Hospitality in Beowulf

Consider the importance of hospitality and reciprocity in Beowulf.  What exactly does it mean to be a good host and a good guest in the world of Beowulf?

The poem works with oppositions. On one hand, social unity is celebrated and, on the other hand, the lack of social unity is denounced. Social unity is celebrated with public celebrations where food, drinks, and words are shared and exchanged (xliii). Hospitality and reciprocity are so important that in the beginning of the poem, Hrothgar dreams of sharing: “it came into his mind that he would command the construction of a huge mead-call, a house greater than men on earth ever have heard of, and share the gifts God had bestowed on him upon its floor with folk young and old – apart from public land and the persons of slaves” (66-71). Hrothgar wants to celebrate and share his glory with his men. However, it is unclear whether his hospitality is also extended to his slaves. As a good host, he gives his visitors “rings, arm bands at the banquet” (79-80) and shares with them drinks and food. In contrast to this kind of hospitality, Grendel’s lack of hospitality and reciprocity is denounced. Grendel does not share food and drink and instead swallows his enemies, uncooked, alone and in silence (xliii). This characterization illustrates Grendel’s barbarism. It positions him as the unknown Other, the antagonist who is the embodiment of evil.

Anonymous.  Beowulf: A Verse Translation.  Translated by Michael AlexanderNew York: Penguin Books, 2003.  Print.

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