[S]uddenly I knew I was dealing with no dull mechanical bull but with thinking creatures, pattern makers, the most dangerous things I’d ever met.
The first time Grendel encounters men, Hrothgar stands among them. At first, Grendel thinks that the men are crazy and that he can easily beat them. But after Hrothgar gives orders to surround Grendel, blocking his escape, Grendel realizes that although he is stronger than they, they are smarter. Readers see from the beginning that Hrothgar operates as a fast thinker and effective leader.
Hrothgar, who’d begun hardly stronger than the others, began to outstrip the rest. He’d worked out a theory about what fighting was for, and now he no longer fought with his six closest neighbors. He’d shown them the strength of his organization, and now, instead of making war on them, he sent men to them every three months or so, with heavy wagons and back-slings, to gather their tribute to his greatness.
As Grendel watches different armies fight over the years, he sees Hrothgar outstrip the rest by simply showing his strength and taking their resources. Unlike Grendel, Hrothgar relies on his own wit and knowledge of human nature to get what he wants rather than depending on brute strength.
And as for Hrothgar, if he was serious about his idea of glory—sons and sons’ sons giving out treasure—I had news for him. If he had sons, they wouldn’t hear his words. They would weigh his silver and gold in their minds. I’ve watched the generations. I’ve seen their weasel eyes.
After Hrothgar builds the meadhall, he dispenses wealth to those in his kingdom and plans on his descendants doing the same for generations to come. Here, Grendel reflects on the naivete of Hrothgar’s expectation. Even though Hrothgar appears to be extremely intelligent, he somehow misses one key element of human nature: greed.
He spoke of God’s great generosity in sending them so wise a king. They all raised their cups to God and Hrothgar, and Hrothgar smiled, bits of food in his beard.
Grendel explains that as the Shaper praises Hrothgar in his poetry, everyone in the meadhall toasts to Hrothgar, putting him on the same level as god. The inclusion of the detail that there were “bits of food in his beard” gives readers more the impression of a decrepit old man than a godlike war hero, however. Hrothgar’s progression shows that even the smartest, most celebrated people eventually meet the same fate—they age, weaken, and eventually die.
Violence and shame have lined the old man’s face with mysterious calm.
Grendel observes Hrothgar, noting how drastically his face has changed over the years. The idea that violence and shame would make Hrothgar calm seems contradictory. However, after years of being attacked by Grendel with no way of stopping him, Hrothgar seems resigned to his fate that the attacks will keep happening. Readers may infer that Hrothgar found a sense of peace in accepting what is.