An Analysis Of The Roles Of Kings In “Beowulf”

DISCLAIMER: This was written as an assignment for my British Literature class and was originally posted on Academia.edu

 

In the days of the epic poem Beowulf, a king’s strength was determined by his will, competence, wealth, and power. He had to rule over entire tribes of people and had to be willing to put down any rebellion. But he was human, for he needed warriors to fight for him and counselors to advise him. Even in old age, a king had to set for himself and his people a good example and prove himself worthy of continuing a line of successors. It was a time within the poem when danger manifested itself in the form of monsters and enemy tribes, when the tribes needed a figure to inspire and lead them.

The kings who are mentioned in Beowulf may appear to divert from the main plot but their reigns are compared between Beowulf, Hrothgar, and the kings before them. They are presented both as examples to live up to and cautionary tales to avoid becoming bad kings. Hrothgar was compared to King Eormenric, who acts as a negative foil to him, since he was very greedy, whose wealth was eventually claimed by a warrior named Hama (Beowulf 67, Lines 1197-201). When praising Beowulf, Hrothgar brings up King Heremod who killed his own comrades, refused to pay tribute to the Danes, and lost happiness in the end. Like Eormenric, Heremod is also used as a foil making Beowulf appear noble by comparison. Hrothgar forewarns him “So learn from this and understand true values” (Beowulf 77-8, Lines 1709-23).

The epic poem begins by narrating the lineage of Hrothgar going back to his great-grandfather Shield, an orphan who directed the aggression from his earlier years within the mead-hall and among his enemies into maintaining order among the tribes. It begins with Shield in order to magnify the significance of Hrothgar’s background as an inheritor of the kingdom founded by his ancestor (Beowulf 41, Lines 4-25). Lineage determined how a king was recognized for his legitimate right to leadership, which was important in the poem to refer to him by his relations to past royalty. A common name that is given to some of the characters are based on their filial ties, such as Beowulf being called “son of Ecgtheow” and Hrothgar as “son of Halfdane.”

Since the lineage of the king provides legitimacy to his reign, so would his wealth, especially if it was earned. Kings had to exhibit their wealth, particularly when the kenning “treasure-seat” was used to describe Hrothgar’s throne, which was surrounded by all of his hoard and war spoils (Beowulf 44, Lines 168). Hrothgar also had to ride fashionably atop his royal saddle while being surrounded by shield-bearers, when accompanying Beowulf to the “troll-dam” of Grendel’s mother. This was to demonstrate his power to any in the way as well as to protect him (Beowulf 71, Lines 1390-411). The construction of the mead-hall would have to be suitable to a king’s companions, since it is what unites them amidst the struggles from other tribes and—in the case of the epic poem itself—monsters. Heorot, the mead-hall where Hrothgar and his men celebrated, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning “hart,” which refers to antlers and represented royalty among the Anglo-Saxons (Beowulf 42, Line 78).

Even though kingship was passed to the next generation, members of royalty still had to earn that right, just like Shield did to become king and just like Beowulf receiving the title “hall-warden” which was rare to give anyone (Beowulf 54, Line 653-61). In some parts of Beowulf, Hrothgar was dubbed “the helmet” of his people, which could suggest that the king had to be both physically and mentally impenetrable (Beowulf 37). In order to exercise his authority, a king had to be competent enough to do it. It was the reason why Beowulf was chosen by Hygd, Hygelac’s wife, to become king of the Geats over Hygelac’s own son (Beowulf 90-1, Lines 2367-72). What was evident by this sudden shift of traditional primogeniture was that life was brutal during the time this poem was told and the only opportunities of social mobility were to found in the battlefield. Beowulf also had to earn the trust of allies, like Eadgils, who he aided in his struggle against King Onela (Beowulf 91, Lines 2391-6). Not only did he have to be competent, but a king also had to be brave. This was especially the case when Beowulf was willing to confront the dragon and endure its fire and poison, even in his older years. He even advised his men to stay back while he fights it (Beowulf 93-4, Lines 2510-37).

 

To read more, visit the paper uploaded on Academia.edu

 

Sources

“Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology English Literature: The Major Authors: Volume 1, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 36-106. 12 Oct. 2016.

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