From Warrior to King

From Warrior to King: The Tragedy and Failure of An Immature Hero in Beowulf

This essay was originally written under Dr. Sarah Breckenridge Wright, for English 300W: Critical Issues in Literary Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and was completed on April 2, 2020. Last revised 24 June 2020.


The reader of Beowulf can extract much meaning from the classic poem, either as a historical lens — vibrantly illuminating an otherwise gloomy period of European history, and providing a glimpse into the art and literature of such a poorly-documented age — or the reader might plumb its depths for something more rewarding. We may learn about the character of those who wrote Beowulf, and those they wrote about. But we may also choose to look deeper into the story, beyond the cultural makeup, and learn about ourselves from the life of Beowulf. While we may find it hard to identify with a medieval, dragon-slaying warrior, the reader can look beyond and find a pervasive and clear narrative about human nature, and the battle we all face against order and chaos. Beowulf is the story of a tragic hero from a forgotten age who is thrust into kingship, and ultimately fails in his duty. By identifying Beowulf as the archetypal hero, demonstrating his rise into a fully-realized warrior, and subsequently explaining his failure to adapt as king, we might learn more about duty and how to mature with wisdom.

Beowulf appears particularly formidable as a hero, providing examples of warrior virtue in the past, present, and future of the poem. Upon arriving in Heorot, Hrothgar’s bannerman Unferth recounts what seems to have been the only noteworthy deed of Beowulf’s youth. “Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca in a swimming match on the open sea,” he begins, “risking the water just to prove that you could win?”[1] Unferth then claims that Beowulf was bested by Breca, in a contest that had been motivated by “sheer vanity” (509) and which boded ill for Beowulf’s future success. But Beowulf corrects Unferth. “I was the strongest swimmer of all,” (534) he declares. Perhaps he lost the race with Breca, but he withstood an unthinkable ordeal upon the sea. Separated from his competitor by a storm, Beowulf had to battle both the waters and sea-monsters before arriving on the shore. And this was when he was a child — could Unferth, or any other warrior among the Danes, boast such an achievement? It is typical of myth and folklore to “endow the hero with extraordinary powers from the moment of birth, or even the moment of conception.”[2] The hero is divinely sanctioned, perhaps the descendant of a god. However this may manifest in the narrative, he is destined for glory and the life of a hero.

Engraving of The Destruction of Leviathan by Gustave Doré

But this hero must also be hidden, like Moses in the basket hidden amongst the reeds or Abraham abandoned in the cave, surviving only through God’s protection.[3] The child is thrust into the unknown, from which the adventure proceeds for the hero to discover their divine heritage — to find their father in the fulfillment of a masculine ideal. This appears to be the case with Beowulf, who ultimately finds a father in king Hrothgar. But when Beowulf arrives at Heorot, he has not yet achieved this recognition. That is why he crosses the waters of chaos from the court of the Geats to the Danes; he is searching for his father, for the realization and (more importantly) recognition of himself as the masculine warrior ideal. We hear of Beowulf that, “He had been poorly regarded for a long time, was taken by the Geats for less than he was worth: and their lord too had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall. They firmly believed that he lacked force, that the prince was a weakling…” (2183b–88a ). Beowulf is hardly considered heroic both abroad and among his own community. He is a veritable nobody.* Yet, despite his reputation, he has knowledge of his own hero-nature.

Beowulf is clearly motivated to overcome his reputation and establish himself as a famous hero. The poem begins by recounting the mythologized Danish hero Shield Sheafson — from whom king Hrothgar is descended. Beowulf hopes to join such legendary figures in the grand mythological corpus, his glory remembered immortally through song and story. There is no mention of material reward when Beowulf swears his service to king Hrothgar, only divine glory (685b–7), and Beowulf takes almost no spoils from the cave of Grendel’s mother (1612–15). Even after Beowulf’s death to the dragon, which appears to have been a vain pursuit by an old warrior chasing his youthful past, the narrator feels the need to defend Beowulf, saying “Yet Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure when he first saw it had not been selfish” (3074–5). He was searching for something higher than material reward. The warrior, “lives not to gratify his personal needs and wishes or his physical appetites but to hone himself into an efficient spiritual machine, trained to bear the unbearable in the service of the transpersonal goal.”[4] This goal is to become ageless, immortal in the memory of the poets.

