Freawaru was a Danish princess who lived around the time of the first English migrations to the British Isles. She is a woman whose life’s disenchantment is completed when she looks into the eyes of her father and sees Odin.
Freawaru became a face in story of the ancient English tragedy. While her name and story were eventually quite forgotten, the feeling she once gave expression to was never dispelled, remaining to this day as a sense of primordial disenchantment buried deep down in English culture. Freawaru’s disenchantment gave shape to our modern unbelief.
Tolkien pictured Freawaru redeemed in Éowyn. Personally, an online search today finds her face in Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Helpful anachronisms such as costume and shaving provide a prop for my orientation in a very strange world, much as do the pickles and shriek of an express train in The Hobbit. In any case, who am I to imagine the armpit-fashions of barbarian princesses who lived and wed and wept on the very threshold of history?
We know that Freawaru once figured in a central tale in the cycles of story brought by the English migrants from their old homelands near the Baltic and North seas. This was the tale known to early twentieth-century scholars by the name of her husband, Ingeld, the last Heathobard king.
Ingeld drew Tolkien’s ire in his 1936 British Academy lecture on Beowulf. This was because his two revered teachers in the field, W.P. Ker and R.W. Chambers, both thought that his was the story the unknown Anglo-Saxon poet should have told. Chambers put it most memorably, identifying Ingeld’s conflict of duties “between plighted troth and the duty of revenge” (Froda, Ingeld’s father, seems to have been slain by his father-in-law) as providing just the kind of “situation which the old heroic poets loved, and would not have sold for a wilderness of dragons” (Chambers 79-80). Tolkien’s annoyed response was to suggest his teachers were applying the criteria of ancient Athenian tragedy to a northern story, and add tartly that if Ingeld was imagined as the hero of a tragedy, then this “thrice faithless and easily persuaded” (MC 16) suicidal priest-king was a poor player.
Yet Tolkien acknowledged that Ingeld, the last Heathobard king who had burned down Heorot, the symbol of enemy conquest, was in sixth and seventh-century Britain indeed a more popular subject of song than the story of Beowulf’s fights with monsters (even if the first already took place in Hrothgar’s cursed hall). His tale of glorious defeat made a fine tale such as Éomer contemplates just before the tides turn at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields; but it was a pointless death for all that, a hollow symbol wraught not only of his own death but the destruction of Heathobard priestly power in the north forever.
Tolkien also indicated that Ingeld owed his fame to the greater story that, together with his wife, he “dramatically personalized” (MC 16). For the Heathobard story, the story of Ingeld and Freawaru, was the central story by which the English understood what had happened to make them flee their old homeland.
Freawaru is the victim of the weakness of her husband and the unlimited ambition of her father. She is to make by her marriage bed a peace between two peoples: the Heathobards of her husband, whose king has long been high priest of the Vanir traditions worshipped at a shrine on the island of Zealand by a confederacy of tribes that include the ancient English; and the Danes, her own people, a new tribe who have recently appeared in the history of the north in a blaze of military glory, conquering Zealand in the space of two generations of Danish kings. Hrothgar completes the conquest and builds Heorot on the site of the ancient cult to proclaim the new Danish supremacy. Yet he attempts to co-opt the Heathobards – the priestly tribe of the ancient cult – by marrying their young king, Ingeld, to his own daughter, Freawaru.
In his essay On Fairy-stories, composed summer 1943, Tolkien gave the story of Ingeld and Freawaru its due. Indeed, Freawaru’s story is the only fairy-story given extensive treatment in this essay on fairy-stories! Yet Tolkien’s discussion is so dense and elliptical that it is only now that we can read in his commentary on Beowulf all the background he presupposes in his essay that we can begin to make sense of what he is saying.
What Tolkien turns out to be saying in his essay is very powerful indeed. Freawaru gives the face to his life project as he concieved it anew in middle age.
