The Purpose of Digressions in Beowulf
Few other features are more characteristic of Beowulf than the use of numerous digressions and distinct episodes. While some scholars have made attempts to show that the digressions, or some of them at least, have something in them which is inappropriate to the main narrative and are detrimental to the poetic value of Beowulf, this essay will argue that the digressions and episodes provide a conscious balance and unity and, in fact, contribute to the artistic value of the poem. Beowulf scholar Adrien Bonjour divides the digressions and episodes into four categories: the Scyld episode; digressions concerning Beowulf and the Geats; historical or legendary digressions not connected with Beowulf and the Geats; and Biblical digressions. It is within this structure where we will explore specific digressions and determine their role in the poem.
Before we inspect specific digressions, it is important to provide a brief justification for their presence in general. As Bonjour observes, the poet adeptly uses digressions to add to the coloring of the poem, to serve as a foil to a given situation, to contribute to the historical interest and significance, to provide symbolic value which contributes to the effect and understanding of the poem, and to heighten artistic effect. In addition, the digressions contain welcome information about the hero’s life. It is through digressing that the poet presents the values and perspectives that are to be understood. Action is, after all, only action.
In his division of the digressions and episodes, Bonjour gives the Scyld episode its own category, probably because it is the longest digression from the main narrative in the poem, and possibly because it raises so many questions. At first glance, the opening of the poem with Scyld and the genealogy of the Danish kings seems strangely out of place in a poem about Beowulf, a Geatish hero. But upon further study, a significant parallelism can be found between Scyld and Beowulf. First, both Scyld and Beowulf came miraculously to liberate the Danes. Scyld, being the first liberator in the poem, foreshadows Beowulf who comes later. A second touch of parallelism between the two kings can be found in their inglorious youth. Scyld was found a wretched and abandoned child and Beowulf is conspicuous for his inglorious youth. The striking reversal in their fortunes is clearly stressed by the poet.
Bonjour points out that another artistic purpose in this episode is the glorification of the Scyldings. Had the distressing condition at Heorot served as the only introduction to Beowulf’s mission, this may have created an impression of weakness on the part of the Danes. As we will see later, if the Danes had not been glorified at the beginning of the poem, the greatness of Beowulf may have been diminished.
Finally, the striking contrast of the funeral scenes are endowed with a “symbolic value which heightens the artistic value” and the unity of the entire poem. The beautiful description of Scyld’s funeral suggests a beginning and is the symbol of a glorious future. In contrast, Beowulf’s funeral symbolizes the end of a glorious past while the future is fraught with foreboding.
The Scyld episode allows the poet the use of two of his favorite devices: parallelism and contrast. The contrast between Scyld and Beowulf is perhaps one of the finest artistic achievements in the poem, and the parallelism between the two kings may well be summed up in the legendary epitaph of a cowboy as indicated by J.D.A. Ogilvy and Donald Baker: “Here lies Bronco Bill. He always done his damnedest”.
The next of Bonjour’s categorical divisions regards the digressions concerning Beowulf and the Geats. The first of this group that we will examine is Beowulf’s fight against giants. This digression serves a twofold purpose: it allows the hero his convention of boasting, and it also, however subtly, allies the hero with God. The immediate purpose of this mention of a glorious feat in Beowulf’s early life is to give us an illustration of his uncommon strength, and to give at the same time a justification for his arrival at the Danish court. It also sets Beowulf up as a specialist in fighting monsters: “I came from the fight where I had bound five, destroyed a family of giants…”. The art of boasting is important in an epic hero as it showcases his accomplishments and glorifies his name. As Victor Bromberg denotes, a man’s name is very important in epic poetry because it becomes equal to the sum of his accomplishments.
The second function of this digression is to surreptitiously ally Beowulf with God. When Beowulf pits his strength against the giants, he is unwittingly allying himself with the true God of Christianity. This lends dignity to the heathen hero who, without knowing it, is fighting on the right side after all.
In the Ecgtheow digression we learn that Beowulf’s father has killed Heatholaf, a member of the powerful Wilfing tribe, and has begun a feud from whose consequences the Geats cannot protect him, and he has fled to the court of Hrothgar. Hrothgar, consequently, pays his wergild to the Wilfings. Bonjour asserts that this digression serves two purposes: first, it creates one more bond between Beowulf and the Danes; second, it counterbalances the fact that the Danes are accepting help from Beowulf.
