Digressions In The Epic Poem, Beowulf
Digressions in Beowulf
A prominent stylistic feature in the poem Beowulf is the number and length of digressions. “Much of the controversy surrounding the poet’s digressiveness has arisen from the fact that we have not yet discovered or admitted why he digresses in the first place” (Tripp 63). In this essay we hope to help answer that question.
The longest digression, almost 100 verses, is the story of Finn, which is here explored. In “The Finn Episode and Revenge in Beowulf” Martin Camargo states:
The allusive manner of its telling has long taxed the abilities of philologists to determine the precise sense of the lines, while its position within the narrative has challenged the ingenuity of a growing number of critics who have sought to establish (or to question) its relevance. . . .(112)
The Finn Episode begins with Hrothgar’s scop:
the harp was plucked, good verses chanted
when Hrothgar’s scop in his place on the mead-bench
came to tell over the famous hall-sport
[about] Finn’s sons when the attack came on them:
Hnaef of the Scyldings, hero of the Half-Danes,
had had to fall in Frisian slaughter (1065-70)
We learn here that the scop is singing about a Danish hero, Hnaef, and his band of warriors who are attacked by the Frisians/Jutes, a tribe that lived on the European coast directly opposite the British Isle. In other words, the Finnsburh Episode presents the sudden, abrupt stoppage of the peaceful existence of the Danes. This story is told by the scop right after the killing of Grendel, and directly before the Danes’ peaceful, joy-filled celebration is about to be shattered by the nocturnal attack of Grendel’s mother. So the beginning of the Finnsburh story anticipates the coming attack. Digressions seem sometimes to be secondary narratives competing with the main story line (Tripp 63), but in this case the digression seems at the outset to support or complement the main narrative. The story continues:
No need at all that Hildeburh praise
the faith of the “giants”; guiltless herself,
she lost her loved ones in that clash of shields,
her son and brother - they were born to fall,
slain by spear-thrusts. She knew deep grief.
Not without cause did Hoc’s daughter mourn
the web’s short measure that fated morning
when she saw their bodies, her murdered kinsmen,
under the skies where she had known
her greatest joy (1071-80)
Hildeburh, wife of...
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Beowulfincludes several digressions--Unferth's challenge to Beowulf, the fight at Finnsburg, Hrothulf's treachery, among others--that are designed either to enhance Beowulf's stature as the poem's hero or to remind the listener's of important events in their history. Because the culture to which the poem is addressed is an oral culture, the poet uses digressions not only to remind listeners of important historical events but also, through the act of recounting these events in this poem, interpret this shared history.
One of the most important digressions early in the poem in Unferth's challenge to Beowulf:
Are you that Beowulf/who with Breca strove,/on the open sea/over a swimming match,/where you two out of pride/tempted the floods/for this doltish boasting. . . . (ll. 506-509)
Unferth's purpose in this digression is both to challenge Beowulf's physical strength and his common sense, essentially accusing Beowulf of stupidity in choosing to waste his strength and, more important, to point out that Breca came ashore first--implying that Breca was the winner of this swimming contest. Unferth concludes this challenge by saying that Beowulf, just as he failed in the swimming contest, will fail in his struggle with Grendel.
Beowulf's version, however, is significantly different from Unferth's: Beowulf recounts several battles with sea serpents during the contest--battles that Beowulf won--and points out that "Breca never yet . . . performed such a deed with drawn sword." Beowulf concludes this digression by pointing out that neither Breca nor Unferth performed such heroic deeds with swords "although you were your brother's killer,/your close kinsman." (ll.587-88) This digression performed two purposes--it recounts an instance of Beowulf's physical prowess, and it brands Unferth as the killer of his own brother and therefore unworthy to challenge Beowulf's credibility.
Another similar digression occurs with the mention of Sigemund and Fitela at lines 875-900. One of Hrothgar's retainers recounts the story of Sigemund in which Sigemund
. . . killed, after a struggle,/a strong worm-dragon,/a hoard's keeper. He, the prince's son,/under a hoary stone ventured alone,/a fearless deed. . . the dragon died of that wound. . . . (ll. 885-892)
Clearly, this digression would have resonated with the audience of Beowulf because Sigemund's tale, in large part, is very similar to Beowulf's last battle with the dragon whose hoard has been violated. The digression, then, connects Beowulf directly to Sigemund, whose reputation would have been widely known and highly regarded by the audience of Beowulf.