The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

THE ATTACK OK FINNSBURG

IN contrast to the remoteness, the detached and moralizing method, of the poet of the Beowulf, the singer of Finnsburg comes to close quarters with his theme, and treats it in nervous, direct, dramatic fashion. Fragment as this is, it serves to stamp its maker as no bookman, but a minstrel, who knew how to rouse his hearers in the hall with living words. In directness of treatment, in delight of battle, it sounds the same note that one hears in the historical poems of Maldon and Brunnanburh. But it is not an historical poem like those. It is a piece of the old traditional and mainly oral epic, closely related to the legendary cycle from which the Beowulf derived, and resembling that poem in all essentials of style and metre. Those qualities which difference it from the Beowulf are mainly negative; it lacks sentiment, moralizing, the leisure of the writer; it did not attempt, probably, to cover more than a single event; and one will not err in finding it a fair type of the epic songs which roving singers were wont to chant before lord and liegemen in hall and which were used with more or less fidelity by makers of complete epic poems.

The manuscript which contained the Finnsburg fragment once belonged to the library at Lambeth Palace, but was lost some time ago. Hickes made a copy of it for his Thesaurus, at the beginning of the eighteenth century; and all editions are based on the copy. Hickes may have made mistakes; the scribe is always guilty in these cases until he is proved innocent; and so arises store of controversy over textual matters in infinite detail. But the meaning and the vigor of the whole are beyond controversy.

“No gables are burning.”—[1]

Then cried[2] to his band the battle-young king:
“ ’Tis no dawn from eastward; no dragon flies;
nor burn on this hall the hornéd gables:
5 but hither comes bearing a hostile band
its battle-gear bright:[3] the birds[4] are calling,
“gray-coat” howls,[5] and harsh dins the war-wood,[6]
shield answers shaft. Yon shines the moon
full from the clouds; and foul deeds rise
10to whelm this people with peril and death.
But waken ye now, warriors mine;
seize your shields, be steadfast in valor,
fight at the front, and fearless bide!”
Then rose from rest, with ready courage,[7]
15many gold-decked thanes, and girt them with swords.
Then went to the door those warriors doughty,
Sigeferth[8] and Eawa, swords they drew;
to the other entrance, Ordlaf and Guthlaf,[9]
whom Hengest himself all hastily followed.
20Yet with Garulf[10] pleaded Guthere then
to draw no sword[11] at the door of the hall
nor risk at first rush his royal life
where the rugged-in-war[12] would wrest it from him.
But he[13] cried across all in no craven’s voice,
25hardy hero: “Who holds the door?”
“Sigeferth my name is, Secgas’ prince,
wide-heralded hero: heavy my trials,
hard wars that I waged; there awaits thee now
such[14] as thyself would serve to me!”
30Then din by the door[15] from death-blows sounded;
in hands of heroes were hewn the shields,
the bone-helms[16] burst; and the burg-floor groaned,
until in the grim fight Garulf fell
first of the earls of earth-dwellers there,[17]
35Guthlaf’s[18] son, and good men beside him.
Sank still the slain: wide circled the raven
sallow-brown, swarthy: the sword-light gleamed
as if Finn’s whole burg were blazing with fire.[19]
Never heard I that worthier warring men,
40conquerors sixty, more splendidly fought,
and for mead-draughts sweet such service rendered,
as hero-liegemen paid Hnæf their lord!
Five days fought they in full succession,
five nights as well;[20] but none was slain
45of those doughty warriors warding the door.

Then wended away a wounded clansman,
said that his breastplate was broken sore,
his harness hewn, his helmet pierced.
Swiftly then asked the shepherd-of-folk[21]
50how the warriors all their wounds were bearing,
or which one, now, of the heroes twain[22] . . .

