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Comparison of Hrothgar and Beowulf as Kings

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What makes a “well loved lord” (20), an “honored prince” (88) or a “leader beloved” (1827)? Cultures as well as individuals have differed in their definitions of a successful king for generations. The epic poem Beowulf introduces two kings: Beowulf, the protagonist of the story, the famed hero who slays monsters with his bare hands and then becomes king of the Geats, and Hrothgar, the king of the Danish court, who is grateful for Beowulf’s help in overcoming Grendel and his mother. A king received respect for wealth, fame, and warriors, during the time in which the poem Beowulf takes place. 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 rather than taking care of everything themselves, and think of consequences as well as limits. Hrothgar succeeds in meeting all of these criteria, while Beowulf comes off short. Beowulf, a true hero rather than a true king, obtains wealth, fame, and warriors but acts independently and rashly, as a hero should.

Both Hrothgar and Beowulf present themselves as esteemed kings, because of their fortunes, fame and great bands of warriors. Throughout Beowulf the narrator uses such phrases as “well loved lord” (20), “honored prince” (88), and “leader beloved” (1827) to describe both Hrothgar and Beowulf. Hrothgar’s transition to becoming a great king is described: “Hrothgar was granted glory in war, success in battle; retainers bold obeyed him gladly; his band increased to a mighty host” (38-41). As well as having a band of warriors which follow him gladly, Hrothgar gives out rings as rewards, and has a meadhall built, “mightier than man [has] known” (43). This “famous mead-hall…to distant nations it’s 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, travel 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 famous hero because of his courage 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 famed 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 to not die for the sake of glory. Hrothgar seems to always stay true to his word, as is told at the beginning, “the king kept well his pledge and promise to deal out gifts, [and] rings at the baquet” (53-55). Further on in the story, Hrothgar makes a promise to reward Beowulf if he succeeds in killing the monster Grendel who has been haunting the famous mead-hall for 12 years. He says, “For his gallant courage I’ll load him with gifts….[He] shall know not want of treasure or wealth or goodly gift that [his] wish may crave, while I have power” (290-291,689-691). Beowulf is successful in slaughtering Grendel, and therefore “upon Beowulf, then, as a token of triumph, Hrothgar bestowed a standard of gold, a banner embroidered, a byrny and helm…a costly 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 reward Beowulf, he also makes him his foster son so that a permanent alliance is formed in case Beowulf ever needs any help. Beowulf, before he has taken on the role of king, and is still a hero, is also a man of his word. This is desplayed when he keeps his promise to Hrothgar. Beowulf boasts, “With Grendel, the fearful fiend, single-handed I’ll settle the strife!…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 just 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 comrades says,

“Beloved Beowulff, summon your strength, remember the vow you made of old in the years of youth not to allow your glory to lessen as long as you lived. With resolute heart, and dauntless daring, defend your life with all your force.” (1589-1595)

Beowulf does not keep to these words, which state that he should not let himself be overtaken by the need for glory, and therefore risk his life. Beowulf is not convinced, and is killed by the dragon. After he dies, Wiglaf speaks again,

“We could not persuade the king by our counsel, our well-loved leader, to shun assualt on the dreadful dragon guarding the gold; to let him lie where he long had lurked in his secret lair till the world shall end. But Beowulf, dauntless pressed to his doom.” (1815-1820)

Although both Hrothgar and Beowulf are men of their words, Beowulf can not resist the temptation of once again being the hero. By choosing heroism over his vows, Beowulf desplays that he is a good king, but a better hero. Hrothgar on the otherhand has no obligations to other passions, he can simply make being a great king his priority.

An extraordinary king acts rationally rather than rashly, by realizing the consequences his actions will have on the kingdom. Hrothgar succeeds in doing so, while Beowulf dooms his folk with his ill-considered boldness. Hrothgar’s strong concern with his people is desplayed after Grendel’s first attack on the mead-hall, when he is “weighed down with woe and heavy of heart, [and] sat sorely grieving for slaughtered thanes…sorrowfully brooding in sore distress…too bitter the struggle that stunned the people” (90-91, 125-128). If Hrothgar was indifferent 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 doesn’t risk his own life to fight Grendel becauses he realizes that a kingdom without a good king is likely to fail, and at his old age, it is rediculous to take on such a youthful adventure.

In these two aspects, Hrothgar and Beowulf greatly differ. Instead of desplaying the same kind of sorrow, as does Hrothagar, when some Geat folk are killed by the dragon, Beowulf thinks right away about revenge. When news of the incident is brought to Beowulf, “dark thoughts stirred in his surging bosom, welled in his breast, as was not his wont…[Beowulf] exacted an ample revenge for it all” (1430-1431, 1435). Instead of being overcome by grief, the need for revenge from his days as a brave warrior returns, a feeling he is no longer used to since he has ruled for fifty 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 dragon, but to kill it on his own; “The ring-prince scorned to assault the dragon with a mighty army, or host of men” (1444). As Beowulf is now around 70, it is quite obvious that such a deed is impossible. However, he continues with his plan and is killed in the process, and “often for one man many must sorrow as has now befallen the folk of the Geats” (1813-1815).

A messenger comes and predicts the doom of the Geats, “over and over she uttered her dread of sorrow to come, of bloodshed and slaughter, terror of battle, and bondage and shame” (1870-1872). It is all a result of Beowulf leaving his kingdom 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 sake, because his death is easily forseen when the situation is examined. This shows that his inner hero is stronger than his inner king. Hrothgar on the other hand does exactly what an extraordiary king should do, he becomes one with the people, and realisticly takes on situations in order to avoid unecessary consequences.

In comparison to Hrothgar, Beowulf is a good king but not a great 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 bands of warriors, but this is not all which makes up a great successful king. Hrothgar keeps to his word so as to be trusted by his people, but Beowulf decides to give up this trust for personal glory. Not only does Beowulf give up trust, he also leaves his kingdom 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 simply puts Hrothgar above Beowulf when they are compared as kings. Of Course one can see it differently if one’s interpretation of a better king differs from the one presented, but such obviously necessary attributes such as being likable, trustworthy, and caring should carry over to all culture’s definitions of an extraordinary lord, leader,king, or prince in some way or another.

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