Finnsburg Episode

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade November 2001

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The complete text of Beowulf creates a great number of difficulties, particularly for those readers who aren't familiar with the period in which this tale was created. One more specific passage from this poem that presents an obstacle is the "Finnsburg Episode." We begin to lose our understanding once the poet introduces us to the notion that the "Finnsburg Episode" is an offering to heroic Beowulf. It is apparently a custom to tell stories and sing songs at celebratory gatherings in this age. In our own modern way, it still is, which I think helps us empathize with the 'what' of the situation. Why they tell this specific story seems to be the more important question. In short, the story is about a woman married for the sake of the feud; there are ensuing battles regardless and she loses her son and brother with her husband as an enemy.

Though she remains neutral, her homeland doesn't and they wait patiently for revenge, which they do procure.

There are several possibilities that could explain why the poet chose to write the "Finnsburg Episode" into this story. It is in fact another heroic tale of the Danes succeeding. Beowulf, on behalf of the Danes, has just defeated the wicked Grendel who has been terrorizing their people and mead hall.

On the other hand, it is a tale of tragic revenge. Perhaps it is being told as a lesson to them with the pretense of heroics. The Danes "won" in the "Finnsburg Episode," but what goes around comes around. Not only that, but someone or something must be out there seeking revenge for Grendel's murder. It seems this tale may just be foreshadowing the next attack on Heorot, which occurs about 100 lines later. Maybe even the bereft Hildeburh is in some way an indication of Grendel's mother's feelings.

Beyond the point of foreshadowing future attacks, it also reflects what Wealhtheow will confirm in the few lines (1161-1164/1168-1186) just after the poem is said. Apparently the throne is to be passed not to Hrothgar's sons, but his nephew, Hrothulf. Because Wealhtheow's speech follows this tale, I'm inclined to believe that history will repeat itself. Both the poet who wrote Beowulf and the bard who tells the tale are aware of this irony.

The bard himself actually seems to be concentrated on pointing out fate as a factor not only in the "Finnsburg Episode," but consequently in the situation the Danes are currently in. Line 1057, just before the introduction of the bard, states "Past and present, God's will prevails" and after he speaks, in lines 1233-1234, the Beowulf poet says "how could they know fate,/the grim shape of things to come." These statements connect the main story to the poem more than any other does. The irony of Hildeburh's fate, the loss of both son and brother to each other, is going to resonate, again, in Wealhtheow's speech. It's a way of informing us of what is to come, what the future holds for the Danish kingdom, and Beowulf's position in it.

Closely connected with their sense of fate in this tale are the notions of vengeance and honor. Lines 1132-1145 exemplify this idea. The weather traces the way life is"”the seasons themselves are fated and will follow that order until time ends, as will revenge eventually be sought. When it is, one must step up and accept his fate of being a warrior because it is only honorable and justified to do so. As it was for both son and uncle to go to battle against each other in the first place.

Though not necessarily a reason, another consideration is that this tale may, in a way, be to that culture what Beowulf is to us. Which is somewhat subjective, but objectively it teaches us an historical and cultural point of view, as well as telling an adventure story.

Another obstacle presented for the reader is the language. This particular translation is in fairly common vernacular. However, there are moments [especially] in the "Finnsburg Episode" where we come upon a word we are unfamiliar with and/or a reference to footnotes. It's not the greatest tragedy in reading, but it does lessen how carefully we are considering every word when every other line refers us to the bottom of the page. Words like "˜spear-gored' in line 1074 and "˜coats of mail' in 1011 sent me seeking my dictionary. At the same time, the footnotes are crucial to keeping track of the names and who belongs to what party. There is no real solution to this problem; it just has to be dealt with as is.

The major problem with understanding the "Finnsburg Episode" is that most of us reading it are not familiar with the customs and values of the Danes at this given period in history. The other part of the difficulty is that the first reading doesn't always allow the depth needed to clarify why the poem is in Beowulf to begin with. Once it's read more closely it's easier to see that it's actually foreshadowing the future of these Danes, while incorporating and accentuating how much they value honor and revenge.