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Published: 10-11-2019

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Three Good Kings Of Beowulf

The phrase “he was a good king” appears three times in Beowulf. The initial iteration (line 11) is a homage to Shield Sheafson. By describing Sheafson in honorific terms, the poet suggests that Sneafson’s offspring are also worthy of respect. The second iteration refers to Hrothgar, descendant of Sheafson the poet tells us “yet there was no laying of blame on their lord / the noble Hrothgar he was a excellent king” (862). Here, the phrase shields Hrothgar from invidious comparison to the younger and more capable-bodied Beowulf. The last and final repetition applies to Beowulf, who stands in the position of adopted son to Hrothgar. The poet states “Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned / to the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf / to ascend the throne, to sit in majesty / and rule over the Geats. He was a great king.” Each iteration of the phrase “he was a good king” resonates powerfully and calls to thoughts the prior usage. What did being a “good king” mean to the Anglo-Saxons? What did these 3 characters of distinct generations have in typical beyond their ancestry? Offered the repetition of this phrase, these queries merit closer scrutiny.

The 1st attribute shared by Sheafson, Hrothgar and Beowulf was their mature age when their earned the honorific “good king.” Despite the fact that the reader is told that “Shield was still thriving when his time came / and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping” (26-27), our impression of him is as a seasoned ruler who had lived long adequate to raise Beowulf to young adulthood and lay “down the law among the Danes” (29). Similarly, upon meeting Beowulf, Hrothgar is described as “an old man among retainers” (578). The references to his excellent age are practically incessant: Hrothgar is “the grey-haired treasure giver” (607), “the grey-haired prince” (1792) and “that great and grey-haired Dane, that higher-born king” (1870-1871). Lastly, Beowulf as well ultimately earns the appellation “good king” after “he ruled it properly /for fifty winters, grew old and smart / as warden on the land” (2208-2210). He is now a “veteran king” (2417), who in the face of death remembers his youth saying “many a skirmish I survived when I was young” (2426) and openly states, “now I am old” (2412). Searching to these three rulers, youth is clearly is not a qualification of a “good king.” One particular have to have very first “wintered into wisdom” (1725).

The second attribute shared by these 3 “good kings” is their ability to dominate their enemies. In a culture exactly where fierce battle-tested warriors had been widespread, it was not adequate to merely vanquish one’s enemies one particular need to continue to subjugate them. Being a “hall-wrecker,” “scourge of numerous tribes” and terrorizer of “the hall troups” was insufficient to merit Sheafson the appellation “good king” he also had to dominate them so that “each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him / and start to spend tribute” (ten-11). Likewise, Hrothgar comments “I was then in the initial flush of kingship, establishing my sway more than all the rich strongholds / of this heroic land,” thereby receiving an oath of allegiance from Ecgtheow. Even though we are told that “the fortunes of war favored Hrothgar” (64), had he failed to “establish his sway” and consolidate his winnings, he could not have constructed Heorot, his seat of energy. Lastly, Beowulf as well is not recognized as a “good king” simply because he slew Grendal and Grendal’s mother. Such victories alone are insufficient. Beowulf is referred to as a “good king” only after he took the throne of a nation weakened by battles with Sweden and

… Contrived to avenge

The fall of his prince he befriended Eadgils

When Eadgils was friendless, aiding his result in

With weapons and warriors more than the wide sea,

Sending him his guys. The feud was settled

On a comfortless campaign when he killed Onela. (2391- 2396)

Although the poet does not share the particulars of Beowulf’s battles with the Swedes, it is assumed that “settling the feud” equated to dominating the Swedes so completely that fifty years of peace ensued. Only the death of Beowulf raises the specter of additional issues with the Swedes and Franks. In every instance, merely winning battles in the absence of any consolidation of one’s winnings would have not merited the honorific “good king.” Indeed, Hrothgar makes use of Heremod as an example of a bad king because his “rise in the globe brought … only death and destruction” (1711-1712).

The final characteristic of a good king is strategic generosity. All through the poem, gift-providing is intentionally employed to reward and bind men and women to one one more. A good king raises this practice to an art, thereby guaranteeing the recipient’s loyalty. Though the poet is silent with regards to any distinct attributes of Sheathson’s, the reader may infer that the wonderful wealth of weapons and gold treasure heaped upon his funeral prow was given, at least in part, in recognition of his gifts to the nation. The generosity of Hrothgar and Beowulf is better documented. The reader is repeatedly told that Hrothgar “doled out rings and torques” (80) and assured Beowulf that “there will be absolutely nothing that you will want for / no worldly goods that won’t be yours.” He not only awarded Beowulf with great riches upon slaying each Grendal and Grendal’s mother he also “went on to reward the other folks / each and every man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf” (1049-1050). By extending his generosity beyond Beowulf, Hrothgar earns the loyalty of all of the Geats. Lastly, Beowulf too exhibits wonderful generosity. Rather than retaining the war gear and horses given to him by Hrothgar, he presented these to King Hygelac, noting their lineage (and all it implies) saying:

[Hrothgar] said it belonged to his older brother,

King Heorogar, who had lengthy kept it,

But that Heorogar had by no means bequeathed it

To his son Heoroweard, that worthy scion, loyal as he was (2158-2162).

In bestowing these gifts, the fatherless Beowulf continues to cement his place in Hygelac’s household, thereby earning their respect and trust and transforming himself from one particular who “had been poorly regarded” (2183) to a mature hero.

In conclusion, Sheafson, Hrothgar and Beowulf all share excellent age, generosity and the confirmed ability to dominate one’s enemies. Only the final of these traits appears constant with the Germanic ethos generosity and respect for great age are not traits of the Anglo-Saxons. Close examination of traits shared by all of these rulers suggests that a ruler need to each embody the Germanic ethos and transcend it prior to earning the honorific “good king”.

Operates Cited


Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
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