Referring to Beowulf, what are the properties of a good ruler or leader?
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In many ways, this text concerns not just the heroic exploits of Beowulf but also the debate of what makes a good leader. This is highlighted through a repeated refrain that occurs from the very beginning of the text: "That was one good king." The text includes various references to other good leaders, whose example is held up as being worthy of making them a good leader. Note the following reference to the early Danish king, Beow, who was another example of a "good king":
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.
This reference is made by Hrothgar, who is himself presented as the model of a good leader. It also highlights his pragmatic prudence, as in the warrior code it was expected that generosity would be a key feature of leaders in order to secure loyalty. Although this quote targets generosity as being one particular characteristic that a good leader must have, at the same time, it also highlights an important principle about leadership, which is that good leadership is built on actions rather than words alone. This becomes immensely important when Beowulf is compared with Unferth. Beowulf, although he boasts about his bravery and skill, shows the truth of his words through his actions in fighting Grendel. Unferth, on the other hand, is exposed to be nothing more than a big talker who does not support what he says through his actions. A good leader ultimately therefore is somebody who is defined by action rather than just talk, as both Beowulf and Hrothgar demonstrate.
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