“Now the repute of thy might endures for a space; straightaway again shall age, or edge of the sword, part thee from thy strength, or the embrace of fire, or the surge of the flood, or the grip of the blade, or the flight of the spear, or hateful old age, or the gleam of eyes shall pass away and be darkened; on a sudden it shall come to pass that death shall vanquish thee, noble warrior.” (Beowulf, xxvi)
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)
Why tell a life story? Why recount a person’s deeds? There are times, of course, when we tell the stories of infamous deeds, and these we recount to inspire a warning. But most often we tell stories to inspire greatness. Epic deeds paint grand pictures for our emulation, and the goal of these mighty deeds, planted in our hearts and minds through the stories we absorb, is to bear fruit in our lives. Soak in anemic, empty stories and the fruit in your life will be anemic and empty; saturate yourself in stories with rich and nutritious stuff—even stories which you don’t fully understand—and the fruit in your life will be rich and nutritious. Such a story is Beowulf—no mere epic of swords, golden rings, and monsters, but a powerful, richly nutritious tale for the mythic soul of man, written to inspire us to be better men ourselves.
But there is a twist. Where we might expect a story about how to be better men to focus on life, Beowulf is a story about death; it is a tale not of living well, but of dying well. And this makes good sense, because in the ethical economy of Beowulf’s world how you live is closely—nay, intimately—intertwined with how you die. The measure of the man is determined by how well he faces death. Here the ethics of the ancient world are at odds with our modern one, because death is a subject we are particularly at pains to ignore. Thus, when we turn and apply the examining light of ancient literature to our own lives, the results are both stark and uncomfortable.
Beowulf’s tale is both short and simple. An evil creature, Grendel, is terrorizing the subjects of King Hrothgar. Beowulf arrives to challenge the beast in a mighty contest. He waits at night for the fell creature to arrive, then slaughters it and wins fame for himself and his king. But the deed is not yet done—soon thereafter the mother of Grendel comes to wreak more evil, but Beowulf chases her down, takes her life and sets the people free from terror, earning gold and fame in the process. This, however, is not where Beowulf’s story ends. Years later Beowulf has become a mighty king in his own right, when a dragon, awoken by the greed of men, begins to terrorize his people. Alone, and knowing he will die, Beowulf pursues and eventually kills the dragon, losing his life in the process.
How does the ethic of dying well run throughout this story? There are three currencies in the world of Beowulf: gold, fame, and your life. Mighty (that is, noble and good) men perform mighty deeds (they wager their lives) in order to earn gold and fame. We are tempted to think that accumulation is the goal of these wagers—long life, much gold, and great fame. But Beowulf’s poet wants us to know the grave danger embedded in each of these: namely, to think that these currencies are ends in themselves, to forget that death comes to all. For what does a man take with him when he dies? Does his fame go with him to the grave? Does he carry his gold with him? No. And so the man who fails to use these currencies rightly is an unjust man. The man who forgets the approach of death, and lives in cowardice merely to preserve his property, is in the ethic of Beowulf doomed.
“Now the repute of thy might endures for a space,” admonishes King Hrothgar, because “on a sudden it shall come to pass that death shall vanquish thee, noble warrior.” Death sits at the door—do not trust in your wealth or fame! He may as well have quoted Moses: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Under this ethic, when death is foremost in our minds, our relationship to the material subjects of our lives is revealed: what you do with your gold, and what you do with your reputation, and what you do with your life, become paramount concerns. These things cannot be kept: they must therefore be used. Noble men spend their gold, their fame, and their lives wisely. Cowardly men do not.
From within this, the story of the Beowulf’s contest with the dragon becomes the high point of this struggle. The dragon is an image of greed—it hoards its gold and does not share it. And in this terrible image we ought to see ourselves; we are tempted, even now, to keep and hoard our gold; to be deceived by the allure of wealth into thinking that the more we have, the better off we will be; that the measure of a man is in the accumulation of his possessions. Beowulf preaches the opposite ethic. It is not in possessing, but in giving, that a man is revealed. And hence the dragon must be destroyed.
Beowulf knows that taking this task will not earn him earthly fame—a contrast to his struggle with Grendel. There he stood to win gold and fame through that mighty deed. With the dragon, however, there will be neither wealth nor fame. There is only the deed. And here the character of Beowulf is proved once for all: is he a mercenary, we ask, out only for gain? By no means! “Then for the first time,” the poet observes, “he had to show his strength without Fate allotting him fame in battle” (Beowulf, xxxv). An action undertaken without the promise of earthly reward—an action, that is, of self-sacrifice—is thus the most noble of all.
Beowulf takes eleven companions with him to fight the dragon, and here the parallels to the Passion of Christ should not be overlooked: Jesus, of course, had twelve disciples, but one (Judas) abandoned the ranks before his passion. Ten of Beowulf’s companions abandon him in cowardice; one, Wiglaf, remains to fight at his master’s side. Ten of Jesus’ remaining disciples also abandoned him—but John alone remained. Thus, as Jesus goes on to fight the dragon of human sin alone, so Christlike Beowulf advances on the dragon of greed alone—a final, brave act to display the grand selflessness of true manhood.
Consequently, faithful Wiglaf becomes our stand-in. He is our way to enter into the story of Beowulf. He models for us how we are to respond to the tales of mighty, selfless deeds—that is, with mighty, selfless deeds of our own. Will we be the loyal servants, or the cowardly earls? The poet has no qualms identifying which he thinks is the right path, and Wiglaf declares that:
God knows that, as for me, I had much rather the flame should embrace my body with my gold-giver. It does not seem fitting to me, that we should bear shields back to our dwelling, if we cannot first fell the foe, guard the life of the prince of the Weders. I know well that, from his former deeds, he deserves not to suffer affliction alone among the warriors of the Geats, to fall in fight; sword and helmet, corslet and shirt of mail shall be shared by us both. (Beowulf, xxxvi)
But of those who ran, he only says this: “Death is better for all earls than a shameful life” (Beowulf, xxxix).
How you spend your wealth, how you spend your fame, and how you spend your very life are, according to the ethics of Beowulf, the factors that determine the ultimate value of your life. It is the knowledge of death that determines your choices and actions in the present. Keep your death in mind, and you will make right choices about the currencies you possess. This is a critical voice we continually need to hear—especially in an era which praises what Beowulf’s poet would surely see as the cowardly determination to preserve life, rather than the righteous goal to spend your life-currency justly. To Beowulf, a good death is better than a long life in cowardice. This is a reminder we desperately need, for in this nothing has changed: as with Beowulf, death comes to us all. It is an engagement none of us can avoid. And when death arrives your wealth, your reputation, and (of course) your life cannot go with you. What you have not spent will be accounted to you as waste. Therefore learn to spend your life, your wealth, and your reputation rightly, in the now. Make a study of selflessness and right living. Learn from the ancients how to be a man. Read Beowulf.