Beowulf longs for glory above everything and resigns his life to the divine will. In his battle with Grendel, Beowulf renounces sword and shield and declares that, “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgement by God” (440b–41) and that “Fate goes ever as fate must” (455). This is not a suicidal lack of fear, rather it is a recognition that victory is only possible whenever the warrior ceases to cling to life, and turns their attention to total victory. This is the warrior as the man of action, literally leaping into battle — never retreating, only moving forward.[5] This is referenced explicitly when Beowulf confronts Grendel’s mother: “…the prince of the weather-Geats was impatient to be away and plunged suddenly: without more ado, he dived into the heaving depths of the lake” (1492–96). The warrior is also clear-eyed and capable of overcoming trials, and most importantly he is aware of his own limitations. “The warrior,” writes Moore and Gillette, “through his clarity of thinking realistically assesses his capacities and his limitations in any given situation.”[6] Beowulf battles Grendel without protection, yet he dons his armor and legendary sword to face Grendel’s mother. He does not vainly strive for glory, disregarding his limitations. This is what makes him a warrior in the fullest sense.

Sigurd slaying the dragon Fafnir

Beowulf, “knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it.”[7] This is victory, this is glory, and it is exemplified after his victory over the grendelkin. Beowulf’s victory over Grendel and his mother rescues Heorot from the terrible monsters of chaos and firmly establishes him as a legendary hero. Beowulf no longer simply possesses the power of a warrior but is recognized by the community writ large. “Nowhere, they said, north or south between the two seas or under the tall sky on the broad earth was there anyone better to raise a shield or to rule a kingdom” (857–60), and riders depart to spread the tale of Beowulf’s victory throughout the four corners of the world. His deeds are commemorated by a poet in song, linking his life to the legendary, dragon-slaying warrior Sigmund. This is Beowulf’s apotheosis as a warrior, as he achieves that cultural immortality toward which all heroes aspire. It is left to the king Hrothgar to finalize this transmutation.

Beowulf, “knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it.”[7] This is victory, this is glory, and it is exemplified after his victory over the grendelkin. Beowulf’s victory over Grendel and his mother rescues Heorot from the terrible monsters of chaos and firmly establishes him as a legendary hero. Beowulf no longer simply possesses the power of a warrior but is recognized by the community writ large. “Nowhere, they said, north or south between the two seas or under the tall sky on the broad earth was there anyone better to raise a shield or to rule a kingdom” (857–60), and riders depart to spread the tale of Beowulf’s victory throughout the four corners of the world. His deeds are commemorated by a poet in song, linking his life to the legendary, dragon-slaying warrior Sigmund. This is Beowulf’s apotheosis as a warrior, as he achieves that cultural immortality toward which all heroes aspire. It is left to the king Hrothgar to finalize this transmutation.

In Beowulf, king Hrothgar symbolizes the divine, boon-granting father. He is frequently described as the “giver of rings” (353) and demonstrates his fatherly virtue following Beowulf’s victory over the grendelkin. Hrothgar declares, “this man was born to distinction. Beowulf, my friend, your fame has gone far and wide, you are known everywhere.” The king affirms Beowulf’s status in the society and adopts Beowulf into his family. This connection to Hrothgar and his kin is crucial, as it places Beowulf — and, more importantly for Hrothgar, his deeds — into that long lineage of heroes, descending from legendary Shield Sheafson. By such standards Beowulf, too, is predicted to be a great king. Hrothgar is described thus, “þæt wæs gōd cyning [he was a good king]” (862b), and later Beowulf is described using the exact same language (2390b).

