In the illustrated edition to Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed translation of Beowulf, John D. Niles writes: “One of the oddities of Beowulf is that in lines 1700-1784, one of the most forceful sermons of the early Middle Ages is put into the mouth of a pagan. Although Hrothgar knows nothing of Christ, he has an unclouded knowledge of God and of His workings.” Here is my favorite passage from the sermon on the dangers of power and the fragility of life.
So learn from this
and understand true values. I who tell you
have wintered into wisdom.
It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His magnificence
favours our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
Sometimes He allows the mind of a man
of distinguished birth follow its bent,
grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own country.
He permits him to lord it in many lands
until the man in his unthinkingness
forgets that it will ever end for him.
He indulges his desires; illness and old age
mean nothing to him; his mind is untroubled
by envy or malice or the thought of enemies
with their hate-honed swords. The whole world
conforms to his will, he is kept from the worst
until an element of overweening
enters him and takes hold
while the soul’s guard, its sentry, drowses,
grown too distracted. A killer stalks him,
an archer who draws a deadly bow.
And then the man is hit in the heart,
the arrow flies beneath his defences,
the devious promptings of the demon start.
His old possessions seem paltry to him now.
He covets and resents; dishonours custom
and bestows no gold; and because of good things
that the Heavenly Powers gave him in the past
he ignores the shape of things to come.
Then finally the end arrives
when the body he was lent collapses and falls
prey to its death; ancestral possessions
and the goods he hoarded are inherited by another
who lets them go with a liberal hand.
“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. (1723-1768)
Here is the prose translation of the same passage by J. R. R. Tolkein:
These considered words on thy account have I here uttered to whom have the winters wisdom brought.
‘Wondrous ’tis to tell how the mighty God doth apportion in His purpose deep unto the race of men wisdom, lands, and noble estate: of all things He is Lord. At whiles the heart’s thought of man of famous house He suffereth in delight to walk, granteth him in his realm earthly joy ruling over men within his walléd town, maketh the regions of the earth as his to sway, a kingdom vast, so that the end thereof in his unwisdom he cannot himself conceive. He dwells in plenty; no whit do age or sickness thwart him, nor doth black care grieve his soul, nor strife in any place bring murderous hatred forth; nay, all the world goeth to his desire. He knows nothing of worse fate, until within him a measure of arrogance doth grow and spread. Now sleeps the watchman, guardian of his soul: too sound that sleep in troubles wrapped; the slayer is very nigh who in malice shooteth arrows from his bow. Then beneath his guard he is smitten to the heart with bitter shaft, the strange and crooked biddings of the accurséd spirit; he cannot himself defend. Too little now him seems what long he hath enjoyed, his grim heart fills with greed; in no wise doth he deal gold-plated rings to earn him praise, and the doom that cometh he forgets and heeds not, because God, the Lord of glory, hath before granted him a portion of honour high. Thereafter in the final end it cometh to pass that his fleshly grab being mortal faileth, falls in death ordained. Another succeeds to all, who unrecking scattereth his precious things, the old-hoarded treasures of that man: his wrath he fears not. Defend thee from that deadly malice, dear Beowulf, best of knights, and choose for thyself the better part, of everlasting worth; countenance no pride, O champion in thy renown! Now for a little while thy valour is in flower; but soon shall it be that sickness or the sword rob thee of thy might, or fire’s embrace, or water’s wave, or bite of blade, or flight of spear, or dreadful age; or the flashing of thine eyes shall fail and fade; very soon ’twill come that thee, proud knight, shall death lay low.
- Morris Institute: Beowulf: A Cautionary Tale for High Achievers