|Beowulf E-text by Charles Kennedy
In the next lines, omitted here, the poet traces the subsequent line of Danish kings, descended from Scyld: first his son Beowulf (not the hero of this poem, but a warrior of more ancient times); then his grandson Healfdene In time one of Healfdene's four children, Hrothgar (hroth'gar), takes command of the kingdom. Following the young Scyld's earlier example, he begins by gathering about him a band of warriors.
To Hrothgar was granted glory in war,
Success in battle; retainers bold
40 Obeyed him gladly; his band increased.
To a mighty host'. Then his mind was moved
To have men fashion a high-built hall,
A mightier mead-hall than man had known,
Wherein to portion to old and young
45All goodly treasure that God had given,
Save only the folk-lands and lives of men.
His word was published to many a people
Far and wide o'er the ways of earth
To rear a folk-stead richly adorned;
The task was speeded, the time soon came
That the famous mead-hall was finished and done.
To distant nations its name was known,
The Hall of the Hart6; and the king kept well
His pledge and promise to deal out gifts,
55 Rings at the banquet. The great hall rose
High and horn-gabled,7 holding its place. . . .
Then an evil spirit who dwelt in the darkness
Endured it ill that he heard each day
The din of revelry ring through the hall,
60 The sound of the harp, and the scops' sweet song. . . . 8
They called him Grendel, a demon grim
Haunting the fen-lands, holding the moors,
Ranging the wastes, where the wretched wight
Made his lair with the monster kin;
65He bore the curse of the seed of Cain 9
Whereby God punished the grievous guilt
Of Abel's murder. Nor ever had Cain
Cause to boast of that deed of blood;
God banished him far from the fields of men;
70 Of his blood was begotten an evil brood,
Marauding monsters and menacing trolls
Goblins and giants who battled with God
A long time.
Grimly He gave them reward!
Then at the nightfall the fiend drew near
Where the timbered mead-hall towered on high,
To spy how the Danes fared after the feast.
Within the wine-hall he found the warriors
Fast in slumber, forgetting grief,---
Forgetting the woe of the world of men.
80 Grim and greedy the gruesome monster,
Fierce and furious, launched attack,
Slew thirty spearmen asleep in the hall,
Sped away gloating, gripping the spoil,
Dragging the dead men home to his den.
Then in the dawn with the coming of daybreak
The war-might of Grendel was widely known.
Mirth was stilled by the sound of weeping;
The wail of the mourner awoke with day.
And the peerless hero, the honored prince,10
90 Weighed down with woe and heavy of heart,
Sat sorely grieving for slaughtered thanes,11
As they traced the track of the cursed monster.
From that day onward the deadly feud
Was a long-enduring and loathsome strife.
95 Not longer was it than one night later
The fiend returning renewed attack
With heart firm-fixed in the hateful war,
Feeling no rue for the grievous wrong.
'Twas easy thereafter to mark the men
Who sought their slumber elsewhere afar,
Found beds in the bowers, since Grendel's hate
Was so baldly blazoned in baleful signs.
He held himself at a safer distance
Who escaped the clutch of the demon's claw.
So Grendel raided and ravaged the realm,
One against all, in an evil war
Till the best of buildings was empty and still. '
Twas a weary while! Twelve winters' time
The lord of the Scyldings had suffered woe,
110 Sore affliction and deep distress.
And the malice of Grendel, in mournful lays,
Was widely sung by the sons of men,
The hateful feud that he fought with Hrothgar
Year after year of struggle and strife,
An endless scourging, a scorning of peace
With any man of the Danish might.
No strength could move him to stay his hand,
Or pay for his murders;12 the wise knew well
They could hope for no halting of savage assault.
120 Like a dark death-shadow the ravaging demon, .
Nightlong prowling the misty moors,
Ensnared the warriors, wary or weak.
No man can say how these shades of hell
Come and go on their grisly rounds. . . .
125 The son of Healfdene was heavy-hearted,
Sorrowfully brooding in sore distress,
Finding no help in a hopeless strife;
Too bitter the struggle that stunned the people,
The long oppression, loathsome and grim.
The Geats lived in southwestern Sweden. Hygelac, their king as the story begins, is historical. He was famous for his unusual height. ("Even when he was twelve years old, no horse could carry him," claims an eighth-century Book of Monsters.) He died in battle while raiding the European mainland in 521. Beowulf, as Hygelac's thane, owes the king obedience. But hearing of Grendel's attacks on the neighboring Danes, he decides to go to their rescue, sailing from the valley of the Gota river in Sweden to the Danish island of Zealand, where Hrothgar has erected his mead-hall, Heorot.
