A Cautionary Tale for High Achievers

Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney has presented us all with a tremendous gift in his new translation of the old English epic of Beowulf. The poem, composed at some time between the seventh and tenth centuries, is a great cautionary tale for high achievers. It also embodies a good deal of general wisdom about life.

Before I explore its major theme, let me give you just a few examples of its general life wisdom, little practical insights about living in this world that it conveys along the way. Parenthetical numbers refer to lines in the poem.

Our ancient poet says the following about the most trustworthy road to positions of leadership:

Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere. (24)

And he makes this comment on the potential value of travel, which many people in our time would be well served to understand:

Foreign places
yield more to one who is himself worth meeting. (1838)

The unknown poet often wants to put life into its proper context by reminding us of death. Writing about the demise of one of Beowulf's antagonists, he says:

But death is not easily
escaped from by anyone:
all of us with souls, earth-dwellers
and children of men, must make our way
to a destination already ordained
where the body, after the banqueting,
sleeps on its deathbed. (1001)

At one point in the narrative, a soldier is being asked to trust what a stranger says. He replies, quite simply:

"Anyone with gumption
and a sharp mind will take the measure
of two things: what's said and what's done." (287)

And, finally, a big picture perspective on what we confront in this world:

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. (1057)

Now, in brief, the main story. Hrothgar, king of Denmark, has a problem. He has built a large, beautiful feasting hall, and it is being plagued by attacks from a terrible monster named Grendel. Grendel is huge, overpoweringly strong, and gruesome. He frequently shows up at the feasting hall, snatches up a couple of soldiers or royal partygoers, and kills them, dragging them off to his cave. No one can stop his merciless rampages.

We can imagine that these daily feasts must have become seriously less enjoyable as the carnage increased night after night. I might have been tempted at some point myself to politely decline any subsequent invitations.

But just when things are looking hopeless, a great warrior from afar, Beowulf, hears of Hrothgar's plight and sets sail with some of his best men to visit the beseiged king and attempt to offer a solution to his problem.

Beowulf's reputation for bravery and fierce fighting is widespread. He is described as:

"a daunting man, dangerous in action
and eager for it always." (629)

When Beowulf first arrives, king Hrothgar looks him over and says of him:

"This is my hope; and for his heroism
I will recompense him with a rich treasure." (384)

Beowulf, on his part, reports the following about his voyage:

"I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the utmost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,
or meet my death here in the mead-hall." (632)

This is clarity of mission, intensity of focus, and commitment to the utmost. Beowulf lived what I call the 7 Cs of Success in almost every way. His energies were well directed. And he succeeded like no one else.

Hrothgar welcomes his guest, and then both warns and assures him:

"Be on your mettle now; keep in mind your fame,
beware of your enemy. There's nothing you wish for
that won't be yours if you win through alive." (659)

And then, to make a very colorful story short, Beowulf takes on the dreaded Grendel and wins in an entertainingly gory way. It's a fight scene just begging for big screen treatment. They trash the feasting hall in their struggle, and a mortally wounded Grendel finally runs off to die in his cave, without one of his bloodied arms, which has been torn from its socket by Beowulf. Stephen King must be descended from this ancient spinner of tales.

It is then said of Beowulf:

But now a man,
with the Lord's assistance, has accomplished something
none of us could manage before now
for all our efforts. (938)


You have won renown: you are known to all men
far and near, now and forever. (1221)

Beowulf was successful. He was, as a result, famous and greatly respected. And rich. And he was surrounded by strongly committed, like minded comrades. We are told about them that:

It was their habit
always and everywhere to be ready for action,
at home or in the camp, in whatever case
and at whatever time the need arose
to rally round their lord. They were a right people. (1246)

He had great supporters. Strong, ready soldiers. But, first and foremost in his own mind, was Beowulf's prodigious talent and individual strength. The poet says:

But Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him. (1270)

He needed every one of these gifts for what was to happen next. Grendel, it turns out, had a mother who was even bigger and badder. And now, somewhat irked. So, just as the festivities celebrating her son's demise are carrying on, she appears to take vengeance. And she does, killing and draging off her victims in the classic family style. Beowulf, who is still there, has to prepare for what is to be the mother of all battles in hand to hand combat.

