The Battle of Finnesburh

Most people who have ready any Anglo-Saxon poetry have read Beowulf, which deserves its status as a English classic. Much less well-known is The Battle of Finnesburh, mostly because it is, alas, only a fragment of a much longer work. Even as a fragment, though, it’s one of the most gripping battle-scenes ever depicted in poetry, and the beautiful lines describing the end of the siege never fail to move me:

The raven hovered
dusky and shimmering-dark. Sword-light stood
as if all of Finnesburh were in flames.

Here’s the whole fragment:

Then proclaimed Hnaef, the battle-young king:
‘This is not the eastern dawn nor is a dragon flying here
nor here does this hall’s gables burn.
But here they bear forth, birds screech,
the grey-coated wolf bays, the war-wood clashes,
the shield answers the shaft. Now the moon shines,
wandering under the clouds; now woe-deeds come to pass
which this people’s hatred desires to fulfil.
But awake now, my warriors,
grasp your linden-wood shields, resolve upon courage,
strive to the vanguard, be high-spirited.’
Then arose many a gold-laden thane, girded his sword
then moved to the door the noble champions
Sigeferth and Eaha, drew their swords,
and at the other door, Ordlaf and Guthlaf
and Hengest himself came just behind them.
Then yet Garulf directed Guthere
that he so excellent a life at the first journey
to the doors of the hall, armoured, should not venture
since now one hard in hatred wished to take it away;
but he asked over all, openly,
the daring-hearted hero, who held the door.
‘Sigeferth is my name.’ –said he– ‘I am a man of the Sedgean,
an adventurer widely known, I have endured many misfortunes,
which (thing) for yourself from me you will attain.’
Then was in the hall the tumult of carnage,
the round shield-board must in the hands of the bold,
the bone-helm burst -the planks of the fortress resounded-
until in the battle Garulf fell
the first of all of the dwellers in the land,
Guthlaf’s son, around him many good
mortals’ carcases. The raven hovered
dusky and shimmering-dark. Sword-light stood
as if all of Finnesburh were in flames.
I have never heard that more worthily in battle of men
of sixty victory-warriors bearing themselves better
nor ever for sweet mead making better requital
than to Hnaef gave his retainers.
They fought for five days, as none of them fell,
the troop-companions, but they held the doors.
Then the hero went wounded, passing away,
he said that his byrnie was broken apart,
his war-garb weak and also his helmet was pierced.
Then immediately asked him the protector of the people
how well the warriors their wounds survived
or which of the young men….

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One thought on “The Battle of Finnesburh

  1. Pingback: The Battle of Finnesburh | earlofmercia

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