The Coming of Beowulf
Then tales off the terrible deeds of Grendel
Reached Hygelac's thane in his home with the Geats;
Of living strong men he was the strongest,
Fearless and gallant and great of heart.
He gave command for a goodly vessel
135 Fitted and furnished; he fain would sail
Over the swan-road to seek the king
Who suffered so sorely for need of men.
And his bold retainers found little to blame
In his daring venture, dear though he was;
140 They viewed the omens, and urged him on.
Brave was the band he had gathered about him,
Fourteen stalwarts seasoned and bold,
Seeking the shore where the ship lay waiting,
A sea-skilled mariner sighting the land marks.
Came the hour of boarding; the boat was riding
The waves of the harbor under the hill.
The eager mariners mounted the prow;
Billows were breaking, sea against sand.
In the ship's hold snugly they stowed their trappings,
150 Gleaming armor and battle-gear;
Launched the vessel, the well-braced bark,
Seaward bound on a joyous journey.
Over breaking billows, with bellying sail
And foamy beak, like a flying bird
155 The ship sped on, till the next day's sun
Showed sea-cliffs shining, towering hills
And stretching headlands. The sea was crossed,
The voyage ended, the vessel moored.
And the Weder people 13 waded ashore
With clatter of trappings and coats of mail;
Gave thanks to God that His grace had granted
Sea-paths safe for their ocean-journey.
Then the Scylding coast guard watched from the sea-cliff
Warriors bearing their shining shields,
Their gleaming war-gear, ashore from the ship.
His mind was puzzled, he wondered much
What men they were. On his good horse mounted,
Hrothgar's thane made haste to the beach,
Boldly brandished his mighty spear
With manful challenge: "What men are you,
Carrying weapons and clad in steel,
Who thus come driving across the deep
On the ocean-lanes in your lofty ship?
Long have I served as the Scylding outpost,
175 Held watch and ward at the ocean's edge
Lest foreign foemen with hostile fleet
Should come to harry our Danish home,
And never more openly sailed to these shores
Men without password, or leave to land.
I have never laid eyes upon earl on earth
More stalwart and sturdy than one of your troop,
A hero in armor; no hall-thane he
Tricked out with weapons, unless looks belie him
And noble bearing. But now I must know
185Your birth and breeding, nor may you come
In cunning stealth upon Danish soil.
You distant-dwellers, you far seafarers,
Hearken, and ponder words that are plain:
'Tis best you hasten to have me know
Who your kindred and whence you come."
The lord of the seamen gave swift reply,
The prince of the Weders unlocked his word hoard:
"We are sprung of a strain of the Geatish stock,
Hygelac's comrades and hearth-companions.
My father was famous in many a folk-land,
A leader noble, Ecgtheow14 his name! . . .
With loyal purpose we seek your lord,
The prince of your people, great Healfdene's son. . . .
You know if it's true, as we've heard it told,
That among the Scyldings some secret scather,
Some stealthy demon in dead of night,
With grisly horror and fiendish hate
Is spreading unheard-of havoc and death.
Mayhap I can counsel the good, old king
205 What way he can master the merciless fiend,
If his coil of evil is ever to end
And feverish care grow cooler and fade
Or else ever after his doom shall be
Distress and sorrow while still there stands
This best of halls on its lofty height."
Then from the saddle the coast guard spoke,
The fearless sentry: "A seasoned warrior
Must know the difference between words and deeds,
If his wits are with him. I take your word
That your band is loyal to the lord of the Scyldings.
Now go your way with your weapons and armor,
And I will guide you; I'll give command
That my good retainers may guard your ship, . . ."
Then the Geats marched on; behind at her mooring,
Fastened at anchor, their broad-beamed boat
Safely rode on her swinging cable.
Boar-heads 15 glittered on glistening helmets
Above their cheek-guards, gleaming with gold;
Bright and tire-hardened the boar held watch
Over the column of marching men.
Onward they hurried in eager haste
Till their eyes caught sight of the high-built hall,
Splendid with gold, the seat of the king,
Most stately of structures under the sun;
Its light shone out over many a land.
