Monday, February 23, 2009

Beowulf as an Ideal King

In the folk epic Beowulf written by an unknown writer, it was common for a tribe to be ruled by a chieftin, also known as a king, who was expected to maintain the well being of his people. Shield Sheafson was the first example of a chieftin in the poem. Beowulf eventually lived up to him. “A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.” Sheafson flourished at the height of his power and just like an ideal king was suppose to be, he was buried with treasures. The king surrounded himself with blood kindred retainers and many household members. Also the king led his men in battles and was rewarded with spoils. Royal generosity was also an important aspect of the Anglo Saxon culture and in this aspect of society retainers were known to fight for their lord. Beowulf was a member of Anglo Saxon society who eventually fulfilled the ideal king position. His ideal kingship was apparent by his excellent fighting skills as a warrior, his perseverance, leadership, loyalty, and generosity. Beowulf was eventually well rewarded and remained king for fifty years after the death of his lord.

Initially Beowulf began to be seen as a great warrior when he embarked on a boat with fourteen other warriors to run about to the terror of the Danes and their king Hrothgar. While walking in the footsteps of his predecessors he attempted to drive his peoples land to prosperity by helping to defeat perilous monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain’s Clan. “Now Holy God has, in his goodness, guided him here to the West-Danes to defend us from Grendel.” It is then that the reader begins to see Beowulf’s excellent fighting skills which would begin to characterize him as an ideal king. His physical strength allowed him to remain an excellent warrior. An unknown writer allows the reader to realize his physical strength during his argument with Unferth. Beowulf explained to Unferth that the reason for his loss to Breca during a swimming match in the open sea was not only because he was drunk but he had also been swimming for numerous nights killing about nine sea beasts along the way. Beowulf eventually moved on to the big fight with Grendel to exact vengeance for the men he had slain. Beowulf fought Grendel with the use of his bare hands and claimed himself as dangerous as the monster. “I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel.” In that event the lack of fear was evident which helped to enhance his fighting skills. The Danes had continuously fallen victim of this Cain’s clan member. Therefore, Beowulf’s victory was unexpected. Proof of his ideal kingship was seen high up near the roof of Heorot, the mead hall which was originally built by Beowulf’s predecessors. “Clear proof could be seen in the hand the hero displayed high up near the roof, the whole of Grendel’s arm and shoulder, his awesome grasp.”

Beowulf’s ideal fighting skills continued with his perseverance to kill Grendel's mother who was another member of Cain’s clan as well as another force of evil. “Beowulf got ready, donned his war gear, indifferent to death: His mighty, hand forged, fine webbed mail would soon meet with the menace underwater. During his fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf was handed a sword from Unferth who had previously challenged his strength. This sword was a great example of Beowulf’s fighting skills. While the fight with Grendel’s mom progressed, Beowulf caught eye of a sword that only his physical strength could handle. “Then he saw a blade that boded well, a sword in her armory, an ancient heirloom from the days of the giants, an ideal, one that any warrior would envy, but so huge and heavy, only Beowulf could wield it in a battle. A lifeless corpse seen by fifteen of Hrothgar’s house guards was again proof of Beowulf’s excellent fighting skills.

Since royal generosity was important in the Anglo Saxon culture, generosity also allowed Beowulf to live up to his ideal kingship. Even though he failed upon his death to protect the Geats, his fights with the members of Cain’s clan as well as the dragon were great examples of him sacrificing his life for his retainers. He also lived up to kingship by showing great respect and generosity towards Hrothgar. “I can show the wise Hrothgar a way to defeat the enemy and fin respite if any respite is to reach him ever.” His generosity was also exemplified in his death wishes. Before all battles he requested to have any assets given to his people. “If this combat kills me, take care of my young company, my comrades in arms. And be sure also, my beloved Hrothgar, to send Hygelac the treasures I received.” Also even though Unferth previously challenged his strength, Beowulf claimed that if he shall happen to be put into Lord’s keeping Unferth shall get what he inherited.

Leadership was an important characteristic for a king to have. Beowulf showed his leadership by using other characteristics such as his fighting skills. “I march ahead of him, always there at the front of the line, and I shall fight like that as long as I live, as long as this sword shall last, which has stood me in good stead late and soon, ever since I killed Dayraven the Frank in front of two armies. This quote shows that Beowulf was always ahead of his men in battle. During his battle with the dragon he led eleven men in an effort to protect his men. Also towards the beginning, although he remained anonymous, he led his fellow Geats to Denmark to help Hrothgar and the Danes.

Above all of Beowulf’s characteristics was his loyalty to his people and his lord. Beowulf always took initiative to help his fellow Geats and Danes out. Whether he was young or old it was always important to be available to his men. At the beginning of the poem Beowulf claimed that the reason for him arriving in Denmark was to help with the defeat of Grendel. After this claim, he attributed a large amount of loyalty to his lord by heightening his lord’s fame. “I have heard moreover that the monster scorns in his reckless way to use weapons; therefore to heighten Hygelac’s fame and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand is how it will be, a life-and-dealt fight with the fiend.” Beowulf refused to use weapons in order to gladden his lord’s heart. Towards the end of the poem the reader saw an old Beowulf who still managed to be loyal to his people. After ruling his kingdom for fifty years his strength was once again challenged by the strength of the fire breathing dragon. Though his people perished one by one in war he still remained to meet his fate. Anguished with fear and reminiscing about his childhood as a young warrior, he sensed his death. Finally, he challenged the dragon. Unfortunately, it was the first time his sword failed and Beowulf was killed. Under his loyalty his people were left well accounted for.

All of Beowulf’s characteristics were well admired by the people of his time. All Danes and Geats respected him and he successfully created himself as the bold and powerful warrior and king. His leadership and generosity helped him remain king for fifty years. His excellent fighting skills helped him defend his people and Hrothgar’s people against Cain’s clan. Beowulf was eventually buried in a funeral pyre and just like Shield Sheafson his treasures were placed upon him. Above all, Beowulf was an ideal Anglo Saxon king and he definitely embraced the ideals of his culture.

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