The Unferth episode serves primarily as a foil to emphasize Beowulf’s greatness. In spite of the sinister overtones of Unferth’s reputation, the poet also shows him as a distinguished thane. Had Unferth been reduced to a mere swashbuckler, Beowulf’s superiority over him would not have meant so much as it actually does. In his essay “Beowulf: The monsters and the Critics”, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien suggests that Beowulf’s conquest of the nicors in his youth are referred to [in this digression] as a presage to the kind of hero we are dealing with. Beowulf’s answer to Unferth’s criticism also establishes him as a man to reckon with in words as well as with his sword. So, from this digression we learn Beowulf’s qualifications for cleansing Heorot, and also that the hero is not only a great warrior, but a man capable of delivering a coup de grâce in a battle of wits.
Bonjour notes that the first allusion in the poem to the fall of Hygelac gives us a fine instance of a particular use of contrast characteristic of Beowulf. It is ironic that the first hint of Hygelac’s fall should be called up by the description of the treasures given to Beowulf by Queen Wealtheow after Beowulf’s victory over Grendel. It looks as if there are already some implications of the same nature as those to be met with in the Dragon story where, as Bonjour remarks, the beauty of the treasure of the Dragon’s hoard stands out in contrast to the curse attached to it. Here, the necklace is among “[the finest] under the heavens”, yet Hygelac had it when he was slain.
Next, we will look at the digression on Beowulf’s inglorious youth and Heremod’s tragedy in conjuntion with one another. Heremod’s tragedy actually falls outside the structure proposed by Adrien Bonjour as it has nothing to do with Beowulf and the Geats directly. However, we will bring the Heremod digression out of the proposed structure since it provides such an important contrast to Beowulf’s inglorious youth.
The short digression on Beowulf’s inglorious youth is but another touch that contributes to the glorification of the hero. The inglorious youth heightens the effect of his later glorious deeds and makes them all the more remarkable by way of contrast. But this digression reaches its full effect when contrasted with the tragedy of Heremod. In Hrothgar’s speech to Beowulf, we learn that Heremod was a strong, valiant hero whose career showed great promise, but that he subsequently proved to be a bad ruler. Beowulf, on the other hand, is first despised but he has now grown into a glorious hero. Heremod’s tragedy redefines, though negatively, what a good king should be. Thus we have a poor beginning (by Beowulf) followed by a prodigious ascent contrasted with a brilliant promise (by Heremod) ending in a miserable downfall.
The next digression to be examined concerns Hygelac’s death in Friesland and Beowulf’s return by swimming and his subsequent guardianship of Heardred. The poet tells us how Beowulf escapes from Friesland, where Hygelac is slain, by swimming back to his country with thirty to panoplies of armour on his arm. Obviously, this part of the digression serves to further glorify Beowulf’s extraordinary abilities. Later, we learn that Beowulf turns down Queen Hygd’s offer of the Geatish throne in favor of acting as counsel to Heardred, the rightful heir. Beowulf’s refusal of the crown illustrates his moral greatness. Here, the Geats present a striking contrast to the Danes. Ogilvy and Baker suggest that unlike Wealtheow, who is obsessed with securing the succession of her sons to the throne, Hygd asks Beowulf to take the throne in favor of her own son for the good of the people. This contrast is made even greater when compared to the situation at the Danish court where Hrothulf seizes his uncle’s throne. The story of the Danish succession serves as a foil: on the one side we have a treacherous usurpation, and on the other, a refusal to accept the crown out of sheer loyalty. Along with the glorification of Beowulf, this digression brings the theme of loyalty to the forefront.
