Intentionally exposing himself to danger when the normal human response would be to desire security and endurance, the hero’s significant mystery is that he chooses to behave as though he is immortal (Hanning 9). A hero sacrifices himself for others, including strangers (Napierkowski 514). A successful hero usually receives glory for his triumph of will over the awareness of humanity and the nature for survival. The recognition by others shows that there is something of the divine about the hero (Hanning 9) which makes him an example for his followers and receives much of his influence by personifying the merits to which both he and his followers are committed (Napierkowski 503). The attributes of the heroic are strength, power, expressiveness, and wisdom (514) and they are enthusiastically recognized as a distinction to the evils they oppose. “The heroic ideal is one in which the leader is defined by his ability to live in concord with both the laws and righteous norms of society, to overcome antagonism, and to demonstrate the attainment of virtue” (503).
The Old English epic poem beowulf demonstrates the Anglo-Saxon ideal of leadership as personified in a legendary hero, Beowulf (Napierkowski 505). The Beowulf poet uses a variety of phrases to describe the heroic Beowulf such as “no one else like him alive” (196), “mightiest man on earth” (197), and “highborn and powerful” (198). To pursue glory, the hero “performs prodigies of strength and courage”, and he is determined to battle until he breathes his last breath (Hanning 9). Beowulf’s power represents the full expression of his energy and fury (10). The Geatish hero’s opposition to recognize the argument of negotiation or cautiousness against heroic action and his energy and firm commitment to glory makes him a problem to those who depend on his strength. Since his decisions rule out the possibility of compromise, control, and cautious withdrawal, Beowulf’s world turns into a catastrophe and causes him to face death. In the great medieval epic, the hero’s life is celebrated and death is mourned. Beowulf’s death “marks the end of an era or seals the fate of a civilization” (9).
As an heir, a king is obliged to serve his country or land and has numerous responsibilities and duties. During the Anglo-Saxon period, good kings were often described as the “ring-giver,” the “helmet,” and the “shield” of his people (Greenblatt 28). “In times of war, a good king will to lead his warriors into battle despite dangers or odds. In times of peace, a good king will generously and wisely care for his people, especially his warriors” (Napierkowski 504). The achievements of the king are best measured by the results of his warriors, which are clarified by a better appreciation of the expectations and rewards of his followers (505).
During the Middle Ages, famous kings built great mead halls, which served as the location of the king’s authority where he provided his warriors with food and drink, bestowed various gifts upon them, and administrated justice. The good king’s bestowal of gifts on his warriors and his feasting with them recognizes their worth and his own generosity (504-506). “The relationship between the warrior and his king is based less on subordination of one man’s will to another’s will than on mutual trust and respect” (Greenblatt 27). Good kings indulge warriors with great respect and keep their promises, which help the kings inspire their warriors and make loyal followers (Napierkowski 506).
In Beowulf, the concept of kingship is addressed in the persons of Hrothgar, Hygelac, and Beowulf. Hrothgar is the good but useless elderly king of the Danes who cannot protect his kingdom from the outrageous Grendel, Hygelac is the king of the Geats and Beowulf’s lord, and Beowulf is the king of the Geats and Hygelac’s successor (Napierkowski 506). The Beowulf poet describes how Hrothgar, like numerous other kings of the time, ordered his followers to build the great mead hall, Heorot, where he feasts with his warriors and rewards them: