Summary and Analysis
Beowulf presents Grendel's head to Hrothgar and briefly recounts his battle with the mother. Assuring the king of Heorot's safety, he places the gold hilt of the giant sword in Hrothgar's hand. The king examines the hilt and then speaks to Beowulf, giving a sermon on the dangers of fame and success and the vicissitudes of life. Hrothgar notes that he himself had great fortune as a young man and ruled successfully for 50 years until Grendel brought him down. Now he thanks God for Beowulf's victory. The warriors feast and sleep safely. In the morning, Beowulf returns Hrunting to Unferth and receives numerous gifts before he and his men exchange farewells with the Danes and sail for home.
The themes of fame (sometimes best thought of as reputation) and, even more, generosity dominate this section as Hrothgar warns Beowulf of the dangers of the former and the virtues of the latter. It may seem odd to a modern reader that the celebration of his outstanding victory should be interrupted by a solemn sermon by Hrothgar, a king who was unable to protect his own people. Nevertheless, Beowulf respects the wisdom of the aging king and patiently listens.
The trophy of Grendel's head is more satisfying to Beowulf and more valuable to him than the riches that he might have retrieved from the cave of the ogres because of the important achievement that it symbolizes. Beowulf also presents Hrothgar with the "strange gold hilt" (1677) of the giant sword. This trophy, along with Beowulf's account of its magic, seems to bring on the king's reflective mood. We are informed that the hilt's engravings tell the story of "the origin of past strife, when the flood drowned, / the pouring ocean killed the race of giants" (1689-90). There are also runes on the hilt revealing the identity of the first owner. Hrothgar considers the ephemerality of human existence and the vanity of earthly achievement. His mood seems to silence the crowd. It is not Hrothgar's own vanity that precipitates his speech but a genuine concern for the young warrior.
Hrothgar quietly begins by praising Beowulf but quickly follows with a warning. If a leader is not careful, God's gifts can lead him to vanity. The Danes' chief example of a gifted king gone wrong is Heremod, who not only failed to treat his people generously but actually killed other Danes in his own hall, a sin of unpardonable proportion in the world of the comitatus, the honor code binding a ruler to his thanes. Among other sins, Heremod indulged in hubris, an overwhelming pride or arrogance that leads to outrageous behavior. He lived a joyless life and justifiably suffered for the damage that he brought to his people.
From that example, Hrothgar generalizes about all of those who benefit from God's gifts. Only the wise and mature realize that all glory is fleeting. God will allow a "high-born heart [to] travel far in delight" (1729); one day, however, it will fall. A fool grows in his arrogance and thinks he is invincible, even forgetting that life and glory are loans from the Creator. Then Hrothgar turns to Beowulf, who has just experienced his finest victory, and warns him to guard against the curse of pride. Beowulf is young and strong now, but his youth and strength will not last. Defeat and death wait for him as they do for all. Hrothgar himself has ruled 50 years and seen his own glory days; but he points out that he, too, experienced failure and sorrow. Grendel's victories chased the Danes from Heorot, the great symbol of his reign, and humiliated the old king.
First joy, then sorrow. The message is repeated throughout Beowulf. In this harsh and often cruel world, joy never seems to last long. For this day, however, Hrothgar has finished his sermon. He directs Beowulf to return to his seat and generously signals that the feast shall continue, a second feast as impressive as the first.
The next day features generosity and departure. Beowulf returns the great sword Hrunting to Unferth. He continues to refrain from vengeance against Unferth for the earlier insults regarding the Breca contest; nor does he blame the sword for its failure in the cave fight. He is, we are told, "noble, generous in spirit" (1812), perhaps reflecting, at least for the time, virtues of Hrothgar's sermon. Beowulf generously offers to come to Hrothgar's assistance if enemies threaten the king. He speaks for his own country's ruler in welcoming Hrothgar's son to Hygelac's court if the lad chooses to visit. Hrothgar observes, prophetically, that Beowulf would make a fine king himself if the Geats should ever find themselves in need of one. He presents Beowulf with a dozen more treasures.
Hrothgar's farewell to Beowulf is poignant and sincere. Tears running down his cheeks, he embraces and kisses the young warrior as an aging father might treat a son whom he realistically does not expect to see again. Hrothgar is not a bad king. He just got old: "He was one king / blameless in everything, till age took from him / the joy of his strength — a thing that harms many" (1885-87).
gift from the sea a reference to Grendel's head, which Beowulf brings back from the mere.
God's opponent Grendel.
race of giants here, some of the descendants of Cain.
runes letters of an alphabet used by ancient Germanic peoples, especially Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons; sometimes cryptic.
woven snake-blade in constructing swords, numerous thin iron rods were woven together and forged to form a single blade.
Ecgwela a former Danish leader.
Heaven's hall-ruler God is metaphorically spoken of as a Germanic king.
Hrethric Hrothgar and Wealhtheow's elder son.
Hrethel father of Geats' King Hygelac; maternal grandfather of Beowulf.
gannet's bath a gannet is a large sea bird; its "bath," therefore, would be the sea itself.