This piece of poetry is fascinating in that its events are recorded in Beowulf. Specifically, in Beowulf, there is a digression which makes direct reference to this poem’s contents, of how Hengest succeeded leadership of the Danes after the death of Hnӕf. What is even more fascinating, however, is that the Hengest mentioned here is, in fact, the same Hengest from history—the Anglo-Saxon leader who spearheaded the invasion of the British isle (Crossley-Holland 3, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology).
Understanding the historical importance of this poem, and understanding subsequently the Anglo-Saxon honor code, it is unsurprising that the poem focuses on battle and bloodshed. Indeed, though but a fragment of a longer poem now lost to time, the fragment here expresses powerful declarations of lordly piety, of subservience to one’s king and war leader (4). Evoking deep pride, the poem causes Crossley-Holland to remark that it “is uncompromising in its naked joy in physical combat and the heroic code” while also allowing us as contemporary readers to “admire and recognize the poem’s technical skill—the effective use of direct speech, and rapid descriptions, and the conjuring with images of light and dark” (4). While somewhat alien to us today, The Finnesburh fragment conveys the demand to satisfy an honor code while fighting against desperate odds; of pushing against the desire to retreat in order to slate one’s cultural upbringing and preserve the honor of one’s tribe. After all, retreat would be unforgivable: not only is the fragment concerned with battle but so is the title—we see the –burh suffix, something which, as Mark Atherton reminds us, in Old English indicated “a fortified settlement of walled town and derives from the verb beorgan to protect” (Complete Old English (Anglo-Saxon), 22) (emphasis Atherton). So the poem is wholly focused on military matters and blood debts; to retreat would be worse than death. And so the defenders, for days, fight on.
So we see the complex movements of the text and how, should the remainder of the poem ever to be discovered—as unlikely, if not downright impossible, as such an event might be—we can expect that the original poem dealt with matters of loyalty, dignity, and understanding one’s place in the bloodletting demands of Anglo-Saxon society. Savage? Undoubtedly. Cruel? Perhaps. Historical? Yes. It is our cultural legacy and a reminder of how far we have come; so not only historical but vital to not forget.
Atherton, Mark. Complete Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Abingdon: Bookprint Ltd, 2010. Print.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Oxford: U.P., 2009. Print.