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III. Early National Poetry

§ 4. Finnsburh

Apart from Beowulf, the only remains of national epic poetry which have come down to us are a short but fine fragment (50 lines) of Finnsburh and two still shorter fragments (32 and 31 lines respectively) of Waldhere. Regarding the former our information is sadly defective. The MS. is lost and the text, as given by Hickes, is extremely corrupt. The story, however, though obscure to us, must have been extremely popular in early times. It is the subject of a long episode in Beowulf (see above, p. 25), and three of the chief characters are mentioned in Widsith. Familiarity with it is shown also by a mistake in the genealogy in the Historia Brittonum, [char] 31.

The fragment opens with the speech of a young prince rousing his followers to defend the hall in which they are sleeping, apparently within Finn’s fortress. They rush to the doors, the chief men being Hengest (perhaps the prince), Sigeferth, Eaha, Ordlaf and Guthlaf. A short altercation follows between Sigeferth and Garulf, who is apparently one of the attacking force. The battle goes on for five days, and many of the assailants, including Garulf, fall. The defenders, however, maintain their position without loss, and we are told that never was a better recompense yielded by sixty knights to their lord than Hnaef now received from his followers. Then a wounded warrior, who is not named, brings the news to his king—at which point the fragment breaks off.

The episode in Beowulf furnishes us with considerably more information than the fragment itself. Hnaef, a vassal of the Danish king Healfdene, has fallen at the hands of the Frisians, whom apparently he had gone to visit—whether as friend or foe is not clear. His men, however, maintain a stout defence, and so great are the losses of the Frisians that their king, Finn, has to make terms with them. An agreement is then arrived at between their leader Hengest and the king. They are to enter Finn’s service and to be treated by him as generously as the Frisians themselves; and no taunt is to be raised against them on the ground that they have made terms with the man who slew their lord. A great funeral pyre is constructed for the bodies of the slain, and Hildeburh, apparently the wife of Finn and sister of Hnaef, bewails the loss of both her brother and her son. Hengest and his companions stay with Finn throughout the winter, though sorely tempted to exact vengeance. Eventually, Guthlaf and Oslaf (Ordlaf?) attack and slay Finn with many of his men. The queen is carried away to Denmark with much treasure.

There are no certain references to this story in Scandinavian or German literature, though Ordlaf and Guthlaf are probably to be identified with two Danish princes mentioned in Arngrim Jònsson’s epitome of Skiöldunga Saga, cap. 4. The tragic events with which the story deals must clearly be referred to the time of those great movements in the regions of the North Sea, between the fourth and sixth centuries, to which Latin writers occasionally allude. The fact that Hnaef is called a vassal of Healfdene, Hrothgar’s father, points to about the middle of the fifth century. It is by no means impossible, therefore, that the Hengest of this story is identical with the Hengest who founded the kingdom of Kent.