Hrothgar hosts a great banquet in honor of Beowulf. He bestows upon him weapons, armor, treasure, and eight of his finest horses. He then presents Beowulf’s men with rewards and compensates the Geats with gold for the Geatish warrior that Grendel killed.
After the gifts have been distributed, the king’s scop comes forward to sing the saga of Finn, which begins with the Danes losing a bloody battle to Finn, the king of the Frisians, a neighbor tribe to the Danes. The Danish leader, Hnaef, is killed in the combat. Recognizing their defeat, the Danes strike a truce with the Frisians and agree to live with them separately but under common rule and equal treatment. Hildeburh, a Danish princess who is married to Finn, is doubly grieved by the outcome of the battle: she orders that the corpses of her brother, the Danish leader Hnaef, and her son, a Frisian warrior, be burned on the same bier. The Danes, homesick and bitter, pass a long winter with the Frisians. When spring comes, they rise against their enemies. Finn is then defeated and slain, and his widow, Hildeburh, is returned to Denmark.
When the scop finishes recounting the saga, Wealhtheow enters, wearing a gold crown, and praises her children, Hrethric and Hrothmund. She says that when Hrothgar dies, she is certain that the children will be treated well by their older cousin, Hrothulf, until they come of age. She expresses her hope that Beowulf too will act as a friend to them and offer them protection and guidance. She presents Beowulf with a torque (a collar or necklace) of gold and a suit of mail armor, asking again that he guide her sons and treat them kindly.
That night, the warriors sleep in Heorot, unaware that a new danger lurks in the darkness outside the hall.
The bard’s tale of the conflict between the Danes and the Frisians—the Finnsburg episode, as this poem-within-a-poem is commonly called—contains some of the most beautiful and resonant language in Beowulf, utilizing many devices characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry. One such device is deliberate, emphatic understatement, as in the lines, “Hildeburh had little cause / to credit the Jutes” (1070–1071), where the point is that, in fact, she has enormous cause to discredit them. Also prominent is the use of kennings—compound words that evoke, poetically and often metaphorically, specific ideas, such as such as “ring-giver” (1101) for king (a king being one who rewards his warriors with rings) and “sea-lanes” (1156) for ocean.
The Finnsburg episode relates loosely to Beowulf’s central narrative. Although it isn’t relevant to the main plot, it invokes the idea of vengeance as a component of honor. The story also highlights a tension in the heroic code by presenting the point of view of the Danish princess Hildeburh. Married to the Frisian king but herself a daughter of the Danes, Hildeburh experiences a divided loyalty. She has a son fighting on one side and a brother on the other. Like many other women in the Germanic warrior culture depicted in Beowulf, Hildeburh functions as a “peace-pledge between nations”—an epithet that the poet later applies to Wealhtheow (2017). Through marriage, Hildeburh helps to forge a connection between tribes. Of course, the practice of using women as peace tools is problematic for the men too. Here an uncle and a nephew are on opposing sides, even though their Germanic culture prizes a particularly strong bond between a man and his sister’s son. In the Finnsburg episode peace proves untenable. Hildeburh must be taken back to Denmark—the ties between the two groups must be severed—before the conflict can rest.
The story also gives the reader a sense of the Anglo-Saxon idea of wyrd, or fate, in which individuals conceive of themselves as directed by necessity and a heroic code that compels them to act in certain fixed ways. The strong discussion of fate in this section is ominous, and the reader quickly gets the sense that the Danes and Geats are a little too exuberant in their rejoicing over the defeat of Grendel. The narrator compounds this troubling feeling by informing us that a reversal of fortune is coming: “how could they know fate, / the grim shape of things to come” (1233–1234). Beowulf’s plot often anticipates itself in this manner. It may even seem to us as though the narrator is giving away the plot and destroying the suspense. For the Beowulf poet, however, the pull of fate is so strong that an event that is fated to happen in the future already has a strong presence. Fate walks among these characters whether they know it or not.
The narrator’s tendency to project forward to future events manifests itself as well in his hints that Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s nephew, will usurp the throne from Hrothgar’s sons. Wealhtheow’s statement that she is certain of Hrothulf’s goodness creates a moment of dramatic irony, as the poet is well aware that Hrothulf has evil in mind. The treachery related in the Finnsburg episode casts a similarly ominous pall over Wealhtheow’s speech and suggests that treachery will mark the future just as it has the past. Such continuity is symbolized in the golden torque that Wealhtheow presents to Beowulf. The poet’s glance forward to Hygelac’s death while wearing the torque (which Beowulf will have given him) reinforces how symbols link the past, present, and future in this culture.