Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Death and glory in the Iliad and Beowulf

Here, in Homer's Iliad (Book 12, ll. 359–81), is the locus classicus for the Greek Dark Age lust for glory in battle (emphasis added):
[Sarpedon] quickly called Hippolochus' son: "Glaucous,
why do they hold us both in honor, first by far
with pride of place, choice meats and brimming cups,
in Lycia where all our people look on us like gods?
Why make us lords of estates along the Xanthus' banks,
rich in vineyards and lowland rolling wheat?
So that now the duty's ours—
we are the ones to head our Lycian front,
brace and fling ourselves in the blaze of war,
so a comrade strapped in combat gear may say,
'Not without fame, the men who rule in Lycia,
these kings of ours who eat fat cuts of lamb
and drink sweet wine, the finest stock we have.
But they owe it all to their own fighting strength—
our great men of war, they lead our way in battle!'
Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray
and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,
I would never fight on the front lines again
or command you to the field where men win fame.
But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,
thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive
can flee them or escape—so in we go for attack!
Give our enemy glory or win it for ourselves!
"
Compare with these lines from this rendering of Beowulf (ll. 1385–93; p. 52; emphasis added):
Bold Beowulf replied, that brave son of Ecgtheow
"Sovereign king, do not sorrow—it seems better to me
To finish the feud as friends wreaking vengeance
Than sorrow in silence
. We simply decide
To abide and endure and exert valor always,
To find dignity in death. When his days are all done,
The worthiest warrior is well-remembered.
Arise, royal king, let us realize glory,
And tail the tracks of this terrible mother. . . ."
Compare with Heaney's translation (ll. 1384–89; p. 97; emphasis added):
. . . 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.

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