Hrothgar loses one of his closest counsellors to the older monster's rampage, and is utterly consumed with grief. Our warrior then speaks these words to his shocked and newly dismayed host:

"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." (1386)

And he ends his words to the king with this strong admonition:

"Endure your troubles to-day. Bear up
and be the man I expect you to be." (1395)

Hrothgar appreciates Beowulf on all levels. He recognizes his talent, strenth, skill, and courage. He also sees Beowulf's other important virtues. But he knows what can result from a great deal of worldly success, and the wealth and fame that are so often its consequence. So he decides to give a bit of advice to the young warrior.

In his remarks, Hrothgar mentions a king Heremod, known to them all, and contrasts this man's past evil deeds with Beowulf's present good character. The passage is worth presenting in full:

"Beowulf, my friend,
your fame has gone far and wide,
you are known everywhere. In all things, you are even-
prudent, and resolute. So I stand firm by the promise of
we exchanged before. Forever you will be
your people's mainstay and your own warriors'
helping hand.
Heremod was different,
the way he behaved to Ecgwala's sons.
His rise in the world brought little joy
to the Danish people, only death and destruction.
He vented his rage on men he caroused with,
killed his comrades, a pariah king
who cut himself off from his own kind,
even thought Almighty God had made him
eminent and powerful and marked him from the start
for a happy life. But a change happened,
he grew bloodthirsty, gave no more rings
to honour the Danes. He suffered in the end
for having plagued his people for so long:
his life lost happiness.
So learn from this
and understand true values. I who tell you
have wintered into wisdom.
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 its 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 dirstracted. A killer stalks him,
an archer who draws a deadly bow.
And then the man is hit in the heart,
the arrow flies beneath his defenses,
the devious promptings of the demon start.
His old possessions seem paltry to him now.
He covets and resents; dishonors custom
and bestows no gold; and because of good things
that the Heavenly Powers gave him in the past
he ignores the shape of things to come.
Then finally the end arrives
when the body he was lent collapses and falls
prey to its death; ancestral possessions
and the goods he hoarded are inherited by another
who lets them go with a liberal hand.

"O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and there soon will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.

This is one of the great literary passages on success and leadership in all of human history. It is packed with insights that are perennial in their importance. And it charts the dangers that so many high achieving leaders face. But more on that in a moment.

Beowulf fights Grendel's mother and, with great difficulty, once again prevails. He is the conquering hero, doing just the sort of extraordinary deeds that will make him a paragon of success for all the generations to come. And his subsequent career continues to reflect these strengths of his young adulthood. Yet, as in so many cases of highly accomplished adults, when he was a youth, no one had suspected that he had all this greatness within him.

After saving the danes from their disasters, Beowulf returns home and does various sorts of great good for his own people, the Geats. The poet tells us:

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. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth, and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed. (2177)

Then, ultimately, the great warrior ascends to the kingship in his own country. A prophet may often be without honor in his own town, but a conquering hero of world class proportions usually manages eventually to get his own people's attention.

And he served as a good king. The poet tells us:

the wide kingdom
reverted to Beowulf. He ruled it well
for fifty winters, grew old and wise
as warden of the land.

Now this is where our story gets very interesting. Beowulf is strong, skilled, courageous, wise, even-tempered, prudent, and resolute. But he is also proud. And this is what sets him up for his ultimate demise.

A fire-breathing dragon begins to assault his kingdom. It has found a hoard of gold from ages past, and stands guard over all those riches that really belong to the people. And it comes out from its hiding place on occasion to kill. It's a terrifying menace and has to be dealt with. Beowulf commands skilled soldiers who are trained in dealing with every sort of menace. But the proud king thinks that he both should and can do this job all alone. The poet tells us:

Yet the prince of the rings was too proud
to line up with a large army
against the sky-plague. He had scant regard
for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all
of its courage or strength, for he had kept going
often in the past, through perils and ordeals
of every sort, after he had purged
Hrothgar's hall, triumphed in Heorot
and beaten Grendel. (2345)

And he reminds us of this one warrior's frequently demonstrated power:

With Beowulf against them,
few could hope to return home. (2365)

He then reiterates:

He was a good king. (2390)

But this good king was subject to two fatal flaws, common to greatly accomplished people, and the leaders of successful companies. First, he had become too concerned with his own individual reputation for greatness. This was his overweening pride. And secondly, he had become so accustomed to doing things one way that he was unable to see when the need arose for changing his methods. Recall the poet's words, attributed to Hrothgar in his cautionary tale, that "because of good things that the Heavenly Powers gave him in the past he ignores the shape of things to come." As a result of both these characteristics, overarching pridefulness and a fixation on past methods, Beowulf had come to focus on and trust in his own prowess to such an extent that he did not even think of partnering up with others in order to accomplish a particularly difficult task. Yet, what worked when he was twenty might not be expected to be as effective when he was seventy or more.

