The Sovereignty of Beowulf Kings
Beowulf opens with the story of the ancient king, Shield Sheafson, in order to establish a discussion on kingship, and to begin building a definition of what constitutes a “good king”. Once this definition has been established, the text uses it to evaluate the other European kings in the tale, especially Hrothgar and Beowulf. This exploration of European kingship eventually leads the modern reader to a discourse on the reign of the “High King of the World” (182), God. Because the text presents the reader with tales of God’s reign, in the same way it tells of Hrothgar’s and Beowulf’s reign, while simultaneously providing the reader with a definition of good kingship, it invites the reader to evaluate God’s rule. The text provides its reader with an opportunity to question the limits of God’s kingship, as well as to evaluate His relation to His subjects, mankind.
Initially, the text focuses on its definition of what attributes and behaviors a fit monarch must have. According to the text, Shield Sheafson qualifies as “one good king” (11) because he “rampage[s] against foes” (5), “father[s] a famous son” (18), receives obedience when he lays “down the law among the Danes” (29), and continues “thriving” (26) until his death. These characteristics become the text’s basis for analyzing other kings. Therefore, the text demands that a king must manifest the ability to protect his kingdom, provide for its future, command obedience, and maintain his strength in order to be considered a good ruler.
Hrothgar fails the text’s test of good kingship because he cannot protect his kingdom from harm in his old age. Although the narrator praises Hrothgar as a “mighty prince” (129), there is ironic distance between the narrator’s descriptions and reality, and between the narrator’s and author’s voices. When the narrator describes Hrothgar as a “mighty prince” (129), the king’s actions reveal him as “stricken and helpless, / humiliated by the loss of his guard” (130-1). Similarly, when the narrator describes Hrothgar as the great “guardian of the ring-hoard,” who “walk[s] in majesty” (920-1), the irony lies in the fact that Hrothgar actually comes “from the women’s quarters” (920). A true, powerful king would be coming from the battlefield, not the boudoir. Despite the narrator’s lavish praise, the author’s criticism of Hrothgar’s actions rings clear. The narrator’s claims of Hrothgar’s greatness are actually authorial accusations of Hrothgar’s poor kingship. When the narrator states that Hrothgar is his “nation’s shield” (268), the “protector of Shieldings” (371), his peoples’ “ring of defense” (429), and “their shelter in war” (663), the author utilizes the ironic disjoint between the descriptions of Hrothgar and his true behavior to highlight the fact that he is a weak king, unable to shield his people.
Similarly, Hrothgar’s speech to Beowulf counseling him to be wary of old age, pride, and “unthinkingness” (1733) is not merely what it seems on the surface. The speech also functions as a narrative of Hrothgar’s own mistakes. It reveals Hrothgar’s knowledge of his failures as king; he recognizes that he has failed his people, and hopes his knowledge will help Beowulf avoid the same fate. Hrothgar seems to redeem his failings as a king through his honest effort to understand and accept the mistakes he has made. He may have succumbed to pride, “illness and old age” (1735) for a time, but now he realizes that men should “beware of that trap” (1758) of pride, and know that “death will arrive” (1767). Though unable to live up to the legend of Shield Sheafson’s good kingship, he does gain awareness of what he lacks. The text counsels that “understanding is always best” (1058), and Hrothgar passes this test of understanding. He realizes that old age, pride, and “unthinkingness” (1733) have been his undoing, and by recognizing this fact there is hope that he can pass the knowledge on, and a good king will rise from it.
The analysis of Hrothgar’s kingship leads to an analysis of Beowulf’s reign. According to the standards the text sets up, Beowulf does not qualify as a good king. He fails to provide for his peoples’ future with any sort of heir, and he jeopardizes his people by thinking of his own glory and strength when he goes to fight the dragon instead of thinking of their welfare. As the text warns, “often when one man follows his own will/ many are hurt” (3077-8). The great pride that prevents him from “lin[ing] up with a large army / against the sky-plague” (2346-7) leads him to his death and his people to the brink of doom, leaderless and vulnerable. Despite his great strength, and the heroic feats of his youth, he fails to fulfill the requirements of protecting and providing for his people. Additionally, he seems to lack the redeeming insight Hrothgar had about his own failings. He goes to his death proud of his accomplishments, believing he leaves his people “well endowed” (2798), and unable to grasp the danger he has placed them in. The gold he wins is useless to them, destined to be “furled in fire” (3015) with his lifeless body. If understanding is best, then Beowulf is far from great.
