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The Sigemund-Heremod and Hama-Hygelac Passages in Beowulf

R. E. Kaske

PMLA, Vol. 74, No. 5 (Dec., 1959), pp. 489-494

E four-hundred-odd lines of Beowulf’ between the defeat of Grendel and the attack by Grendel’s mother contain two brief digressive passages, set with some appearance of symmetry on either side of the longer Finn Episode (1071-1159): a lay by one of Hroigar’s thanes, contrasting the glorious deeds of Sigemund with the downfall of Heremod (874-915); and a pair of allusions introduced by the poet through the device of the torque given to Beowulf, concerning a mysterious exploit of Hama and the fatal
expedition of Hygelac (1197-1214). The four basic references which make up these two passages seem designed as piecemeal allusions to stories more or less lost to us-a fact that must necessarily deprive us of much that the lines were meant to convey. Yet even allusion, if it is developed at all, is normally developed in the direction of its intended meaning, so that its general drift can sometimes be understood without a full knowledge of its underlying story. In this paper I will try to show that the Sigemund- Heremod and Hama-Hygelac passages are each organized around a clear thematic contrast, closely related to its context in the narrative; that they are meaningfully related to one another, and together express a theme of importance in this part of the poem; and that their significance grows naturally out of the great heroic ideal of sapientia et fortitudo which I believe lies at the heart of Beowulf. Section I will analyze the two passages themselves and their immediate contexts; Section II will explore their relation to the poem and its governing ideal.

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