending over 28 panels, represents one way of reading the Finnsburg Fragment and the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. In places, I have simplified things (glossing over, for instance, the matter of the Jutes who appear to be fighting on both sides of the conflict or may actually not be Jutes, but giants – the words “eotan” [Jutes] and “eoten” [giant] are easily confused!), elsewhere I have opted for one interpretation and ignored others. Some ‘scholarly’ justification follows after the comic strip…
Here is how the panels relate to the texts of Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – I recommend you read the comic strip along with the actual texts!
- “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswæl”. The term “freoðuwebbe” (Beowulf, l. 1942) is used to refer to women who were married off to solve a political feud. The Beowulf poet seems to be rather opposed to this idea, given the dramatic outcome of Hildeburh’s marriage. For the term “Freswæl” [Frisian massacre], see Beowulf, l. 1070. “Or: How Hildeburh became a sad woman”. See Beowulf, l. 1075 “þæt wæs geomuru ides”[that was a sad woman].
- I assumed that the feud dated back to the parents of Hildeburh and Finn; this is not neccessarily the case.
- For clarity, I gave all the Danes (and Jutes, and Sycgs) mustaches; the Frisians have beards.
- The marriage between Hildeburh and Finn must have lasted long enough to produce a son that could die during the fighting at Finnsburg.
- Hnæf visits and this leads to hostilities. It is still unknown why these hostilities took place; here, I blame Finn, since it would appear as if the Frisians were the ones to start the fight.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 3-4.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 5-12. What Hnæf and his men see is the sudden approach of the Frisians, carrying torches.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 13-15. Sigeferth can be identified as “Sæferð” in Widsith, l. 31.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 16-17. The fact that the Fragment says “Hengest sylf” (l. 17) suggests that Hengest is a figure of importance; this also becomes clear from his role in the episode in Beowulf.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 18-21. It is not entirely clear whether Garulf tells Guthere to stay back or the other way around. Nor is it clear whether the warning is heeded and so it is unclear who approaches the door first. Since we are told Garulf is the first to die (Finnsburg Fragment, l. 31), I suggest Garulf was the first to approach the door and that Guthere indeed listened to his warning. In this way, Garulf is the senior warrior who leads the charge.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 22-27.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 31-34a.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 34b-35a.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 37-45. It is unclear whether the mortally wounded “hæleð” [hero] (l. 43) is indeed Hnæf. The Finnsburg Fragment breaks off with this wounded hero asking how the young warriors are doing.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1067-1069.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1071-1081
- See Beowulf, ll. 1080-1085.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1086-1100.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1101-1106.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1107-1112.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1113-1116. It is uncertain on whose side Hildeburh’s son had been fighting. If he had been fighting on the Frisian side (which seems likely), his body being burned with Hnæf’s is highly symbolic.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1117-1124.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1125-1136a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1136b-1150a. The “Guthlaf and Oslaf” mentioned in Beowulf (l. 1148) can probably be identified with the “Ordlaf and Guthlaf” of the Finnsburg Fragment (l. 16).
- See Beowulf, ll. 1143-1144. It is unclear whether it is the son of Hunlaf (who may be Guthlaf) who gave Hengest a sword or whether “Hunlafing” (Beowulf, l. 1143) is the name of the sword. Whatever the case, Hengest gets a sword which reminds him of the things that happened the year before – in my reconstruction this is the sword of Hnæf.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1150b-1152a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1146-1152a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1152a-1159a.
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