Beowulf, “the earliest extant heroic poem in any modern European language,” has survived since its composition in the early 900s. (To be honest, some scholars do date it as late as the 11th century.)
What struck me reading was not so much the adventures of Beowulf himself–the tearing off of Grendel’s shoulder and arm, the subaqueous slaying of Grendel’s mother, the fatal struggle with the fire-breathing dragon–but rather all of the side stories, genealogies, and digressions that added a richness to the social fabric of the text.
To give an example: the minor character King Hrethel is given one of the most moving passages, a description of his grief having to avenge one son’s death by the misfired arrow of his brother (the king’s other son):
“So it is sad for an old man to endure that his son should ride young on the gallows. Then he may speak a story, a sorrowful song, when his son hangs for the joy of the raven, and, old in years and knowing, he can find no help for him. Always with every morning he is reminded of his son’s journey elsewhere. […] There is no sound of the harp, no joy in the dwelling, as there was of old. Then he goes to his couch, sings a song of sorrow, one alone for one gone. To him all too wide has seemed the land.”
These seeming digressions and side-stories that inhere to Beowulf’s life history suggest that the true richness of the narrative lies not so much in just particular battle-deeds, but rather in the broader culture of storytelling, collective memory, and song.