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Within the first six hundred lines of Beowulf, the poet introduces several characters – Hrothgar, Wulfgar and Unferth – who are juxtaposed against Beowulf to not only glorify the protagonist, but also illustrate the heroic codes of the time.
Hrothgar’s portrayal by the poet as a generous and “good” king, yet at the same time distressed with the problem of Grendel, stands in contrast with Beowulf’s merciless and warrior-like persona. The poet initially describes Hrothgar’s accomplishments majestically, where the “fortunes of war” (line 64) has “favored” (line 64) Hrothgar. However, it seems that Hrothgar, who may have been a mighty warrior and king once, is no longer at the peak of his power. His generosity of dispensing the “rings and torques” (line 81) and other “God-given goods” (line 72) on a regular basis to his people reaches a point where he has been given the name as “the giver of rings” (line 353). This fact seems to further imply that to a certain extent, Hrothgar retains the loyalty of his subjects through riches. The later description of the king’s powerlessness against Grendel puts Hrothgar in a position close to helpless pity in the eyes of readers. The poet depicts the difficult times to be “heart-breaking for the Prince of Shieldings” (line 170) as the Danes places their offers to the “pagan shrines” (line 175) with their “heathenish hopes” (line 179). The situation of the Danes’ useless resistance against Grendel under a distressed king, offers a perfect setting for the entrance of the epic’s hero, Beowulf. Hrothgar may have once been a charismatic and fearless leader similar to Beowulf, but now in a seemingly fragile state, Beowulf’s grand journey from Geatland across the “swan’s road” (line 200) with “a cargo of weapons” and “shining war-gear” (line 214), can only further emphasize his heroic image of a warrior who is “truly noble” (line 250). Thus through the depiction of Hrothgar, the poet not only presents the troublesome situation of the land of the Danes, but also establishes the conditions for Beowulf to be presented as a hero.
Both the coastal sentry and Wulfgar, though similar to Beowulf in that they both are warriors, also serve as contrasts to Beowulf in some aspects. Unlike Hrothgar who indirectly bolsters the image of Beowulf as a hero, the sentry and Wulfgar directly praise Beowulf. The sentry claims that he has never “seen a mightier man-at-arms on this earth (line 248). Wulfgar, even as a “proud warrior” (line 332), supposes that the “stoutness of heart, bravery not banishment” (line 339) has brought Beowulf to Hrothgar and deems the Geats to be “worthy of respect” (line 369) were. The sentry and Wulfgar both reflect a central idea of the epic that is the Germanic heroic code that values strength, courage, integrity and loyalty in warriors. Similarly, Beowulf also abides by these codes. However, what differentiates Beowulf from the two Danish warriors, aside from the fact that Beowulf possesses incredible strength, is that Beowulf undergoes these heroic ventures in a pursuit for fame and glory. The sentry and Wulfgar are subordinates of king Hrothgar, but Beowulf is a warrior with his own “resolve” (line 416), one who seems to seek his own destiny and fame. After Beowulf “announced his plan” (line 199) to help the “prince who needed defenders” (line 201), he “heave[d] out away with a will in [the] wood-wreathed ship” (line 217). This contrast between the two Danish warriors and Beowulf, who actively seeks for adventures to increase his fame, further adds to an image of Beowulf as a hero, who not only abides by the heroic code, but maintains and attempts to fulfill his ambitions.
The final character that contrasts against Beowulf so far in the epic is his foil, Unferth, who demonstrates all the behaviors a medieval tribesman should not. Unferth’s challenge to Beowulf’s reputation and honor, provides an example of a violation of the heroic code, and thus becomes presented as the inferior man. The bitterness of Unferth’s “contrary words” (line 501) towards Beowulf marks jealousy, resentment, and misplaced pride. In the medieval society, Beowulf’s reaction to defending his reputation, even with some exaggerations, is an accepted conduct. Boasting seems to be a proper and reasonable form of self-assertion, but only when one possesses legitimate claims of fame of one’s own. In his defense, Beowulf reminds Unferth that if Unferth is “truly as keen or courageous as [he] claims to be, Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity” (line 590). Beowulf also does not fail to point out that Unferth has “killed [his] own kith and kin” (line 588). In the warrior culture based society the bonds of loyalty, especially ones between that of family and kin, is of utmost importance; to slay one’s own kin like Unferth, is a heinous crime. Unferth becomes Beowulf’s foil who exemplifies all the despicable violations of the heroic code and ultimately re-emphasizes the custom norms and accepted behaviors of warriors and heroes of the medieval tribal times.
Through the portraiture of the characters that contrasts against Beowulf, the poet is able to establish a foundational description of the medieval Scandinavian tribal customs and values. The poet successfully demonstrates the fact that Germanic heroic code is the basis for such warrior societies, and is a means of defining their relations with others beyond their respective territories. Most of the characters in the first part of Beowulf base all their decisions and moral judgments on the code’s principles. Therefore individual actions reflect either conformity or violation of the principles, such as in the case of Unferth failing to base his actions upon moral judgments of the heroic code. In this type of society, courage of a warrior comes from a nearly fatalistic attitude. The manner in which Beowulf is determined to battle Grendel – empty-handed – further highlights the importance of a warrior’s reputation for courageous deeds over life itself. Thus true bravery in Beowulf becomes the warrior’s ability to resign to possibilities of defeat for the sake of glory, instead of conviction or self-confidence in victory.
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