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Beowulf is the protagonist and main character of the poem. Characterized as a man with extraordinary strength and skills, Beowulf proves himself, during the course of the poem, to be powerful, virtuous, and courageous. He does not hesitate to rush to the help of the neighboring Danes in order to fight a monster that is plaguing them, proving that he is generous as well as brave.
Beowulf is a nobleman in Geat society. Both his grandfather and his uncle serve as King of Geatland. Despite his heritage and courage, Beowulf has never been recognized as a hero amongst the Geatish people. Although he has not received the recognition he probably deserves, Beowulf continues to do what he believes is right. As a result, when he hears how the Danes are being plagued by a monster, he volunteers to go and help his neighbors in their time of trouble. Filled with self-confidence, Beowulf believes he can slay Grendel.
Beowulf's sense of loyalty is fierce whether it is directed at the Geat King or at Hrothgar. When Hrothgar asks Beowulf to fight Grendel, the brave warrior does not hesitate. His only request is that if he is killed by the monster, his armor should be returned to Hygelac, for he is loyal to the King of Geatland. Once Grendel has been wounded and chased away, Beowulf agrees to fight Grendel's mother, who wants vengeance for her son's death. When he succeeds in killing her, he severs her head and the head of the dead Grendel to show as a symbol of his success and bravery.
Beowulf is also a just man. After he ascends to the throne, he rules with kindness and wisdom. Harmony and prosperity characterize his long reign as a king. Even though his courage is not tested for a long time, it does not diminish, even with old age. When Geatland is challenged by an irate dragon, Beowulf goes off to fight it, confident that he will be able to slay the monster in spite of foreboding prophecies. Even though he knows he may be killed, Beowulf rises to the challenge like a hero. Although he is mortally wounded by the dragon, he continues to fight until the monster is dead.
During the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a youth into a wise, old man. He always behaves in accordance with what is expected of him at a particular age. As a young man, he is a bit wild and reckless, who swims for seven days in the open sea to satisfy a foolish wager. Beowulf later admits that it was his false pride that made him accept the bet. In the land of the Danes, he still displays a bit of pride, as he severs the head of the dead Grendel and carries it back to Heorot as a trophy. In his old age, however, Beowulf seeks peace for his country rather glory for himself. It is no wonder that he was a beloved king and becomes an epic hero.
The son of Healfdare, Hrothgar reigns as the wise and noble King of the Danes. Caring, generous, and religious, he wants to do what is right for his subjects. He built a famous hall, the Heorot, for feasting and distributing his wealth with his noble retainers. He also tries to maintain peace in his kingdom. In fact, he arranges the marriage of his daughter to Ingeld in an effort to cease hostilities with his neighbors.
Although he is old and grizzled by the start of the poem, Hrothgar is still proud and brave; however, because of his old age, he knows he cannot battle Grendel, the horrible monster that is plaguing his land. During his reign of terror on the Danish people, Grendel never attacks Hrothgar, because of his firm belief in God. But Hrothgar, a truthful man, believes that Grendel's attacks on his loyal subjects were probably a punishment from God for his pride in his power and wealth.
When Beowulf arrives to lend his aid to the Danes, the King welcomes him and accepts his assistance, without shame. He justifies the Geat's help by remembering that he had helped Beowulf's father in the past by paying blood money to solve a feud for him. When Beowulf succeeds in killing both Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar does not hesitate to praise him and reward him richly.
In many ways, Beowulf and Hrothgar are very similar characters - noble, brave, generous, just, and pure. In fact, Hrothgar as a king is a foreshadowing of what Beowulf will become in his later life.