But Beowulf is also warned by Hrothgar to beware, that his victory as a warrior does not guarantee success as a king. There have been plenty of kings, including Heremod, who have been blessed with the same renowned lineage, only to dishonor the clan and fail as a ruler. King Heremod had been “eminent and powerful” (1717), blessed by God, “But a change happened, he grew bloodthirsty, gave no more rings to honour the Danes. He suffered in the end for having plagued his people for so long: his life lost happiness” (1718b–1722a). The most important role of the king is as judge, alike to God. It is the role of the king to cast judgement as both punishment (warfare) and as reward (ring-giving, in the case of the Danes).[8] Heremod failed in this regard, while Hrothgar is absurdly generous — especially to Beowulf, whom he ceremonially adopts and heaps mounds of treasure upon.

But Beowulf is not Hrothgar — he is no Heremod either. Beowulf is simply not a king, he is a warrior. Beowulf’s ascension as the king of the Geats, following his brother’s death, proves this. The king is distinguished from the warrior explicitly by their duty and ambition. The king strives to see the prosperity of his subjects, while the warrior seeks personal glory. Beowulf establishes this goal clearly, seeing its culmination in the bard’s song linking Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel to a long line of warriors, and Sigmund’s duel with a dragon. We can then examine this song in the context of Beowulf’s life: he is no Sigmund, an ostensibly mythologized figure — he experiences the gritty reality of a warrior’s life, defeating the dragon but himself perishing in the process (873b).

Beowulf is not a terrible king, but he never achieves the same reputation that he had as a warrior. Beowulf has some of the attributes of a king, but only because such a role is not mutually exclusive from the warrior. Beowulf is aware of this himself, and he bemoans his kingship. “‘I marched ahead of him [Hygelac]… I shall fight like that for as long as I live, as long as this sword shall last… Now blade and hand, sword and sword-stroke, will assay the hoard’” (2498b–2509). The best way to describe Beowulf the king is that he is immature, unrealized. He is simply not fully embodying the virtues of kingship.

The world of Beowulf is one of perpetual disorder. These long lines of heroes strive to vanquish chaos, bringing their own order into the world — but all fail. Beowulf succeeds at slaying Grendel and eventually becomes king, but this is hardly a victory.[9] This only occurs because of the death of his family in the Swedish wars. His battle with the dragon is archetypal. The story reflects the trappings of an immature, tyrannical masculine culture (the patriarchy, which is a frequently misunderstood word) and the failure of such systems. Beowulf is far from a promotion of patriarchy; it is a condemnation. Beowulf, in his masculine pride, fights the dragon alone. The narrator mocks this, just before Beowulf’s battle with the dragon:

Yet the prince of the rings was too proud
to line up with a large army
against the sky-plague. He had scant regard
for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all
of its courage or strength, for he had kept going
often in the past, through perils and ordeals
of every sort, after he had purged
Hrothgar’s hall, triumphed in Heorot
and beaten Grendel. He outgrappled the monster
and his evil kin. (2345–2354a)

He is still longing for glory and distinction, even as an elderly king. He defeats the dragon, but he is killed in the profess. “‘I risked my life often when I was young. Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open.” This pride not only costs him his life, but his kingdom’s fate is sealed too. The kingdom of the Geats is consumed in war (as evidenced by the Finnsburg episode, and Wiglaf’s haunting predictions).

