10 Quotes Illustrating the Virtue of Beowulf

It’s hard to translate a poem from one language to another. The power of the poem is in the sounds and connections of the language in which it was written. I’ve read quite a few translated poems over the past couple of years. Some capture the power of the original, many do not, even though they convey its general meaning. Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf is one translation that is a wonderful poem in its own right. It feels and sounds like you would expect an epic Medieval poem to sound. I have cited examples in the quotes below.

Before I give the quotes, just a brief note about the story. You may find it interesting that it was J.R.R. Tolkien who brought this story to the attention of modern critics as a great work of art. He did his own translation with notes (I have not read it). The connections between Tolkien’s work and Beowulf are obvious and clear in the story.

The story makes you feel like you are in the midst of battle and sitting at the bench of the mead hall. Beowulf is a beautiful work of art that also gives a sense of how Anglo-Saxons might have viewed the world in the first part of the Middle Ages. It’s well worth a read. I would recommend reading it out loud to hear the sounds that Heaney has put into his poem. You will feel the poem more, if you can hear it as well as read it. It’s also understandable enough that young children can probably follow along (as yet untested hypothesis). If you are into olde English, you can get the bilingual edition with the olde English on one side and the modern on the other.

I have divided the quotes into three sections. The first set is the description of the monsters. The second set is the description of fate and providence that brings men into conflict with the monsters. The third set is the proper response that men must show to being placed in such a fate. These quotes illustrate the main lesson of the book and its poetry.

The Terror of the Monster
“Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift . . .” (47).

“The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, the tarn-hag in all her horrible strength…” (105).

“The dragon began to belch out flames and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger would leave nothing alive in his wake” (157).

The Power of Fate
“Fate goes ever as fate must” (31).

“First and foremost, let the Almighty Father be thanked for this sight. I suffered a long harrowing by Grendel. But the heavenly Shepherd can work His Wonders always and everywhere” (63).

“Past and present, God’s will prevails. Hence, understanding is always best and a prudent mind. Whoever remains for long here in this earthly life will enjoy and endure more than enough” (71).

The Call to Virtue
“Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere” (5).

“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” (97).

“Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers” (149).

“They said that of all the kings upon the earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (213).


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