Reading the Hildeburh Episode: Feuding, Vengeance & the Problem of Motherhood in Beowulf

Beowulf is historically known for its “digressions” into extratextual storytelling, and scholars have regarded these intrusions as everything from evidence of Beowulf’s oral origin to a demonstration of the problematic structure of the poem. My interpretation of this narrative interlace understands the various stories as directly engaged with the main subject of the plot by providing parallel circumstances that highlight important aspects of the main narrative centered on Beowulf and monster-slaying.

Much ink has been spilled on the Sigemund and Heremod episodes. Some read these stories as foils of each other with Sigemund representing a positive model for Beowulf to follow and Heremod representing a negative model that serves as a warning for the young hero. However, Mark Griffith has demonstrated how even the Sigemund episode is coded with misdeeds, and he has suggested that many of the details included in the story portray the hero rather pejoratively.

There are numerous other “digressions” within Beowulf, though these two have traditionally gained the lion’s share of attention in the scholarship. Today, I want to look closely at the form and possible narrative function of the Hildeburh episode (1076-1159), frequently called the Finn episode, which follows directly after the two previously referenced stories, and the three serve as entertainment during the celebration following Grendel’s defeat and Beowulf’s triumph.

John Howe’s illustration of the funeral of king Finn (2005).

While the first two “digressions” seem to parallel aspects of Beowulf’s own character, the episode centered on Hildeburh conveys a very different message, and I would argue, perhaps to a specific audience. While the first two stories focus on heroes who possess great strength, the third story centers on something only hinted at thus far in the poem: maternal loss.

Just prior to the celebratory storytelling in Heorot, we learn that Wealhðeow, queen of the Danes, advises her husband, King Hroðgar, to place his trust in his nephew and kinsman Hroðulf rather than investing in a foreign hero, like Beowulf. Thomas Shippey has noted the irony in this as earlier in the poem there is reference to the burning of Heorot, which is perpetrated by Hroðulf and results in the murder of both of Hroðgar’s sons and Hroðulf’s usurpation. These enigmatic references to a future Danish power struggle might easily be missed, but they nevertheless frame Wealhðeow as a mother who will lose her sons to violence and kin-slaying, possibly within the broader context of a feud between rival brothers for the throne. After all, Hroðgar is not the first in line, and he even remarks of his late (and elder) brother Heorogar—deep in his cups—that se wæs betera ðonne ic “he was better than I” (469) presumably referring to his prior kingship.

J. R. Skelton’s image of Wealhðeow as a cup-bearer in Stories of Beowulf by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1908).

Indeed, the need for Hroðgar to build Heorot at all suggests that the former Danish mead hall is no longer around, which invites further questions such as whether its destruction was a result of inter-family violence and Hroðgar’s overthrow of his older brother to claim the Danish crown. Alas, the poem does not tell.

Although the Hildeburh episode concludes the celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, its mood is far from jovial. The tale relates a feud between the Danes and the Frisians and Hildeburh is caught in the middle. Hildeburh’s song relates how her bearn ond broðor “sons and brothers” (1074) find themselves on opposite sides of a feud where everybody dies in the ensuing conflict—everyone loses—all of them die in the violence. Indeed, Hildeburh’s role as Danish princess made Frisian queen herself—a failed freoðuwebbe “peace-weaver” (1942) is highlighted by the mutual deaths of her family members. The feud takes both Finnes eaferan “the heirs of Finn” (1068) and hæleð Healfdena “heroes of the half-Danes”(1069) as the parallel descriptions of how wig ealle fornam (1080) “war took all” and lig ealle forswealg “fire swallowed all” (1122) connects warfare with their shared cremation next to one another on the funeral pyre.

Hildeburh metodsceaft bemearn “bemoaned her fate” (1077) because she has no way to avenge her kinsmen. She is on both sides and therefore on neither. No matter what happens in the ongoing feud between her peoples, Hildeburh will suffer loss. And again, a mother loses her sons. Moreover, her tale parallels the foreshadowed fate of Wealhðeow’s sons, who will be betrayed by her treacherous nephew Hroðulf (1180-7). 

As I discuss in much greater depth in my dissertation subchapter “The Ethical Paradox of Grendel’s Mother’s Revenge” (358-370), it is this contextual framework within which Grendel’s mother appears in the narrative (out of nowhere) as a wrecend “avenger” to wreak vengeance upon those who murdered her son. In a sense, Grendel’s mother does—and is able to do—what Hildeburh cannot. And, as Leslie Lockett and others have observed, Grendel’s mother’s actions represent a legally and ethically “fair” exchange: a life for a life. This engenders further sympathy for her character’s suffering and retaliation, especially following directly after the context established by Hildeburh episode.

Image of monstrous hybrid-woman from The Wonders of the East in British Library, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f.105v.