The coast guard showed them the shining hall,
The home of heroes; made plain the path;
Turned his horse; gave tongue to :
Lords: "It is time to leave you! The mighty Lord
235 In His mercy shield you and hold you safe
In your bold adventure. I'll back to the sea
And hold my watch against hostile horde."
. folk-land, common land (the public land owned by the community). Germanic tribal law reserved this land for grazing.
. Hall of the Hart, Heorot (M';) rot), Hrothgar's meadhall. The hart (or stag) was a symbol of Germanic kingship. The head of the scepter found at Sutton Hoo was a stag.
. horn-gabled, perhaps with roof ornaments carved to resemble a stag's antlers, or perhaps simply "wide-gabled."
. scop's sweet song. The scop (skop) was the tribe's storyteller, chanting his tales to the sound of the harp.
. seed of Cain. In Genesis, Cain !l!urd_rs his brother Abel and is driven into the wilderness by God. According to legend his offspring included a variety of monsters. The poet mentions eotenas, "etans" (cannibal giants like trolls), ylfe "elves," (beautiful but evil), and orc-neas, "goblins" (animated corpses like zombies). Grendel may have been a creature of this last type.
. honored prince, Hrothgar.
ll. thanes, warriors. A thane ranked between an earl (a nobleman) and an ordinary freeman.
. murders. The poet here ironically refers to the Danes' inability to force Grendel to pay wergild ("man-payment"), or compensation, to the families of the warriors he has murdered. In Anglo-Saxon and Germanic law, a fixed price in money was placed on the life of every individual in the tribe, from the churl (the lowest-ranking freeman) to the king. This money was paid by the killer's family to that of the victim to avoid blood feud.
. Weder people, Weder-Geatas, "Storm-Geats," an epithet for Beowulfs people.
. Ecglheow, (edj'tha 6
. Boar-heads. Germanic tribesmen regularly used the boar's head as a magical decoration for their helmets. The boar, sacred to the Norse god Frey, is a desperate fighter when cornered.
Beowulf's Welcome at Hrothgar's Court
The street had paving of colored stone;
The path was plain to the marching men.
Bright were their byrnies, hard and hand linked;
In their shining armor the chain mail sang
As the troop in their war-gear tramped to the hall.
The sea-weary sailors set down their shields,
Their wide, bright bucklers along the wall,
245 And sank to the bench. Their byrnies rang.
Their stout spears stood in a stack together
Shod with iron and shaped of ash.
'Twas a well-armed troop! Then a stately warrior
Questioned the strangers about their kin:
"Whence come you bearing your burnished shields,
Your steel-gray harness and visored helms,
Your heap of spears?
I am Hrothgar's herald, His servant-thane.
I have never seen strangers,
So great a number, of nobler mien.
Not exiles, I ween, but high-minded heroes
In greatness of heart have you sought out Hrothgar."
Then bold under helmet the hero made answer,
Mighty of heart: "We are Hygelac's men,
His board-companions; Beowulf is my name.
I will state my mission to Healfdene's son,
The noble leader, your lordly prince,
If he will grant approach to his gracious presence."
And Wulfgar answered, the Wendel prince,16
Renowned for merit in many a land,
For war-might and wisdom: "I will learn the wish
Of the Scylding leader, the lord of the Danes,
Our honored ruler and giver of rings,
Concerning your mission, and soon report
The answer our leader thinks good to give."
He swiftly strode to where Hrothgar sat
Old and gray with his earls 17 about him;
Crossed the floor and stood face to face
With the Danish king; he knew courtly custom.
Wulfgar saluted his lord and friend:
275 "Men from afar have fared to our land
Over ocean's margin-men of the Geats,
Their leader called Beowulf-seeking a boon,
The holding of parley, my prince, with thee.
O gracious Hrothgar, refuse not the favor!
280 In their splendid war-gear they merit well
The esteem of earls; he's a stalwart leader
Who led this troop to the land of the Danes."
Hrothgar spoke, the lord of the Scyldings:
"Their leader I knew when he still was a lad. . . .
Seafaring men who have voyaged to Geatland
With gifts of treasure as token of peace,
Say that his hand-grip has thirty men's strength.
God, in His mercy, has sent him to save us
So springs my hope-from Grendel's assaults.
290 For his gallant courage I'll load him with gifts!
Make haste now, marshal the men to the hall,
And give them welcome to Danish ground."
