"Beowulf": the Virtues of Kingship

Kings play an important role in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem known as Beowulf, the only extant copy of which exists in a late 10th-century manuscript popularly known as the Nowell codex. There are at least seventeen kings mentioned in the poem, covering a wide range of Scandinavian and Germanic tribes and traditions, but only three are given the epithet of gód cyning, or"good king": Shield Sheafson, Hrothgar of the Danes, and Beowulf. It may not be much of a surprise to readers to discover that the eponymous hero of the poem is named "good king" along with these two lesser -- and somewhat less impressive -- characters, but Beowulf's good kingship is at first far from assured, and his heroic end in the fight against the dragon still generates much controversy as to whether his kingship deserves the title of "good". Much of the early part of Beowulf's story is concerned with teaching him what it means to be a good king, what it means to lead, to protect, to provide, and essentially to father an entire people, through the positive and negative examples provided him in the leadership of other kings. The discussion of the virtues inherent in kingship in Beowulf points to an entire philosophy of leadership that is as poignant today as it has ever been.

The first king given the title "good" is Shield Sheafson (Scyld Scefing), the mysterious founder of the Danish dynasty which will one day be plagued by the attacks of the monster Grendel. The source of Shield's "goodness" as a king can be found in the very meaning of his name: his first name, Shield, denotes his role as protector of his people, while his second name, "son of the sheaf", symbolically points to his ability to provide for his people's needs. Protection and providence are two necessary ingredients of good leadership. A king must be a protector: he must defend his people from all sorts of evil, whether it is from enemy attacks, monsters, civil wars, or feuds. He must also be a provider: he must ensure the prosperity of his people by distributing wealth, putting resources to good use, making just laws, and providing stability for the nation. Shield accomplishes this primarily through his strength of arms and his prowess in battle: "There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, / a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. / ... In the end each clan on the outlying coasts / beyond the whale-road had to yield to him / and began to pay tribute. That was one good king." Through war, Shield is able to force the surrounding tribes to serve him and his people through the payment of tribute, and a stable peace is formed through Shield's dominance over others. Although to the modern mind his tactics might seem barbaric, Shield is a good king because he ensures both the protection and prosperity of his people. By fathering a son, Shield also works to ensure stability for his people by providing them with a future leader who will follow in his father's footsteps to ensure peace and prosperity. Shield can die in peace, knowing that he has done all that could be asked of him for his people.

Hrothgar (Hroðgar) is Shield's great-grandson and heir to the responsibility of protecting and providing for the Danish people. Hrothgar, however, does not rely primarily on feats of strength to accomplish this; instead, Hrothgar adds a new dimension to the quality of kingship by using wisdom and prudence as his tools for enacting responsible leadership. Although Hrothgar does not lack military capabilities and is a renowned warrior in his youth, he prefers to end hostilities without causing undue bloodshed by using the wealth of his nation as a method of keeping the peace. The Germanic tribes follow a scheme of blood-payment that often led to outbursts of internecine violence and generational feuding; in order to stave off such forms of instability, Hrothgar would pay a wergild or "man-price" to satiate the family of a murdered man. He does this most significantly for Beowulf's father Ecgtheow (Ecgþeow), who, even though he is a member of a different Germanic tribe known as Geats, finds sanctuary in the hall of Hrothgar and is saved from certain death by the generosity of this good king. This generosity proves itself to be both wise and prudent on Hrothgar's part when it is out of a sense of gratitude that Beowulf himself will come to save Hrothgar from the threat of Grendel. Wisdom and prudence, then, become the second tier in the structure of good leadership. Protection and providence provide the foundation upon which both wisdom and prudence can foster positive growth and stability within the nation. Even though Hrothgar is unable to defeat Grendel by his own strength and must rely on the physical prowess of the hero Beowulf, his great wisdom ensures that "there was no laying of blame on their lord, / the noble Hrothgar; he was a good king".

