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...