A Dark Age Peter Principle: Beowulf’s incompetence threshold
Early Medieval Europe, Volume 18, Issue 1, pages 2–25, February 2010
Many readers, recognizing the incompatibility of heroism with the duties of kingship, have argued that Beowulf tells a story of colossal failure. Drawing on anthropological theory, I propose that the protagonist is more Big-Man than king and that his heroism, far from a socially dysfunctional flaw, is in fact the leash by which society yanks him back from establishing himself as king. Beowulf thus speaks to an aristocracy disinclined to submit to royalty. The poem shines a light on Anglo-Saxons’ aversion to despotic rule: to protect its own decentralized political structure, society against the state foredooms King Beowulf to death.