The Ethnopsychology of In-Law Feud and the Remaking of Group Identity in Beowulf: The Cases of Hengest and Ingeld

By Hill, John M. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Ethnopsychology of In-Law Feud and the Remaking of Group Identity in Beowulf: The Cases of Hengest and Ingeld


Hill, John M., Philological Quarterly


In Beowulf the clearest instances of groups reforming themselves, other than Wiglaf's remaking of the Geatish wartroop, are those involving either feud between in-laws or strife within dynastic houses. Principally, dynastic strife occurs in the Swedish house, although for many readers the poet also hints at such strife in Heorot for the Danes (regarding Hrothgar's nephew, Hrothulf, and Hrothgar's sons). Because of the dramatically coherent, although compressed narratives involved--in contrast both to the scattered remarks about actual dynastic strife among the Swedes and the possible intimations of strife among the Danes--this essay will only explore the two stories of in-law feud in Beowulf. Those scenarios become especially provocative as the poet's sketches, given one incident or another, open up to the revival of bitter memories and the renewal of slaughter. The resulting narratives, however, while usually understood as typical Germanic instances of heroic loyalties either in conflict or else overcome through the imperatives of blood revenge, do more than confront us with dismaying violence.

In their own ways they are socially acute meditations on the prospects for settlement, for accomplished and extended community, between groups who bring histories of past strife to their efforts at composing a feud. They are also meditations on the dynamic of group reformation--a dynamic that involves what for us are archaic social conceptions and an ethnopsychology of loyalty, honor and retainer identity--once lethal violence undercuts a prior accommodation. In short, the stories of Finn, Hildeburh, and Hengest, of Danes and Ingeld's Heathobeards--these are much more than object lessons regarding kinship loyalties caught up in what, to modern commentators, has too often seemed a matter simply of doom brought on by the intractable imperatives of revenge. Indeed, those episodes have so dismayed modern commentators that they have been almost universally interpreted as springboards for a general critique of revenge feud on the poet's behalf. Yet, while kinship loyalties, retainer and lordship loyalties and acts of revenge figure centrally in these stories, the significance of those loyalties and acts prove, upon ethnopsychological inspection, to be other than the grounds for an indictment of revenge. When a bitter Hengest--having lost his lord, Hnaef, in a storm of Frisian and Jutish terror--accepts and then wields a retributive sword, he disentangles the Half-Danes from their winter alliance with Finn (Hnaef's slayer, in effect). In doing so, he breaks off a carefully balanced arrangement that is, in effect, deeply shameful. The retributive outcome is this: Hengest and his Danes annihilate Finn's group, killing Finn; they then sack Finn's hall and retrieve Hildeburh, Hnaefs sister, who is also Finn's queen. This seems grim enough. But what becomes apparent only in an ethnopsychological perspective is that the Danes through blood rightly reassert their honor and identity, while taking back Finn's queen, Hildeburh, their princess. She returns to her people, to a reintegration with her patriline.

The prospective redefining and violent reassertion of Heathobeardic honor in Beowulf's story about the marriage between Freawaru and Ingeld involve similar issues but in a very different situation. Here we begin with accommodations of honor possible between two contending peoples, this in a new "peace-kin" alliance through marriage, Hrothgar's hope for the redirection, indeed the settlement, of recent feuding between Danes and Heathobeards. However, in anticipation of what is likely to happen during the wedding process, Beowulf foresees a fracturing of relationships between Danes and Heathobeards when an old Heathobeard sees how a Danish warrior in the bride's entourage wears the sword of a defeated Heathobeard. Beowulf supposes that the old warrior will repeatedly goad a young Heathobeard, pointing out that sword to its previous owner's son.

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