Beowulf and The Iliad

Kings play an important role in both Beowulf and The Iliad. In both poems, the kings have complete authority over their subjects. It is considered dishonorable in both poems to disobey the king. The king's orders are rarely even questioned by anyone other than advisors and fellow kings. Yet even though kings from both The Iliad and Beowulf wield tremendous power, their roles do differ.

In The Iliad, kings are looked at as the ultimate leaders of their country, as well as the best warrior on the battlefield in times of war. In Homer's Greece the king was supposed to be the greatest person to lead the country. As Odysseus says "Too many kings can ruin an army-mob rule! Let there be one commander, one master only," (2.235-6). These kings are under tremendous pressure to perform in both roles. In battles, kings in Homeric Greece are always near the front lines. Frequently they seek out other kings to fight and fight the other side's best warriors. All of this fighting was for the kings to gain glory. When trying to raise the moral in battle, Sarpedon says to Glaucus, "in we go for attack! Give our enemy glory or win it for ourselves!" (12.380-1). For all of this effort, the king is rewarded with unimaginable honor. As Nestor, one of the wisest characters in Homer's famous poem says, "No one can match the honors dealt a king." (1.327). Not only do kings acquire great wealth and fame in ancient Greece, but they do not have to give gifts to any of their subjects. The only wealth that the warrior subjects get is what they plunder from battle themselves. These warriors get great honor and glory as well, but not as much as the king. The king also gets the majority of the plunder of any military campaign.

Not only do the kings of ancient Greece gain glory and recognition in their time, but they are remembered for generations after their death. This glory is handed down to their children and they are given a chance to uphold the family honor. Kings are often referred to as the son of whoever their father was, as when Homer tells of when Polypoetes kills Damasus, "There-Pirithous' son the rugged Polypoetes skewered Damasus," (12.210-11). This meant that kings in Homeric Greece not only had to gain honor and glory for themselves, but also had to gain glory so that their sons would enjoy being from good lineage.

As said before, kings in The Iliad had tremendous power over their subjects. Kings simply were not questioned by their subjects. Throughout the entire Iliad, no king is ever disobeyed by someone other than fellow royalty. Even when one king does something that takes away from another king, the results are full of anger from both sides. A good example of this is when Agamemnon takes Achilles concubine, Briseis. Just being ordered by an oracle to give up his concubine makes Agamemnon so angry that he seeks revenge. Not only does Agamemnon need revenge, but he has to go after a powerful person to prove his own strength. And of course Agamemnon chooses to go after the most powerful Greek, and his most powerful ally, Achilles. After this, Agamemnon begs and pleads with Achilles to come back to the fighting, but Achilles has been so offended that he refuses to rejoin the war.

The kings in The Iliad are very powerful. In fact, the only things more powerful than kings are the gods. The kings in The Iliad feared only the gods and listened to oracles concerning the will of the gods. Very rarely would a leader disobey or fight the gods, and when they did they always were meet with disastrous results. Even if a king, or any royalty, makes disastrous decisions for his people, such as Paris kidnapping Helen, the king remains in absolute control over his people. The king is never questioned by his subjects, and is expected to gain glory for himself and the rest of his family through victories in battle. The time period of The Iliad may be the peak of royal power and authority.

Kings in Beowulf have many similarities with those in The Iliad. The biggest is their quest for honor and glory. Honor is the second greatest asset that a king can have, next to wealth. Starting on line 407, Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar. In his introduction speech, Beowulf announces the deeds that he himself had accomplished. In the speech he says "every elder and councilman...supported my resolve...because all knew of my awesome strength." (415-17). He also says "They have seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies" (419). Beowulf, to establish his credibility, states his accomplishments in battle. Also like The Iliad, this honor and glory is passed down to the sons of those who gain it. When Beowulf lands on the shores of Denmark and meets the coast guard, he states his father's name before his own, saying, "In his day, my father was a famous man, a noble warrior lord named Ecgtheow." (262-63). After Beowulf does finally mention his name, he asks to speak to Hrothgar, but does not say Hrothgar's name, but instead says, "If your lord and master, the most renowned son of Halfdane, will hear me out," (344-45). Clearly people in this society are judged at least partially by what their father does. And in order to keep the family name honorable, each male is required to gather glory for themselves. In the way that royal families keep and gain glory and honor, the kings in Beowulf and The Iliad are very much the same.

