One Sad Woman; Reclaiming Hildeburh’s Tale from her Men
Updated: Jun 30
“The lady lamented, sorrowed with songs...the greatest fire of the slain, roared before the mound” (Beowulf, 1117-1120; Benjamin Slade translation) (Photo of Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations, Wikimedia).
Amidst the trolls, sea monsters and dragon, it is a story of an ordinary woman that stands out as the poignant tragedy of Beowulf. Her name, Hildeburh, will not be recognized unless you’ve made a study of the parts of the story that are backgrounded to that of the great hero who fights monsters. That said, her story, of a woman who dedicates herself to the stability of her family only to watch the men in her life literally burn it to the ground in front of her, will resonate with many. As the poem relates with typical Anglo-Saxon understatement: “that was one sad woman.”
Hildeburh (I always pronounce this Hilda-burra, though I’ve heard her called Hilda-borg) is a figure in a tale performed at Hrothgar’s mead hall after Beowulf kills Grendel. She gives everything to the men in her life and they take everything away from her. Like Hrothgar’s queen, Wealtheow, Hildeburh is a peaceweaver, a princess bound in marriage to the son of an enemy tribe in the hopes of ending generational blood feud. Danish Hildeburh marries a Frisian king and the two are together peacefully long enough to have at least one son, who seems to be fostered with Hildeburh’s Danish brother. Violence breaks out when Hildeburh’s brother comes to visit with her son and a troop of Danish warriors. The details are hazy as to what starts the conflict, but men of the Frisian king attack the visiting Danes while they sleep. The Danes are able to hold off their attackers, but Hildeburh’s brother and son are killed, along with enough men on either side to force both into a stalemate. Furthermore, in what strikes me as an excellent concept for a reality television series, winter forces the two sides to live together for months.
Thijs Porck’s comic of Hildeburh’s story “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode” is the only image of the story that I’ve found online that refers to the character Hildeburh. Porck’s title cleverly uses the Old English words freoðuwebbe and Freswael for peaceweaver and the Frisian slaughter, which alliterates and indicates Hildeburh’s central role in the story.
The set piece of this story is the funeral pyre after the battle. It is, for me, the great symbol of the futility of blood feud in Beowulf. Dane and Frisian bodies are piled high, including the queen’s brother and son. It is also the only poetic description of a funeral pyre I have ever read: “Heads melted, the wound-gates burst open, then blood sprang out from the hate-bites of the body, the blaze swallowed all up” (1120-1122). In a moment that foreshadows the unnamed keening Geatish woman who mourns Beowulf’s death, Hildeburh sings her sorrow, watching her loved ones burn. But the story doesn’t end there. The surviving warriors are forced to overwinter together, swearing fealty to the Frisian king, an arrangement that must have humiliated the Danes, who survived their leader, the queen’s brother. Peace lasts as long as the frozen harbor traps the Danish ships. When the Danes can finally escape Frisia, they seek revenge, killing Hildeburh’s husband and pillaging his hall, taking everything of value, including Hildeburh, back to their lands. The text does read as if Hildeburh, the character who loses her husband, brother and son in the conflict, is an object to be carried off.
More of the story is told in a separate text, only a fragment of which has survived. It is told from the perspective of the Danes, just as they discover that an enemy has come to slaughter them in their sleep. This version can be described as heroic, as opposed to the tragic version told in Beowulf. It is full of rousing speeches and vows. Beowulf scholars refer to the two versions of the story as the episode (in Beowulf) and the fragment, but in a nod to the male-centric history of Old English scholarship, both stories center Hildeburh’s husband Finn even though Finn is not foregrounded in either of the versions of the tale. Therefore we have the titles “Saga of Finn” and the “Fight at Finnsburg.” A study on the fragment and episode by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Alan Bliss, is called Finn and Hengest (Hengest was the headman of the Danes after Hildeburh’s brother Hnaef was killed in the initial bloodshed). Today's readers may recognize as painfully modern the Old English expectation that women put the needs of the family, or needs of the men in their lives before their own, and might feel the added insult that scholars have framed Hildeburh’s story as her husband’s.
John Howe’s cover art for Tolkien’s Finn and Hengest, the Frisian king and the headman of the Danes after Hildeburh’s brother is slain.
Finally, the story of the conflict between Hnaef and the aggressors who attack his men in the night is hinted at in the poem “Widsith,” that oblique compendium of old Germanic stories, boiled down to bare names in this case. Many of the names of figures mentioned in the fragment or the episode are clustered together in “Widsith,” which I have tasked myself with illustrating using Playmobil figures. The names in “Widsith” suggest an affinity to the fragment’s perspective of the story, of Hnaef’s heroic defense of his hall against attackers answering to Finn. Hildeburh is not mentioned, but I will remedy that in my Widsith Project illustrations.
Hildeburh’s story, as powerful as I find it, is surprisingly not known beyond Old English circles. It does not have a history of being illustrated or shared in its own right. An Internet search of any of the identifying names of the story brings up John Howe’s cover of the Tolkien book portraying two of the men in the fight and images related to other parts of Beowulf. There is also a comic strip by a Dutch scholar who probably discovered, as I have, that the story is complicated and difficult to tell because of the names and relationships. My desire to share lesser known stories from myth, legend and folklore make it a natural story for me to highlight in this blog and in my illustration project.
Widsith Project Progress
My 2018 shots of moments in “Widsith” that refer to the story of Hildeburh center the battle from the fragment because the characters mentioned in “Widsith” suggest that narrative. I present the marriage of Finn and Hildeburh (only Finn is mentioned, but I longed to include her); the moment when a warrior warns his nephew (a Jutish prince) against rushing to the front of the fight; the experienced warrior Sigeferth threatening the attackers; and Hunlafing sliding a sword to Hengest to seek revenge against the Danes.
I shot several scenes of the Hildeburh story in 2018, when I was trying to illustrate the “Widsith” line by line (rather than creating images for stories the poem alludes to). “Widsith” does’t mention Hildeburh, but I featured her in my shot of her husband Finn portraying their wedding. My website’s new platform for sharing stories individually will allow me to tell the story free from the constraints of the order of names mentioned in “Widsith,” but I will still have to square the information from the episode, the fragment and scholarly insights into figures mentioned in “Widsith.” The fragment tells a story of men fighting to defend a mead hall from attackers, with specific men defending doorways. This presented a unique challenge as I had relied on two-dimensional backdrop images of mead halls in other shots, but many of the moments I wanted to share needed to convey a fight that takes place between men in doorways. I tend to use as many existing set and prop pieces from the Playmobil world as I can, but I was not able to find Playmobil doorways that did the job very well. After researching images of reconstructed Viking longhouses and mead halls, (and many failed efforts to find a scale model I could just use without having to build something) I went to the large, local craft supply shop. I bought a number of panels and long pieces of balsa wood to start creating at least a doorway, but probably as much of the set as I need. I am not a modeler or a very confident crafter, and I don’t think like a designer so I tend to put my pieces in place and add or subtract elements until I have the shot I think tells the story. I have a sense that making storyboards could simplify my life, but if I was able to draw in any satisfactory way, I wouldn’t have to create three-dimensional dioramas to illustrate these stories.
Widsith Studios reborn!
After sitting in storage for two years, a casualty of buying a new home, I rebuilt my Widsith stage, and have brought my figures out to retell some of this “sad woman’s” story. My work on the mead hall elements of the story will take some time, but I will post updates on New England Bard's social media pages as the story unfolds.