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The poet gives us some graphic details of the funeral pyre and then tells of how Finn’s troops went home.
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“The warrior went up;
the great funeral fire wound into the sky,
the burial mound roared with it; heads melted,
gaping wounds burst anew, then blood gushed out,
the bodies’ grievous wounds. The flames swallowed all up,
speediest of spirits, there the blaze’s belly bore away men
of both peoples; their glory together passed away.
Departed then the warriors to go to their homes
deprived of friends, scattered across Frisia,
their homes and their strongholds.”
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Heading Home, Gore Foreshadows
Reading this passage over again the thing that jumps out the most for me (aside from the gore) is that the poet makes a point of telling us where everyone went after the funeral. They all went back to their homes – they “scattered across Frisia” (“Frysland geseon” (l.1126)).
This kind of mass departure suggests that whatever battle was waged between Danes and Frisians must have been huge. Since soldiers are returning to their homes all across the land, Finn would have had to have brought in all of his vassals, all of those who had pledged loyalty to him in exchange for land or at the least the right to own enough property to create a home.
So this latest battle between Frisians and Danes wasn’t just one gang of Frisians fighting another gang of Danes, it sounds like it was some sort of all out offensive.
What makes this fight even more dire, though, is that we have no sense of how many Danes there were. They’re obviously not near home so we’re not told where they went after the funeral at this point. In fact, it’s even possible that Finn overpowered the Danes with force of numbers. We’ll learn next week that the Danes came by ship, so how many of them could there have been?
But even then, if you consider Hildeburh’s position as a peaceweaver between the Danes and Frisians (she’s Hnaef’s sister, after all, and had bore Finn at least one child), there must have been a very good reason for Finn to have called such a massive force together. Some incident must have re-sparked the conflict and brought it to a head in which this episode of attempted peace would come to a bloody conclusion.
Unfortunately, all I can do is offer wild speculation. But that’s just the spirit of this blog, really.
So, to the gore.
We haven’t seen many accounts of battles between human armies yet, and even Beowulf’s accounts of fighting monsters have been pretty tame in comparison to this scene. Hell, even when Beowulf pulls off Grendel’s arm, there’s nothing quite so bloody as this scene of head-melting heat. So why embellish it so?
I think that it’s a pretty clear metaphor that the violence between Danes and Frisians is going to burst anew in the fires of rage. The poet just phrases it in such burning red lines to underline the searing fury underlying this restarting of an apparently age old feud.
But amidst the very graphic foreshadowing that violence is going to break out between Frisian and Dane once more, I think there’s a quiet call for peace. Or at least a condemnation of war.
After all, the poet says “there the blaze’s belly bore away men/of both peoples” (“þara ðe þær guð fornam/bega folces” (ll.1123-1124) The rage or anger that fuels the next outbreak of violence won’t satisfy either side because it will be motivated by a passion that’s gotten into the offender. Just like the actual fire, such indignation will be indiscriminate, and burn all alike.
That’s my theory anyway. What do you think of all the gore and fire here? Feel free to leave them in the comments
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Wound Words Before a Shift for Home
Well, in keeping with the pattern we’ve noticed when it comes to the Beowulf poet talking about war, this passage has some choice compound words.
First among them is line 1119’s “wael-fyra” meaning “deadly fire.” This one is incredibly straightforward, since “wael-fyra” comes from the combination of “wael” (“slaughter,” or “carnage”) and “fyr” (“fire”).
So this word is, literally, a “slaughter fire” or “carnage fire.” A bit more evocative in its literal form, though maybe not quite so clear as the old adjective-noun combo that is “deadly fire.”
Next we have a compound word that reminds me of Mercutio’s line in Romeo and Juliet: “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough. ‘Twill serve” (III.i.96-97).
This is the word “ben-geato,” which means “wound-gash” (l.1121). Though this word comes to use from the compounding of “ben” (“wound,” or “mortal injury”) and “geat” (“gate,” “door,” or “opening”).
So, again, the literal form is quite evocative (if a bit clunky), as it comes out as “wound door.”
What I find especially evocative here is that the wound isn’t just gaping, or deep, or serious. It is literally a “door” or “gate” into the body.
These are wounds that’s definitely not closing any time soon, especially if the flames have anything to say about it – the fact that these wounds bursts suggests to me (with my limited medical knowledge when it comes to wounds) that the bodies and their damage is so fresh that the wounds had just lightly scabbed over, but were still raw underneath. So when the scabs melted in the flames, the fallen bled anew. Perhaps not something an audience rapt with the description of a funeral pyre would pick up on, but maybe something extra intended as further foreshadowing of friction between Danes and Frisians.
In a similar vein, we then get “lað-bite” on line 1122. This word means, simply, “wound.”
At least in translation. In a more literal form, it’s a combination of “lað” (“hated,” “hateful,” “hostile,” “malignant,” “evil,” “loathsome,” “noxious,” “unpleasant,” “pain,” “harm,” “injury,” “misfortune,” “insult,” “annoyance,” or “harmful thing”) and “bite” (“bite,” “sting,” “sword-cut,” or “cancer”), so something like “malignant sting” or “noxious sword-cut” is probably more in line with what the word intends. Again, definitely not something particularly pleasant.
Then, stepping away from war, there’s the word “heah-burg,” meaning “chief city,” or “town on a height” (l.1127). It comes from a combo of “heah” (“high,” “tall,” “lofty,” “high class,” “exalted,” “sublime,” “illustrious,” “important,” “proud,” “haughty,” “deep,” or “right (hand)”) and “burg” (“dwelling or dwellings within a fortified enclosure,” “fort,” “castle,” “borough,” or “walled town”), unsurprisingly.
This word signifies a major tonal shift from the graphic gore and blood of the funeral pyre, giving a sense of something very removed from such things. A sense that leaves me with the impression that, at least within the poem of Beowulf, there is an idea that war and life in general are separate.
It’s the idea that war is something to do far away from your high town, your home. It’s an idea that we definitely share with the culture from which Beowulf came. After all, wars in foreign lands often don’t seem real until they’ve touched us personally, or come to involve some threat to the “homeland.” Even if those threats are exaggerated or blown out of proportion for the sake of eyes on screens/pages/ads.
What do you think of the shift from the funeral to the talk of homes?
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In the next part of the poem we’ll see what happened to Hengest and his Danes after the funeral. After a little poetic flourish, of course.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.