The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 16

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1050And the lord of earls, to each that came
with Beowulf over the briny ways,
an heirloom there at the ale-bench gave,
precious gift; and the price[1] bade pay
in gold for him whom Grendel erst
1055murdered,—and fain of them more had killed,
had not wisest God their Wyrd averted,
and the man’s[2] brave mood. The Maker then
ruled human kind, as here and now.
Therefore is insight always best,
1060and forethought of mind. How much awaits him
of lief and of loath, who long time here,
through days of warfare this world endures!

Then song and music mingled sounds
in the presence of Healfdene’s head-of-armies[3]
1065and harping was heard with the hero-lay[4]
as Hrothgar’s singer the hall-joy woke
along the mead-seats, making his song
of that sudden raid on the sons of Finn.[5]
Healfdene’s hero, Hnæf the Scylding,
1070was fated to fall in the Frisian slaughter.[6]
Hildeburh needed not hold in value
her enemies’ honor![7] Innocent both
were the loved ones she lost at the linden-play,
bairn and brother; they bowed to fate,
1075stricken by spears; ’twas a sorrowful woman!
None doubted why the daughter of Hoc
bewailed her doom when dawning came,
and under the sky she saw them lying,
kinsmen murdered, where most she had kenned
1080of the sweets of the world! By war were swept, too,
Finn’s own liegemen, and few were left;
in the parleying-place[8] he could ply no longer
weapon, nor war could he wage on Hengest,
and rescue his remnant by right of arms
1085from the prince’s thane. A pact he offered:
another dwelling the Danes should have,
hall and high-seat, and half the power
should fall to them in Frisian land;
and at the fee-gifts, Folcwald’s son
1090day by day the Danes should honor,
the folk of Hengest favor with rings,
even as truly, with treasure and jewels,
with fretted gold, as his Frisian kin
he meant to honor in ale-hall there.
1095Pact of peace they plighted further
on both sides firmly. Finn to Hengest
with oath, upon honor, openly promised
that woful remnant, with wise-men’s aid,
nobly to govern, so none of the guests
1100by word or work should warp the treaty,[9]
or with malice of mind bemoan themselves
as forced to follow their fee-giver’s slayer,
lordless men, as their lot ordained.
Should Frisian, moreover, with foeman’s taunt,
1105that murderous hatred to mind recall.
then edge of the sword must seal his doom.
Oaths were given, and ancient gold
heaped from hoard.—The hardy Scylding,
battle-thane best,[10] on his balefire lay.
1110All on the pyre were plain to see
the gory sark, the gilded swine-crest,
boar of hard iron, and athelings many
slain by the sword: at the slaughter they fell.
It was Hildeburh’s hest, at Hnæf’s own pyre
1115the bairn of her body on brands to lay,
his bones to burn, on the balefire placed,
at his uncle’s side.[11] In sorrowful dirges
be wept them the woman: great wailing ascended.[12]
Then wound up to welkin the wildest of death-fires,
1120roared o’er the hillock:[13] heads all were melted,
gashes burst, and blood gushed out
from bites[14] of the body. Balefire devoured,
greediest spirit, those spared not by war
out of either folk: their flower was gone.

  1. Man-price, wergild.
  2. Beowulf’s. The same combination of fate and courage as above, v. 573.
  3. Hrothgar.
  4. Literally, “glee-wood was greeted (stirred, touched) and lay was sung.”
  5. There is no need to assume a gap in the Ms. As before about Sigemund and Heremod, so now, though at greater length, about Finn and his feud, a lay is chanted or recited; and the epic poet, counting on his readers’ familiarity with the story,—a fragment of it still exists, and is printed in this volume,—simply gives the headings.
  6. The exact story to which this episode refers in summary is not to be determined, but the following account of it is reasonable and has good support among scholars. Finn, a Frisian chieftain, who nevertheless has a “castle” outside the Frisian border, marries Hildeburh, a Danish princess; and her brother, Hnæf, with many other Danes, pays Finn a visit. Relations between the two peoples have been strained before. Something starts the old feud anew; and the visitors are attacked in their quarters. Hnæf is killed; so is a son of Hildeburh. Many fall on both sides. Peace is patched up; a stately funeral is held; and the surviving visitors become in a way vassals or liegemen of Finn, going back with him to Frisia. So matters rest a while. Hengest is now leader of the Danes; but he is set upon revenge for his former lord, Hnæf. Probably he is killed in feud; but his clansmen, Guthlaf and Oslaf, gather at their home a force of sturdy Danes, come back to Frisia, storm Finn’s stronghold, kill him, and carry back their kinswoman Hildeburh. The Finnsburg fragment, translated below, describes (so Bugge puts it, conforming, as he says, “to the common view”) the fight in which Hnæf fell, “that is to say, an event which precedes the story told in the Beowulf,” and is noted in these introductory lines (vv. 1069 f.).—In the Widsith, Hnæf is called ruler of the Hocings.—In v. 1142 it is assumed that Hengest is killed by the sword “Lafing” of a Frisian named Hun. In Widsith, v. 33, Hun ruled the Hætweras, a tribe of Franks now apparently subject to Finn the Frisian. Another reading makes Finn slay Hengest with a sword “Hunlafing.” Two other interpretations make either Finn lay this sword “Hunlafing,” or Hun lay “Lafing,” on Hengest’s lap, as a gift and a sign of allegiance on the part of the receiver. Of course, in this case, Hengest dissembles his real feelings to gain time and opportunity for the subsequent invasion.
  7. Usual litotes; she had good cause to complain. The “enemies” must be the Frisians; the original word is “eotens,” “ettins,” monsters; but it is elsewhere used in speaking of Frisian men.
  8. Battlefield.—Hengest is the “prince’s thane,” companion of Hnæf. “Folcwald’s son” is Finn.
  9. That is, Finn would govern in all honor the few Danish warriors who were left, provided, of course, that none of them tried to renew the quarrel or avenge Hnæf their fallen lord. If, again, one of Finn’s Frisians began a quarrel, he should die by the sword. “With wise-men’s aid” is like the form familiar in Ælfred’s Laws. “With the advice of my Witan, I order. . . .”
  10. Hnæf.
  11. This reading, which involves a very slight change, was proposed by Holthausen, and is followed by Gering in his German translation. The clash of kin-duties is the deep note in Germanic tragedy: to emphasize the fact that here lay the hero, and by him his sister’s son,—the dearest of relationships,—opposed in fight and united in death, was clear privilege for the poet; and the dirge of the mother and sister doubtless dwelt chiefly on the tragic intensity of the double loss.
  12. Reading gūthrinc = gūthhring, “noise of battle,” with Grein. It could easily be used for the lamentation of a great multitude.—For the previous passage, if the old reading is retained, a period should follow “placed” (v. 1116), and the next line would be:

    Sad by his shoulder sorrowed the woman,
    wept him with dirges: great wailing ascended. . . .

    This vocero or lament of the widow, as in the case of Beowulf, v. 3150, below, was accompanied by choral wailing of the throng. In the Iliad, at the funeral of Hector: “Thus spake she walling and therewith the great multitude of the people groaned.”—“Thus spake she wailing and stirred unending moan. . . .”
  13. The high place chosen for the funeral: see description of Beowulf’s funeral-pile at the end of the poem.
  14. Wounds.