The story of Finn and Hengest that is sung by Hrothgar's court poet is straightforward on the face of it.
He chooses to begin with the sorrows of princess Hildeburh of the Danes, the daughter of King Hoc, who married King Finn of the Frisians. The marriage is presented as a happy one: in her home among the Frisians, "she most keenly / had felt the world's joys."
A woman married off to a foreign ruler was called a "peace-weaver" (freothuwebbe) and may often have served that function well. For example, Hrothgar's own wife Wealhtheow is described as "a pledge of peace between peoples" (line 2017). However, Beowulf is doubtful if their daughter's marriage will bring a lasting peace. In fact, he says that marriages often fail in this. In Gummere's translation (I haven't quite got to these lines yet):
But seldom ever
when men are slain, does the murder-spear sink
but briefest while, though the bride be fair!
Beowulf then describes at length how old grudges and revived jealousy at the wedding feast will lead to a renewed conflict and to the estrangement of the man and wife.
The peace woven by Hildeburh outlasted the wedding feast by a considerable margin. There was certainly time to bear a son to Finn and perhaps enough to watch him grow up to be a warrior. (I think he is the subject of line 1118 "the warrior laid" on the pyre). However, eventually, the kingdoms of her birth and marriage fought each other. In that slaughter, she lost her brother, her son, and later her husband.
Ignoring scholarly controversies, Finn's story is this:
- Hildeburh, a Dane, is married to Finn, the Frisian king, to help make peace between the nations.
- She has Finn's son.
- Some time later, when Danes visit Finn, a fight breaks out between them. We do not know if it was premeditated or spontaneous.
- Many men on both sides are killed, including Hildeburh's Danish brother (Hnaef) and her Frisian son, "so it was past [Finn's] strength at that place and time / to finish off the fight with Hengest / or move the men who remained alive."
- Finn must therefore make a peace agreement with Hnaef's successor to command, Hengest.
- They swear oaths, occupy a hall together, and stringently keep the peace. Anyone who taunts the other side will die. Finn hands rewards to the Danes equally with the Frisians.
- Nevertheless, this peace is considered a dishonourable one because it does not allow the deaths to be avenged and apparently does not involve the paying of wergild ("man-gold," fines as recompense for a killing) as an alternative to revenge.
- So, when the ice breaks up and navigation can resume, a Danish ship bearing Guthlaf, Oslaf, and Hunlafing arrives. Hunlafing places a sword on Hengest's lap and encourages him to take his revenge.
- The Frisians are suddenly slaughtered, their hall looted, and Hildeburh is taken home to Denmark.
We, nevertheless, have three possible interpretations of the story:
- The quarrel is between Danes and Frisians, but the Frisians are sometimes called "giants," just as "Danes" are sometimes called "Scyldings.
- A number of real giants were also present and started the fighting. This seems unlikely. Other passages in Beowulf say they were all killed in a flood.
- A number of Jutes were present when the Frisians and Danes met and they precipitated the trouble. This is more believable than the theory that giants did it, and is J.R.R. Tolkien's interpretation, but it implies that the scribes became confused and wrote "giants" instead of "Jutes."
One might ask why the story does not clarify whether two groups or three were involved. One answer is that the story was already well known to the audience. In the tiny remnant of Anglo-Saxon writings we still have, Finn is mentioned in three: Beowulf, "Widsith," and the "Finnesburg Fragment." A story told of an equally well-known conflict of our time--World War II, for example--could refer to Germans at certain times, Nazis in others, and the relationship of Germans to Nazis would, very likely, never be explained. Were they one group or two?
"Widsith" doesn't say much of Finn, just that "Finn son of Folcwalda [ruled] the tribe of the Frisians." The Finnesburg Fragment (see the translation here) is a partial description of the fight itself. It mentions Hnaef and Hengest, but gives no reason for the fight.