Summary and Analysis
In the land of the Geats, today southwestern Sweden, the most powerful of all living warriors — Beowulf — hears of Hrothgar's dilemma. A nephew and thane of King Hygelac, Beowulf carefully chooses 14 of the finest warriors in Geatland to sail to Denmark. A retainer of Hrothgar, assigned to guarding the coast, spots Beowulf and his men when they land and leads the group to Heorot. Almost everyone is impressed with Beowulf's noble stature, enormous size, and obvious strength. Hrothgar's herald, Wulfgar, strongly urges the king to meet with Beowulf and the Geats. Hrothgar needs little convincing. He once protected Beowulf's now deceased father, Ecgtheow, from a blood feud and knew Beowulf when he was a boy. Hrothgar has already heard that Beowulf has the strength of 30 men in his hand-grip and welcomes the visitors.
Beowulf confirms to Hrothgar that he is there to do battle with the ogre who terrorizes Heorot. The young warrior states his credentials: He has destroyed a tribe of giants, defeated sea monsters in night fight, and returned from battle covered with the blood of his enemies. He has driven trouble out of his native land. Beowulf states that he will fight Grendel without armor or sword, hand to claw, because the ogre does not use weapons. If Beowulf is killed, he wants his war-shirt (breast armor, mail) returned to King Hygelac. Hrothgar offers a joyful feast in honor of Beowulf's arrival. The good cheer is interrupted by Unferth, a top thane of Hrothgar, who insults Beowulf and questions his reputation.
Beowulf's motives for sailing to Denmark are complex. First, he is a young warrior eager to earn glory and enhance his reputation. He can expect to be rewarded well if he is victorious. Second, he is on a lifelong quest of honor; only through fame and honor can a warrior hope to gain a measure of immortality. Finally, and probably most importantly, there is an implication that Beowulf's family owes a debt to Hrothgar. Beowulf's father, Ecgtheow, once killed a leader of another tribe in a feud. When his enemies sought vengeance, Ecgtheow took refuge with Hrothgar, then a young king. Eventually, Hrothgar settled the feud by making a tribute payment (wergild) of "fine old treasures" (472) to Ecgtheow's enemies. The bond between the families goes back many years, and Beowulf is proud to be able to come to Hrothgar's assistance.
Beowulf is an impressive-looking man. The reader first encounters him as he disembarks from the ship. The coastal guard points out that he has never seen "a mightier noble, / a larger man" (247-48) even though he has held this watch and seen many warriors come and go. Beowulf is huge and strong. He carries himself with the bearing of a noble leader, a champion. He is a young man, probably in his early twenties.
Reputation is one of the major themes of the epic. As the coastal guard first approaches the Geats, he asks about Beowulf's lineage (251) — the same question that a visitor might expect in the Greek epic, The Odyssey, composed some 1,500 years before. Beowulf responds by itemizing his father's accomplishments and reputation. He briefly mentions his king, Hygelac, and his people, the Geats. When Beowulf lists his own accomplishments to Hrothgar (418 ff.), he is respecting custom rather than indulging in vanity. Hrothgar wants to know more about the man who has come to rescue him. Beowulf has properly held back information about himself while dealing with a mere coastal guard but details his personal reputation to the king.
Beowulf's decision to fight Grendel without a weapon has a touch of irony. Although he may be motivated by a sense of fair play, as well as a touch of pride, Beowulf is unknowingly doing himself a favor when he chooses to confront the ogre without a sword. We later learn that Grendel is protected by a magic spell and cannot be injured by man's weapons. But Beowulf does not know this. In a very practical sense, Beowulf's desire for honest glory protects him. He follows this pronouncement with a humble recognition of his possible defeat by Grendel. The graphic details of that possibility, along with Hrothgar's gory description (484 ff.) of the mead-hall after his own warriors were slaughtered by Grendel, underline the seriousness of Beowulf's undertaking.
One of Hrothgar's top retainers, Unferth, interrupts the celebration to insult Beowulf and challenge his reputation. When Beowulf was a youth, apparently during his adolescence, he engaged in a swimming match on the open sea with another boy, named Breca. Unferth asserts that Beowulf was vain and foolish to enter such a dangerous contest and that Breca proved the stronger, defeating Beowulf in seven nights. If Beowulf couldn't win a swimming match, Unferth concludes, then he is surely no match for Grendel, who, in addition to presenting formidable physical challenge, lives in a lake or at the bottom of a lake. Swimming may prove essential if Beowulf is forced to pursue the enemy.
Beowulf's response to Unferth reveals a good deal about the hero's noble character and is a remarkable example of rhetoric as well as poetic imagery. Beowulf's response is composed and in control. First he isolates the problem; Unferth has been dipping deeply into the mead bowl: "What a great deal, Unferth my friend, / full of beer, you have said about Breca, / told of his deeds" (530-532). Having addressed the issue, Beowulf calmly but strongly counters Unferth's factual assertions. He concedes that, as boys will do (at least boys in Geatland), he and Breca exchanged boasts and entered into a dangerous swimming contest on the open sea. They wore body armor for protection, and each carried a sword. They swam together five nights, not seven. Breca could not pull away, and Beowulf would not abandon the other boy. Rough seas finally drove them apart. Sea monsters attacked Beowulf and attempted to drag him down. By dawn, he had killed nine of them. Fate (Wyrd) saved him, but only because it was not his time and he had fought courageously.
Beowulf then turns the speech back to Unferth, asserting wryly that he has never heard of any similar achievement by his accuser. He has, however, heard that Unferth has killed his own brothers, for which he will be condemned to Hell even though he may be "clever" with words. (We are reminded of Cain, another brother-killer, and the damnation that descends even to Grendel.) With that, Beowulf directly addresses the problems that the Scyldings have had with Grendel. Raising his rhetoric a notch, he shames Unferth by saying that Grendel would not have been so successful against King Hrothgar if Unferth's "battle-spirit, were as sharp as your words" (596). In his conclusion, Beowulf sardonically refers to the "Victory-Scyldings" (597), still directing his speech to Unferth, and concludes that Grendel has no fear of him. However, a Geat, Beowulf, will defeat the ogre. The next day, Unferth and his friends will be able to "walk brave to mead" (604).
Beowulf has gone just far enough. He has shown admirable restraint without backing down, and his verbal attacks have been centered on Unferth, not the Scyldings generally. King Hrothgar and the others applaud and laugh. The speech is a huge success.
The poetic imagery of the passage is worth notice as well, especially when the poet associates the metaphor of feasting with death. Beowulf says that the denizens of the deep intended to feast on him, amusingly suggesting a scene in which sea-beasts are formally pulling up to a banquet on the ocean floor. Instead, he offers them a "sword-feast" (562); they eat death. The crisis of Unferth's insult has passed. It is nothing compared to the challenge that is about to come.
Geats also called Weder-Folk or Weders. This is Beowulf's tribe in southwestern Sweden.
eddy a current running contrary to the main current, sometimes producing whirlpools.
retainer an attendant to the king, here sometimes used interchangeably with "thane."
mail flexible armor made of small, overlapping rings or scales.
lineage ancestry, background, heritage.
word-hoard a kenning for vocabulary.
shield of the people here, a reference to King Hrothgar.
gold-laced hall Heorot
Weland in Germanic legend, a blacksmith with magical powers; he made Beowulf's war-shirt (455).
Lapps inhabitants of northern Scandinavia and Finland. The Anglo-Saxon is "Finna land" (580).