Essay: A Survey of Kingship in Beowulf

This was an early draft. I am not sure what happened to the final paper. I may find it, as I go through other disks and folders.

This post has been back-dated:

One of the major themes of Beowulf is the attributes of a good king. Schücking calls Beowulf a “mirror of a prince.” Niles states that Beowulf is filled with “the memory of a great number of kings.” Bloomfield says that it is not just about Beowulf’s character it is his character. The characteristics of a good king are implied in the words used to describe kings, indicated in several didactic passages, and illustrated in the actions that are praised.The good kings in Beowulf are referred to by several titles that tell about their character and actions. King Scyld was referred to as “their well-loved lord, their ring-bestower.” King Hrothgar is called “honored ruler and giver of rings,” “giver of treasure,” “gracious ruler, gold-giver,” “spearman,” and “shelter of earls.” Hygelac is called “the giver of treasure,” and “the folk-defender.” Beowulf is called “gallant in war” and “well-loved leader.” These titles along with many more that are scattered throughout the poem, many of which are kennings, detail the attributes of the king.In addition to titles, Beowulf is filled with descriptions of a good king. King Offa “was honored for his gifts…greatness in war…[and] wisdom” and was described as “stalwart and strong in war, and the helper of heroes.” Beowulf is called “best of warriors,” “mighty lord/…kindest of worldly kings,/ mildest, most gentle, most eager for fame.” He is also described as a giver of rings and treasure. Hrothgar states that the duties of a king include “to hold guard o’er the hoard and the heroes.” These descriptions show what the author considered to be everything a good king should be.

The author of Beowulf also uses proverbs and didactic passages to teach the reader about the qualities of a good leader. Beowulf, son of Scyld, gave good gifts to his friends while h is father was king. The author then states that a prince should give gifts while he is young so that his friends will remain loyal to him when he is older and there is war. He also states that he who “intends to gain lasting praise in a battle: [should] care not about his life.” Deskis states that the placement of this passage establishes it as something the author intended the reader to “emulate.” When Hrothgar loses one of his “dearest” thanes Beowulf tells Hrothgar that it is better to avenge the death of a friend than to mourn for him. Later, Hrothgar admonishes Beowulf to “Avoid…evil and seek…wisdom. Beware of pride!” Didactic passages explicitly teach the audience what is expected of a leader but these same truths can also be taught by example.

The narrator in Beowulf states whether or not a certain action was good or appropriate, or mentions the consequences thereby demonstrating whether the action was wise or unwise. The poem opens with a description of Scyld son of Sceaf. After describing his victories in battle, the author states, “A good king he!” Thereby placing a stamp of approval on his actions. This phrase is also used to describe Beowulf because he avenged the death of his uncle the king. After avenging the death of one of Hrothgar’s thanes, Beowulf is told that his “fame … is blazoned abroad.”(55)

These show that a king is expected to protect his people, give good gifts, fight fearlessly, and graciously command the respect of all.

Beowulf is filled with the stories of kings. Some of them are good some of them are not. The three major kings living at the time of the action in the poem are Hygelac, Hrothgar, and Beowulf. Each of these is described by the poet as a good king.

Hygelac was king of the Geats at the time of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel and Grendel’s mother. He is Beowulf’s maternal uncle. He is famous for being both good and great. His greatness can be seen in battles that he won.

Hygelac was known for his willingness to help and for his hospitality. He allowed Beowulf to help another king who was in need even though he was doubtful of victory.(64-5) Beowulf new he could count on Hygelac if Hrothgar ever needed help again.(59) When Beowulf returned to the land of the Geats Hygelac had his hall prepared for the returning hero.(64) Hygelac preformed the part of

Hygelac was also famous for his generosity and respected by his thanes, as a good king should be according to the poet. He is called a “giver of treasure,”(62) and “dispenser of treasure”(67) gave Beowulf many expensive gifts.

He is called “splendid”(62) “stout young king”(64) “dear lord” (64) “beloved prince”(68)

“Ogentheow’s slayer”(64) “protector of earls.”(64) He was concerned for his thane(64-5) Called “hardy in war”(70) “battle-bold king, the bulwark of heroes”(71)

Hrothgar was the king of the Danes who Beowulf helped by killing Grendel and his mother. (more) Hrothgar’s greatness is chronicled throughout Beowulf.

Courtly custom(69)

Beowulf son of Ecgtheow is the hero of Beowulf. He is held up as an example of greatness . His greatness can be seen in his personal protection of his people, generous giving, and fearless fighting for followers.

Schücking mentions the importance of loyalty “treue” as being “first…in the code of morals of the Germanic people.” This is made up of three components, “truthful behavior,” “faithfulness,” and “keeping of word or promise.”

Beowulf also illustrates loyalty as defined by Shücking. Beowulf’s “truthful behavior” is seen in the fact that he does nothing “malicious.” His faithfulness in “relation to his relatives” is demonstrated in his treatment of Hygelac’s son when the throne could have been his. Beowulf made boasts and promised to do several things including killing the three monsters. In every case, he did what he said he was going to do, even in the details such as not using a sword when he fought Grendel. He proved his loyalty to his followers, his relatives and his friends many times.

Another attribute of a good king is the protection of his people. Beowulf was a mighty warrior. “No enemy dared to attack” his kingdom. Unfortunately he was not able to provide a stable peace that would last beyond his lifetime. But, he accomplished a peace during his lifetime that was extremely rare at that point in history. Beowulf did not shirk from his duty to protect his people, and in his old age faced a dragon alone, since his thanes were afraid to help him. He lived and died providing for his people.

One of the most often mentioned attributes of a king in Beowulf is generosity. Beowulf’s generosity is without reproach. He gave generously to his thanes and found pleasure in the fact that he had in his death provided great riches for them even though they hid in his moment of greatest need.


Author, “,” in The Beowulf Poet, ed. Donald K. Fry (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.), 1968, .

Author, “,” in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, ed. Lewis E. Nicholson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press), 1963, .

Girvin, Ritchie, Beowulf & the Seventh Century, (London: Methuen & Co), 1971, .

Author, “,” in The Dating of Beowulf, ed. Colin Chase (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1997, .

Kennedy, Charles, W., Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic, (New York: Oxford University Press), 1940, .

Hill, John M., The Cultural World of Beowulf, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1995, .

Deskis, Susan E., Beowulf and the Medieval Proverb Tradition, (Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies), 1996, .

John D. Niles, “Reconceiving Beowulf: Poetry as Social Praxis,” College English, 61, (November 1998): 143-166.

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