This constitutes the analysis a medieval reader might have made about the text of Beowulf. He could have gleaned from the text the message that kings must protect, provide, command, and endure for their people in order to be good leaders. Additionally, a medieval reader could have seen a message in the text that human kings like Hrothgar and Beowulf have faults, but that some hope might lie in understanding and correcting these faults. The text may even have been viewed as a vessel for containing the record of these faults, in the hope that they might be prevented in the future. The portrayal of flawed human kingship certainly existed in the text for readers in the medieval period, and continues to exist in the 21st century. However, for modern readers the text opens up an additional discourse that medieval readers might not have perceived, nor a medieval author intentionally begun, on the kingship of the “True King of Triumphs” (3055), God.
The reign of God in Beowulf is presented to the reader throughout the stories of Shield, Hrothgar and Beowulf. Every event in the work is attributed to God. The text gives the reader a clear opportunity to investigate and question God’s rule in the same way that the text and the reader question Hrothgar’s and Beowulf’s kingships.
In three respects, the God of Beowulf is as perfect a king as one would expect Him to be. He provides for the future of his people, He always receives obedience when He demands it, and his strength never fades. The future of God’s people is secured in two ways. Since God is immortal, His people will never suffer for lack of a leader. Old age cannot do him “mortal harm, as it has done [to] so many” human kings. Additionally, according to the Christian faith, God gives his people a perfect heir, Christ, who will in turn give them perfect inheritance, eternal life. These gifts are far better than the gold and treasure human kings like Beowulf are able to amass for their people. In comparison to the inheritance God has chosen to bestow upon mankind, Beowulf’s legacy of gold seems fantastically useless and meager. In terms of receiving obedience, it is implicitly clear in the text that God has a wide grasp, and that his subjects always obey Him. According to the text, He not only “rules over mankind” (701), but also “wields power/ over time and tide” (1610-11). In terms of maintaining strength, He is immortal. He will not succumb to old age in the way that mortal kings do, His people will not be jeopardized due to any weakness in Him. The fact that men die is the greatest division between God and men, the ultimate symbol of His power and man’s impotence.
Despite His overwhelming abilities to provide, command and endure for man, the Almighty Ruler’s ability or desire to protect him falls into question. The seeds of doubt surrounding God’s intentions toward mankind are sown by the text’s insistence that every event occurs through God’s will, that “what God judged right would rule what happened/ to every man” (2858-9). The problem with this theory is that many terrible things happen to men in Beowulf, and if God is indeed responsible, then either He is indifferent to man’s suffering and refuses to protect them from it, or He hates mankind and purposefully causes it. If He controls all, why does he let the Danes suffer through “twelve winters” (147) before finally bringing Beowulf “to defend [them] from Grendel”? Why does He allow so many of his subjects to fall into “Grendel’s clutches” (478) and be “eaten up hand and foot” (743-4), when He could “easily halt these raids and harrowing attacks” (478-9)? One might argue that God only punishes the wicked and the weak through Grendel’s rages, but then why does God will Grendel to snatch and kill Aeshere, a man who “was everything the world admires in a wise man and a friend” (1328-9)? “As long as God disallowed it/ the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne” (707-8), but since he succeeds in carrying them off, then God is failing as “mankind’s keeper” (3055) and king. Either out of malice, indifference, or perhaps incomprehensible wisdom, God fails to protect His people from suffering.
However, His failure points the reader toward different conclusions than the failures of Hrothgar and Beowulf. The two earthly kings can be viewed as examples to teach mankind what shortcomings kings may have, and perhaps inspire them to improve earthly leadership, or at least, to be aware of its flaws. However, the lesson in the analysis of God’s reign is quite different. As the text aptly states, “Almighty God rules over mankind, and always” (701) has. Therefore, the importance of understanding the benevolence, indifference, or aptitude of God as a ruler is dwarfed by the importance of understanding His power. God’s inexplicable and undesired power over man is what every man must come to accept—whether God feels compassion, indifference, or loathing for man, there is no way for man to “alter in the least the Almighty’s will” (2856), and so every man must go God’s way. The text counsels that the man who understands, however, shall fare better than he who does not. Therefore, the lesson in Beowulf for kings, rulers, and ordinary citizens is to understand one’s weakness in comparison to God’s strength.
1. Lecture, English 45A, Professor Jennifer Miller, University of California, Berkeley, 9/8/2003
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