Before looking into the characteristics of the "good" kingship of Beowulf himself, it is important to also examine the one king who is considered definitively bad. Hrothgar warns Beowulf about the bad kingship and evil end of the king Heremod, who is betrayed, ambushed, and killed by the will of his own people for his mistreatment of them. The bard who sings of the great deeds of the hero Sigemund as an encomium for Beowulf's defeat of Grendel also mentions Heremod and speaks ominously of him with the final phrase: "evil entered into Heremod" (hine fyren onwód). This almost echoes the language used regarding Judas Iscariot in the Gospel of John: "then Satan entered into him" (tunc introivit in illum Satanas). In a sense, King Heremod becomes the traitor to his kingship and to his people through his evil actions, his lack of care for his people, and particularly his selfishness. Hrothgar tells Beowulf: "He vented his rage on men he caroused with, / killed his own comrades, a pariah king / who cut himself off from his own kind, / even though Almighty God had made him / eminent and powerful and marked him from the start / for a happy life. But a change happened, / he grew bloodthirsty, gave no more rings / to honour the Danes. He suffered in the end / for having plagued his people for so long: / his life lost happiness." Heremod had every opportunity to be a good king, it seems, but he traded wisdom and prudence for drunkenness and anger; he forgot the protection and prosperity he was meant to uphold, instead being a scourge to his own nation and denying them their rightful goods. King Heremod is the description of the perfect tyrant, the one who uses his kingship not for the good of others, but for the good of himself. His greed for individual wealth and dominance leads to his loss of happiness and, ultimately, his life. The spiritual dimension is also implied, as "evil entered into him" and he "cut himself off from his own kind". He is no longer living a human life, but a demonic one.

Thus Beowulf's kingship will assert itself in the shadows of these three kings, two good and one bad. Shield's kingship rests on protection and providence, and Hrothgar's builds on that with wisdom and prudence, while Heremod falls into ruin through impetuous anger, greed, and the lust for dominance. Beowulf's kingdom, in order to incorporate the virtues of the good kings and avoid the vices of the bad, will be a kingdom built on the principle of self-sacrifice. Beowulf establishes the protection of his people firstly through his defeat of Onela the Swede, a king who has been a principal instigator of the Swedish-Geatish wars and had been responsible for the death of the young king Heardred, son of Beowulf's lord and predecessor of Beowulf himself. Despite the fact that Heardred's death made it possible for Beowulf to claim the throne, the hero recognizes the danger of Onela's kingship and helps to end it. The next fifty years of Beowulf's reign are peaceful due to his reputation as the man who single-handedly defeated both Grendel and Grendel's mother. Through his heroic deeds as a young man, Beowulf is able to promote peace and demand tribute from other nations without having to resort to any more violence, neatly combining the lessons learned from both Shield and Hrothgar. He learns from the story of Heremod to be a blessing to his people rather than a plague: "Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour; / he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour / and took no advantage; never cut down / a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper / and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled / his God-sent strength and his outstanding / natural powers." He devotes himself to developing a deep habit of self-control that allows him to give his best for others, rather than give in to the urge to dominate others through his natural strength and ability. Rather than letting evil enter him, as Heremod did, Beowulf acts solely for the good of others. It is this self-denial that allows him to generously exchange his life for the runaway slave who steals a cup from a sleeping dragon and wakes its fury; in order to end the dragon's destruction, Beowulf goes to meet it and "settle the feud", to take the punishment meant for the slave onto himself. His defeat of the dragon ensures that his people will prosper from the treasure freed from the dragon's barrow. In his death, Beowulf can say with confidence: "I took what came, / cared for and stood by things in my keeping, / never fomented quarrels, never / swore to a lie. All this consoles me, / doomed as I am and sickening for death; / because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind / need never blame me when the breath leaves my body / for murder of kinsmen."

Protection, providence, wisdom, prudence, and self-sacrifice: each of these virtues works to build up a vision of kingship on which historical leaders could model themselves. The vicious behavior and ignoble end of Heremod serve as a warning to the logical outcomes of abusing the power of the king through greed and violence. Ultimately, the power of the king is a mode of service through which the community is given peace, prosperity, and stability through the self-giving work of the man called to take upon himself the mantle of such authority. It would be a decent lesson for modern man, in whatever leadership position he might have or aspire to, to consider the role of such kings in order to "understand true values", as Hrothgar says. Imagine what society might look like if world leaders, CEOs, teachers, and parents all embraced this understanding! As a favorite authority figure of mine once said, "With great power comes great responsibility." Beowulf teaches us that leadership is first and foremost a service, only secondarily a path to glory, and never a means of self-aggrandizement.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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