Speaking of Grendel…but I Digress

Throughout the more than two decades in which The Simpsons has been Sunday dinner beverages stream through the noses of family members, attentive audience members have also been consistently misinformed and led astray by Grandpa Simpson’s tendency toward long, rambling stories that inevitably and hilariously wind up farther off the subject at hand than Donald Trump’s response to being asked whether the money he saved by not paying taxes funded his ravenous desire to cheat on his wives. Speaking of digressions, Beowulf originated in the oral tradition which molded, formulated and crystallized into the final written product through an evolutionary process in which each subsequent reiteration was dependent upon both the rote memory of the teller and his ability to lend the tale greater resonance to the saga’s various themes. The oral tradition is responsible for those aspects of Beowulf that may appear to be nothing but meaningless interpolations into the narrative capable of doing little more than stimulating a symphony of irritation in the form of the sound of feet tapping, fingers rapping, mouths sighing and hope of understanding the story dying. Those interpolations are more accurately described not as digressions intended to move the reader farther away from the main subject of Beowulf and his battles against the monsters beneath the sea, but toward a more profound and satisfying understanding of traditions central to the fundamental value among the Norse that their survival depended on being the greatest of mariners.

Throughout these digressive episodes, the sea and lakes are transformed from mere bodies of water into inscrutable symbols of a foreboding netherworld populated by mysterious monstrosities and grimly fiendish ogres capable of ascending to the surface to the enact deadly violence upon human seeking ultimate abomination of civilizing the world above. Once the mariners beat back the stormy unpredictability of the briny deep, they are briefly halted on land and suspected of spies attempting to infiltrate enemy territory. Such is the power of the obscurities lying in wait in the ocean that all who appear human are instantly suspected of monstrous intentions.

The digressive flashback to the friendship between Beowulf and Brecca establishes historical context for the reader with all the efficiency of robots in a Toyota factory in Osaka. The Trumpish boasting Beowulf at first may recall the bragging of Thor, but not only is Beowulf no cowardly bully alienated from the human race in penthouse home, he’s not even a long-haired Australian actor shaking his mane and welcoming the lusty admiration of the throngs while completely oblivious to the fact that his brother Loki is twice as smart and three times more evil. Beowulf’s call to explore the enigmatic ambiguities lying hidden under the waves is essential to exploration and expansion of civilization which cannot be accomplished without the attributes of the heroic. Thus, the digressive stories in Beowulf can appropriately be described as nothing less than vital toward a full apprehension of the significance of the sea to the very concept of heroism among the Norse.

Attributes of heroism bond together with the vitality of water in a loud clicking noise that forces the reader to tug tightly on the seatbelt of understanding before rushing forth at breakneck speed into the digressive episode about Hygelac’s demise in Friesland and the return of Beowulf through his master over the surface of the waves. How telling it is in this age of heavily armored warriors that Beowulf’s flight from Friesland following the slaying of Hygelac is only possible by swimming back to his homeland equipped with panoplies of oppressively burdensome shields of protection defining irony through ever-present threat of dragging him to his death. The purpose of such a digression is manifest: such a feat could only be legendary because the amount of actual truth to be found in the story is roughly equivalent with the amount of truth to be found in Oliver Stone’s movie about JFK’s assassination. So what is left is an interjection into the narrative that can serve no other purpose than to step on any remaining doubts about Beowulf’s majestic strength with all the force of stepping on a roach until nothing is left but bug jam.

But what good is even such power over the elements that one can swim back to one’s home weighted down with armor if such representation of courage and bravery is endowed in someone with an abundance of physical might while being an bankrupt of personal morality as a Wall Street banker? Having established that Beowulf typifies the physical presence of the ultimate hero like some sort mutated hybrid of Abraham Lincoln and Wolverine who has proven himself capable of expanding civilization across the vastness of the monster-laden seas, another digression serves to cast a blinding light in the direction in which his moral compass points. The rejection by Beowulf of Queen Hygd’s offer of the Geatish throne in a quid pro quo that would require him to fulfill the role of mere counsel to Heardred, the rightful heir, lifts Beowulf right out of the murky waters of corrupt political ambition and elevates him to a position unstained by immorality.

The digressions of Beowulf allow for the discovery of the allegorical descriptions that builds upon the ones before to create an evolutionary trail of bread crumbs leading to a gingerbread house full of sweet chocolate-covered expansion of themes. What are often viewed as irritating and unnecessary rabbit holes leading readers away from Beowulf’s battle with Grendel and his mother are in reality the knot that keeps the tale woven together. The digressions reveal Beowulf is not merely the tale of one hero’s triumph over threats and evil, but a saga about an entire culture’s rise from the murky depths of the Dark Ages into the light of the civilized world shining through.