February 24, 2011
In Beowulf, we are given the picture of a relatively new concept in feudal Anglo-Saxon politics: the enlightened dictator. Hrothgar, who has descended from the tyrant Shield Sheafson, rules the Danes with something resembling benevolence, or at least something that passed for benevolence during that period of time. In my view, examining the intentions of leaders is not a sufficient way of judging them, because when all is said and done, results are what we have to live by. Despite his good intentions, Hrothgar is eventually shown to be nothing more than an autocratic tyrant, as he denies Beowulf what was rightfully his, in order to maintain power. Although we see it far less frequently, leaders exist at the opposite end of the spectrum, leaders who have intentions that can be deemed as less than noble, but they result in better consequences for their people. A notable example of this type of leader came not too long ago, former Soviet Union Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. While he came to office with the intention of reinvigorating a communist regime that had a brutal history of corruption, murder, and forced subjugation, he left office with Russia and the Eastern European countries embarking on a course of unprecedented freedom. While Hrothgar is a fictional character, he would likely be remembered as little more than a run of the mill dictator in the fantasy world he inhibits, while Gorbachev is recognized as one of the Twentieth Century’s great leaders, and the single most important person in the peaceful conclusion to the Cold War, despite his rapid ascension through the Communist Party, one of the most corrupt and destructive forces in the Post World War II era (“Gorbachev”). Hrothgar is able to mask his true colors for a time, however, he ultimately reveals himself during the Grendel conflict.
We see at the beginning of the story how the brutal Shield Sheafson came to power, and how his descendants kept his kingdom strong and stable, all the way down to Hrothgar. While the foundation of this kingdom was surely brutal, as Sheafson is described on lines 5 and 6 as a “scourge of many tribes, wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes”, his descendent, Hrothgar carried a more hopeful, progressive vision. When Grendel appears and Hrothgar is unable to develop a coherent strategy for Heorot's defense, the kingdom is seriously threatened for the first time (Heeny 11). Without Beowulf's heroism in defeating both Grendel and his mother, the Danes would have been in serious trouble. Once that issue was resolved, Hrothgar is forced to deal with the possibility that Beowulf may feel as though he is entitled to rule over the Danes. His queen brings up this possibility earlier, and Hrothgar is forced to toe a fine line in dealing with it (Heeny 83).
After Beowulf defeats Grendel's mother in an epic, underwater battle, he returns to Heorot to present Grendel's head to King Hrothgar (Heeny 113). At this ceremony, Hrothgar regales Beowulf and all of those present in Heorot with a speech filled with wisdom and advice about the responsibilities of power. Starting on line 1700, Hrothgar praises Beowulf for his tremendous courage in facing Grendel and his mother, and for his offer of friendship, saying on page 117, "Beowulf, my friend......In all things you are even tempered and resolute. So I stand firm by your promise of friendship...Forever you will be your people's mainstay and your own warriors' helping hand." Hrothgar immediately follows his praise of Beowulf with a cautionary tale about King Heremod, a former Danish monarch whose brutality and unpopularity eventually lead to his ouster: "Heremod was different, the way he behaved to Ecgwala's sons. His rise in the world brought little joy to the Danish people, only death and destruction." With this line, Hrothgar seems to be appealing to Beowulf's idealism, in the hope that he chooses a different path from Heremod.
