The phrase “he was a good king” appears three times in Beowulf. The first iteration (line 11) is a homage to Shield Sheafson. By describing Sheafson in honorific terms, the poet suggests that Sneafson’s offspring are also worthy of respect. The second iteration refers to Hrothgar, descendant of Sheafson; the poet tells us “yet there was no laying of blame on their lord / the noble Hrothgar; he was a good king” (862). Here, the phrase shields Hrothgar from invidious comparison to the younger and more able-bodied Beowulf. The last and final repetition applies to Beowulf, who stands in the position of adopted son to Hrothgar. The poet states “Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned / to the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf / to ascend the throne, to sit in majesty / and rule over the Geats. He was a good king.” Each iteration of the phrase “he was a good king” resonates powerfully and calls to mind the prior usage. What did being a “good king” mean to the Anglo-Saxons? What did these three characters of different generations have in common beyond their ancestry? Given the repetition of this phrase, these questions merit closer scrutiny.
The first attribute shared by Sheafson, Hrothgar and Beowulf was their mature age when their earned the honorific “good king.” Although the reader is told that “Shield was still thriving when his time came / and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping” (26-27), our impression of him is as a seasoned ruler who had lived long enough to raise Beowulf to young adulthood and lay “down the law among the Danes” (29). Similarly, upon meeting Beowulf, Hrothgar is described as “an old man among retainers” (578). The references to his great age are almost incessant: Hrothgar is “the grey-haired treasure giver” (607), “the grey-haired prince” (1792) and “that good and grey-haired Dane, that high-born king” (1870-1871). Lastly, Beowulf too finally earns the appellation “good king” after “he ruled it well /for fifty winters, grew old and wise / as warden on the land” (2208-2210). He is now a “veteran king” (2417), who in the face of death remembers his youth saying “many a skirmish I survived when I was young” (2426) and openly states, “now I am old” (2412). Looking to these three rulers, youth is clearly is not a qualification of a “good king.” One must have first “wintered into wisdom” (1725).
The second attribute shared by these three “good kings” is their ability to dominate their enemies. In a culture where fierce battle-tested warriors were common, it was not enough to merely vanquish one’s enemies; one must continue to subjugate them. Being a “hall-wrecker,” “scourge of many tribes” and terrorizer of “the hall troups” was insufficient to merit Sheafson the appellation “good king;” he also had to dominate them so that “each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him / and begin to pay tribute” (10-11). Likewise, Hrothgar comments “I was then in the first flush of kingship, establishing my sway over all the rich strongholds / of this heroic land,” thereby receiving an oath of allegiance from Ecgtheow. Although we are told that “the fortunes of war favored Hrothgar” (64), had he failed to “establish his sway” and consolidate his winnings, he could not have built Heorot, his seat of power. Lastly, Beowulf too is not recognized as a “good king” because he slew Grendal and Grendal’s mother. Such victories alone are insufficient. Beowulf is referred to as a “good king” only after he took the throne of a nation weakened by battles with Sweden and
… Contrived to avenge
The fall of his prince; he befriended Eadgils
When Eadgils was friendless, aiding his cause
With weapons and warriors over the wide sea,
Sending him his men. The feud was settled
On a comfortless campaign when he killed Onela. (2391- 2396)
Although the poet does not share the particulars of Beowulf’s battles with the Swedes, it is assumed that “settling the feud” equated to dominating the Swedes so thoroughly that fifty years of peace ensued. Only the death of Beowulf raises the specter of further problems with the Swedes and Franks. In each instance, merely winning battles in the absence of any consolidation of one’s winnings would have not merited the honorific “good king.” Indeed, Hrothgar uses Heremod as an example of a bad king because his “rise in the world brought … only death and destruction” (1711-1712).
The last characteristic of a good king is strategic generosity. Throughout the poem, gift-giving is intentionally used to reward and bind people to one another. A good king raises this practice to an art, thereby guaranteeing the recipient’s loyalty. Although the poet is silent regarding any particular attributes of Sheathson’s, the reader may infer that the great wealth of weapons and gold treasure heaped upon his funeral prow was given, at least in part, in recognition of his gifts to the nation. The generosity of Hrothgar and Beowulf is better documented. The reader is repeatedly told that Hrothgar “doled out rings and torques” (80) and assured Beowulf that “there will be nothing that you will want for / no worldly goods that won’t be yours.” He not only awarded Beowulf with fantastic riches upon slaying both Grendal and Grendal’s mother; he also “went on to reward the others / each man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf” (1049-1050). By extending his generosity beyond Beowulf, Hrothgar earns the loyalty of all of the Geats. Finally, Beowulf too exhibits great generosity. Rather than retaining the war gear and horses given to him by Hrothgar, he presented these to King Hygelac, noting their lineage (and all it implies) saying:
[Hrothgar] said it belonged to his older brother,
King Heorogar, who had long kept it,
But that Heorogar had never bequeathed it
To his son Heoroweard, that worthy scion, loyal as he was (2158-2162).
In bestowing these gifts, the fatherless Beowulf continues to cement his place in Hygelac’s family, thereby earning their respect and trust and transforming himself from one who “had been poorly regarded” (2183) to a mature hero.
In conclusion, Sheafson, Hrothgar and Beowulf all share great age, generosity and the proven ability to dominate one’s enemies. Only the last of these traits appears consistent with the Germanic ethos; generosity and respect for great age are not characteristics of the Anglo-Saxons. Close examination of traits shared by all of these rulers suggests that a ruler must both embody the Germanic ethos and transcend it before earning the honorific “good king”.
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000