In seeking the Dragon’s den, Beowulf makes a long speech in which he looks back over his life from the time when, at the age of seven, he came to the court of his grandfather, King Hrethel. The immediate purpose of Beowulf’s long speech appears to be a pause so that the hero can gather strength and resolution by looking back over a life of valiant deeds. But this digression goes much deeper when we read into King Hrethel’s angst over his eldest son, Herebeald, who is accidentally slain by his brother Hæthcyn. The accidental killing suggests the inexorability of wyrd (fate), and on the other hand, the poignant lament of Hrethel prepares the dominant mood of the end of the poem (Bonjour 34). This thematic “Christian” acceptance of earthly woes anticipates the rationale of Beowulf’s actions. He, too, will accept his fate. Bonjour states that the appearance of wyrd here is of great importance as it gives us the keynote of not only the digression, but of the whole ending of the poem.
The Last Survivor’s Speech is an elegy cut from the same cloth: “Baleful death has sent away many races of men”. Tolkien states that here, the poet is handling an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die.
In the short digression on Weohstan (Wiglaf’s father) and his slaying of Eanmund, we learn of the history of Wiglaf’s sword. The primary purpose of this digression is to give us something of Wiglaf’s pedigree, and to establish that Wiglaf is not ordinary, he is of the same blood as Beowulf. The establishing of Wiglaf’s history is important, because if this part were played by any other Geat, Beowulf’s heroic courage would appear to have been matched by an ordinary human. Also, there is a definite parallel between Wiglaf’s loyalty to Beowulf, and Beowulf’s loyalty to Hygelac.
The last digression that we will look at in this division deals again with Hygelac’s fall and the battle at Ravenswood. Since Hygelac’s raid, the enmity between Franks and Geats has remained. The Swedes are not to be trusted either since Beowulf’s death is likely to rekindle their memory of the feud between them and the Geats. With the opening of this last digression, Bonjour observes that the poet allows us to catch a glimpse of what the future has in store for the Geats. Plainly, the author is using Wiglaf’s messenger as a means to foreshadow the fate that awaits the Geatish nation.
The third category of digressions concerns historical or legendary digressions not directly connected with Beowulf and the Geats. The first digression in this category concerns the fate of Heorot. No sooner has the poet described the glorious building of Heorot than he concludes, “it would wait for the fierce flames of vengeful fire”. The allusion is to the feud between Ingeld and Hrothgar. This illustrates another example of the poet telling his story with a kind of structural irony which alternates prosperous with tragic events. Here, William Alfred remarks that Hrothgar is set up as the heroic king of a loyal comitatus, but suddenly, what begins as a description of the impressive halls of Heorot breaks down into an account of its destruction by fire in a feud. On this point, Bonjour mentions that the contrast inherent between a harmonious situation and a brief intimation of disaster adds to the impression of melancholy in which so much of the poem is steeped.
After Beowulf has killed Grendel, a scop improvises a lay in honor of Beowulf and compares him to Sigemund and Heremod. Sigemund was a great slayer of monsters and the greatest adventurer since the unfortunate Heremod. Beowulf, they say, is comparable to Sigemund. Sigemund and Heremod are inroduced to give us a standard of comparison for Beowulf. Bonjour surmises that this whole digression is certainly intended to praise the hero.
The next digression we will examine begins abruptly as Beowulf is returning home from Hrothgar’s court. We are given a description of Hygelac’s court before Beowulf’s arrival, and here begins the digression. The passage is devoted to a comparison between Hygd, Hygelac’s queen, and Modthryth, queen of Offa, king of the Angles before their migration to England. At first glance, Modthryth may seem, like Heremod, to be merely a bad character introduced to heighten the virtues of a good one (Hygd) by contrast. Modthryth, however, is more complex than that. She begins as a cruel and tyrannous princess, but redeems herself once on the Anglican throne at Offa’s side. This opposition provides a connecting link between this episode and Heremod’s tragedy. However, the respective careers of Heremod and Modthryth run exactly opposite courses. This digression serves several purposes: Modthryth serves as a foil to Hygd; the connection to Heremod again stresses the “abuse of power” theme, and Modthryth’s beginning could also be viewed as a parallel to Beowulf’s inglorious youth; an unsavory beginning which blossoms into a glorious end.
