And 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 the dragon.
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.