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. …