On the basis of textual evidence from Beowulf, what is a king expected to do?
Consider the moments in the text where a king is praised for something he does; look for the repeated tag-line, “That was a good king!"
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This is a very important question to consider, as the text presents a tension between the role of a king and the role of a warrior. This is seen most clearly in the different outlooks and characters of Beowulf and Hrothgar. Beowulf early on in the text has no other responsibilities, and therefore is quite willing to risk his life in order to gain a heroic status for himself. By contrast, King Hrothgar, who is the leader of his people, seeks above all else safety for those he is responsible for. This becomes clearer when Beowulf changes role and becomes king himself, when he shifts his roles accordingly. The poem says that a king must protect and guard his people, defending them with a mead-hall. A king must also recognise and appropriately reward loyalty in his warriors with praise and presents. A king must also take the initiative to keep diplomatic channels open with other tribes, whilst doing his best to ensure his people live in a stable world. Throughout the poem, these roles and responsibilities of the king are indicated through the phrase "That was a good king!" such as in the following example:
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
This comes from the opening of the poem where the narrator is talking about Shield Sheafson and the qualities that made him a king. This text therefore can be considered as a discussion of the kind of roles and characteristics that make a good king versus what makes a hero, which is most aptly captured in Beowulf himself.
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