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.