The watchman guides Beowulf and his men from the coast to the mead-hall, Heorot, where he takes his leave. A herald named Wulfgar, who is renowned for his wisdom, stops Beowulf and asks him to state his business with Hrothgar. Beowulf introduces himself and requests to speak to the king. Wulfgar, impressed with the group’s appearance and bearing, takes Beowulf’s message immediately to Hrothgar. Hrothgar tells Wulfgar that he remembers Beowulf from when he was a young boy and recalls his friendship with Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow. He says that he has heard tales of Beowulf’s great prowess—one story holds that the Geat has the strength of thirty men in each of his hands—and hopes that Beowulf has come to help the Danes against Grendel. He orders Wulfgar to welcome the Geats to Denmark.
Beowulf comes before Hrothgar, whom he greets solemnly. Beowulf recounts some of his past glories and offers to fight Grendel unarmed. Hrothgar recounts a feud during which Beowulf’s father killed Heatholaf, a member of the Wulfing tribe. Hrothgar sent treasure to the Wulfings to mend the feud, and Beowulf’s father pledged his allegiance to Hrothgar. Hrothgar then accepts Beowulf’s offer to fight Grendel, though he warns him that many heroes have died in the mead-hall trying to battle the monster. He invites the Geats to sit and enjoy a feast in Heorot with the Danish warriors.
At the feast, a Dane named Unferth, envious of his kinsmen’s admiration of Beowulf, begins to taunt the Geat. He claims that Beowulf once lost a swimming match against Breca and that Beowulf will meet with defeat for a second time when he faces Grendel in the mead-hall. Unruffled, Beowulf accuses Unferth of drunkenness and describes his own version of what happened in the swimming match. Carrying swords to defend themselves against sea monsters, he and Breca had struggled in icy waters for five days and five nights when suddenly Beowulf found himself pulled under by a monster. After slaying the monster and eight other sea beasts, Beowulf was washed ashore on the coast of Finland. Beowulf notes that neither Unferth nor Breca could have survived such an adventure and mocks Unferth by pointing out his obvious helplessness against Grendel.
Beowulf’s confidence cheers the whole hall, and soon the warriors are laughing and drinking happily. Wealhtheow, wife of Hrothgar and queen of the Danes, enters with the ceremonial goblet, which she offers to everyone in the room. She thanks God for sending Beowulf to fight Grendel, and Beowulf replies with a formal boast, stating that he will either distinguish himself with a heroic deed or die in the mead-hall. Pleased, Wealhtheow takes her seat next to Hrothgar.
When night falls, the Danes leave the hall to Beowulf and his men. Beowulf lays aside his weapons and removes his armor, restating his intention to fight Grendel unarmed. He says that he considers himself to be as dangerous as Grendel. Beowulf lies down to wait, while his fearful men lie awake, doubting that any of them will live to see morning. In the dark night outside the hall, Grendel approaches stealthily, creeping toward the small band of Geats.
The two digressions in this section—Hrothgar’s story of his former association with Beowulf’s father and Beowulf’s story of his swimming match against Breca—help to shed light on the main story by refining the reader’s understanding of the Germanic heroic code of values. In Hrothgar’s story of his previous association with Beowulf’s father, we learn that there is a history of obligation between these two families. This anecdote explains the concept of the wergild, or “death-price,” a set price that one pays, as Hrothgar did on Ecgtheow’s behalf, to compensate the kin of anyone a warrior has killed. Paying the price of a man’s life is the only way to keep the cycle of vengeance that characterizes a feud from continuing indefinitely. Such a payment replaces the volley of violent retaliation with an exchange of obligation. Thus Beowulf is at Heorot both to avenge the death of so many Danes at the hands of Grendel and also to discharge his father’s debt to Hrothgar.
Interestingly, up until this point of the poem, Beowulf’s decision to come to Hrothgar’s aid has been described by the narrator as a heroic act of Beowulf’s own deciding rather than an act of obligation or a payment of debt. When Beowulf explains his visit to the Danish coast guard, he again presents his journey as one made of his own free will. He doesn’t respond directly to Hrothgar’s story about Ecgtheow, perhaps wanting to bolster his claim that he has come seeking the monster of his own volition, not because he owes Hrothgar on behalf of his father.
The second digression, Beowulf’s account of his swimming match against his childhood companion Breca, comes when Unferth challenges Beowulf’s heroic status. As there were no witnesses to Beowulf’s exploits, his story cannot be corroborated. Beowulf can respond only with a series of elaborate boasts about his doings to preserve his honor. Throughout Beowulf, boasting is presented as a key component of one’s reputation, a valid way to assert one’s position in a hierarchy determined by deeds of valor. Beowulf’s boasting, which especially pleases Wealhtheow, actually increases his honor and raises the level of expectations—for both those around him and the reader—as to how he will fare in the impending battle with Grendel.
But such boasting is a delicate social operation, and this scene helps to clarify the difference between proper and petulant boastfulness. Feeling upstaged by Beowulf, Unferth calls Beowulf’s exploits foolhardy and accuses him of vanity. But it is Unferth himself who is guilty of vanity, since he is jealous of Beowulf. Etiquette dictates that it is inappropriate for Unferth to attempt to dishonor a guest; once he does, however, Beowulf’s retaliation is appropriate and even necessary to maintain his reputation. Hrothgar’s behavior, by contrast, is more dignified. He acknowledges that there is a certain “humiliation” in the fact that the Danes cannot solve their own problems, but he does not allow this disgrace to make him resentful of the superior warrior who has come to help (although one can argue that his assertion that Beowulf owes him on behalf of Ecgtheow helps him lessen his embarrassment at having to ask for help).
Reading closely, we find that the story that Beowulf tells is communalist in spite of its boastful tone. He depicts the culture of competition in which he and Breca were raised as fraternal and respectful, not vain and obsessive as Unferth would have it. Though he makes a sharp stab at Unferth when he points out his ineffectuality against Grendel, Beowulf ends his oration with a beautiful image of restored peace and happiness for his hosts, the Danes. Beowulf’s correction thus not only better represents the true values of the society but also illustrates the proper way to tell a story. His story is more in keeping with the values of the code of honor than is Unferth’s bitter speech.
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