The Story of Sigemund: Beowulf and Poetic Tension
While Beowulf is structured around its three key confrontations between man and monster – Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the Dragon respectively – the plot is punctuated by a series of digressions that recount other heroic, or culturally significant, stories. This section takes place almost immediately following the conclusion of Grendel’s death, and tells the dragon-slaying tale of Sigemund – a figure originating within Norse mythology. Despite its digressional nature, through alluding to previous events and arguably foreshadowing future plot points the section is a thematically cohesive interlude that reflects upon the overall narrative. Indeed, the way in which stories are composed is itself self-consciously depicted, as the poet constructs a meta-poem of sorts – articulating the story through the medium of a fictional scop. The scop’s narration is steeped within the language of the heroic code, and parallels are drawn between Sigemund and Beowulf. Nevertheless, the apparent heroic glorification of Sigemund is problematized within the text. Despite the parallels made to the eponymous hero, Sigemund’s adventures are continuously described in phrases that echo previous descriptions of the monstrous Grendel. Moreover, the Dragon – supposedly the villain of the passage – is not characterised as explicitly villainous: the poet continues a motif of queering the distinction between man and monster. Crucially, this tension surrounding the hero of the passage is mirrored on a lexical and metrical level.
The digressional nature of Sigemund’s story is structurally introduced through an additional transitional passage, as the poet moves attention away from the celebration of Grendel’s death and onto the description of “geflit faran fealwe mearas” (tawny horses). The brief depiction of horse racing begins and concludes with the word “hwilum” (sometimes), and the shift away from the central plot to the “fealwe mearas” (tawny horses) is emblematic of the many diversions within the poem as a whole – of which Sigemund’s slaying of the dragon is a prime example. The repetition of “hwilum”, and the interlinear alliteration of “faran fealwe … foldwegas fægere” (travel dark horses … the earthly path), ensures that this shift maintains a sense of cohesion. Similarly, a unity in narrative is achieved in the story of Sigemund’s battle through the language of the heroic code, which both alludes to preceding events in the poem and also foreshadows Beowulf’s climatic battle with the Dragon. Sigemund is closely associated with his aristocratic heritage, the “æþelinges bearn” (son of nobel prince), a lineage that extends to his nephew (and son in tandem with Norse mythology) Fitela – a relationship that parallels that of a lord and his retainer. Fitela is described as a “nydgetstellan” (comrade in battle), and both times that he is named within the text it is alongside the preposition “mid” (with); the character is linguistically tied with his uncle – and father – and his nominative identity is inseparable from him. Sigemund himself, much like Beowulf, is “wiges heard” (battle fierce): hardened to the toils of battle. Moreover, he is a character capable of slaying a range of monsters. This extends from the “eotena cynnes” – resembling Beowulf’s demolition of the sea-demons – to the “wrætlicne wyrm” (wonderous worm/dragon) – the next dragon to appear within the poem will be the one of Beowulf’s final encounter. Thus, while the passage seems to divert attention away from the main story, it is thematically linked to it in its heroic language and nods to past and future plot points.
Yet while the central hero of the passage is paralleled with the central hero of the poem, by no means is this an easy, straightforward correlation. There exists a clear lexical tension between descriptions of Sigemund as a heroic, and lines that seem to portray him as morally loose: distanced from the titular hero. We might even suggest that the poet is aware of these tensions. The story is preceded by a self-conscious explanation of the process of story-composition through the scop:
“worn gemunde, word oþer fandsoðe gebunden; secg eft ongan” (he who remembers ancient lengends, an arrangement of words that are truthfully bound)
These lines, describing how words are bound together – “gebunden” – through alliterative patterns, are themselves carefully rendered through assonance (“gemunde… gebynde”) that dwells upon the composition of literature. Not only is this a framed narrative but it is a meta-poem, describing the techniques that are then demonstrated in the Sigemund passage. The scop stresses that contemporary literature consists of a process of binding – and throughout the following lines the poet metrically ‘binds’ together words with conflicting associations. For example, Sigemund’s exploits are not purely framed in terms of their heroic glory, but also as tales of “fæhðe ond fyrena” (feud and crime); nouns that are associated with sin and wickedness. Tellingly, the alliterative pattern links these associations with ‘Fitela’, the supposedly loyal “nefan” and – in accordance with Norse mythology – son of Sigemund. Here there appears to be an apparent conflict in the conjoining of the retainer – a staple of the heroic code – with nouns that denote a sense of immorality and cruelty. In nodding to the complex familial relationship between Sigemund and Fitela – “eam his nefan” – the poet highlights an underlying irony in said relationship. This approach seems to be justified by the apparent disposal of Fitela from the actual battle between Sigemund and the dragon; the poet explicitly states through use of the negative that “ne wæs Fitela mid” (neither was Fitela with him). What could initially be seen as a typical lord retainer relationship is problematized by the poets use of metrical patterns and pointed descriptions.
To again reflect upon the half-line “fæhðe ond fyrena” (feud and crime), it is worth remembering that “fyrena” appears twice in the Grendel passage. Thus, not only is the tale of Sigemund paralleled to Beowulf, but the lexis used to describe Beowulf’s latest foe is also evoked and re-appropriated for an apparently heroic tale. Conversely, the central villain of this story – the Dragon – is characterised through vague, morally ambiguous language, not in explicitly negative terms. Description of the dragon is limited to nouns and verbs – a distinct lack of adjectives. For example, we are told that the creature is a “hordes hyrge” (hord guardian). While treasure hording was frowned upon in relation to the heroic code, the noun “hyrge” (guardian) is by no means derogatory. The dragon may be assigned an antagonistic role, but the poet refuses to fully characterise it as strictly villainous. When the dragon dies, it is explained in terms of an assault, or “morðe swealt” (crime punish). While this phrase is also used to describe Beowulf’s attack on Grendel, at least in the former case there is rich depiction of the violence Grendel inflicted upon those around him. Within this passage the boundaries between man and monster, upon analysis of word choices, appears increasingly blurred. Furthermore “horde” reoccurs after the dragon is slain in the compound “beahhordes” (ring-hord), used in reference to Sigemund’s acquisition of the dragon’s treasure. This serves to distance him from the titular hero, as while Beowulf is characterised as a hero somewhat impervious to the temptations of “beorhte frætwa” (bright ornament), Sigemund’s bounty dominates the latter portion of this section.
Ultimately then, what appears to be a passage that embodies the values of heroism, reveals itself to also embody the tensions that surround these values. We may see the apparent conflicts in description and characterisation of Sigemund and his adventures as an anxiety towards the reconciliation of a sympathetic character who steeped within pagan, Norse origins with a contemporary, Christian literary culture. As the scop points out, Anglo Saxon poetry is a process of binding, and at times this binding involves bringing together conflicting values and concepts, reflected at a lexical and metrical level. We are reminded that boundaries in Beowulf are never clearly delineated; and the language and versification itself reflects this liminality between man and monster, and a Christian and heroic culture. Thus, the passage, while digressional, acts as a microcosm for broader tensions and questions that continue to pervade the poem as a whole.
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