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
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.