Beowul, Hygelac & Hrothgar

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The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf contains accounts of several powerful men, the three most important ones being Beowulf, Hrothgar and Hygelac. Hygelac, king of the Geats, is Beowulf’s uncle. Beowulf is, therefore, both Hygelac’s nephew and his thane. He comes to aid Hrothgar, king of Denmark, when the latter is experiencing difficulties that have the power to destroy his kingdom: the monster Grendel has been attacking Hrothgar’s mead-hall Heorot regularly for a long time, and Beowulf is the only man who can put an end to this misery. In many ways, these three old English heroes are similar in character, both in their earlier years and when they have grown old.

One thing the gentlemen have in common is the fact that they were all brave warriors when they were young. Hrothgar only became king after his bravery in battle had been established: “The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar. Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks…” (line 64-5). Hygelac is described as a “battle-famed king” (l. 2190), indicating that he too had to obtain renown in battle before being allowed to rule the Geats. Beowulf also had a share in victorious battles. Before he sailed to Denmark, he had already fought many a time. “‘(…) I am Hygelac’s kinsman, one of his hall-troop. When I was younger, I had great triumphs.’” (l. 406-9). His real fame, however, came with his defeating Grendel and subsequently the latter’s mother. “‘(…) Beowulf, my friend, your fame has gone far and wide, you are known everywhere.’” (l. 1699-1705). Another shared characteristic is their self-confidence, which is depicted in descriptive passages about how they made their way in battle: they were fearless and relied wholly on their own strength. For example, Beowulf is at one point described as “the sure-footed fighter” (l. 1543), indicating that he believes himself to be equal to the challenge he faces. This self-reliance has much to do with their pride: they were all proud men. This is shown, for example, during...
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