Several qualities of good kingship are outlined almost immediately in the Old English poem Beowulf. The opening lines, for instance, announce that
. . . The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (Seamus Heaney translation)
These lines suggest several traits of good kings, including courage and heroism. Beowulf certainly displays both of these qualities frequently throughout the poem, as in his fights with the three monsters. Hrothgar’s courage and greatness are much less emphatically stressed, although they are implied in the lines noting that
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
young followers, a force that grew
to be a mighty army. (65-67)
During much of the poem, however, Hrothgar seems impotent and humiliated because he cannot protect his people from the terrors of Grendel and Grendel’s mother.
Hrothgar does, however, display another key trait of good kingship: he is generous. Thus, even before Hrothgar appears on the scene, the poet remarks that a young prince ought to give
freely while his father lives
so that afterward in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line (22-24)
Evidently Hrothgar is a good king in this respect, since the poet notes that
. . . he would dispense
His God-given goods to young and old (71-72)
Ironically, although Beowulf is also a generous king (even after he dies), he is ultimately deserted by most of his men (except Wiglaf) in his time of need. The poem is full of similar ironies. Thus, Hrothgar's power is emphasized soon after he is introduced, but no sooner is his power stressed than it is quickly undercut by the appearance of Grendel.