What is the purpose of the story of Finn in Beowulf? (lines 1070-1158)

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The Finnsburg episode is a poem within a poem, recited at the great feast that Hrothgar holds in honor of the victorious Beowulf. As with all Nordic sagas—including Beowulf itself—the tale of Finn is meant to illustrate the most important values of warrior culture. In that sense, it serves...

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The Finnsburg episode is a poem within a poem, recited at the great feast that Hrothgar holds in honor of the victorious Beowulf. As with all Nordic sagas—including Beowulf itself—the tale of Finn is meant to illustrate the most important values of warrior culture. In that sense, it serves an important didactic purpose; in other words, its primary aim is to teach vital lessons that must be learned and handed down from generation to generation.

One of those lessons is the importance of vengeance in Danish warrior culture. In the present day, vengeance is seen as something undesirable, something to be avoided wherever possible. If someone does harm to us, then we can seek recourse through courts of law. For the Danes, however, a wrong could only be righted through acts of revenge. Far from being morally unacceptable, revenge was seen as an essential component of the honor code by which warriors were expected to live.

We see this lesson illustrated clearly in the Finnsburg saga, where the Danes are defeated by the Frisians, and the Frisian king Finn marries a Danish princess called Hildeburh. Though peace has been formally established between the two rival tribes, the Danes remain bitter at their defeat. Their honor has been violated, and so they must gain revenge on the Frisians for their loss. The Danes rise up, and in the ensuing uprising Finn is killed.

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Beowulf is full of digressions like these where the poet takes the opportunity to tell other stories which would have been familiar to his audience. One of the purposes of these digressions is simply to take a break from the main narrative; it also ensures the other, older stories of the Anglo-Saxon tradition are not forgotten. However, the stories are not chosen at random. Instead, they are supposed to have some significant connection to the main text and help the listener better understand the main narrative of Beowulf himself.

This digression is really not so much about Finn as it is about his wife, Hildeburh. Note how the digression ends with a discussion of how the "drihtlice wife," the noble lady, was returned to her own people against her will. The next thing the scop talks about is Wealtheow. She approaches Beowulf symbolically with a full cup in offering. Many of the digressions in Beowulf are about women and the different statuses of women within the Anglo-Saxon social structure—consider also Modthryth, an example of a terrible queen. Hildeburh, by contrast, has played her assigned role in society: she has been sent to connect two warring societies as a "peaceweaver," or fríÞwebbe, an important role for Anglo-Saxon women. Although she has failed in this instance, it has not been through her own fault.

Similarly, we then see Wealtheow, another good queen, playing this role with Beowulf. We understand that she has her own important purpose within Heorot: tribal alliances are complex in this period, and it is often up to the women, as agents of diplomacy, to prevent slaughter and disaster.

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The story of Finn, as told in Beowulf, is important given the contrast the story sets up. Prior to the telling of Finn's story, the story of Siegmund is told. Siegmund is a very positive story and is used to compare Beowulf to a great man.

In contrast, the story of Finn is meant to be one of a warning. The use of the story warns against one being a bad ruler. Unlike Siegmund and Beowulf, Finn is killed by the Danes for his unacceptable behaviors and actions.

Therefore, the purpose of the story is to warn others about the consequences of not being a true hero. If one is a true hero, they are raised up and celebrated by those around them. On the other hand, men who treat their followers badly will suffer for the mistreatment.

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