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The heroic code of comitatus, as manifested in the story of Beowulf, reflects the mutual respect and obligation that exist between a ruler or leader and his followers (Tierney-Hynes). Specifically, Beowulf finds himself in two relationships with different kings, while later in life he becomes a ruler himself. The former two are characterized by Beowulf’s relationship with his ruler, King Hygelac, and Hrothgar, the Danish ruler. As king himself, Beowulf’s relationship at old age with Wiglaf illustrates the significance of this mutual obligation: it was the latter who risked his life to accompany the king in pursuit of the killer dragon.
Hrothgar was a wealthy Danish king, whose great hall, Heorot, had been the centre of feasting. However, a monster named Grendel, had been attacking and killing guests in this hall for twelve years. When this sad story reaches Beowulf, he feels that he has an obligation to this king, in that the latter had once saved Beowulf’s father. He repays the king in kind by killing Grendel, and subsequently his mother. Having performed this duty, Hrothgar in return rewards him with many gifts, according to the comitatus code. A mutual respect grows between the ruler and the subordinate, and it is with sincere sorrow that Hrothgar bids the young warrior farewell.
Beowulf returns home to his own king, Hygelac. Once again, Beowulf follows the heroic code by presenting the king and queen with treasures from the gifts he has received. While the battle and victory provides Beowulf with a higher status as lord of the realm, his allegiance to Hygelac as his ruler remains. His gifts are also symbolic of the generosity that characterises Beowulf’s relationship with both kings. Hrothgar’s generosity to Beowulf serves as inspiration not only for Beowulf’s relationship with Hygelac, but also with his own subordinates when he becomes king.
The most poignant example of Beowulf’s relationship as king with one of his subjects is the loyalty of Wiglaf. As king, Beowulf has a standing pact with 11 retainers: for the king’s protection and generous gifts, the retainers would fight for him whenever the need arises. Once again, this is indicative of the mutually beneficial ruler-subject relationship required by the comitatus code. When Beowulf is in mortal danger, only Wiglaf has enough courage to join his king in battle. According to the heroic code, this earns him the right to kingship, which the dying Beowulf pledges to the young warrior (Tierney-Hynes).
Revenge is a very prominent theme in the poem, which manifests in the actions of several major characters. Grendel for example is only half-human, and by definition a monster. Together with his mother, the monster is depicted as a descendant of the Biblical Cain. As such, he is excluded not only from human activities, but also from the rules and laws that govern a human society. His exclusion is absolute; the monster is an outcast from the human race. In terms of revenge, Grendel’s motivations are not as clear as those of the other characters. His act of revenge is murder. His motivation could be revenge against God, the human race, or simply his murderous nature.
Grendel’s mother personifies emotional revenge. Her son has been murdered, and she is portrayed almost sympathetically in her capacity as bereft parent. While she is also monstrous and in effect an outcast, Grendel’s mother is nonetheless also a sympathetic and emotional creature to a much greater extent than her son.
The dragon that attacks Beowulf contrasts with Grendel’s mother, in that his revenge is informed by material loss (the stolen treasures). A further contrast is that the dragon’s revengeful attack is levelled at opponents that are easy prey in relation to his extreme powers. Grendel’s mother in turn was a single feminine creature against fourteen strong, young warriors.
Beowulf could be seen as parallel to Grendel in terms of complexity of motivation. In terms of revenge, his motives are at least as complex as those of the monster. Generally the reasons for Beowulf’s battles relate to the protection of his and others’ lives. The battle against Grendel for example could not truly be termed revenge, as Beowulf’s motivation relates to the safety of the living rather than the loss of the dead.
Hrothgar’s sermon is centrally important to the events of the poem for its focus on the main character. It helps the audience form a more complete picture of Beowulf not only as a mighty warrior, but also as a fallible human being (Bramante). The first important point the king makes is that a warrior king should possess not only great physical strength, but also mental strength and wisdom. Secondly, the king emphasizes the fact that Beowulf is human and as such will age and die. When fighting the dragon, Beowulf accepts this and dies as he has lived: heroically.
Wealtheow and Hygd signify Beowulf’s departure from and return to home. In Hrothgar’s hall, Wealtheow is used as the hostess with the mead cup to visually present the ranks of the warriors (Porter). As the stranger, Beowulf receives the cup last. When he returns triumphant, Beowulf is recognized by receiving the cup right after the king. Hygd plays the same role when Beowulf returns home. It is significant that no particular order is identified for receiving the cup, as Beowulf and his status are both known and recognized in his own land (Porter). When the king dies, Hygd plays the secondary role as authority figure in order to appoint a male replacement for the deceased. In this capacity, she offers Hygelac’s kingdom to Beowulf.
In conclusion, Grendel’s mother, as already pointed out, is the major personification of emotional revenge. She stands in contrast with the other two women, as an outcast from civilized society. As such, she is portrayed in unpleasant and unfeminine imagery (Porter). She is truly a monster. She also provides the element of surprise and challenge in the plot. Beowulf and his men do not expect her attack, and the warriors are forced to rely on the best of their skills and abilities.