In preparation for my course this fall, I have been rereading some of the major texts, one of which is Beowulf. The lines that always impress my imagination the most come late in the narrative, just before the now aged Beowulf goes to face the dragon who will be his destroyer. They are the words of the last of the people whose treasure has now become the dragon’s hoard, and I am drawn to them because they do well what much early-English and Norse poetry does well. They lament the passing of the noble and the heroic.
The translation from which I will be quoting can be found in Broadview Press’s anthology, which is the text that my students will be using. There is another translation that I much prefer, but I cannot seem to find it at the moment, and I do not have the time to make a serious search. The version I quote is more than adequate in any case.
“Death in war
and awful deadly harm have swept away
all of my people who have passed from life,
and left the joyful hall. Now have I none
to bear the sword or burnish the bright cup,
the precious vessel – all that host has fled.
Now must the hardened helm of hammered gold
be stripped of all its trim; the stewards sleep
who should have tended to this battle-mask.
So too this warrior’s coat, which waited once
the bite of iron over the crack of boards,
molders like its owner. The coat of mail
cannot travel widely with the war-chief,
beside the heroes. Harp-joy have I none,
no happy song; nor does the well-schooled hawk
soar high throughout the hall, nor the swift horse
stamp in the courtyards. Savage butchery
has sent forth many of the race of men.”
Whatever advances our civilization considers itself to have made over the one that produced these words, I suspect that there will be few such words of lament when ours passes away. There will be few odes to the businessman or the lawyer, few ballads of the politician or the advertising executive, few eulogies for the banker or the insurance salesman. Our only heroes are such that cannot bear this kind of immortalization without cyniscism: the sports hero, the pop diva, the movie star. These may have their tributes, but none that will bear reading a thousand years from now.