Comparing Beowulf and King Arthur

While both Beowulf and Arthur do have their similarities, I noticed an interesting difference. I noticed how the two kings behaved during their final moments and the opposite relationships they have with their people. Beowulf, as you can recall, is deemed a fierce warrior and ultimate hero. It is through these titles and reputation that Beowulf is eventually bestowed the title of king. Arthur on the other hand is questioned by his people and is generally disliked from the get go. His people do not consider him legitimate and therefore struggle to trust in a king who may not even be the rightful heir to the throne. Beowulf and Arthur may both be kings, but the people they govern take to them very differently. What I noticed was this difference continues and is evident right until the final moments of the two kings.

Beowulf, for example, acknowledges that fighting the dragon in order to save his people “would be hard to survive unscathed near the hoard, to hold firm against the dragon in those flaming depths” (95), yet he very rashly goes off to fight the dragon thereby leaving his people to fend for themselves if he dies. He is fully aware he will probably die in the battle, yet goes anyway. Some could argue that it is the heroic warrior in him, but it seems to be an easy escape. A cover up in which the king tried as a last effort to nobly protect his people, when in fact he seems to accept his defeat and accept that his reign as king is over. This way he still looks like the hero and is positively remembered. What better way to die than in battle, right?

Arthur dies in a similar fashion, however his death is spontaneous not anticipated like Beowulf’s. Additionally, Arthur instructs Sir Bedivere to throw away his sword and thereby forgetting his legacy. This parallels Beowulf in the sense that it was vital to Beowulf to be remembered as a heroic king. It is Sir Bedivere that believes Arthur should be remembered. Arthur knows his people do not fully support him, yet I believe he understands the role of a king more than Beowulf does, making the two of them different in the end. Despite the fact that Arthur does not have the full support of his people, he still acts like a king, protecting and fighting for them. He acknowledges that a “king who fights his people fights himself” (1250), proving he understands the responsibilities of his title. He still has the obligation to care for his people even if they do not fully care for him. Beowulf in contrast swiftly abandons his people revealing that he does not possess all the qualities that make up a good king.

In summary, what I wanted to highlight what the contrast in how the two kings act in their final moments. Arthur dies nobly, despite the fact that he is generally disliked. Beowulf jumps the gun to end his life, yet is adored and admired by his people. In the end, Arthur makes a better king due to the fact that he, up to the end cares for his people, whereas Beowulf abandons his people, which is not very noble for a king.  


Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.37-80. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle Ages 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “Idylls of the King.” Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume E The Victorian Age.  New York: NY, 2012. Print.


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7 Responses to Comparing Beowulf and King Arthur

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I don’t know if I agree with your analysis that Beowulf accepts death and purposely strides into battle to die. I think that, in the narrative of Beowulf, a there is a stong emphasis on ones actions being the essance of their reputation. Where as in \Idylls of the King,\ Arthur’s reputation is largely based (at least originally) on the question of his birthright. Yes, Arthur overcoming the doubt of his reign is part of what makes him noble, but Beowulf too is noble, just for different reasons. He was a warrior, right up until the end of his life. I assume in the intern of his reign, he preformed many other great feats, but in the end age is really what caught up with him. The youth of the man that accompanies him in his last moments is a way of emphasizing his age. It is kind of like he is passing off the role of protector to the younger generation. There is the possibility that I am wrong, and Beowulf’s desire for death does play a factor in his decision to face the dragon, but isn’t it far less noble to send off an army of knights to die at the dragon’s cave than to go himself?

  2. carlyferguson1 says:

    I agree with your last comment where you state “Arthur makes a better king”. I think that if you take a look at the actions that both kings performed, they both were heroes fighting for their people. However, what bothers me the most about Beowulf if how he defines himself near the last minutes of his life. Although he is noble for fighting the dragon himself without putting others in danger, his need to maintain his reputation makes it seem maybe like he is doing things more for himself rather than solely for his people (there is a better way for this to worded– just cant find the words)

    Great post!
    – Carly

    • stephaniestahl says:

      I definitely agree with you! I never saw Beowulf as one who was completely selfless, but rather doing things to benefit his own reputation. His intentions seemed different upon his arrival, as I saw him as a heroic figure. However, as the story continued, it became clear to me that he is striving for glory for himself, not so much for his people. I’m glad someone agrees with me! 🙂

  3. jddieu says:

    I agree to the extent that Arthur performs kingship in the general way we understand virtue and nobility in this day and age. However, I also feel that Beowulf, while acting chiefly in his own interests of glory-gaining, still had heart for the people. Indeed, he must have known he would die battling the dragon, now elderly and weakened by time, but in doing so he essentially proved himself to be a saviour-like figure, sacrificing himself for the sake of glory, yes, but also for the good of his people, liberating them from the dreadful, malicious dragon, a dragon who would’ve slew the people if not for Beowulf’s intervention. In this manner, I think Beowulf still displayed his noble qualities, although it was in his own way.

    John Dieu

  4. jenniferbist says:


    I thought your post was interesting in the comparisons between how each of the characters died, and how in contrast they were treated throughout life.
    What I found, and thinking about these comparisons more, was that while Arthur is continually questioned about his reign, treated badly and Beowulf is not, I believe this is because of the almost ‘magical’ way that Arthur comes to the throne. What I tended to notice while reading, is that people continually make their decisions about Arthur’s legitimacy based on vague dreams, rumors, and feelings instead of facts. Arthur is shrouded in mystery and fantasy, even down to his very sword he fights with, whereas with Beowulf his linage is directly known, there are witnesses to his feats and triumphs, and his strength is seen by everyone so no one doubts him. The difference in how the two are treated is probably because of the magical element surrounding Arthur, and his ‘coming’ and ‘passing’ are but the cycles of a fated destiny since birth. Arthur seems like he was ‘chosen’ to become someone great, whereas Beowulf ‘became’ someone great through hard work, courage and strength.

    As to the rest of your post and comparisons, I also agree with the other comments that Beowulf is not merely ‘running to his death’, or abandoning his people, but is protecting the land as their king by fighting one last time. Old age is probably what got to Beowulf when fighting the dragon, but his story was done and he had to leave for others to carry on after him. He does fight for glory, it seems, but there is also something else about his heroic/sacrificial actions which is exactly what makes others look up to him so much.

  5. npelletier says:

    What a great post! I fully agree with you in the fact that King Arthur is far more noble as a king than Beowulf, I wrote my post along the same lines as this one. The part that I found the most interesting about your blog was how you pointed out how the two different men became king. It is true that Beowulf was not the rightful heir and yet was given access to the throne regardless because of the good deeds he did for other people. Arthur on the other hand had already done many wonderful deeds for the people of his country, yet he was doubted because even though he was the rightful heir to the throne he couldn’t prove it. I had never even considered that so I thought this particular comment was very insightful to the character of each king

  6. jcdegner says:

    I apologize for responding to this post so late in the term, but I just recently came across it and found it very interesting. I must admit that I agree with Stephanie’s comment on your comparison. I do not think that Beowulf purposely strides to his death when he goes to face the dragon. I think that, although he did realize the danger of the situation, he honestly tried his best to protect his people from what he considered to be a large threat. He had succeeded in the past, and tried one last time to come to a victory. It can be considered an extremely kingly quality to fight an enemy you know may harm you so that you may protect your kingdom. In this way, I do not think Beowulf merely threw his life away. Although I agree that Arthur is also an extremely courageous king who fought for his country, despite the fact he was not fully accepted by them, I truly believe that both Arthur and Beowulf were great kings. Each one was willing to sacrifice themselves so that their countries may live on.

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