King Arthur vs Beowulf

When reading Idylls of the King I found that focusing on similarities between Beowulf and King Arthur was actually quite difficult. There are specific things about the two men that are similar, for instance the fame and the virtuousness and strength of their characters that is described but to me the key similarities lay in the intentions behind their actions.

When first reading Beowulf at the beginning of the year, I viewed his character in the way he was described; virtuous, kind hearted, and strong. However after reading Idylls of the King I no longer believe that his intentions were purely helpful. I believe there was a selfish element to his actions because it seems somewhat arrogant to travel to a foreign country to help a stranger you have never met and assume that they willow welcome your arrival with open arms. There are also no passages where Beowulf speaks as kindly to his followers as King Arthur speaks to his nights.

When reading Idylls of the King I truly believed that King Arthur is as virtuous as described. It seems that he wants to marry Guinevere because he truly loves her and that he wants to unite the kingdoms not to gain more power but to bring peace to the lands. Any time the Round Table is spoken of, it is said that all the knights have been taught good morals by King Arthur and that everyone is viewed as an equal. Even at the beginning of the poem, after Arthur has been crowned King he still “rode a simple knight among his knights” (51). Even after most of his friends have deserted him to fight for Modred, Arthur still claims that he loves his friends. He has kind words for Sir Bedivere even though Sir Bedivere does not follow his wishes. I feel that King Arthur should be viewed as unlike Beowulf rather than similar to him.

“Beowulf”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol A. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton Company & Inc, 2012. 36-108. Print

Tennyson, Alfred. “Idylls of the King”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol E. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton Company & Inc, 2012. 1237-1259. Print

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7 Responses to King Arthur vs Beowulf

  1. jddieu says:


    I thought you brought up a great point and I agree with what you said about the virtuousness of King Arthur and the lack of values with Beowulf. Indeed, Beowulf’s motives are highly charged with self-centeredness and self-seeking desires, rather than being righteous or honourable for the sake of the people. However, is it necessarily a bad thing for a king to behave in such a manner? Beowulf got the job done just as well as Arthur did, if not better, arguably. Yes, when it comes to comparison of virtue, there is no contention. Yet, I feel that Beowulf’s strong sense of what he desires and his will and ability to achieve it makes him a truly epic legend, whereas Arthur acts rather like a good role-model, relatable in his humanity and flaws, but one to be admired and emulated.

    John Dieu

    • stephaniestahl says:

      I agree that although they are both kings, they behave in different ways. I agree with what someone else said, that this could be related to a difference in the times. For us, we may see a king as someone who is noble in his attempts to do well for his people. We value qualities that are selfless and we are supportive of those who help others. However, Beowulf is not like this. Although he does possess qualities of a king, he is very different. He should not be seen as any less of a king, but rather as a different type of person. And like Nicole said, this makes them less comparable in terms of their similarities. I believe that it is these changes over time have contributed to what people want to see in a king.

  2. madelynbrakke says:

    Great post Nicole!
    It is interesting to read your thoughts on Beowulf and King Arthur because my post in arguing opposite ideas. Whereas my post focused more on plot similarities, you bring up some great instances of differences based on their character. Although Beowulf and King Arthur are both kings battling monsters, they have different ways of accomplishing these tasks. As John pointed out, Beowulf is acting out of self-centeredness and for the glory. However Arthur acts out of honour and loyalty, especially towards his fellow knights. Maybe the reason Arthur does so is to gain the respect and highness of the fellow kingdoms; Beowulf already has this respect.

  3. OliviaH says:

    Great job on your post! It is interesting how you brought up the intentions behind Beowulf and Arthur’s actions. I agree with you on the part where Beowulf’s intent to help defeat Grendel derived from selfish ambitions as well as arrogance, but I feel as if Beowulf does have a true desire to help his people. When Beowulf faced the dragon and was nearing death, he told Wiglaf that with the treasure won by the dragon’s defeat, Beowulf would leave his people “so well endowed” and that it was up to Wiglaf to “look after their needs”. Even when he was about to die, Beowulf was concerned about the wellbeing of his people. Perhaps, Beowulf and Arthur’s intentions do overlap, but Beowulf’s intent to help people was revealed near the end, whereas Arthur’s was shown since the beginning.


  4. jcdegner says:

    I thought you raised a really interesting point in your post! I, too, agree with you on the fact that Beowulf and Arthur are a lot more contrasting than similar to one another in their characteristics. In most versions of the Arthurian legend that I have read, King Arthur is always portrayed as extremely selfless and willing to do anything to unite his kingdom. Beowulf, on the other hand, is not as virtuous. It could be argued that at the end of Beowulf’s story, he only cared about the treasure, rather than his kingdom. Did he defeat the dragon for his people, or for the riches that he could gain as a result? Basically, I feel as though Arthur is a better king in the traditional sense, because of his love for his people and kingdom.

  5. amsovak says:

    The comments above are interesting. I do agree with you that Arthur was a better king than Beowulf. However, being a king is not an easy task. Some (such as Niccolo Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’) argue that in order to be a ruler, you must be ruthless and even insensitive. While I see elements of these two traits in Beowulf, I don’t think he is all bad either.

    Yet, there is likely a reason King Arthur is always portrayed as one of the most honorable kings of literature.

  6. mdrvodelic says:

    I have to say I really enjoyed reading your post because I see Beowulf in the same light. I find Arthur to be a more virtuous king because up until the end Arthur still loves his friends, as you mentioned, and although he is not particularily liked by his people, he still fights in their honour. I agree with you on the point that Beowulf in selfish, and that’s what separates the two kings in my opinion. It may be Beowulf’s ego that gets in the way, but his accomplishments are for his reputation. I truly think Arthur fights for the good of his people and not for his own gain. In my blog post, I focused on how the two kings behave during their final moments and I think your post shows why they act the way they act which is why I like it! There is a certain genuine and pure quality to Arthur that I just can’t seem to find in Beowulf.
    Awesome post!

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