Then to the door went the well-known warrior,
Spoke from the threshold welcoming words:
295 "The Danish leader, my lord, declares
That he knows your kinship; right welcome you come,
You stout sea-rovers, to Danish soil.
Enter now, in your shining armor
And vizored helmets, to Hrothgar's hall.
300 But leave your shields and the shafts of slaughter
To wait the issue and weighing of words."
Then the bold one rose with his band around him,
A splendid massing of mighty thanes;
A few stood guard as the Geat gave bidding
305 Over the weapons stacked by the wall.
They followed in haste on the heels of their leader
Under Heorot's roof. Full ready and bold
The helmeted warrior strode to the hearth;
Beowulf spoke; his byrny glittered,
310 His war-net woven by cunning of smith:
"Hail! King Hrothgar! I am Hygelac"s thane,
Hygelac's kinsman. Many a deed
Of honor and daring I've done in my youth.
This business of Grendel was brought to my ears
315 On my native soil. The seafarers say
This best of buildings; this boasted hall,
Stands dark and deserted when sun is set,
When darkening shadows gather with dusk.
The best of my people, prudent and brave,
Urged me, King Hrothgar, to seek you out;
They had in remembrance my courage and might.
Many had seen me come safe from the conflict,
Bloody from battle; five foes I bound
Of the giant kindred, and crushed their clan.
325 Hard-driven in danger and darkness of night
I slew the nicors 18 that swam the sea,
Avenged the woe they had caused the Weders,
And ended their evil-they needed the lesson!
And now with Grendel, the fearful fiend,
330 Single-handed I'll settle the strife!
Prince of the Danes, protector of Scyldings,
Lord of nations, and leader of men,
I beg one favor-refuse me not,
Since I come thus faring from far-off lands
335 That I may alone with my loyal earls,
With this hardy company, cleanse Hart Hall.
I have heard that the demon in proud disdain
Spurns all weapons; and I too scorn
May Hygelac's heart have joy of the deed
340 To bear my sword, or sheltering shield,
Or yellow buckler, to battle the fiend.
With hand-grip only I'll grapple with Grendel;
Foe against foe I'll fight to the death,
And the one who is taken must trust to God's grace! . . .
345 If death shall call me, he'll carry away
My gory flesh to his fen-retreat
To gorge at leisure and gulp me down,
Soiling the marshes with stains of blood.
There'll be little need longer to care for my body!
350 If the battle slays me, to Hygelac send
This best of corselets that covers my breast, . . .
Finest of byrnies. Fate goes as Fate must!"
Hrothgar spoke, the lord of the Scyldings:
"Deed of daring and dream of honor
355 Bring you, friend Beowulf, knowing our need! . .. .
It is sorrow sore to recite to another
The wrongs that Grendel has wrought in the hall,
His savage hatred and sudden assaults.
My war-troop is weakened, my hall-band is wasted;
360 Fate swept them away into Grendel's grip.
But God may easily bring to an end
The ruinous deeds of the ravaging foe.
Full often my warriors over their ale-cups
Boldly boasted, when drunk with beer,
365 They would bide in the beer-hall the coming of battle;
The fury of Grendel, with flashing swords.
Then in the dawn, when the daylight strengthened,
The hall stood reddened and reeking with gore,
Bench-boards wet with the blood of battle;
370 And I had the fewer of faithful fighters,
Beloved retainers, whom Death had taken.
Sit now at the banquet, unbend your mood,
Speak of great deeds as your heart may spur you!"
Then in the beer-hall were benches made ready
For the Geatish heroes. Noble of heart,
Proud and stalwart, they sat them down
And a beer-thane served them; bore in his hands
The patterned ale-cup, pouring the mead,
While the scop's sweet singing was heard in the hall.
380 There was joy of heroes, a host at ease,
A welcome meeting of Weder and Dane.
Soiling the marshes with stains of blood.
There'll be little need longer to care for my body!
Unferth Taunts Beowulf
Then out spoke Unferth, Ecglaf’’s son,19
Who sat at the feet of the Scylding lord,
Picking a quarrel-for BeowuIf’’s quest,
385 His bold sea-voyaging, irked him sore;
He bore it ill that any man other
In all the earth should ever achieve
More fame under heaven than he himself:
"Are you the Beowulf that strove with Breca20
390 In a swimming match in the open sea,
Both of you wantonly tempting the waves,
Risking your lives on the lonely deep
For a silly boast? No man could dissuade you,
Nor friend nor foe, from the foolhardy venture
395 Of ocean-swimming; with outstretched arms
You clasped the sea-stream, measured her streets,
With plowing shoulders parted the waves.