While most people would look at Hrothgar's speech on the surface and view it as an outpouring of generosity and advice toward Beowulf, I think there is reason for us to believe that the author is trying to make us skeptical of Hrothgar. Despite the apparent friendly nature of this speech, upon close examination we can see Hrothgar showing us his more calculating side. In fact, the speech follows the same pattern we see from contemporary politicians. By first heaping praise upon Beowulf for his heroic deeds, Hrothgar hopes to disarm him with compliments, and then tries to introduce an element of fear by telling the story of a slain king, which he hopes will give Beowulf pause about laying claim to the Danish throne. He also appeals to Beowulf's sense of humanity and honor by saying he is sure Beowulf will not attempt to emulate Heremod. Although it is certainly honorable for a somewhat enlightened dictator such as Hrothgar to want to keep his people out of tyranny, this does not seem to be his primary concern. His first complaint about Heremod's reign had nothing to do with his treatment of the Danish peasants; it was about his behavior to a previous monarch's children. This clearly indicates what motivations are behind his words, especially when we consider the words of his queen, Wealtheow, who earlier urged Hrothgar to consider abdicating the throne to insure the safety and smooth succession of their sons. To put it frankly, Hrothgar is not really worried for the wellbeing of his people, or for Beowulf, he simply cares about preserving his family's reign over Denmark, a rule which began with a bloodthirsty tyrant in Shield Sheafson. With Beowulf being the most physically powerful warrior in either the Geatish or Danish kingdoms, Hrothgar realizes that he has no chance to stop Beowulf from seizing power, especially after Beowulf makes a surprising alliance with Unfereth, the second most powerful warrior. This leaves the use of his political and persuasive skills as the only recourse to prevent this outcome. In my view, the author could not have possibly included this speech with the intention of boosting our opinion of Hrothgar's wisdom. First, Hrothgar's motivation in giving this advice is for the preservation of his family's power. Given that his own sons played virtually no role in the struggle against Grendel, and would therefore be less qualified to protect the kingdom than Beowulf, we can ascertain that Hrothgar is an opponent of meritocracy and is acting for the benefit of his sons at the expense of his nation. Since this type of action is anything but responsible or wise, I think it is in the story to make us skeptical of his wisdom, as well as his character and leadership ability. While his idealistic hope for something better is admirable, Hrothgar fails the final test, preferring power to practicality, making him little more than the ruling head of a military junta.
Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1984 with aims that were anything but laudable: make the Soviet Union economically viable to preserve the communist system, a system that had killed or unfairly imprisoned over twenty million people since its inception in 1917 (Courteois 15). Seeing that the current system of pure communism had failed to make the USSR competitive with the United States economically, and militarily, Gorbachev introduces a series of reforms (“Gorbachev”). He attempts to grow the Soviet economy through technological advancement, but that does little to solve their challenges (“Gorbachev”). In 1987, he initiates a policy called “glasnost”, which allowed citizens to criticize the government, and created a freer flow of information in the press (“Gorbachev”). In addition, he pursued market reform that was stymied by communist hardliners in the Politburo, so he moved on with more political reform, called “perestroika”, which moved the Soviet Union closer to having a democratically elected government (“Gorbachev”). So, to this point, in order to achieve his goal of preserving Soviet rule, a fundamentally flawed goal, Gorbachev had allowed political freedom to his people, results that are undeniably positive. With his newly elected government, Gorbachev began to implement economic reform. As his political reform began to spread, nationalist movements for separation began to develop in the Soviet satellite republics (“Gorbachev”). Throughout Soviet history, whenever a movement like this would break out, leaders would send in troops and tanks, squashing the unfortunate rebels like insects. Gorbachev, however, took an extraordinary step, by allowing them to separate, as he felt that entering into a conflict would be unproductive and destructive to their economic recovery (“Gorbachev”). The movement for liberation goes beyond what Gorbachev ever intended with even Russia moving away from Soviet control, as Russian President BorisYeltsin assuming a more active role (“Gorbachev”). Ultimately, in the autumn of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it Gorbachev’s office (“Gorbachev”). So, in review, Gorbachev begins his reign with the hope of restoring the Soviet Union’s economic and military might, and to preserve one of the most brutal governments of the Twentieth Century, and ends it by bringing unprecedented political freedom to his people, bringing a peaceful conclusion to one of the most dangerous standoffs in world history, and facilitating the demise of the regime he originally sought to save. For this, Gorbachev is rightfully lauded as a great leader, despite the fact that he began with less than noble intentions. This example proves that intentions and rhetoric are irrelevant when judging the quality and merits of leaders. The only criterion that matters in a leader’s evaluation is what kind of results the deliver to their people. Hrothgar gives his people unqualified nobles to protect them, as opposed to the greatest warrior of the age in Beowulf. Regardless of how “enlightened” he was, he delivered terrible results, and put himself above his constituents, making him no better than his barbaric ancestor, Shield Sheafson.
Courteois , Stephane . “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression”. Harvard University Press. 1999.
Heeny, Seamus. “Beowulf”. W.W Norton and Company Inc. New York. 2000.
"Mikhail Gorbachev." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.