a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.
This excerpt, which expounds the virtues
of the early Danish king Beow, illustrates the kind of political
prudence that characterizes Hrothgar, who is a descendant of Beow.
The heroic code’s system of loyalties entails a very specific political
and diplomatic structure. Generosity is valued greatly in a king,
but there is no attempt to disguise the fact that it is motivated
by the need to maintain the support of a band of retainers. The
warrior culture accepts and embraces this give-and-take relationship
between ruler and ruled as necessary for society to function effectively.
The emphasis on the loyalty of the warriors (“when fighting starts
/ steadfast companions will stand by him”) has a special resonance
for Beowulf, given the disloyalty of his men in his encounter with
This passage also emphasizes the importance of behavior
in securing the respect and support of others. Because this warrior society
so highly values its heroic code, it highly esteems those who conform
to the code’s principles. Beowulf vaunts himself as a great warrior
and backs up his words by defeating Grendel; he is thus celebrated
and received as a hero. Unferth, on the other hand, proves an empty
chatterer, unwilling to fight Grendel or Grendel’s mother. Though
such verbal elements as boasts and stories are crucial to the warrior
culture, heroes are, above all, defined by action.