In Season 4 of the Night’s Watch, I have already discussed the cremation of Craster’s Keep, and explored how the Night’s Watch establish cremation as a means to prevent the dead returning as wights in Season 3.
The cremation implausibly takes place in the courtyard of Castle Black: certainly a secure and easy location, but one that threatened to destroy the castle itself. As usual, we don’t see any pre-cremation and post-cremation rites; we have cremation in a quasi-Christian late medieval context.
It is relatively easy to suppose the literary inspiration for this scene, since mass cremation comes down to us in one key medieval Christian-era poem recalling legends of the Migration Period: Beowulf.
Two of the four funerals in Beowulf involve cremation. Mass cremation is the poem’s second funeral. It appears as a poem within the poem: a part of the poem in which Hrothgar’s scop honours Beowulf’s deeds at a great feast. The scop recalls a famous fight in Friesland between Hrothgar’s Danish ancestor Hnaef and their Frisian hosts as they overwintered whilst raiding Frankia. Also recorded in the Finneburg fragment, Hnaef and his retainers, 60 in number, defend Finn’s fort/hall against the Frisians but die.
The oath-taking was completed and splendid gold was brought up from the treasury. The finest fighting-man among the warlike Scyldings was ready for cremation. Upon the pyre the mail-coat was plainly to be seen, stained with blood, the swine-likeness gilded all over, the iron-tough likeness of the boar, and many a noble man, mutilated by wounds: notable men had fallen in that carnage.
Then Hileburh commanded her own sons to be committed to the flames, their bodies to be burnt and consigned to cremation at their uncle’s side. The woman grieved and keened her lamentations. The warrior was raised up on to the pyre. That most enormous fire made of human carrion went whirling up to the clouds and roared in front of the burial mound. Heads melted, deep wounds, malignant sword-bites in the corpse, burst open when the blood spurted out. Fire, greediest of spirits, swallowed up all those of both nations whom the fighting there had carried off: their glory had slipped away
Bradley (trans.) 1982. Anglo-Saxon Poetry, London: Everyman, pp. 440-41.
Cremation is here a tragic temporal node in the poem, recalled as the heroic past in the poem’s story. It is regarded as a moment in a chain of martial exchanges. In terms of kinship and feud, it is the tragic focus of Hildeburh’s woe as the failed lynchpin in the alliance between the peoples. Yet through cremation, her son and brother – uncle and nephew – are joined together, creating the opportunity for alliance and peace.
The more powerful tragic nodal role of the cremation is temporal – despite their cremation beginning a truce and alliance between the Frisians and Danes, it doesn’t last. In the spring, Hengest leads the Danes to retaliate against Finn who is killed in his hall. Thus, two halls are connected through the cremation fire in a cycle of violent revenge, the one in which Hnaef is killed defending, and Finn’s. Here we see the workings of wyrd *(fate) on warrior codes of conduct. Cremation is both end and beginning; punctuating stages in an marital/sexual exchange of a woman and acts of hall burning and slaying between elite males.
Cremation is also a process of breaking surfaces, an all-consuming inferno that is both spectacle in itself and serves to engulf and merge cadavers and martial material culture. Burning the dead is almost an act of violent ‘killing’ of the corpse in itself; the fire is an agent: a hungry spirit. Cremation involves the transformation of the body into ash and smoke, allowing ascent of the body into the sky. The heated spurting blood verifies and exemplifies to wounds of the battlefield: almost perhaps a ‘second death’.
Returning to Game of Thrones, we find cremation as one-sided, a conclusion honouring the fallen in defence of the Wall, rather than a beginning. It is collective and respectful, with no corpses on show. It is not violent and gore-soaked in itself despite the violence in the show elsewhere. All this is in stark contrast to Beowulf where the mass cremation is a more dramatic conflagration.
So, in many regards, the Castle Black cremation is a poor mirror of the cremation in Beowulf, but it does bring home the enduring influence of the poem’s mass martial cremation in the present-day popular imagination. Through the Night’s Watch, we encounter early medieval warriors mourning their dead in a fashion akin to that portrayed in Beowulf.