What makes a “well-loved lord” (20), an “honored prince” (88), or a “beloved leader” (1827)? Cultures, as well as individuals, have differed in their definitions of a successful monarch for generations. The epic poem Beowulf introduces two monarchs: Beowulf, the protagonist of the story, the celebrated hero who slays monsters with his bare hands and then becomes the king of the Geats, and Hrothgar, the king of the Danish court, who is grateful for Beowulf’s aid in overcoming Grendel and his mother. During the time in which the poem takes place, a king received respect for wealth, fame, and warriors. However, a king should go beyond these basic “needs” and become one with his people. This is achievable by depending on one’s people instead of remaining independent and acting rationally and logically rather than rashly. True leaders delegate work instead of taking care of everything themselves and think of consequences as well as limitations. Hrothgar succeeds in meeting all of these criteria, while Beowulf falls short. Beowulf, a true hero rather than a true king, obtains wealth, fame, and warriors but acts independently and hastily, as a hero should.
Both Hrothgar and Beowulf present themselves as honored monarchs because of their wealth, fame, and great sets of warriors. Throughout Beowulf, the narrator uses such phrases as “well-loved lord” (20), “honored prince” (88), and “beloved leader” (1827) to describe both Hrothgar and Beowulf. Hrothgar’s rise to becoming a great king is described: “Hrothgar was granted glory in war, success in battle; bold considerations obeyed him willingly; his group increased to a mighty host” (38-41). As well as having a set of warriors who follow him willingly, Hrothgar gives out rings as rewards and has a mead hall built, “mightier than any man [has] known” (43). This “famous mead-hall…to distant nations its name [is] known. The Hall of the Hart” (51-53). Not only is Hrothgar successful in the eyes of his own people, but word of his many deeds, such as building the mead hall, travels far.
Beowulf achieves similar fame, not only as a hero but also as a king. His reign is summed up: “For fifty winters he governed [his people] well” (1372). He is described as “the friend, who had dealt [his people] treasure” (1797), the “ring prince” (1443), and the “mighty leader” (1559). Beowulf, being a celebrated hero because of his bravery and physical strength, is also known as “the lord of warriors” (1436), and he “who [had] often withstood the shower of steel [for his people]” (1834). Though Beowulf and Hrothgar both hand out rewards and create famous groups of powerful warriors, there is more to being a great king than just wealth and warriors.
In “Beowulf,” Hrothgar and Beowulf appear to be trustworthy, except that Beowulf breaks the biggest promise he makes to his people, which is not to die for the sake of glory. Hrothgar seems to always remain true to his word, as is told at the beginning, “the king kept good his pledge and promise to deal out gifts and rings at the banquet” (53-55). Further on in the narrative, Hrothgar makes a promise to honor Beowulf if he succeeds in killing the monster Grendel, who has been stalking the celebrated mead-hall for twelve years. He says, “For his gallant bravery I’ll load him with gifts… [He] shall know no want of treasure or wealth or goodly gift that [his] desire may hunger for, while I have power” (290-291, 689-691). Beowulf is successful in butchering Grendel, and therefore “upon Beowulf, then, as a token of victory, Hrothgar bestowed a standard of gold, a banner embroidered, a byrny and helm… a precious sword” (745-747).
He tells the brave hero, “I will keep you, Beowulf, close to my heart in firm affection; as son to father, hold fast henceforth to this foster-kinship” (686-688). Not only does Hrothgar keep his promise to honor Beowulf, but he also makes him his foster son, so that a lasting alliance is formed in case Beowulf ever needs any help. Beowulf, before he takes on the role of king, and is still a hero, is also a man of his word. This is displayed when he keeps his promise to Hrothgar. Beowulf boasts, “With Grendel, the fearful monster, unassisted I’ll settle the discord! …with hand-grip only I’ll grapple with Grendel” (329-330, 342). Although Beowulf “found that never before had he felt in any man other in all the Earth a mightier hand-grip; his mood was humbled, his courage fled” (568-570), which means he lost his courage for a moment, he proceeds to overcome his fears and not only kill Grendel, but as he has promised, kill him unarmed. Later on in “Beowulf,” the hero becomes king, but still behaves like a hero by going out himself to kill a dragon, burning the homes of his people. Wiglaf, one of his companions, says, “Beloved Beowulf, cite your strength. Remember the vow you made of old in the years of youth not to allow your glory to diminish as long as you lived. With resolute heart, and daring dare, defend your life with all your force” (1589-1595).
