Vengeance and Revenge in Beowulf
The oldest of the great lengthy poems written in English and perhaps the lone survivor of a genre of Anglo-Saxon epics, Beowulf, was written by an unknown Christian author at a date that is only estimated. Even so, it is a remarkable narrative story in which the poet reinvigorates the heroic language, style, and values of Germanic oral poetry. He intertwines a number of themes including good and evil, youth and old age, paganism and Christianity and the heroic ideal code, into his principal narrative and numerous digressions and episodes; all of which were extremely important to his audience at the time. Vengeance, part of the heroic code, was regarded differently by the two distinct religions. Christianity teaches to forgive those who trespass against us, whereas in the pagan world, revenge is typical and not considered an evil act. In Beowulf, the ancient German proverb "revenge does not long remain unrevenged" is strictly adhered to and verifies that revenge is part of pagan tradition.
Two human relationships were deeply significant to the Germanic society. The most important, the relationship between the warrior and his lord was based on a common trust and respect. The warrior vows loyalty to his lord and serves and defends him and in turn the lord takes care of the warrior and rewards him lavishly for his valour. The second human relationship was between kinsmen. As Baker and Ogilvy suggest, a special form of loyalty was involved in the blood feud. (P.107) If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had an ethical obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment of wergild in compensation. The price was determined upon the rank or social status of the victim and had to be paid by the killer if he wished to avoid their vengeance. Unless a feud was compounded, it was the rightful duty of the family to exact vengeance. The failure to take revenge or to exact compensations was considered shameful. Hence when Grendel attacks Heorot and slaughters thirty of Hrothgar's men, Hrothgar "sat stricken and helpless, humiliated by the loss of his guard, bewildered ... in deep distress," (L.130-133) not only for the loss of his man but also for the dishonour of his inability to kill Grendel or enforce the wergild. For twelve years, Hrothgar suffers in shame because Grendel "would never parley or make peace with any Dane nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price." (L. 154-156)
However, revenge motivates the people in this pagan society, and before long, news of Hrothgar's troubles reach far and wide, including Geatland. Beowulf feels compelled to come to Hrothgar's aid, not only for fame and glory, but also to settle an old feud between their kin. Before long, Beowulf, "the Geat captain had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes: he had healed and relieved a huge distress, unremitting humiliations." (L. 827-830) Before Beowulf killed Grendel, one of his Geats had to...