The Three Kings of Beowulf

The phrase "he was a good king" appears three times in Beowulf. The first iteration (line 11) is a homage to Shield Sheafson. By describing Sheafson in honorific terms, the poet suggests that Sneafson's offspring are also worthy of respect. The second iteration refers to Hrothgar, descendant of Sheafson; the poet tells us "yet there was no laying of blame on their lord / the noble Hrothgar; he was a good king" (862). Here, the phrase shields Hrothgar from invidious comparison to the younger and more able-bodied Beowulf. The last and final repetition applies to Beowulf, who stands in the position of adopted son to Hrothgar. The poet states "Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned / to the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf / to ascend the throne, to sit in majesty / and rule over the Geats. He was a good king." Each iteration of the phrase "he was a good king" resonates powerfully and calls to mind the prior usage. What did being a "good king" mean to the Anglo-Saxons? What did these three characters of different generations have in common beyond their ancestry? Given the repetition of this phrase, these questions merit closer scrutiny.

The first attribute shared by Sheafson,...

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