An individual is said to die two deaths: first, when the physical body submits to a state of non-function, and second, when the memory of that individual is no longer present in the minds of those that are still living, to be forgotten by history. This is not the case in Beowulf, where the concept of obtaining fame before death illustrates vibrantly throughout the poem.
The character Beowulf exemplifies the individual being immortalized in history, achieving the status as a warrior hero and noble king before his death in the poem.
When Beowulf came to visit King Hrothgar in his mead-hall called Heorot, Beowulf was stepping into what the poem implied to be the “pinnacle” of Scylding civilization (Beowulf, l. 410-414). In Beowulf, Heorot serves two important roles. First, it would be the setting where the catalyst to Beowulf’s fame starts. Secondly, the Heorot would be a symbolic kingdom that Beowulf would emulate in order to be a good, noble king.
When Beowulf first visited Hrothgar, it was to aid Hrothgar in eliminating a “monster problem”: Grendel (Beowulf, l. 409-410). Beowulf slightly boasted himself, even describing his dealings with sea monsters on his journey to Heorot, to prove he was the best person for the monster problem (Beowulf, l. 418-420). However, dialogue from Hrothgar revealed that Beowulf’s true intentions were to fulfill a debt that Beowulf’s father incurred from Hrothgar (Beowulf, l. 456-472). This is significant since fulfilling debts were the equivalent of legal promises, an element in the poem that emulates an Anglo-Saxon tribal social code. Not fulfilling these promises would yield potential consequences for an individual. However, for Beowulf, fulfilling his promise would yield great rewards and recognition. Since Beowulf was just a teenager at the time, defeating Grendel would be his first chance to prove himself as a capable warrior, his credibility backed by a highly renowned king.
Beowulf’s debt is the catalyst to Beowulf’s fame, in that Beowulf was the individual that killed the demon Grendel, who was terrorizing and attacking Heorot periodically for “hateful reasons” (Beowulf, l. 470-475). Although Beowulf killed the monster, one particular reason made him famous from killing Grendel: The way he actually killed Grendel (with his bare hands). The warrior tribe placed emphasis on how an action is performed, rather than the completion of an action itself. Beowulf’s fight with Grendel by ripping his arm off was a heroic, “innovative” way of killing a monster, due to the Grendel’s magical ability to deflect weapons and armor (Beowulf, l. 815-820). Such an action had Hrothgar proclaiming that Beowulf was “like a son” in his heart (Beowulf, l. 945-949).
However, Grendel’s mother enacted revenge on the tribe because nobody informed her of Grendel’s death (Beowulf, l. 2118-2122). Thus, Beowulf became in deeper debt, tasked by Hrothgar to deal with killing Grendel’s mother so that she could not terrorize the kingdom (Beowulf, l. 1335-1377). Although it took time, Beowulf killed Grendel’s mother in her lair with a magical sword, obtaining proof of the deed with her severed head and displaying it to Hrothgar (Beowulf, l. 1610-1640). Beowulf received generous rewards from Hrothgar and King Hygelac: armor, a sword, the title of king when Hrothgar’s sons would pass away, and “seven thousand hides of land, a hall, and a princely throne” from King Hygelac (Beowulf, l. 2195-2196). The significance of these rewards were unprecedented for warriors in the poem, for Hrothgar placed Beowulf as an equivalent to a son earlier when he killed Grendel, and Hygelac and his people acknowledges Beowulf as a capable warrior. By fulfilling the debt with Hrothgar, these rewards not only solidified Beowulf’s credibility as a strong warrior for defeating monsters amongst his peers, but also transcended Beowulf to a higher level of status as a lord, making him famous between both the Geatish and Scylding people. Beowulf’s rewards would serve as a catalyst for establishing himself as a noble king for the next 50 years.