Summary and Analysis
As the celebration continues within Heorot, Hrothgar's scop honors Beowulf with a story of another Danish victory, the Finnsburh episode.
The inclusion of the story of Finnsburh is interesting partly because it gives us an idea of how a story like the Beowulf epic might have been presented. Although a modern audience might think that the Beowulf poet is interrupting the story, the scop's performance, or something like it, probably would have taken place. Our only knowledge of the Finnsburh episode comes from two sources: Beowulf (lines 1068-1159 of the epic) and The Finnsburh Fragment, a short (47 lines) heroic ballad by another poet. The latter consists of an account of a single battle that supposedly took place in the Danes' past but recently enough to stir passions and reflect on current feuds. Critics differ on motivation of the major characters; but, considering both sources, we can make a fair assessment of the action and how it fits in Beowulf.
As the story begins, about 60 warriors of the Half-Danes, a division of the Danes, are visiting King Finn of Frisia at his fortress or burh. King Hnaef leads the Half-Danes. Hnaef's sister, Hildeburh, is married to King Finn. The marriage was probably arranged to settle a feud, which relates to Beowulf in that it anticipates Hrothgar's plans for his daughter (Freawaru) and may echo the reason for Hrothgar's own marriage to Wealhtheow. Queen Hildeburh and King Finn have at least one son. With the Half-Danes is Hnaef's top retainer, Hengest. These are the major players.
For motives that are not made clear, the Frisians attack the hall where the Half-Danes are sleeping. Many warriors are killed, including Hildeburh's brother, King Hnaef (leader of the Half-Danes), and her son (a Frisian). The queen's grief is immense. This had been a place of great happiness for her. Finn's troops are so decimated that he cannot continue to attack the hall; the Danes, on the other hand, are on foreign soil and unable to break out to victory.
A truce is reached, and Finn offers to take in Hnaef's thanes as his own. The Half-Danes agree out of necessity; they are on foreign soil, without a king. Old enmities and recent deaths lead to an uneasy truce. The Danes are forced to stay the winter because of rough, icy seas. As time passes, Hengest, Hnaef's top thane and now the Half-Danes' leader, thinks more about vengeance than he does about returning home. In the spring, one of the Danish warriors presents him with a sword symbolic of leadership and implying revenge.
The ensuing battle is introduced with the understatement of transition but specific imagery that we've grown to expect from the Beowulf poet: "The hall was decorated / with the lives of the foe" (1151-52), a "tapestry of blood" (1152) as Chickering translates. The Half-Danes triumph. King Finn is killed along with his men. The Danes return home with Hildeburh and assorted treasures.
Wealhtheow's appearance immediately follows the Finnsburh performance and reminds the poet's knowledgeable audience that she will suffer loss of family as does Queen Hildeburh in the scop's story, once more foreshadowing future tragedy during current celebration. Beowulf sits between her two sons at the feast, and she asks him to serve as their good counsel and exemplar. Wealhtheow presents Beowulf with various gifts, including the largest gold collar ever seen.
Peace and joy seem to have come to Heorot. The thanes drink a great deal and fall asleep assured, for the first time in years, that they are safe in the hall. Hrothgar retires to his quarters, and Beowulf spends the night away from the hall. One visitor has not yet arrived. She will bring death to Heorot.
Healfdene father of Hrothgar.
the giants here a reference to the Frisians.
Hoc father of Hildeburh and Hnaef.
the web's short measure the web of life—destiny, fate, Wyrd—has spun a short life for Queen Hildeburh's brother and son.
the prince's thane here, a reference to Hengest.
Folcwalda father of Finn.
the lord who had killed their own ring-giver an apparent reference to Finn, although it is not clear whether he personally does the killing or even if treachery is involved.
chief of the War-Scyldings Hnaef.
feud-bites a kenning for wounds.
Hunlaf's son a Half-Dane warrior who presents the sword to Hengest.
Guthlaf and Oslaf Half-Dane thanes.
uncle and nephew (1164) apparently a reference to Hrothgar and Hrothulf.
Hama, Brosing, and Eormanric For a thorough discussion of the necklace and the Goths, see Chickering, pp. 331-333.
Frankish pertaining to the Franks, a Germanic tribe in the Rhine region.