In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the narrator establishes our hero early in poem by detailing his fortitude and bravery in battle. The battle with Grendel is imperative in building Beowulf’s credibility with the audience as a hero. The author wastes little time in establishing why Beowulf is traveling to the Danes as well as generates dramatic action almost immediately upon Beowulf’s arrival at Herorot. By establishing a journey we can see our hero faces a challenge, one that he must overcome and return home the victor.
We are first introduced to our hero when he reaches the Danes' shore. The coast guard comments upon Beowulf’s stature and weaponry:
I have never seen a greater earl on earth than that one among you, a man in war-gear; that is no mere courtier, honored only in weapons… (247-250)Beowulf seems physically intimidating as well as well armed. Upon being introduced to Hrothgar, Beowulf begins tooting his own horn. Beowulf has been sent by the Geats to seek out out Hrothgar to solve the monstrous problem of Grendel, because they know of his might. He then gives a brief description of some of the battles he has braved – capturing five giants, slaying the rest as well as capturing mighty sea-creatures (415-422). We then get a negative description of Beowulf from Unferth, the brother slayer. Unferth details a challenge; Beowulf and Breca have participated in a swimming contest for seven nights. Unferth claims that Breca was mightier than Beowulf in the contest and that Beowulf shall certainly perish by the hand of Grendel (506-528).
The scene is set in Heorot, the grand mead-hall. Beowulf and his men are bedding down for the evening. Hrothgar, the Danish lord, and his men are sleeping elsewhere since the hall has not been safe for slumber in years. This is due to the snatching and slaying of Hrothgar’s men by the evil monster Grendel. Grendel preys on Hrothgar’s men at night while they sleep in Heorot. Our hero and his men take over the hall for the evening in order to put an end to Grendel’s slaying. Our hero shows his cunning by allowing Grendel to snatch one of his men from in front of him. The monster:
…seized at once at his first pass a sleeping man, slit him open suddenly, bit into his joints, drank the blood from his veins, gobbled his flesh in gobbets, and soon had completely devoured that dead man, feet and fingertips. (736-745)This sacrifice is essential for Beowulf because it allows him to observe his enemy in action. By doing so, he is able to design a plan of attack. It seems Beowulf knows the monster will go for him next, and he is able to prepare. Beowulf’s mighty strength is then displayed when he grabs Grendel by the arm. Up to this point, we as the reader have only heard tales of the hero’s strength and have seen no actual displays or exhibitions. At this moment, Beowulf is able to flex his might for the audience and show how truly powerful he is. The monster immediately knows:
…that he had never met on middle-earth, in any region of the world, another man with a greater handgrip, in his heart he was afraid for his life, but none the sooner could he flee. (751-754)The “shepherd of sin” has finally met his match in a mortal and is petrified by his adversary’s force. Beowulf’s strength is further legitimized after the monster flees in cowardice.
Beowulf is destined to win his first battle of the poem because he is the hero, not because of any Christian or pagan ideals. This poem would fail and go no further than the first battle if he had lost; if a modern writer were to tackle this subject, it would probably be a short story and not a poem. Beowulf’s victory over Grendel also sets up another battle: the retaliation of Grendel’s mother, which comes next in the poem.
The battle with Grendel’s mother seems to test Beowulf more so than the previous battle. Once again one of Hrothgar’s men, Aeschere, is snatched up in the middle of the night, but this time Beowulf is unaware. Aeschere happens to be Hrothgar’s personal friend and battle companion. Beowulf offers to take this battle for Hrothgar and avenge his Aeschere’s life. Here Beowulf gives his famous speech in which, he states that “it is always better /to avenge one’s friend than to mourn overmuch” (1384-1385). Beowulf is now forced to do battle on the monster’s turf – in an underwater cave. After nine hours of battle underwater, Beowulf returns to the surface victorious and relatively unscathed. This battle seems more fantastical because Beowulf utilizes a magical sword that was within the chambers of the monster. It seems that the battles are getting more extravagant and dramatic, as well as longer, as the poem progresses.
Beowulf’s first battle with Grendel establishes the conflict as well as the tone for the duration of the poem. It is imperative that Beowulf arise the victor for the progression of the poem. Beowulf’s first battle with Grendel also displays the warrior’s brute strength and bravery in the face of the most ferocious of monsters.