Even after Grendel’s mother is slain, the pattern repeats. Not long after we meet Queen Hygd in Geatland, her son is killed in a feud with the Swedish king Onela, leaving Beowulf to inherit the throne. Yet another mother loses her son to a feud, underscoring the narrator’s comments on the violence between the Danes and the Grendelkin: ne wæs þæt gewrixle til,/ þæt hie on ba healfa bicgan scoldon/ freonda feorum “that was not a good exchange, that they on both sides should pay with the lives of kinsmen” (1304-06).

We do not know who wrote Beowulf, and probably never will. Nevertheless, at this point in the poem, I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s argument in A Room Of One’s Own: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”  While I am not arguing for a female author of the poem (though why not), I would contend that there seem to be strong rhetorical appeals directed at women—especially mothers—within Beowulf, which suggest that they were likely part of the poem’s anticipated audience.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Basil Blackwell. 1950.

Fahey, Richard. “Enigmatic Design and Psychomachic Monstrosity in Beowulf.” University of Notre Dame: Dissertation, 2020.

—. “The Lay of Sigemund.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (March 22, 2019).

Fell, Christine. Women in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Franzen, Eleanor. “Peace, Politics, Gender and God: Beowulf and the Women Of Early Medieval Europe.” Bluestocking: Online Journal for Women’s History (October 6, 2011).

Gardner, Jennifer Michelle. “The Peace Weaver: Wealhtheow in Beowulf.” Western Carolina University: Master’s Thesis, 2006.

Griffith, Mark. “Some Difficulties in Beowulf, Lines 874-902: Sigemund Reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Kaske, Robert.  “The Sigemund-Heremod and Hama-Hygelac Passages in Beowulf.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 74 (1959): 489-94.

Lockett, Leslie. “The Role of Grendel’s Arm in Feud, Law, and the Narrative Strategy of Beowulf.” In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge (I), edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard, 368-88. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

McLemore, Emily. “Grendel’s Mother Eats Man, Woman Inherits the Epic: Why Women Should Continue Teaching Beowulf.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (April 28, 2021).

Overing, Gillian. Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

Shippey, Thomas A. “The Ironic Background.” In Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology, edited by Robert D. Fulk, 194-205. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.

The Lay of Sigemund

Having recently posted a blog on dragonomics in Beowulf and Tolkien’s Hobbit, I decided to follow up by offering a complementary poetic translation of the Sigemund-episode in Beowulf.

I have chosen to isolate the Sigemund-episode (874-902) and translate this passage as a discrete poem, in part because the episode operates as a poem within a poem, delivered as one of three songs by the Danish court poet and recited in celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel. Numerous scholars have tried to identify its literary function in Beowulf, and the episode has traditionally been regarded as a heroic exemplum, honoring Beowulf and foreshadowing his fight with the dragon. I wish to challenge this reading of the passage.

“The Sigurðr Portal” from Hylestad Stave Church, Setesdal, Norway; now housed at the Oldsaksamlingen of the University of Oslo.

The Sigemund-episode in Beowulf is the earliest known account of the Vǫlsung legend, and this tale is alluded to in both the anonymous Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson as well as in Njáls saga, Þiðreks saga and the Vǫlsunga saga. Christine Rauer notes in her study of the Beowulf-dragon and analogous medieval dragon-fights, “The more extensive accounts of the Vǫlsung dragon-fight, such as those found in Fáfnismál (Poetic Edda) and Vǫlsunga saga, date from the thirteenth century, although the subject matter can be presumed to be of an earlier date” (42). However, in these later Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the legend, it is Sigurðr, Sigmundr’s son, who is credited with slaying the hoard-guarding dragon, Fáfnir—not his father.

I would note that, in the section in Beowulf describing Sigemund’s slaying of the dragon, there appears to be an alliterative formula that features also in the Old English Maxims II. This poem characterizes the behavior, function and stereotypical nature of various things—including references to cyning “a king” (1, 28), wulf “wolf” (18) and þyrs “giant” (42), in addition to geological features such as ea “a river” (30), wudu “woods” (33) and brim “sea” (45), as well as material objects and structures such as daroð “a spear” (21), beorh “barrow” (34) and duru “doors” (36). Maxims II describes sweord “a sword” (25) before shifting focus onto the stereotypical image of a gold-proud and barrow-dwelling dragon. The line reads drihtlic isern. Draca sceal on hlæwe “lordly iron. The dragon shall be in a barrow” (26). This closely parallels a similar line in Beowulf, which reads dryhtlic iren. Draca morðre swealt “lordly iron. The dragon died by murder” (892). Although the ending of the line is altered, the commonalities are nevertheless striking, especially since in both cases the alliteration stretches across two discrete semantic units.