Olympus, The Fall of the Giants by Francisco Bayeu y Subias

Beowulf is also deficient in one extremely defining aspect of kingship, which ultimately dooms his kingdom. Beowulf failed to preserve his own posterity, neglected his house, and left in pursuit of vain glory. His lack of child heirs implies a lack of maturity, unable to do his duty as father of the realm to govern with foresight and maintain the generativity of the kingdom. Moore and Gillette state that the king serves two roles: “fertility and blessing.”[10] King Hrothgar emphasized the importance of generosity in a king but failed to impress on Beowulf the importance of securing an heir. “The ancient myths, true to actual biology, recognized that it was the union of male and female that was truly generative, at least on the physical plane.”[11] Beowulf is defeated by the dragon, which he perceived as a small danger to him — a legendary warrior. When he is dying, he laments this failure. “‘Now is the time when I would have wanted to bestow this armour on my own son, had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir and live on in his flesh,’” he states to Wiglaf, who becomes his heir.

The young Wiglaf respects the king but fears that there is only further doom in the future for the Geats. He states, “this bad blood between us and the Swedes, this vicious feud, I am convinced, is bound to revive… In days gone by when our warriors fell and we were undefended he [Beowulf] kept our coffers and our kingdom safe. He worked for the people, but as well as that he behaved like a hero’” (2999–3007a). Wiglaf then offers a damning critique of Beowulf.  “‘Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt. This happened to us. Nothing we advised could ever convince the prince we loved, our land’s guardian, not to vex the custodian of the gold… He held to his high destiny. The hoard was laid bare, but at a grave cost; it was too cruel a fate that forced the king to that encounter’” (3076–86).

Beowulf is a tragedy. It is the story of a famed warrior who outgrows his age — the degeneration of the age of heroes into the age of profane history. There is no place for the legends and mythology of a bygone age; the people of Beowulf’s country do not have to fear skulking dwarves or bloodthirsty ogres, like those who assailed king Hrothgar’s hall. These ancient monsters exist, like the dragon, but their time too is at its end. The death of the heroic accompanies the death of the monstrous. When Beowulf confronted Grendel, his retainers were eager to die in pursuit of glory; now, they flee to the forest even as their king is assailed by a dragon. Now, the world is profane and consumed only by petty feuds between family. Gone are the days of glory. Beowulf, despite his heroic virtue, was unable to grow into the role of king. He was a warrior, the product of an age of warriors, and in his pride and deficiency brought about the doom of his kingdom.


[*] There is a discrepancy in the text. From the introduction through Beowulf’s first meeting with king Hrothgar, it is suggested that Beowulf is already well known for his legendary triumphs (196; 407–18). But these lines suggest only, at the very most, that Beowulf is known among the Geats — Unferth, parroting the only non-Geat opinion of the hero, proves this.  Regardless, Beowulf’s battle with the grendelkin is clearly his heroic apotheosis.


Endnotes

[1] Seamus Heaney, tran., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, 1st ed. (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000), ll. 506–8; Hereafter referenced in text by line number.

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (Novato, California: New World Library, 2008), p. 274

[3] Ibid., 278

[4] Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p. 85

[5] Ibid., p. 79

[6] Ibid., 80

[7] Ibid., 80

[8] Ibid., 61

[9] Jeffrey Helterman, “Beowulf: The Archetype Enters History,” ELH, no. 35 (Johns Hopkins University Press; March 1968): pp. 1-20, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2872333), p. 3

[10] Moore & Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, p. 58

[11] Ibid., 58


Bibliography

Bullough, Vern L. “On Being a Male in the Middle Ages.” In Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, edited by Clare A. Lees, 31–45. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, California: New World Library, 2008.

Foley, John Miles. “‘Beowulf’ and the Psychohistory of Anglo-Saxon Culture.” In American Imago XXXIV, 133–153. Johns Hopkins University Press, Summer 1977. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26303213

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. 1st ed. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000.

Helterman, Jeffrey. “Beowulf: The Archetype Enters History.” In ELH, no. 35, 1–20. Johns Hopkins University Press, March 1968. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2872333

Lees, Clare A. “Men and Beowulf.” In Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, edited by Clare A. Lees, 31–45. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Moore, Robert, and Douglas Gillette. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf and the Critics. Edited by Michael D. C. Drout. Vol. 248. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002.

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