Beowulf, like The Odyssey, opens with a hidden main character. Even though he is the protagonist and the title of the poem, our hero doesn’t show up until line 297, and even then he isn’t named until line 345. Instead the poet carefully sets the stage for the arrival of Beowulf by telling us a whole lot about the Danish king, Hrothgar.
The poet presents Hrothgar’s genealogy and his success on the battlefield; and most importantly, he makes sure that his audience knows that Hrothgar is a good king. And how do we know that Hrothgar is a good king? He honors the Anglo-Saxon concept of comitatus.
Comitatus is a fundamental concept undergirding Anglo-Saxon culture; and without a proper understanding of this concept, a modern reader is going to be very confused about the whole poem. Comitatus is the relationship between a lord and his thanes. In the Anglo-Saxon culture a good lord is a lord who gives gifts. In exchange for receiving gifts from the lord, a good Anglo-Saxon thane offers loyalty to his lord. This relationship holds the entire culture together.
So, over and over the poet describes Hrothgar as a king who gives gifts. Immediately, the audience knows, aha! Hrothgar is a good king. He leads his loyal thanes into battle and rewards them with gifts.
But where exactly do these gifts come from? They are plunder—stolen loot from Hrothgar’s enemies. And what exactly is the nature of the loyalty that the thanes offer their lord? In exchange for plunder, the thanes will fight and kill the enemies of their lord. This entire culture is built on a foundation of murder and theft.
The other fundamental concept undergirding Anglo-Saxon culture is the wergild. The shedding of blood requires vengeance. The next of kin of the slain man must slay the murderer, and on and on. This cycle of blood vengeance can quickly become a never-ending feud, so the wergild was introduced to provide a way out of this unending cycle of vengeance. Now, a murderer could pay a blood price to his victim’s next of kin and consider the need for vengeance satisfied.
The newly converted Anglo-Saxon audience knew all about comitatus and the wergild. And they knew that Hrothgar, as a good king, had spent a lifetime killing and plundering and dealing with the consequences of the requirement of blood vengeance. All of this is the backdrop for what happens next.
At the end of a successful kingship, Hrothgar decides to build a mead-hall, Heorot. Tolkien tells us that Heorot is Hrothgar’s Camelot. Hrothgar intends for Heorot to be the culmination of and celebration of his reign. He has battled and he has gained wealth and now he intends to fully enjoy a peaceful and glorious end to his efforts.
But there is no peace for Hrothgar. Heorot is built and there is feasting and singing and celebrating, but a demon-monster destroys that short-lived peaceful reign. It is quite significant that the peace is destroyed by a monster and not by a warring tribe. Hrothgar has successfully created peace by subduing his tribal enemies. But this enemy is something different entirely.
The poet describes Grendel both as a demon and as a literal monster with a body. He is both a spiritual and a physical threat. He is a descendant of Cain, the first murderer, and the poet tells us that the sin of Cain was envy. Right away, we see that the monster who threatens Hrothgar is associated with murder and envy.
Grendel enters Heorot one night and brutally murders 30 men. Unable to kill the monster, Hrothgar abandons Heorot and for twelve years the hall stands deserted. Instead of a reign of peace to cap off a successful kingship, Hrothgar’s people experience “Nothing but war, nothing, and nothing but battle./No peace and no parley, no peace-price accepted” (ln 155-6). The fight against Grendel is a ferocious feud with no chance of peace.
Hrothgar builds Heorot because he wants to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labors. But Grendel destroys Horthgar’s hope for peace because Grendel is the fruit of Hrothgar’s labors. Grendel is associated with murder and wrath and envy—the very sins that are the virtues of Anglo-Saxon culture. What is destroying Hrothgar and his people is their own pagan culture. Grendel is not so much an outside threat, as he is an internal rot.
Lasting peace cannot be established on a foundation of murder, vengeance, greed, and envy.