Just as Collingwood reconstructed an historical kernel at the root of the myth of Arthur, so Tolkien draws an historical moment in the history of the North on the cusp of the English migrations. Where Collingwood sets out the historical Arthur shorn of all fairy elements, however, Tolkien shows the vital role of the fairy elements in this moment of history. The fairy element, which he is allusive of properly naming in his essay, is disenchantment. Freawaru’s personal tragedy is at once the tragedy of the English setting sail from Baltic shores: the old stories are no longer true!
Freawaru’s moment is the antithesis of Sam’s when he declares on the Field of Cormallen that the songs have come true. Her despair was in the hearts of the English when they landed on the shores of Britain, (unlike Aeneas) leaving their old gods behind. The gods who were now silent and belonged to the Danes.
A vital element of his reading of the story of Ingeld and Freawaru is Tolkien’s recognition that this marriage was conceived by all parties at the time as intimately bound up with the ancient traditions of the Zealand cult. Tacitus, in his one brief mention of the Angli and other northern tribes around the Baltic, talks of an island worship of a cult of Nerthus, and H.M. Chadwick (1907), Tolkien’s older professorial counterpart at Cambridge, had made much of an ancient tradition that this goddess married a mortal man. Tolkien sees that this man is imagined by the tribes as the living priest-king of the Heathobard tribe, who takes his name from the names of the gods and heroes of the myths and legends of the ancient cult and whose own fruitful marriage is central to the prosperity of all these agricultural and fishing peoples.
Tolkien in his essay alludes to a later story, told in Old Icelandic, of how Frey loved and took to wife Gerdr, daughter of the giant Gymir, enemy of the gods. This later story evidently reflects elements of the story of Ingeld and Freawaru itself. But in the traditions as they were told in the time of her childhood, Freawaru (whose own name was tied by her father into the traditions) understood the role of the prince’s bride to be divine or immortal – she was to be the fairy-bride of ancient tradition whose marriage ushers in a new day of golden peace. Freawaru was to play Arwen to Ingeld’s Aragorn.
A key insight behind Tolkien’s reading of Freawaru’s story is that her marriage was conducted in good faith – that she, at least, truly believed the way those around her were now telling the ancient stories. The story is a love story, declares Tolkien. And at the least, with her wedding Freawaru invested her heart and her life in making this ‘compromise’ between Heathobards and Danes – which left her father in charge of the ancient shrine – a true manifestation of the ancient traditions. And we may suppose that a lot of other people, including most of the ancient English as well as at least some of the Heathobards themselves, were also invested for their own good reasons in the old stories continuing to sound true.
Then came the fight in the mead hall, as Beowulf predicted it would. Ingeld burned down Heorot. A successful Guy Fawkes who merely exposed the lie to any who wished to believe that the ancient traditions were still true.
Ingeld may have had both right and duty on his side. But the Danes had already won, and now they destroyed the Heathobards. The line of royal priests who for time out of mind had embodied the traditions of the ancient north, who took their names from these traditions and lived out the old stories anew each generation in their own lives, came to an end.
Freawaru, we must presume, returned to Roskilde, or wherever precisely was the new mead hall her father was erecting to replace the charred ashes of Heorot. The English and several other tribes packed what belongings they could in boats and departed to another shore. In a passage in his section on Children in the middle of On Fairy-stories, Tolkien spells out the spirit in which they left their homes:
The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary world again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. (OFS 52).
He is talking about a child who stops believing in the world of a story being told. He could as well be picturing the first English migrants, already in their boats and looking back a last time at the shores of their home. This image now in their minds they will remember and by it give expression to their telling to their children the story of Freawaru and Ingeld.
The historical moment of disenchantment is Tolkien’s nightmare. He awakes to it at night from a dream of a great wave that drowns everything before it. He pictures cataclysmic disenchantment in his 1936 story of The Fall of Númenor – a world-changing rupture that sunders our world of history from myth: the Fall repeated in history, itself but a process of progressive cycles of ever deepening disenchantment. Tolkien set his whole life to offering a glimpse of the enchantment that the English had lost before they even began what we know as the history of England. An image that might redeem the loss and grief and broken dreams of Freawaru.