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A hero must be judged by the things he does and the way he reacts and relates to other people. His deeds must be marked by a nobility of purpose, and he must be willing to risk his life for his ideals. Though Beowulf obviously meets these requirements, he's also a mortal human being. To understand Beowulf it's important to understand how the poet attempts to reconcile the "human" and the "heroic" sides of his personality.
The poet first describes Beowulf as "...greater/And stronger than anyone anywhere in this world" (195), without informing us about what he did to acquire this reputation. We see him initially through the awestruck eyes of the Danish soldier patrolling the cliffs. "Nor have I ever seen/," the soldier says, addressing the Geats, "Out of all the men on earth, one greater/Than has come with you" (247-49). Beowulf's appearance-his size, his armor-obviously commands immediate respect and attention.
We learn about his character from the speeches he makes to the soldier and to Wulfgar, the Danish warrior who again asks the Geats to identify themselves. Beowulf-anxious to meet with Hrothgar, from whom he hopes to receive permission to battle Grendel-is courteous, patient, and diplomatic. His manner lacks the brusqueness and coldness of a person whose previous accomplishments make him feel superior to other people. His fame as the world's bravest person hasn't gone to his head.
Yet he's also a person with a definite purpose. If he expects to battle Grendel, he must convince Hrothgar of his bravery. Some of you might find his boastfulness disturbing-as Unferth does-but for Beowulf it's simply a means of getting what he wants.
The question remains, however: What does Beowulf want? Is he motivated to perform heroic acts simply by a need to help other people? Are fame and glory uppermost in his mind? Or is he interested mainly in accumulating as much wealth as possible?
It might be best to assume that Beowulf is motivated by a combination of all these things. A hero, the poet is telling us, isn't immune from inner conflicts. He may act selflessly, governed by a code of ethics and an intuitive understanding of other people. But part of him-and this is perhaps the tragic flaw in Beowulf's character-has no real idea of why he acts the way he does.
His capacity for forgiveness and generosity is most evident in his relationship with Unferth. When the Danish warrior jealously attempts to slander Beowulf's reputation, Beowulf accuses him of cowardice for not having killed Grendel himself. Beowulf feels that it's important to defend himself, to set the record straight, but he isn't interested in holding grudges. When Unferth later offers him his special sword to fight Grendel's mother, Beowulf accepts, forgivingly, as if the initial encounter had never happened.
Some of you will want to interpret Beowulf's heroic nature as a kind of inner quest, a search for something beyond the ordinary run of existence. Part of this quest involves the search for a true father. In his desire to impress Hrothgar and Higlac, he acts very much the way a son might act toward his father. One of the reasons he comes to help Hrothgar, we learn, is to pay his father's debt. He has no great desire to become king of the Geats. When first offered the throne, he refuses, preferring to play the role of warrior-son. (the father-son relationship runs parallel to the relationship between king and warrior, where a warrior has a duty to serve his king.)
Beowulf's spiritual conflicts,- whether to act selflessly for the good of others, or to accumulate rewards and personal fame-are also a key to his personality. In the same sense, he's never certain whether his success as a warrior is due to his own strength or to God's help. The conflict between the material and the spiritual is never more evident than in his dying words: "'For this, this gold, these jewels, I thank/Our Father in Heaven, Ruler of the Earth'" (2794-95). Whether Beowulf's inability to resolve this conflict makes him any less worthy of being called a hero is for you to decide.
Hrothgar is the most human character in the poem, and the person with whom we can most easily identify. He isn't afraid to hide his emotions in a society where it is a sign of weakness for a man to show his feelings, and this characteristic gives him a heroic quality of his own.
When we first meet him he's coming to the end of his reign over the Danish kingdom. To commemorate his various successes he builds a huge hall, Herot, to house his warriors. He's under the illusion that this hall will be a permanent monument to his achievements, something that will exist long after he's dead. This modest show of vanity is Hrothgar's only flaw, and in a way the entire poem revolves around the building of the great hall. (It's as if any display of pride or vanity brings out the evil in the world; if Herot hadn't been built, Grendel might never have attacked the Danish people.) His world outlook is typical of most of the people in Anglo-Saxon society, but less extreme; the poet makes no mention of treachery or conspiracy in Hrothgar's past. Though the world exists in a constant state of flux, everyone desires a feeling of permanence and security. Hrothgar, by building Herot, wants to deny the transitoriness of life. The first part of the poem-dominated by Beowulf's battles with Grendel and Grendel's mother-illustrates the impossibility of his dream.
The virtues of a good warrior are wisdom and courage. A good king, however, must possess not only these qualities, but he also must be concerned for the welfare of his people. Hrothgar possesses wisdom, but his courage-when we meet him he is, after all, an old man-is lacking. When Grendel attacks the hall, all Hrothgar can do is hold his head in despair. Lacking the strength of his youth, he can no longer make decisions in situations involving violence.
After Grendel's mother attacks the hall-and escapes with the body of Esher, Hrothgar's closest friend-we see Hrothgar trembling "in anger and grief" (1308). When Beowulf comes to find out what's wrong, Hrothgar practically begs him to kill the monster. His grief, at this point, verges on hysteria. But given the same circumstances, who wouldn't feel the same? If age robs you of the power to act decisively, it also puts you in touch with your emotions. Hrothgar is wise enough to realize that he isn't strong enough to battle the monster alone. (In this sense, he's unlike Beowulf, who, as an aging king, attempts to relive his youth by fighting the dragon.)
Hrothgar's strongest moment occurs after the battle between Beowulf and Grendel's mother. He delivers a sermon to Beowulf on the evils of pride, advising Beowulf to guard against wickedness and to use his powers for the betterment of other people. He cites the example of Hermod, a king who might have performed great acts of courage, but who instead abused his potential and brought only destruction and slaughter to his people. He warns Beowulf against thinking that just because he's defeated Grendel and Grendel's mother, he has rid the world of evil forever. Death will come to everyone, even those blessed by God. Before you know it, all your strength and power are gone.
Hrothgar's understanding of human nature is based on his long experience as the king of the Danes. He isn't jealous of Beowulf's strength and fame; all he wants is to die knowing he did his best to protect his people from the evils of the world.
Hrothgar's most emotional scene occurs just before Beowulf and his men are ready to depart from Denmark (Verse 26). Beowulf offers to come to Hrothgar's assistance when and if he ever needs it and Hrothgar predicts that one day Beowulf will be king of the Geats. Their relationship is more like father and son than king and warrior. Hrothgar realizes that he'll probably never see the young warrior again. He embraces and kisses him, bursting into tears. Some readers feel he's crying not so much because Beowulf is departing but as a way of releasing all the tension that built up during the years when the Danish people were being tormented by the monsters.
Hrothgar's generosity and dignity are the human counterparts to the violence of the battles between Beowulf and the monsters. He is the model against whom all the other kings and warriors in the poem must be compared.