A reconstructed Viking Age longhouse (28.5 metres long). By Malen Thyssen.

Finn the Frail Finds Valhalla

This one is a sort-of sequel to one of the most curious poems in the English language.

The Finnesburg Fragment is a piece of a larger poem that’s survived some difficult situations. It’s referenced, and kinda-sorta retold, in Beowulf. There’s a battle at a place called Finnsburg, the hall of a guy called Finn, who is apparently Beowulf’s brother-in-law. Things don’t go well for Finn and his warriors. But there’s so little of the poem, and it’s so full of kennings and other references to material outside of what’s survived that we have a lot of space for interpretation, and there’s even more we’ll simply never know.

The poem I’m sharing here, by the American poet Mary Elizabeth Hewitt, seems to bear some relationship to “Finnesburg.” The first line seems to point pretty clearly to the Finn of the famous fragment. The fact that the last line has the chief in Valhalla can only mean he died in battle, at least as Valhalla’s commonly understood. There’s a lot of talk in the middle. It might have something to do with the fate of Finn; it might not be about Finn so much at all, whether it’s the famous one or not.

Finn’s Saga

Published in Poems: Sacred, Passionate, and Legendary, by Hewitt, 1853.

Brave Finn of the Northland, renowned in story,
Sat high at the Yule-feast, in his locks thin and hoary:
Deep runes carved in fight on his broad brow he beareth,
And the Arm of the Lightning is the good sword he weareth.

And late flowed the banquet by the torch-fires upblazing,
While the Skalds smote their high harps, their loud songs upraising:
Pushed the chief back the goblet; ‘Ho! heard ye my Norsemen?
There went sounds on the night-wind, a tramp as of horsemen!’

Down rang the drained mead-cups, the grasped sword-hilts rattle,
Bounds each knight like a war-horse that afar scents the battle;
And forth from its scabbard each quick blade is bright’ning,
As forth from the storm-cloud leaps and flashes the lightning.

Spake the chief: ‘In the shade now tall forms are advancing,
And their wan hands like snow-flakes in the moon-light are glancing;
They beckon, they whisper, ‘Oh! strong-armed in valor,
The pale guests await thee — mead foams in Valhalla!’

When the snow melts in spring-time from earth, who bewails it?
When the Valkyries beckon, man must die — what avails it!
I am bowed low with years, like a fruit-tree o’erladen,
But a death on the straw-couch were a death for a maiden.

Bring hither my helmet, in the torchlight that glances,
And my shield that hath borne back in fight the strong lances;
Thus may Death, that eluded where a warrior would greet him,
Find me armed by the hearth-stone, and ready to meet him.’

When in the Hereafter the tongue of the foeman
Tells that FINN by the fireside died the death of a woman;
Like his steed in the manger awaiting the slayer,*
Ye shall say how I fearlessly met the betrayer.’

Now, while o’er his white beard the life-tide is bright’ning,
As his death-runes he carveth with the Arm of the Lightning,
He lifts high the goblet, and boldly and proudly,
‘A health to the Northland!’ he quaffeth full loudly.

Sleeps FINN in his cold tomb; rests his war-steed beside him;
Ne’er again ‘mong the thick spears may the pale chieftain guide him:
And the Skalds sweep their high harps to the Strong-Armed in Valor,
While his shade o’er the rainbow passes on to Valhalla.

* THE Scandinavian, like the Scythian, slew and buried his steed in the tomb with the dead chief.

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