The king of the Danes (Scyldings) is a wise and great man, but he has lost some of his strength with age. In his prime, Hrothgar built the Scyldings into a powerful military and social entity, symbolized by the erection of his great mead-hall, Heorot. More a palace, Heorot is decorated with gold and fine tapestries. It is the center of Hrothgar’s kingdom and a place of joy and light, which is exactly what Grendel, who has been raiding the hall for a dozen years, resents. For some time, Hrothgar’s men have spent their nights elsewhere as Grendel freely bivouacs in Heorot.
Hrothgar has become famous for his leadership and generosity, important virtues that are closely linked in the world of Beowulf. As a young king, he once protected Beowulf’s now deceased father, Ecgtheow, during a blood feud and purchased peace with Ecgtheow’s enemies through a kind of payment known as wergild, providing major reasons for Beowulf’s devotion to Hrothgar at the beginning of the poem. Hrothgar also became famous for taking care of his own thanes, sharing treasure and land with them as the heroic code of comitatus prescribes.
Hrothgar’s speech to Beowulf (1700 ff.) before the Geats depart, known as “Hrothgar’s Sermon,” is important thematically as it warns of the dangers of fame and the mutability of time. Hrothgar speaks of the temptations of hubris (excessive pride) and tells young Beowulf always to remember that great joy is followed by great sorrow. The old king offers his own life as an example of the changing fortunes that can come with age. Foreshadowing Beowulf’s trials in later life, Hrothgar points out that he ruled successfully for 50 years until Grendel brought him to his knees. Beowulf, whom Hrothgar thinks of as a son, must beware of pride and old age. Throughout the last third of the poem, we are haunted by Hrothgar’s message and compelled to view Beowulf’s actions in the context of the sermon.