Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
Does Beowulf's retelling of his exploits in Denmark add anything to our knowledge? Or is it just the poet's way of bringing the story up to date for his audience?
For the first time we see Beowulf at home among friends. We see the hero and his men at the foot of Higlac's throne. And once again we see the queen pouring drinks for the king and his warriors. (Does it seem that pouring drinks for the men and bestowing gifts on the brave warriors are the main functions of women in this society?)
Beowulf makes it clear right from the start that news of his success against Grendel wasn't something that could ever be questioned. Possibly he's thinking of Unferth's remarks about his swimming match with Brecca (Verse 8). "Not even the oldest of his evil kind," he reassures Higlac, "will ever boast, lying in sin/And deceit, that the monster beat me" (2007-2009).
He interrupts the chronological story of his adventures to tell Higlac a historical digression of his own. This one concerns Freaw, Hrothgar's daughter, whom the king is planning to marry to Ingeld, a prince of the Hathobard tribe, in the hope that this arrangement will settle the quarrel between the Danes and the Hathobards. Beowulf, however, is skeptical about this method of ending the feud. He predicts that on the very day of the wedding, when the Danes and the Hathobards get together, one of Ingeld's soldiers will drunkenly provoke one of the Danes, and the feud between the two tribes will erupt again.
All the historical digressions involve feuds between men, but the
main narrative concerns feuds between men and monsters. Some critics think
that the digressions are the most important sections of the poem and tell
us more about the society of these people than Beowulf's heroic battles.
It's fun to go back over the poem and read the digressions separately
from the main narrative to see how they connect to one another.
From Beowulf's story of his battle with Grendel we learn that the monster had a pouch at his side, "a huge bag sewn/From a dragon's skin" (2086-87). Beowulf tells Higlac that "the monster intended to take me, put me inside, save me for another meal." The image of the pouch is the only detail the poet omitted from his own version of the story. This comment that Beowulf could fit inside the monster's pouch gives us our only concrete idea of the monster's actual size. Or do you think that Beowulf is exaggerating Grendel's physical stature to impress Higlac?
Hrothgar, in Beowulf's words, is a melancholy old man, filled with the memories of the battles he won when he was younger. We see him stroking the strings of a harp, "reciting unhappy truths about good/And evil" (2110-11). We see him weeping at the death of Esher, his closest friend. We see him begging Beowulf to kill Grendel's mother. Do these images of Hrothgar coincide with what we already know about him? Or is Beowulf again altering the picture slightly for Higlac's benefit?
Notice that Beowulf's descriptions of his adventures contain almost no mention of God's help. His remarks at the end of his description of the battle with Grendel's mother that "I had barely escaped/With my life, my death was not written" (2140-41) indicate the concerns with fate, and the power of God to alter man's fate, that existed in Anglo-Saxon society.