From the 5th century: The almost forgotten legend of Finn, the Frisian king, and its possible historical core

The most fascinating thing about very old sagas and myths is often the search for the core of truth that might be in them.

From the 5th century: The almost forgotten legend of Finn, the Frisian king, and its possible historical core

The most fascinating thing about very old sagas and myths is often the search for the core of truth that might be in them. In the case of the Nibelungenlied, this has been done extensively, there are countless attempts at explanation, and all of them may well be correct, since several real events may well have been conflated. Or it is what it is presented as: just a story. That too is always a possibility.

What applies to the Nibelungenlied also applies to similarly well-known subjects: the British epic "Beowulf", King Arthur, the German-language sagas about "Dietrich von Bern" or the Scandinavian heroic poems. True core or pure fiction? Scientists still like and passionately discuss this. In Germany, however, a mysterious piece of literature that could have taken place nearby, on the North Sea coast, rarely comes into focus: the "Battle of Finnsburg".

The legend is only known from English traditions. Interestingly enough, in two versions: Within the famous "Beowulf" epic, a bard sings about the story of the Frisian king Finn and the Danish prince Hnaef. And in a medieval manuscript, a late 16th-century English scholar found a fragmentary text that came from an alternative version of the same story. Luckily the man decided to copy it - the original parchment was later lost. Today we only have his copy.

Experts assume that the story of the battle for Finnsburg was first recorded in writing in the 8th century, but was probably passed on orally as early as the 5th century. However, these dates are difficult to prove and are still being hotly debated in some cases.

The saga itself is about a tragic family conflict: the Frisians, who live on what is now the Dutch North Sea coast, and the Danes, who were probably at home on the island of Zealand, did not have the best relationship with each other for unknown reasons, but they do have one wanted to improve marriage. The Danish Princess Hildeburg, sister of Prince Hnaef, married the Frisian King Finn. And everything seemed to be going well at first, she had at least one son. Eventually, Hnaef came to visit with a group of his followers, all of whom were housed in a magnificent hall in Finn's castle - the Finnsburg.

But in the night Frisian warriors attacked the Danish guests. Why? That's not really clear. What is clear, however, is that this attack violated the right of hospitality and the honor of the Frisians, which probably made the incident so remarkable that it was reported on for hundreds of years later. And the Frisians not only behaved morally questionable, they weren't even lucky militarily. The Danes defended themselves for days without casualties, while many well-known warriors fell on the enemy side. But then it hit the leader of all people: Hnaef.

Whether it was because he had a guilty conscience or because he wouldn't have stood a chance against the Danes with the remaining fighters: Finn made an extremely generous peace offer to the Danes, which they initially accepted. Poor Hildeburg saw her brother Hnaef and her son, who also died in battle, being cremated on the same pyre with Finn, and peace was restored for a while. Hnaef's remaining followers became followers of Finn, albeit reluctantly.

The Danish men were led by a certain Hengest, who was previously Hnaef's right-hand man. Yes, someone with the same name is said to have once conquered England from Saxony or Jutland and yes, it could possibly be the same man. This opinion is about J.R.R. Tolkien, who not only wrote fantasy novels, but was above all a linguist at the University of Oxford and dealt intensively with the Finn saga. This would mean that Hengest himself was not a Dane, but that the Danish delegation apparently also included men from other tribes.

Are you still coming? If not, don't worry: the material still causes headaches even for established experts, and long essays philosophize about the meaning of individual terms or syllables. In the end, however, Hengest must decide whether revenge for the murder of his leader Hnaef is more important to him or his oath to Finn to keep the peace. The thirst for revenge prevails, Hengest murders Finn, grabs Hildeburg and returns to Denmark with her and the rest of the Danes.

Many questions remain. Is the saga based on a battle that actually took place? If yes: when and where? A (e) Finnsburg is nowhere known today. Who was involved in the battle? Why did the conflict even arise, what was the trigger? The annoying thing is that all of this is probably not specifically mentioned in the text because the story used to be so popular that this information could be assumed to be known.

Anyone who wants to find out more about the legend from the time of the peoples' migration, which has now been somewhat forgotten, should look for a good edition of "Beowulf", which also contains the "Finnsburg Fragment" and, at best, has not only been translated into modern German, but has also been generously commented on . Something like that is also available from Reclam Verlag for little money. In addition, Tolkien's scholarly treatise "Finn and Hengest" is highly recommended for those interested, but is really in-depth and not light fare.