So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
. . .
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
. . .
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
. . .
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
These lines, which open the poem, establish the highly stylized nature of Seamus Heaney’s translation and set forth some of the poem’s central ideas. Heaney’s choice to translate the first word of the poem as “So” has been much remarked upon. It had previously been translated into such poetic-sounding invocations as “Hark” and “Lo” or, more casually, “Listen.” In his introduction, Heaney explains his choice by pointing out that “so,” in the speech of his Ulster relatives, “operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.” From the outset, then, the poem whips us into its world while maintaining an inviting, conversational tone.
Heaney’s translation re-creates many of the conventions of Anglo-Saxon poetry. He breaks his lines into two halves with a strong caesura, or pause, wherever possible (lines 4, 5, and 11, for example). Second, he uses alliteration, or repetition of consonant sounds, across the caesura to bind the two half-lines together through sound (“foundling . . . flourish”). He also replicates the Beowulf poet’s extensive use of multiple names or phrases for a single person, group, or idea; thus Shield Sheafson, in the space of two lines, is referred to as “scourge of many tribes” and “wrecker of mead-benches.” Finally, the compound word “whale-road,” used here to refer to the sea, is one of the most famous examples of the Anglo-Saxon rhetorical figure called the kenning, which replaces a noun with a metaphorical description of the noun.
In addition to these stylistic features, the opening lines also introduce a number of thematic ideas that prove important throughout the poem. The poet’s presentation of the ancestor Shield Sheafson as the model of heroism is representative of the poem’s obsession with patriarchal history. Characters are constantly defined in terms of their fathers and ancestors. This passage also emphasizes heroic action itself as a cultural value—even a fatherless individual can make a name for himself if he behaves like a hero. Thus, the orphan Shield Sheafson earned an immutable reputation as “one good king” by the end of his life. The great force of reputation will also continue to be an important theme. By establishing fame in his lifetime, an individual can hope to be remembered by subsequent generations—the only consolation that death affords.
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.
This excerpt, which expounds the virtues of the early Danish king Beow, illustrates the kind of political prudence that characterizes Hrothgar, who is a descendant of Beow. The heroic code’s system of loyalties entails a very specific political and diplomatic structure. Generosity is valued greatly in a king, but there is no attempt to disguise the fact that it is motivated by the need to maintain the support of a band of retainers. The warrior culture accepts and embraces this give-and-take relationship between ruler and ruled as necessary for society to function effectively. The emphasis on the loyalty of the warriors (“when fighting starts / steadfast companions will stand by him”) has a special resonance for Beowulf, given the disloyalty of his men in his encounter with the dragon.
This passage also emphasizes the importance of behavior in securing the respect and support of others. Because this warrior society so highly values its heroic code, it highly esteems those who conform to the code’s principles. Beowulf vaunts himself as a great warrior and backs up his words by defeating Grendel; he is thus celebrated and received as a hero. Unferth, on the other hand, proves an empty chatterer, unwilling to fight Grendel or Grendel’s mother. Though such verbal elements as boasts and stories are crucial to the warrior culture, heroes are, above all, defined by action.
Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.
Beowulf utters this compressed statement of the heroic code after Grendel’s mother kills Aeschere, Hrothgar’s trusted advisor. Although Hrothgar’s grief seems understandable in light of the principle of loyalty that operates in this culture, Beowulf speaks of it as an “indulgence”—an inappropriate and ineffective way of responding to the death of a comrade. Beowulf’s reminder to Hrothgar that vengeance is the real warrior’s response and the truest sign of love and loyalty reflects a fundamental value of warrior culture, namely an aggressive approach to life. Part of this approach involves the understanding that only reputation will perpetuate a warrior’s existence after death. Beowulf, for example, perceives life as a race to glory (“Let whoever can / win glory before death”). This speech encapsulates the poem’s tension between doom and death, on the one hand, and the necessity of behaving courageously and honorably, on the other. Beowulf’s energetic emphasis on action helps temper the pessimism surrounding the inevitability of death that saturates the poem.
Beowulf got ready,
donned his war-gear, indifferent to death;
his mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail
would soon meet with the menace underwater.
It would keep the bone-cage of his body safe:
. . .
[His helmet] was of beaten gold,
princely headgear hooped and hasped
by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders. . . .
These lines describe Beowulf’s preparation for his battle with Grendel’s mother. The treatment of weaponry and armor is of great importance to the Beowulf poet. We see, here and elsewhere, that armor has a double history, much like a warrior does: a history of its making, which corresponds to the family lineage of an individual, and a history of performance, which corresponds to reputation. These lines seem to imply that the success of a weapon in battle is related to the skill with which it was crafted. The poet pays a great deal of attention, in general, to the craftsmanship that goes into physical objects and feats of language.
This passage is also characteristic in its exposition of the idea of fate. The poet’s narration, though always in the past tense, often looks ahead to what will happen either in the immediate future—in the next few lines of the poem, even—or in the long term. The poet tells us, for example, that Beowulf’s armor “would keep the bone-cage of his body safe.” Though this tendency violates the reader’s expectation that a narrator won’t give away what will happen next, the poem is composed with a different set of literary expectations in mind. According to the warrior culture in which the poem is set, part of the meaning of fate is that future events are already contained in the present. To the Beowulf poet, then, it would seem foolish and pointless to try to counteract fate’s powerful presence. Rather, he accepts it and includes it in his narrative.
5. O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.
This passage is the culmination of a long speech, often referred to as “Hrothgar’s sermon,” in which Hrothgar warns Beowulf of the seductive dangers of success after Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother. Hrothgar asserts that power causes the soul to grow distracted by fortune’s favor and so to lose sight of future perils. The speech is one of many points in the poem where the Beowulf poet overlays Christian morals onto the pagan world that he depicts. The idea under consideration here is the Christian maxim “pride goeth before a fall.” Hrothgar specifically warns Beowulf not to “give way to pride,” an admonition that is discordant with the culture of boasts and reputation that other parts of the poem celebrate. Hrothgar also emphasizes to his young friend that life is fleeting and that he should orient himself toward “eternal rewards”—a supremely Christian idea—rather than worldly success. Throughout the poem, however, it seems that eternal rewards can be won only through worldly success—the reward of fame for being a valiant warrior.
Hrothgar expresses the ephemeral quality of human life in beautiful terms. Calling Beowulf the “flower of warriors,” he employs an image that doesn’t evoke Beowulf’s strength and fortitude but instead emphasizes the fragility of his life and the fact that his youth—his “bloom”—will “fad[e] quickly.” This choice of imagery encapsulates the idea, implicit in this passage, that there are two “death[s]” that threaten the warrior. He must be prepared not only for a “jabbing blade or javelin from the air,” which will wound him, but also for “repellent age,” which will eat away at his youthful audacity and force him to think in terms of honor, nobility, and leadership that aren’t dependent on mere physical prowess.
Take a Study Break!