  1. Despite Möller’s argument that the fight here described belongs “between vv. 1145 and 1146” of Beowulf, that is, where Hengest and the remnant of the Danes are attacked after the battle in which Hnæf falls, the majority of scholars are surely right in regarding this part of Finnsburg as the story of the first attack, in which Hnæf falls. See the note to Beowulf, v. 1068.—Some one has called the attention of the “battle-young king” to a peculiar light, and both suggests and rejects explanations, the final one of which is preserved. The king is probably Hnæf, to whom, perhaps, Hengest speaks. They are looking out from their hall.
  2. In appeal,—a call and summons to the throng, as the chieftain notes that the strange light is that of weapons, and that his hall is singled out for a night attack. The desperate courage of chief and clansmen surprised in a hall or within the usual house-defences was a favorite theme in Germanic verse, corresponding to the frequency of the situation in actual life. One thinks of the splendid close of the Nibelungen-Lay as the masterpiece in its kind. Bugge points out the resemblance of the situation to that described in the Saga of Hrolf Kraki.
  3. Conjectural half-verses supplied by Grein to mend the broken rhythmical scheme.
  4. Birds of the battle-field, who follow the army in anticipation of fight, and feast on the slain. See Beowulf, above, vv. 3024 ff.; the famous passage in Brunnanburh, vv. 60 ff.; and Elene, vv. 111 f. (with J. Grimm’s note).
  5. The wolf; see preceding references. Some editors make “gray-coat” the “gray coat-of-mail,” after Beowulf, v. 334.
  6. The spear.—The personification of this and kindred passages should not be prosed into “rattled on,” or “clashed,” instead of “spoke.” Compare the passage (Andreas, 442) describing an ocean storm, where “The billow oft answered, one wave the other.”
  7. Conjectural, to mend a deficient line.
  8. See below, v. 26, and Widsith, v. 31, where he appears as Sæferth.
  9. See Beowulf, 1148, where the two are mentioned, Ordlaf appearing as Oslaf. Later they return to Frisian land and help to take vengeance on Finn. Gering points out that the names are “good Norse.”
  10. Garulf and Guthere are Frisians of the attacking party; one of them asks the other not to risk life in the first desperate onrush (Gering: in this his first battle).—Which is the petitioner? Recently Klaeber has proposed a reading which makes Guthere the spokesman and assumes that he is uncle to Garulf. As Hagen with Patafrid in the Waltharius, as Hildebrand with Wolfhart in the Nibelungen, so here Guthere pleads with his sister’s son not to risk life in the first onrush.
  11. Literally, not to carry his war-gear to the door, not to go there.
  12. Perhaps Sigeferth, whom Guthere sees at the door; but it may simply mean that a veteran and heroic champion is sure to be at the post, and that Garulf should wait for the general engagement rather than rush on sure death.
  13. By Klaeber’s reading, Garulf.
  14. Literally, “which of the two,”—life or death.
  15. Ms. “In the hall,” with false rime, and therefore changed by editors to “by the wall.”
  16. Variant of “shields” in the preceding verse.
  17. That is, as ten Brink explains, of those who dwelt in that part of the earth,—the Frisians.
  18. To avoid a clash with v. 18, above, Möller changed to Guthulf (war-wolf). Ten Brink suspects a tragic motive and retains Guthlaf. Father and son would thus be opposed and repeat the tragedy of the Hildebrand Lay.
  19. Valhalla was lighted by swords. See Uhland, Mythus v. Thor, p. 166.—Swords were named for their light-giving power; they shine after death of the owner,—as in the case of that sailor who has slain five and twenty dragons (Salomon and Saturn, 156 f):—

    His sword well-burnished shineth yet,
    and over the barrow beam the hilts. . . .

  20. Half-verses supplied by Möller.
  21. Hnæf is the likely chieftain to ask this question. One of his warriors has to leave the door because his armor no longer is trustworthy; and Hnæf asks the rest how they fare. Some editors, however, think it is Finn; and others prefer Hengest.
  22. Few fragments inspire more sorrow over the loss of good things than this nervous and swift-moving scene of battle.