Beowulf does not adhere to these words, which state that he should not let himself be overtaken by the need for glory and hence risk his life. Beowulf is not convinced and is killed by the dragon. After he dies, Wiglaf speaks again.
“We could not carry the monarch by our advocate, our well-loved leader, to eschew assault on the awful firedrake guarding the gold, to let him lie where he long had lurked in his secret den until the universe shall stop. But Beowulf, dauntless pressed to his day of reckoning.” (1815-1820)
Although both Hrothgar and Beowulf are men of their words, Beowulf cannot resist the temptation of once again being the hero. By choosing gallantry over his vows, Beowulf displays that he is a good king, but a better hero. Hrothgar, on the other hand, has no duties to other passions; he can only make being a great king his priority.
An extraordinary monarch acts rationally rather than headlong by recognizing the effects his actions will have on the land. Hrothgar succeeds in doing so, while Beowulf dooms his people with his ill-judged daring. Hrothgar’s strong concern for his people is displayed after Grendel’s first attack on the mead-hall when he is “weighed down with suffering and heavy of heart, [and] sat sorely sorrowing for slaughtered thanes…sorrowfully dwelling in sore distress…too bitter the battle that stunned the people” (90-91, 125-128). If Hrothgar were apathetic to the feelings of his people, he would not be so shaken by their deaths. Although Hrothgar is deeply moved by the slaughter of his people, he does not risk his own life to fight Grendel because he realizes that a land without a good king is likely to fail, and at his old age, it is ridiculous to take on such a youthful adventure.
In these two aspects, Hrothgar and Beowulf greatly differ. Instead of displaying the same sort of sorrow as Hrothgar when some Geat commoners are killed by the firedrake, Beowulf thinks right away about revenge. When news of the incident is brought to Beowulf, “dark thoughts stirred in his billowing heart, welled in his chest, as was not his wont… [Beowulf] exacted ample revenge for it all” (1430-1431, 1435). Instead of being overcome by grief, the desire for revenge from his days as a brave warrior returns, a feeling he is no longer used to since he has ruled for 50 years and his hero’s heart has been buried deep inside of him. This lust for revenge leads Beowulf to not only want to kill the firedrake but to kill it on his own; “The ring-prince scorned to assail the firedrake with a mighty force, or host of men” (1444). As Beowulf is now about 70, it is quite obvious that such a title is impossible. However, he continues with his plan and is killed in the process, and “often for one man many must grieve as has now befallen the people of the Geats” (1813-1815).
A courier arrives and predicts the day of reckoning for the Geats. “Over and over she uttered her apprehension of sorrow to come, of bloodshed and slaughter, panic of conflict, and bondage and shame” (1870-1872). It is all a result of Beowulf leaving his land to fend for itself because he wanted that last bit of hero’s glory. Therefore, Beowulf did not act in the interest of his people but for his own interest because his death is easily foreseen when the situation is examined. This shows that his inner hero is stronger than his inner king. On the other hand, Hrothgar does exactly what an extraordinary king should do: he becomes one with the people and realistically takes on situations in order to avoid unnecessary consequences.
Compared to Hrothgar, Beowulf is a good king but not a great and successful king because his priorities are set in the wrong place. Of course, both Beowulf and Hrothgar are famous for their gifts of gold and mighty sets of warriors, but this is not all that makes up a great and successful king. Hrothgar keeps to his word to be trusted by his people, but Beowulf decides to give up this trust for personal glory. Not only does Beowulf give up trust, but he also leaves his land in the dust to take on the dragon himself because he is overcome by the need to take revenge and be a hero. He would much rather die as a hero than live as a king. This only puts Hrothgar above Beowulf when they are compared as kings. Of course, one can see it differently if one’s reading of a better king differs from the one presented, but such obviously necessary qualities such as being sympathetic, trustworthy, and caring should carry over to all cultures’ definitions of an extraordinary creator, leader, king, or prince in some way or another.