Digressions in Beowulf

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the many digressions in the poem–places where the narrator or the characters relate events that happened in the past.  Some scholars regard these digressions as weaknesses in the narrative structure of the poem; other scholars regard them as essential parts of the poem that do not detract from it in any way whatsoever.  What is your take on all of this?  Are the digressions distractions from the main narrative, or are they integral parts of the poem?

The digressions in Beowulf do not take away from the narrative structure of the poem. Instead, they add to its richness by presenting additional information about the history and lives of the characters. For example, Hrothgar introduces Beowulf with a story: “Great was the feud that your father set off when his hand struck down Heatholaf in death among the Wylfings. The Weather-Geats did not dare to keep him then for the dread of work, and he left them to seek out the South – Danish folk, the glorious Scyldings, across the shock of waters… I then settled feud with fitting payment, sent to the Wylfings over the water’s back old things of beauty; against which I’d the oath of your father” (459 – 473). This digression adds to the richness of the poem by telling us the story of how he had settled feud. Another example is the story “of the Waels’ great son, Sigemund” (875 – 876). Here we learn about the hero’s “fights, strange feats, far wanderings, the fuse and the blood spilt” (877-879). Many of the digressions may seem unnecessary, but they add to the complexity and completeness of the tale, complementing the story of the whole.

Anonymous.  Beowulf: A Verse Translation.  Translated by Michael Alexander.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  Print.

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