A summary: The background of Beowulf is endless tribal warfare driven by unbridled vengeance, blood lust, and avarice. As a cure to the epidemic violence, morality is fabricated with ligaments such as reciprocity, kinship, and peace-weaving, though all prove to be illusory. In the foreground of this amoral battleground stands Beowulf, the good king who fights fantastical embodiments of these aforementioned vices despite the fact that his fate is to be defeated in the end.
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 to follow his bent,
grants him fulfilment 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.
An absolute gem of ancient literature, I'm surprised that it isn't cited more often here. It's a handy reference for those interested in what it means to be a warrior, and how this is distinguished from being a brute.
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.
Sometimes it seems like they is a very low moral bar by which men are measured, but this is often an insight into the greater motives as opposed to specific actions.
So ought a kinsman act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades.
Like most any old / good text, it requires a bit of decrypting in order to understand what is being implied. I'm interested to hear how others here have deciphered its meaning, or any general thoughts.
For those who haven't read it, here's an online translation: http://www.heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html
. I'd recommend the Heaney translation, but I've only been able to find it as a scrbd doc: http://www.scribd.com/doc/20757289/Beowulf-a-New-Verse-Translation-Seamus-Heaney