As befits an epic hero, Beowulf possesses almost superhuman qualities when it comes to performing on a battlefield. His physical strength has no equals, his combat prowess is unmatched, and his bravery can put almost any man to shame. However, Beowulf is not only a formidable warrior but also a truly great leader for those who follow him. Throughout Beowulf, the titular character cares for those who need his assistance, leads by example, recognizes his subordinates’ value, and shares his wealth and prestige with his followers to build loyalty.
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One quality that characterizes Beowulf as a great leader to his men is the responsibility he takes for the protection of those who lack his impressive abilities. The text shows it early on when Unferth attempts to mock Beowulf by reminding him of the swimming contest against the other warrior named Brecca, which Beowulf supposedly lost. The protagonist calmly replies that, as he and his competitor raced across the sea, Brecca could never overtake him (“Beowulf” 274-275). Having noticed that, the hero “had chosen to remain close to [Breccca’s] side” so that he could help him if something unexpected happened (“Beowulf” 276). In other words, Beowulf deliberately chooses not to press his advantage in a competitive situation so that he could better help his companion/competitor if the need arises. This short episode demonstrates how Beowulf puts considerations of personal prestige aside for the sake of those who may need his protection. In a sense, the small story of the swimming contest mirrors the entire plot of Beowulf helping the Danes against Grendel and signifies him as a leader who puts the common good above his personal gain.
Another quality that signifies Beowulf’s heroic leadership is that he always leads by example. He never stays behind to let his warriors do the job for him. On the contrary, in his encounters with Grendel and his monstrous mother, he is always the first – and, in the latter case, the only one – to enter combat. Even as he gets older, he continues leading from the front even when facing the greatest danger. Before going against the deadly fire-breathing dragon, he instructs his retainers to “wait for [him] close by,” as he intends to face the creature alone (“Beowulf” 679). It is not vanity either – he does it not to take all the glory for himself but because he is the only one who can hope to prevail (“Beowulf” 682-683). Whatever the odds, Beowulf is always ready to lead his men by personal example.
Despite being easily the most powerful and accomplished warrior around, Beowulf also takes care not to diminish the pride of his followers and recognize their contribution. Before heading off to wait for Grendel, he proclaims: “I, alone and with the help of my men, / May purge all evil from this hall” (“Beowulf” 165-166). Instead of emphasizing his own role in isolation, the titular character refers to his warriors as well, recognizing their prospective contribution. It is all the more important because, when it comes to the battle itself, Beowulf’s retainers do not prove particularly useful. While they attack Grendel courageously, their bravery is “great but all wasted” because the monster is invulnerable to their weapons (“Beowulf” 479). Yet even though, in this particular case, Beowulf’s warriors fail to help him, the courage with which they are willing to fight for their leader does not go unnoticed. Even though Beowulf surpasses everyone, he still recognizes the valor of his followers and praises their loyalty.
This understanding of the importance of collective effort and the value of loyal and capable followers shapes Beowulf’s actions until the end of his life. As a ruler, he picks the most promising warriors among his subjects and raises them to the status of his personal retinue. Wiglaf refers to it when describing how his king “chose [him and his comrades] from all his great army,” underlining the importance of the act (“Beowulf” 769). Having identified followers with the greatest potential, Beowulf supplies them with arms and armor and allows them to accompany him (“Beowulf” 765-766). In other words, the titular character picks those whom he views as the best potential followers and shares his wealth and prestige with them in exchange for loyalty. While not everyone proves as dedicated as Wiglaf, Beowulf’s approach demonstrates his understanding of the importance of winning the followers’ loyalty rather than taking it for granted, which is also the mark of a leader.
As one can see, Beowulf presents the main character as a great leader in many respects simultaneously. The hero takes responsibility for others’ safety, even at the expense of his personal gain. He always leads by example and never hides behind the backs of those he commands. While superior to all of his followers, he does not engage in narcissist self-glorification and recognizes their contribution despite the fact it is much smaller than his. Finally, Beowulf understands the importance of building loyalty and practices it as a ruler, although not always with equal success.
“Beowulf.” Translated by Burton Raffel, Salesian High School, Web.
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