Our poet writes:

And so the son of Ecgtheow had survived
every extreme, excelling himself
in daring and in danger, until the day arrived
when he had to come face to face with the dragon. (2397)

Beowulf then once again prepares for battle as he always had. He would defeat the enemy of his people singlehandedly, as he had many times before. When he is ready to go hunt down and meet the dragon for what he knows will be the fight of his life, he selects eleven able comrades to accompany him, and then adds one more, a man who had originally discovered the dragon's hideaway, with its cache of gold. He then takes these specially selected soldiers with him, but as observers, not intending to employ them as comrades in arms.

Beowulf and his men arrive near the site where the battle will be fought. He tells them to stop at a distance from where the action will take place between himself and the dragon, and speaks to them in these words:

"Men at arms, remain here on the barrow,
safe in your armour, to see which one of us
is better in the end at bearing wounds
in a deadly fray. This fight is not yours,
nor is it up to any man except me
to measure his strength against the monster
or to prove his worth. I shall win the gold
by my courage, or else mortal combat,
doom of battle, will bear your lord away." (2529)

Our poet says:

The fabled warrior in his warshirt and helmet
trusted in his own strength entirely
and went under the craig. (2539)

The dragon appears and the battle commences. The sights and sounds are too horrible for a normal man to bear. And Beowulf's soldiers are overcome with terror. He is fighting for his life, at the edge of his abilities, and is in imminent mortal danger. But his best men run away. This says to me that he had never truly prepared them for such a contest. And why would he, trusting as he did in his own abilities? But their lack of real life preparation leads to their flight. The poet says:

No help or backing was to be had then
from his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop
broke ranks and ran for their lives
to the safety of the wood. But within one heart
sorrow welled up: in a man of worth
the claims of kinship cannot be denied. (2596)

One man of the twelve stands his ground, and then rushes to the aid of his leader. A young soldier named Wiglaf, with a heart like Beowulf's, related to the king in body and mind. This lone, courageous follower comes to stand beside his hero, joining the violent struggle, and, while fighting shouts out:

"Go on, dear Beowulf, do everything
you said you would when you were still young
and vowed you would never let your name and fame
be dimmed while you lived. Your deeds are famous,
so stay resolute, my lord, defend your life now
with the whole of your strength. I shall stand by you." (2663)

Wiglaf's help gives Beowulf the boost he needed to draw deep on his strength. And the younger man injures their foe just enough to distract him so that Beowulf could inflict the final blow. The dragon finally lays dead. We are told:

They had killed the enemy, courage quelled his life;
that pair of kinsmen, partners in nobility,
had destroyed the foe. So every man must act,
be at hand when needed; but now for the king,
this would be the last of his many labours
and triumphs in the world.

Without the partnership of these two men, the deed could not have been done. But Beowulf had not recognized soon enough the importance of partnership. And so he lay dying as well, from a wound inflicted by the dragon, in the presence of his young companion.

Wiglaf is the last to speak with the great man. He witnesses the tragic death that could have been prevented. If Beowulf's soldiers all had just come to their leader's aid as soon as they saw the need, he most likely would not have had to die. But they couldn't respond with courage at a time of crisis because their leader, who didn't really think he would ever need them in such a battle, had neglected to prepare them for it. Or better yet, things might have gone very differently if Beowulf had only understood much earlier the importance of training his associates to fight together at all times, and had brought them into the battle from the first, trained and prepared in every way. He did not need witnesses. He needed warriors. There was no need for the king to die.

Wiglaf then finds the soldiers who had run off and speaks to them, but with few words. He says, quite starkly:

"A warrior will sooner
die than live a life of shame" (2890)

The death of Beowulf was a difficult thing. He was not just a man who lived life to the full, he was one who enjoyed it immensely along the way. The poet in one sentence represents his death in the words:

now that their leader's laugh is silenced,
high spirits quenched. (3020)

And he adds:

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. (3180)

And yet this last quality mentioned, so widely shared and even respected among the highest achieving people in history, was the one that, ironically, most weakened him deeply and led to his death, a death that was to hurt so many people.

Young Wiglaf has the last word. He says:

"Often when one man follows his own will
many are hurt." (3077)

This is a world-class warning to high achievers, and accomplished leaders, everywhere.

A Note To Readers: Email me your reactions to this essay, and let me know if you have ever experienced, or seen an example of, the weaknesses of perspective that brought Beowulf down.


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