Why is the focus of the story on Beowulf as a hero rather than as a king, and what is the difference?

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Beowulf is only a king in the final part of the poem, but he is always a hero and eventually dies a hero’s death from the wound he received from the dragon in battle. It a standard convention of epics that the heroes should be of royal birth. For example, Gilgamesh and Odysseus are kings, and Achilles (since Peleus is still alive at the time of the Iliad) is a prince. Yet we do not think of any of these men primarily as kings, since their fame comes from the adventures and exploits in which they participate as heroes. Gilgamesh does much more harm than good when he stays at home in Uruk and his counsellors beg him to go out on quests. The Odyssey has a rather uneasy, unsatisfactory ending (which is the inspiration for Tennyson’s poem "Ulysses"). The opening lines make it clear why the story of a king is so much less satisfactory than that of a hero.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The story of Beowulf as king is not told because it would be too much like this. The reign of a good king makes a tedious story; it is only crisis that provides drama. Telling the story of Beowulf as king, however, would necessitate the choice between telling a dull tale or making him out to be a bad king—or at least an unsuccessful one whose reign is perpetually in crisis. This is why fifty years of peace are rapidly passed over in favor of the hero’s dramatic exploits.

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Beowulf is an epic, and its focus is on narrating the heroic events of the protagonist. Thus, by only addressing Beowulf as a king, the poem would not fully address his heroic deeds prior his ascension to the royal position and conform to the fundamentals of the poem.

Beowulf is depicted as a man of valor and supernatural strength. In his youth, he fights and slays different monsters. For instance, during his swimming competition with Breca, Beowulf comes second because he is forced to fight off sea monsters. He actively seeks glory, and his pursuits lead him to the Danes as a savior. 

He goes to the aid of King Hrothgar after Grendel unleashes terror on his people. He fatally wounds Grendel and manages to kill Grendel’s mother when she tries to avenge her son’s death. Most of Beowulf’s heroic deeds occur before he becomes king. Thus, Beowulf is not only depicted as a king but an ancient hero with his glorious deeds revered in folklore.

The difference between the two is that his story as a king would have focused on his deeds as a royal leader, but the story covers more than his kingship and is focused more on his heroic deeds.

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The story of Beowulf is a heroic epic in the most traditional Anglo-Saxon sense. In this genre one of the most important things a hero can do is to devote himself to his king or Lord and demonstrate the strength of his loyalty and vassalage as he performs heroic deeds. For this reason, the hero of such an epic is often not a king but one serving a king, which is the case throughout much of this poem. We read early on in the poem that in order to become a good king a prince must first demonstrate that he is worthy, as "a young prince must be prudent . . . that is the path to power among people everywhere." For the majority of the story, we see Beowulf growing in generosity and capacity, as he grows into the role of a hero until he is offered the throne.

What is the difference between a hero and a king? While Beowulf does become king at the end of this story, not all kings in these epics are heroes, and not all heroes can become king. A hero in the culture of this epic is a person who is willing to sacrifice himself for his people, and embodies loyalty to his Lord and ultimately causes his deeds to live on beyond him. Beowulf performs the ultimate heroic deed in sacrificing himself to the dragon in defense of his people. He is a heroic king in that moment, but this is only the culmination of many heroic deeds in his long life. Beowulf the hero has become a king, which is as it should be—it is against the natural order of things to be a king first and a hero second.

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You're correct instating that Beowulf is focused on as a hero rather than a king.  You've asked two questions here:

  1. Why?
  2. What is the difference?

The question of "why" is best answered by looking at the purpose of the poem itself.  It is written as a heroic epic, a tale that focuses on the heroism of an individual (or group of individuals.) Therefore, the story must be about the heroic deeds of Beowulf rather than his kingly duties. What fun would a poem be about Beowulf passing laws, or attending diplomatic banqets?  Aside from that, he doesn't actually become king until later in the book.

This sort of answers the "what's the difference" question as well.  A king doesn't have to be brave (that's why kings have knights.)  That's not to say that there are no warrior kings (just look the Conan the King comics) but the two don't have to go together.

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