The sea-flood boiled with its wintry surges,
Seven nights you toiled in the tossing sea;
400 His strength was the greater, his swimming the stronger! . . .
Therefore, I ween, worse fate shall befall,
Stout as you are in the struggle of war,
In deeds of battle, if you dare to abide
Encounter with Grendel at coming of night."
405 Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow:
"My good friend Unferth, addled with beer
Much have you made of the deeds of Breca!
I count it true that I had more courage,
More strength in swimming than any other man.
410 In our youth we boasted-we were both of us boys
We would risk our lives in the raging sea.
And we made it good! We gripped in our hands
Naked swords, as we swam in the waves,
Guarding us well from the whales' assault.
415 In the breaking seas he could not outstrip me,
Nor would I leave him.
For five nights long Side by side we strove in the waters
Till racing combers wrenched us apart,
Freezing squalls, and the falling night,
420 And a bitter north wind's icy blast.
Rough were the waves; the wrath of the sea fish
Was fiercely roused; but my firm-linked byrny,
The gold-adorned corselet that covered my breast,
Gave firm defense from the clutching foe.
425 Down to the bottom a savage sea-beast
Fiercely dragged me and held me fast
In a deadly grip; none the less it was granted me
To pierce the monster with point of steel.
Death swept it away with the swing of my sword.
430 The grisly sea-beasts again and again
Beset me sore; but I served them home
With my faithful blade as was well-befitting.
They failed of their pleasure to feast their fill
Crowding round my corpse on the ocean bottom!
435 Bloody with wounds, at the break of day,
They lay on the sea-bench slain with the sword.
No more would they cumber the mariner's course
On the ocean deep. From the east came the sun,
Bright beacon of God, and the seas subsided;
440 I beheld the headlands, the windy walls.
Fate often delivers an undoomed earl
If his spirit be gallant! And so I was granted
To slay with the sword-edge nine of the nicors.
I have never heard tell of more terrible strife
445 Under dome of heaven in darkness of night,
Nor of man harder pressed on the paths of ocean.
But I freed my life from the grip of the foe
Though spent with the struggle. The billows bore me,
The swirling currents and surging seas,
450 To the land of the Finns. 21 And little I've heard
Of any such valiant adventures from you!
Neither Breca nor you in the press of battle
Ever showed such daring with dripping swords
Though I boast not of it! But you stained your blade
455 With blood of your brothers, your closest of kin;
And for that you'll endure damnation in hell,
Sharp as you are! I say for a truth,
Son of Ecglaf, never had Grendel
Wrought such havoc and woe in the hall,
460 That horrid demon so harried your king,
If your heart were as brave as you'd have men think!
But Grendel has found that he never need fear
Revenge from your people, or valiant attack
From the Victor-Scyldings; he takes his toll,
465 Sparing none of the Danish stock.
He slays and slaughters and works his will
Fearing no hurt at the hands of the Danes!
But soon will I show him the stuff of the Geats,
Their courage in battle and strength in the strife;
470 Then let him who may go bold to the mead hall
When the next day dawns on the dwellings of men,
And the sun in splendor shines warm from the south."
Glad of heart was the giver of treasure, 22
Hoary-headed and hardy in war;
475 The lordly leader had hope of help
As he listened to Beowulf’’s bold resolve.
There was revel of heroes and high carouse,
Their speech was happy; and Hrothgar's queen,
Of gentle manners, in jewelled splendor
480 Gave courtly greeting to all the guests. .
16. Wulfgar. . . the Wendel prince. Hrothgar's herald may have been one of the Vandals, a Germanic tribe living south of the Baltic Sea.
17. earls, his chief men.
18. nicors, water demons, animal in shape.
19. Unferth, Ecglaf's (edj'lafs) son. Unferth's name can be interpreted as "Peacebreaker." is role is a familiar one in heroic poetry, that of the king's rude retainer whose mockery provokes the hero to reveal himself. Something very like the Unferth episode occurs in Book VIII of the Odyssey.
20. Breca (brek'_).
21. Finns, probably the Lapps, inhabitants of Finmarken, around the North Cape in the northern extremity of Norway and considerably above the Arctic Circle.
22. giver of treasure, Hrothgar.