Geardagum: Essays on Old and Middle English Language and Literature (2009)
Introduction: The phrase “Þæt wæs god cyning” appears three times in Beowulf: lines 11, 862, and 2391, each time spoken by the narrator, each time referring to a different character, each time commenting on the character at hand and his actions. Hiroto Ushigaki, in “The Image of God Cyning‘ in Beowulf“, argues that:
the Germanic king must be an embodiment, practically and ethically, of the comitatus he rules: requisite to him are martial prowess, wisdom, generosity and love for his people, a sense of honour and justice, nobility of blood, and renown. But these virtues and qualifications are not enough by themselves: only when they make him a wise ‘protector’ of the country and people, does he deserve the name of god cyning “good king,” a phrase of unconditional praise as used by the Beowulf poet. (64 – 65)
While it is tempting to read each occurrence as “unconditional praise,” as Ushigaki does, a more nuanced reading that includes the etymology of “cyning,” reveals that while the first use is indeed “unconditional praise,” each subsequent utterance increases in irony.
By understanding the etymology of the Old English cyning, and by recognizing the poet’s use of Scyld as the model for a good king, we can see that each of the three uses of the phrase “Þæt wæs god cyning” has a different meaning, moving from unreservedly positive in reference to Scyld, through semi-ironic in reference to Hrothgar, to fully ironic in reference to Beowulf.