I have also tried in my translation and recitation to emphasize the poetics of this episode, especially the two rhyming b-verse half-lines, which emphasize the dragon’s demise. The first, draca morðre swealt “the dragon died by murder” (892), characterizes Sigemund’s killing of the monster as a crime, in its description of the slaying as morðor “murder” (892). The second, wyrm hat gemealt “the hot worm melted” (897), reiterates the dragon’s death at the hand of the hero, and emphasizes also the element of heat—otherwise absent from the characterization of the dragon in the Sigmeund-episode—though explicitly linked to the Beowulf-dragon, described as fyrdraca “fire-dragon” (2689) and ligdraca “flame dragon” (2334, 3040).

Vǫlsung Legend runestone discovered at Drävle (U 1163), relocated in 1878 to the courtyard of the manor house Göksbo, containing image of Sigurðr who thrusts his sword through the serpent.

The Sigemund-episode is also enveloped by references to his ellendædum “valorous deeds” (876, 900), a compound that appears at both the beginning and end of the passage. However, Mark Griffith has provided a detailed commentary of the episode, and he concludes that “The episode of Sigemund is more highly enigmatic, and its central figure much more problematic than received opinion has it” (40). Griffith observes the numerous pejorative terms used to describe the hero, perhaps most famously his characterization as aglæca “fearsome marauder” (893), a term used to characterize each monster in the poem, Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), Grendel’s mother (1259), and the dragon (2520, 2534, 2592, 2907, 3061), though notably also Beowulf at two key moments (1512, 2592). As Griffith points out, “if the term does have pejorative meaning, then this applies to both Sigemund and Beowulf” (35).

This calls into question the merits of his heroism, and makes the reader wonder about the nature of his ellendædum, uncuþes fela “valorous deeds, much known” (876). The mystery introduced in this line is resolved when the Danish poet reports that þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston,/ fæhðe ond fyrena, buton Fitela mid hine “feuds and crimes, of which the the sons of men did not readily know, except Fitela with him” (878-79). Indeed we learn that his valorous deeds are characterized specifically as fæhðe “feuds” (879), a term associated with the Grendelkin’s feud with God (109), and especially Grendel’s mother’s vengeance (1333, 1340, 1380, 1537) as well as the dragons wrath (2403, 2513, 2525, 2689). We learn also that these deeds are explicitly fyrena “crimes” (879)—a term repeatedly associated with Grendel (101, 164, 750, 811)—who likewise performs fæhðe ond fyrene (137, 153).

Moreover, the reference to Fitela, Griffith argues, may call to mind information for the Vǫlsunga saga, which “records how Signy changes shape with a sorceress, visits her brother and sleeps with him, whilst in this disguise, in order to beget a son to further the Vǫlsung feud with her husband” (25). In other words, Sigmundr (Sigemund) is both father and uncle to Sinflǫtli (Fitela), as a result of his incestuous relations with his twin sister. This seems further emphasized by the reference to the secrets shared eam his nefan “uncle to nephew” (881), which focuses the reader’s attentions on Sigemund’s incest and role as eam, an Old English term which indicates specifically “maternal uncle.”

Indeed, troubling descriptions of the hero persist, as Sigemund becomes characterized as wreccena wide mærost “the most famous of exiles”(898), which calls to mind the exiled Grendel, described as mære mearcstapa “famous border-crosser” (103), depicting the hero once again in pejorative terms. I would argue that this bears especially on the final reference to Sigemund’s ellendædum “valorous deeds” (900), and specifically the parenthetical half-line at the end of the episode, which indicates that he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900).

Vǫlsung legend runestone located at Gök (Sö 327), containing a runic text on two serpents that surround much of the Vǫlsung imagery, including a depiction of Sigurðr stabbing the serpent from below (photo from 1922).

If Sigemund prospers through fæhðe ond fyrena “feuds and crimes” (879), what does this say about the warrior ethics displayed in the poem? Indeed, I would suggest that the parenthetical half-line he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900) highlights how in the heroic world of Beowulf, the only way to thrive is by imitating monsters and engaging readily in fæhðe ond fyrena. In Beowulf, feuds and crimes result in the protagonist’s death and the subsequent genocide of the Geatish people—which mirrors Sigemund’s (and Fitela’s) annihilation of ealfela eotena cynnes “an entire race of giants” (883)—perhaps in part because Beowulf seems to adopt Sigemund as a role model and seeks to emulate the ellendæda of this aglæca.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. “Bee-wolf and the Hand of Victory: Identifying the Heroes of Beowulf and Vǫlsunga saga.The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116.4 (2017): 387-414.

Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Basil Blackwell. 1950.

Kaske, Robert.  “The Sigemund-Heremod and Hama-Hygelac Passages in Beowulf.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 74 (1959): 489-94.

Griffith, Mark. “Some difficulties in Beowulf, lines 874-902: Sigemund reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon. D. S. Brewer. 2000.