The picture so presented accords with that of the Old English elegy. Happiness and prosperity — all human goods except, perhaps, fame — are transitory. Victories may sometimes be gained, but wars are never really won, and fate stands ever ready to sweep away the lives and works of men. The Christian answer was, of course, to seek the permanent bliss of heaven. The heroic answer, as embodied in Beowulf, is a valiant stoicism: ‘Do your utmost. A good name is all you can win in this world.’ Very much the same philosophy is summed up in the epitaph (perhaps legendary) of a cowboy: ‘Here lies Bronco Bill. He always done his damnedest.’ Angels, it was once observed in a different context, can do no more.

In the light of this philosophy, the ‘tragedy of the Geats’ implicit in Beowulf’s death, of which some commentators make a great deal, becomes less significant. All that any man can leave his heirs is a good name and a valiant example. If they cannot be wise and valiant in their own right, then he cannot save them. Those who appear to think that if Beowulf could somehow have survived his contest with the dragon both he and the Geats would have survived forever should reread both the poem and history.

-JDA Ogilvy and Donald C Baker, Reading Beowulf, 1983

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