We will examine the Finn and Ingeld episodes together since the parallelism between the two is unmistakable. The Finn episode is an account of a blood-feud between the Danes and the Frisians. Hnæf’s sister, Hildeburh is a Danish princess who was married to King Finn of the Frisians in order to bring an end to the feud. The peace, however, is short-lived and the Finn episode points directly to the theme of the precarious truce between the two peoples. The prophetic telling of the tale of Ingeld by Beowulf suggests that the martial alliance between the Danish princess, Freawaru, and Ingeld, prince of the Heathobards will yield similar results. Bonjour claims that the central theme of the two episodes is exactly the same, that tribal enmity sooner or later sweeps away all attempts at human compromise. Indeed, this also proves to be a central theme of the entire poem.
The final category in which to make note is the digressions of Biblical character. Owing to their Christian element, the Song of Creation as well as the allusion to the Giants’ war against God and the allusions to Cain all take a front row seat.
The Song of Creation appears almost simultaneously with the introduction of Grendel, “There he spoke who could relate the beginning of men far back in time, said that the Almighty made earth…”. The Song of Creation goes back to the Biblical account in Genesis. Its immediate purpose is clear enough-it is a matter of contrast. The rare note of joy in the beauty of nature contrasts deeply with the melancholy inspired by the dreary abode of Grendel.
We will now look at the allusions to Cain and the Giants, and in doing so, it is important to note that the monsters are presented from two points of view. To the pagan characters, these creatures are eotenas [giants], and scuccan [evil spirits]-all terms from Germanic demonology. But the poet in his own voice tells us of the true genealogy of the Grendelkin: they are the monstrous descendents of Cain. This two-leveled portrayal of the monsters places them on one level like the dragon that Sigemund slew, and on another level it has connotations of Satanic evil which the Bible invests in them. At this point, new Scripture and old tradition unite.
The destruction of the Giants is said to be carved on the hilt of the magic sword which allows Beowulf to slay Grendel’s mother. Beowulf’s fight is now felt to partake of the struggle between the powers of good and evil. We were told earlier that both monsters were of the same kind as the Giants, but as Bonjour shows, we now know that God himself actually helps the hero by directing his attention to the magic sword which depicted God’s own action against the accursed race. Now, it is almost as if Beowulf has been raised to the rank of God’s own champion. Beowulf, for all that he moves in the world of the primitive Heroic Age, nevertheless is [for a moment] almost a Christian knight.
Bonjour concludes that Beowulf, once in the position of a king actually transcends the picure of an ideal king by sacrificing his life for his people, the significance of which is stressed by the very contrast with Hrothgar’s own attitude towards Grendel. But Hrothgar is already the figure of an ideal king, so now it becomes easier to compare Beowulf to the Savior, the self-sacrificing king, the prototype of supreme perfection.
Scholar B.J. Timmer sees the form of the poem as a failure because of the poet’s compromise in an attempt to glorify both pagan and Christian elements. John Leyerle echos this view when he describes the theme of the poem as “the fatal contradiction at the core of heroic society” in which the impelling code demands for the hero individual achievement and glory, whereas society demands a king who achieves for the common good. But why should there be a necessary separation here? Would it not require a heroic individual to achieve for the common good? The Beowulf poet, rightly, does not perform this separation.
In conclusion, it should be stated that whether or not we admire the digressions, we should recognize that they are part of the poet’s method, not the results of ineptitude. Here, I agree with Bonjour that the links of the digressions and episodes to the main story are extremely varied but, as we have seen, they are all links of relevance that weave the main theme and its background into an elaborate tapestry. Theodore M. Anderson sums up the significance of the digressions when he writes:
The poet drew his settings from the scenic repertory of the older heroic
lay, but he strung the traditional scenes together with a moralizing
commentary in the form of digressions, flashbacks, boasts, reflective
speeches, and a persistent emphasis on unexpected reversals-all tending
to underscore the peaks and valleys of human experience.
A good dose of common sense should expel any lingering beliefs, on the part of skeptics, that the poet’s digressions are reckless or that they diminish the value of the poem. As we have seen in this essay, there are simply too many instances of foreshadowing, careful contrast, and parallelism for the digressions to have been carelessly thrown into the mix. So, we shall draw the conclusion that behind all the digressions is found a definite artistic design clear enough to allow us to agree with Bonjour that each one plays a useful part in the poem. In other words, we have found that all of the digressions, in varying degrees, are artistically justified.