Like the kings of The Iliad, the rulers of Beowulf are very religious and try to honor God. Yet, unlike the Greek kings, the Beowulf kings honor God as something that can only bring goodness and righteousness to the world. While the Greeks obeyed their gods so that they would not be punished, the hierarchy in Beowulf's time believed that all of their success was do to the divine will of God and that He was never wrong. Whereas the Greeks were occasionally reluctant about following the directions of their gods, characters in Beowulf believed that not doing God's will to the fullest would be a disgrace, as God does only what is absolutely good. When he hears that Beowulf has arrived in Denmark Hrothgar says "Now Holy God has, in His goodness, guided him here to the West-Danes," (lines 381-3). Here, the credit for bringing Beowulf to fight Grendel does not go to Hrothgar, but to God. And when Beowulf announces that he will fight Grendel, he says "Which ever one death fells must deem it a just judgement by God." (lines 440-1). Beowulf is saying that if he dies, it will be by God's will and therefore it will be justified. Compare this to Greeks such as Diomedes, who fights Aphrodite, or Achilles, who fights the river-god Scamander.

Another big difference that is noticed was how the kings held on to their power. In Homer's poem, kings ruled by gaining glory and never relinquished their power unless they were killed in battle. In Beowulf, kings must reward their subjects for heroic deeds by giving them gold and other valuable items. For this reason many kings and other important figures are known as "ring givers". When kings are introduced in Beowulf, their qualities are usually given before their name. Things such as the king's lineage, how noble they are, exploits of theirs, and how kind the king is are very usual things to hear. When Wulfgar meets with Beowulf he says, "I will take this message, in accordance with your wish, to our noble king, our dear lord, friend of the Danes, the giver of rings." (350-3).

This gift giving marks a clear distinction that exists between Greek and Scandanavian kings. The Greek kings need only to win battles. The Scandinavian kings need to not only win battles and reward their subjects, but also protect their people, sometimes at the expense of personal honor. In fact, half of the poem Beowulf is an example. Hrothgar is watching Grendel kill many of his people, yet is powerless to stop him. When Hrothgar allows Beowulf to kill Grendel, he is admitting that neither he, nor any of his Danish warriors can defeat Grendel. Even though Hrothgar knows he will take this slight insult, he recognizes that he must protect his people.

Yet the loss of honor that Hrothgar must take is small. Beowulf never dishonors Hrothgar and in fact treats him with the utmost respect, just as Beowulf would treat any king. The reason for this is that Hrothgar is being a good king by asking for help, if not a good warrior. This exemplifies the difference between kings in The Iliad and Beowulf. Hrothgar eventually tells Beowulf "Do not give way to pride." (1760). Hrothgar goes on to explain to Beowulf that he must be careful in assuming that he will have strength forever and says, "I came to believe my enemies had faded from the face of the earth. Still, what happened was a hard reversal from bliss to grief." (1772-75). It is impossible to imagine a Greek king warning a fellow warrior of the dangers of pride. Hrothgar willingly took an insult to protect his people by calling on Beowulf. Agamemnon sent his people to war to avenge an insult that his brother, the king of a different country, took. The inability to swallow their pride made the Greek kings of The Iliad inferior to the Scandinavian kings of Beowulf.

So the kings in the two epic poems have many similarities, and even more differences. In conclusion, the unquestionable authority of the Greek kings make them more powerful. Yet this is their greatest fault. This authority leads to massive egos and inflated pride. That same pride is what Hrothgar warned Beowulf about. Even though the Scandinavian kings must reward their subjects with vast amounts of land and wealth, they are the better kings. They are willing to put the good of the people in front of themselves. They also are bound to a code of good moral character that is mandated by their faith in God. Both nationalities of kings covet glory, wealth, and honor, and are responsible for collecting them. Yet the Beowulf kings are responsible for the well being of their people ion a way that Iliad kings are not.

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