Embraced by the fire or the Father

Beowulf

John Henry Frederick Bacon, “Beowulf Shears Off The Head Of Grendel” (1910)

The scop (or poet) of Beowulf depicts the Anglo-Saxon warrior society in transition between its pagan past and its Christian future. Grendel, “a fiend out of hell,” afflicts the Danes. In their hardship, they turn to “powerful counsellors” and “idols” for deliverance but to no avail. Their only hope lies with the “Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,” which coincides with the opening of Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

In the passage quoted below, the scop draws a sharp antithesis between the cursed man and blessed men: the former will be embraced by the fire, the latter embraced by the Father. We live in an age that recoils at such an antithesis because it permits no alternatives. When our neighbor is afflicted, we would do well to ease his suffering with truth about man’s deliverer and eternal destiny, even if the hard edges cut. Better to bleed now than to burn in hell. We should hope that on his death-day he will “go unto the Lord and seek peace in the bosom of the Father!”

J. R. R. Tolkein’s prose translation:

Thus many a deed of evil that foe of men stalking dreadfully alone did often work, many a grievous outrage; in Heorot’s hall bright with gems in the dark nights he dwelt. (Never might he approach the precious Throne of grace in the presence of God, nor did he know His will.) That was great torment to the Scyldings’ lord, anguish of heart. Many a mighty one sat oft communing, counsel they took what it were best for stouthearted men to do against these dire terrors. At times they vowed sacrifices to idols in their heathen tabernacles, in prayers implored the slayer of souls to afford them help against the sufferings of the people. Such was their wont, the hope of heathens; they were mindful in their hearts of hell, (nor knew they the Creator, the Judge of deeds, nor had heard of the Lord God, nor verily had learned to praise the Guardian of the heavens and the King of glory. Woe shall be to him that through fiendish malice shall thrust down his soul into the fire’s embrace, to look for no comfort, in no wise to change his lot! Blessed shall be he that may after his death-day go unto the Lord and seek peace in the bosom of the Father!)

Seamus Heaney’s verse translation:

These were hard times, heart-breaking
for the prince of the Shieldings; powerful counsellors,
the highest in the land, would lend advice,
plotting how best the bold defenders
might resist and beat off sudden attacks.
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,

Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he
who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul
in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help;
he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he
who after death can approach the Lord
and find friendship in the Father’s embrace.

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