Why would Beowulf's status as Hrothgar's "adopted" son have caused concern amongst the Danes?

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One of the key themes in Beowulf is how identity is primarily driven through familial and tribal associations. The custom of wergild played an important role in medieval society and appears in Beowulf multiple times. Wergild was a method which allowed a family to collect payment if one of the members of the family was murdered or killed by accident. In medieval society, dominated by large families and tribes and lacking in a cohesive and impartial judicial system, wergild was a method for financial settlement to avoid wars between those families and tribes.

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel feuds with King Hrothgar as Grendel refuses to pay wergild for the men he kills.

After Beowulf’s father murdered a member of the powerful Wulfing clan, he did not pay the wergild and subsequently faced numerous death threats. King Hrothgar pays the wergild on behalf of Beowulf’s father, which ends the death threats. Because of this act, Beowulf steps up to battle Grendel because he feels the need to repay Hrothgar for the generosity shown to his father.

Following Beowulf’s defeating Grendel, this line between authentic expression and financial agreement becomes blurred. Even though Beowulf only agreed to fight as repayment, Hrothgar feels a sense of devotion to the hero. This is a cause for concern, because Hrothgar already has sons who will claim his inheritance, and the Danes do not want Beowulf laying claim to that inheritance. In the end, Hrothgar states that the adopted son moniker is simply a term of endearment for Beowulf to honor Beowulf's bravery in saving the Danes from Grendel; it is not a legitimate claim to the inheritance.

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The primary concern about Beowulf's adoption by Hrothgar as "one of his own" concerns the line of succession. Wealhtheow, the queen of the Danes, feels a sense of unease when Beowulf is being showered with gifts for his defeat of Grendel. She asks for Beowulf to show kindness to her young sons, and means not-so-subtly by this for him to preserve the integrity of Hrothgar's bloodline. Despite her being queen, she is not next-in-line for the Danish crown, and so the death of her husband could put Beowulf in a position of disproportionate power.

Wealhtheow, and in fact many of the Danes of Hrothgar's court, are unfamiliar with the righteous character of Beowulf and the mode of virtue that he represents. To the Danes, Beowulf is known as a warrior of unparalleled might. The culture of Hrothgar is one that values strength, as Wealhtheow's sons, Hrethric and Hrothmund, are seated among the young warriors and are on the path to becoming warriors themselves. In a contest of might between the sons and Beowulf, however, the victor would be certain. Many of the Danes are no doubt concerned by the obvious conundrum that Beowulf could seize the Danish throne for himself, should he wish to do so.

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Although it is impossible to know exactly what Hrothgar means when he says that he will love Beowulf "as mine own son," as many scholars have pointed out, the statement may have caused some concern among the Danes, especially Hrothgar's queen, Wealtheow, because Hrothgar already has sons, and the statement could be construed to mean that Hrothgar will treat Beowulf as his son, perhaps his eldest son, who might inherit Hrothgar's throne. It is most likely, however, that Hrothgar means exactly what he says—that Beowulf will be loved as a son, not take the place of Hrothgar's natural sons. We can assume, though, that when Hrothgar uttered these words, every Dane at the celebration paused for a second to look up at Hrothgar. Wealtheow makes it clear a bit later that she will entrust the care of her sons to Beowulf as their protector and essentially warns Hrothgar not to do anything that might put Beowulf in Hrothgar's line of succession.

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