Weird Wyrds: The Cyclical and Similar Natures of Beowulf’s and Hrothgar’s Lives
The Old English poem Beowulf affords the reader glimpses into two intertwined and seemingly paralleled lives – that of the Danish king Hrothgar and the hero after whom the poem is titled. When Beowulf arrives at the Danish court to relieve Hrothgar’s plight (that of being plagued nightly by the demon Grendel) not only does Beowulf save the Danish people and therefore foster an extremely close bond with Hrothgar, but also begins to follow a path in life that echoes, rather eerily, that of the old king. Both Hrothgar and Beowulf are respected warriors who become king despite not being the first in line for the throne, they both demonstrate exemplary behaviour and generosity as kings, and both are attacked in the winter of their years, after fifty years of relatively peaceful reigning, by enraged monsters. Beowulf’s life mirrors the events of Hrothgar’s, giving the poem, at least in relation to the lives of these two men, a rather cyclical feel and creating a sense of wyrd whose main function, it could be argued, appears to cause Beowulf to follow in Hrothgar’s footsteps.
Neither Beowulf nor Hrothgar were first in line to inherit their thrones, and yet they both did, though in Hrothgar’s case it is difficult to determine why. Hrothgar is the second son of Healfdane, and, after the death of his older brother, Heorogar, he becomes king of the Danes. It becomes apparent later that Heorogar had had a son, who, if following traditional patrilineal blood inheritance policies, should have been made king, but instead Hrothgar takes over. It could be that a deeds-based inheritance system was being honoured, one that allowed Hrothgar to become king because of his “success in war… honor in battle, so that his beloved kinsmen/ eagerly served him” (64-66). Hrothgar’s deeds in battle would indeed make him a worthy king, and he inherits the throne, despite the presence of Heorogar’s son, Heoroweard (Drout 201). It is unclear why Heoroweard does not become king after his father, however it is clear that Hrothgar, despite being only the second son and being even further removed from the throne by the presence of an heir after Heorogar, somehow is able to inherit the throne anyway and rule the Danes for many years.
Like Hrothgar, Beowulf has no immediate right to the throne, whether it be that of the Danes or his homeland, Geatland. Yet, also like Hrothgar, he somehow ends up king anyway, despite his lack of ambition to do so. Hrothgar clearly would never wish to usurp the throne from his older brother, and in fact states that his “older brother unliving,/ Healfdane’s firstborn… was better than” him. Beowulf, like Hrothgar, is intent on preserving and honouring the current kings - as Hrothgar recognizes the value of his brother as king, so to does Beowulf value the rights of Hrothgar and his heirs, as well as protecting the Geatish heir, Heardred. He is particularly opposed to disrupting traditional blood inheritance systems, and ends up king only after the deaths of both Hygelac and Hearded, despite the fact that “by no means could they prevail upon that prince at all/ that he should become lord over Heardred,/ or choose to rule the kingdom” (2373-2376). Beowulf shares Hrothgar’s wyrd in this respect; neither expected or was first in line to become king, yet death of the previous kings and heirs (at least in Beowulf’s case - as aforementioned it is unclear why Heoroweard is not king after his father Heorogar) allows both to become king of their respective peoples despite never having motivation to do so.
Not only do Hrothgar and Beowulf inherit their thrones in eerily similar manners, they also adhere to very similar codes of kingship and are wise, well-loved leaders. This would not be so stunning in itself – perhaps many rulers were good and kind to their people, however the inclusion of the description of Heremod, a king who “cut down his table companions” (1713) and gave “[n]o rings” “yet in his heart he nursed a blood-ravenous breast-hoard” (1719, 1718-1719) draws stark contrast to the magnanimous behaviour of both Hrothgar and Beowulf and truly illuminates how exceptional they are as kings. Hrothgar, “the giver of treasure” (607) “follow[s] good customs” (2144) and rewards Beowulf handsomely for his service, giving “to Beowulf the blade of Healfdane,
a golden war standard as a reward for victory
the bright banner, a helmet and byrnie,
a great treasure-sword…
So manfully did the mighty prince,
hoard-guard of warriors, reward the storm of battle
with steeds and treasures that none who will speak
the truth rightfully could ever reproach [him]” (1020-1024, 1046-1049).
This is behaviour befitting a great king, as it is required to be generous to one’s thanes and not be miserly in order win the respect and love of the people (Tarzia 111). John Halverson in his article, “The World of Beowulf” goes on to further elucidate the definition of a good king as a “guardian”, someone who “maintains his country, his retainers and people, and their traditions; he is the protector, the champion of his people, not their bane. Such a ruler is Hrothgar… so will Beowulf be” (Halverson 595). This is absolutely true, like Hrothgar, Beowulf becomes an “old folk guardian” (2513), “good in manly virtues” (2543), a “wise king” (2209). Both Beowulf and Hrothgar become kings despite not being the first heirs, and become good, wise kings who rule and protect their people well into old age, further demonstrating the fact that Beowulf’s wyrd and therefore his life path follows Hrothgar’s closely.
Perhaps one of the most significant indicators for the strange sense of shared wyrd between Hrothgar and Beowulf is the fact that each king, after ruling for fifty peaceful years, is faced with tragedy and destruction caused by supernatural creatures. Hrothgar had “[t]hus, a hundred half-years… held the Ring-Danes/ under the skies, and kept them safe from war… grief after gladness, when Grendel became [the] invader” (1769-1776). This, of course, is where the story of Beowulf truly begins, as it is when Beowulf comes to Hrothgar’s aid that the main storyline of the poem emerges. Beowulf is able defeat Grendel, and then Grendel’s enraged mother, to great delight of Hrothgar and his court.
Just as Hrothgar is plagued by demons after fifty years of peace, Beowulf, after “the broad kingdom came into [his] hands,… held it well for fifty winters… until in the dark nights a dragon began his reign” (2208-2211). It is incredible how exactly Beowulf’s life and reign seems to follow Hrothgar’s – both warriors-turned-kings rule peacefully for a specifically mentioned fifty years only to begin to be plagued by demonic raids in the night. Beowulf’s catastrophe comes in the form of a fire-breathing dragon, quite different from the earthy, water-based monsters of Hrothgar’s court, however the outcome is the same: death, destruction, and fear. And, in both cases, the affected kings are left despairing, “painful in spirit” suffering from the “greatest of sorrows” (2328).
In the case of the dragon, Beowulf does not rely on any foreign hero to save his court, unlike Hrothgar he is able to defeat the fiend himself, though at a hefty price – that of his life. It could perhaps be argued that this fact starkly differentiates between the two kings and their wyrds – ultimately Beowulf is completely different from Hrothgar as he is able to defeat the blight of his court alone without outside help. But this is not the case. Hrothgar may have required the aid of and relied upon the Geats, but so too does Beowulf, in the form of himself. Beowulf saves Hrothgar’s people, and, like that of Hrothgar, the hero of the Geatish people in times of strife is also Beowulf. Certainly this incident has a very different outcome, that is, Beowulf dies, however it does not change the fact that Hrothgar and his people were saved by Beowulf, and Beowulf’s people are saved by him as well. Beowulf, in a way, becomes his own hero the way he was once a hero to Hrothgar, which serves as a powerful indicator of the closely mirrored, almost cyclical wyrds of these two great kings. In fact, this event could be seen as a culmination of the cycle, as Hrothgar must have died years earlier (fifty years have passed since Beowulf last saw him as an old man) and now Beowulf too has died and can no longer follow in Hrothgar’s footsteps. Both become very good kings despite not being direct heirs, and both, in the winter of their years, are faced with extreme supernatural destruction from which they can only be saved by Beowulf.