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"List! we have learnt a tale of other years,
Of kings and warrior Danes, a wondrous tale,
How æthelings bore them in the brunt of war."
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.)
 THE most ancient relic of literature of the spoken
languages of modern Europe is undoubtedly the epic poem
"Beowulf," which is supposed to have been composed by
the Anglo-Saxons previous to their invasion of England.
Although the poem probably belongs to the fifth
century, the only existing manuscript is said to date
from the ninth or tenth century.
This curious work, in rude alliterative verse (for
rhyme was introduced in England only after the Norman
Conquest), is the most valuable old English manuscript
in the British Museum. Although much damaged by fire,
it has been carefully studied by learned men. They have
patiently restored the poem, the story of which is as
Hrothgar (the modern Roger), King of Denmark, was a
descendant of Odin, being the third monarch of the
celebrated dynasty of the Skioldungs. They proudly
traced their ancestry to Skeaf, or Skiold, Odin's son
who mysteriously drifted to their shores. He was then
but an infant, and lay in the middle of a boat, on a
sheaf of ripe wheat, surrounded by priceless weapons
and jewels. As the people were
 seeking for a ruler, they immediately recognized the
hand of Odin in this mysterious advent, proclaimed the
child king, and obeyed him loyally as long as he lived.
When he felt death draw near, Skeaf, or Skiold, ordered
a vessel to be prepared, lay down in the midst on a
sheaf of grain or on a funeral pyre, and drifted out
into the wide ocean, disappearing as mysteriously as he
Such being his lineage, it is no wonder that Hrothgar
became a mighty chief; and as he had amassed much
wealth in the course of a long life of warfare, he
resolved to devote part of it to the construction of a
magnificent hall, called Heorot, where he might feast
his retainers and listen to the heroic lays of the
scalds during the long winter evenings.
"A hall of mead, such as for space and state
The elder time ne'er boasted' there with free
And princely hand he might dispense to all
(Save the rude crowd and men of evil minds)
The good he held from Heaven. That gallant work,
Full well I wot, through many a land was known
Of festal halls the brightest and the best."
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.)
The inauguration of this hall was celebrated by a
sumptuous entertainment; and when all the guests had
retired, the king's bodyguard, composed of thirty-two
dauntless warriors, lay down the hall to rest. When
mourning dawned, and the servants appeared to remove
the couches, they beheld with horror the floor and
walls all stained with blood, the only trace of the
knights who had gone to rest there in full armor.
Gigantic, blood-stained footsteps, leading directly
from the festive hall to the sluggish waters of a deep
mountain lake, or fiord, furnished the only clew to
their disappearance. Hrothgar, the kind, beholding
these, declared that they had been made by Grendel, a
descendant of the giants, whom a magician had driven
out of the country, but who had evidently returned to
renew his former depredations.
"A haunter of marshes, a holder of moors.
. . . . . Secret
The land he inhabits; dark, wolf-haunted ways
Of the windy hillside, by the treacherous tarn;
Or where, covered up in its mist, the hill stream
Beowulf (Keary's tr.)
As Hrothgar was now too old to wield a sword with his
former skill, his first impulse was, of course, to
offer a princely reward to any man brave enough to free
the country of this terrible scourge. As soon as this
was known ten of his doughtiest knights volunteered to
camp in the hall on the following night, and attack the
monster Grendel should he venture to reappear.
But in spite of the valor of these experienced
warriors, and of the efficacy of their oft-tried
weapons, they too succumbed. A minstrel, hiding in a
dark corner of the hall, was the only one who escaped
Grendel's fury, and after shudderingly describing the
massacre he had witnessed, he fled in terror to the
kingdom of the Geates (Jutes or Goths). There he sang
his lays in the presence of Hygelac, the king, and of
his nephew Beowulf (the Bee Hunter), and roused their
deepest interest by describing the visit of Grendel and
the vain but heroic defense of the brave knights.
Beowulf, having listened intently, eagerly questioned
the scald, and, learning from him that the monster
still haunted those regions, impetuously declared his
intention to visit Hrothgar's kingdom, and show his
valor by fighting and, if possible, slaying Grendel.
"He was of mankind
In might the strongest,
At that day
Of his life,
Noble and stalwart.
He bade him a sea ship,
A goodly one, prepare.
Quoth he, the war king,
Over the swan's road,
Seek he would
The mighty monarch,
Since he wanted men."
Beowulf (Longfellow's tr.).
Although very young, Beowulf was quite distinguished,
and had already won great honors in a battle against
the Swedes. He had also proved his endurance by
entering into a swimming match with Breka, one of the
lords at his uncle's court. The two champions had
started out, sword in hand and fully armed, and, after
swimming in concert for five whole days, they were
parted by a great tempest.
"Then were we twain there on the sea
Space of five nights, till the floods severed us,
The welling waves. Coldest of weathers,
Shadowy night, and the north wind
Battelous shocked on us; wild were the waters,
And were the mere-fishes stirred up in mind."
Breka was driven ashore, but the current bore Beowulf
toward some jagged cliffs, where he desperately clung,
trying to resist the fury of the waves, and using his
sword to ward off the attacks of hostile mermaids,
nicors (nixies), and other sea monsters. The gashed
bodies of these slain foes soon drifted ashore, to
Hygelac's amazement; but when Beowulf suddenly
reappeared and explained that they had fallen by his
hand, his joy knew no bounds. As Breka had returned
first, he received the prize for swimming; but the king
gave Beowulf his treasured sword, Nägeling, and
praised him publicly for his valor.
Beowulf had successfully encountered these monsters of
the deep in the roaring tide, so he now expressed a
hope that he might prevail against Grendel also; and
embarking with fourteen chosen men, he sailed to
Denmark, where he was challenged by
 the coast guard and warmly welcomed as soon as he made
his purpose known.
" 'What men are ye,
War gear wearing,
Host in harness,
Who thus the brown keel
Over the water street
Hither over the sea?' "
Beowulf '(Longfellow's tr.).
Hrothgar received Beowulf most hospitably, but vainly
tried to dissuade him from his perilous undertaking.
Then, after a sumptuous banquet, where the mead flowed
with true northern lavishness, Hrothgar and his suite
sadly left the hall Heorot in charge of the brave band
of strangers, whom they never expected to see again.
As soon as the king departed, Beowulf bade his
companions lie down and sleep in peace, promising to
watch over them, yet laying aside both armor and sword;
for he knew that weapons were of no avail against the
monster, whom he intended to grapple with hand to hand
should it really appear.
" 'I have heard
That the foul miscreant's dark and stubborn flesh
Recks not the force of arms:—such I forswear,
Nor sword nor burnish'd shield of ample round
(So may great Higelac's smile repay my toil)
Beowulf will grapple with the mighty foe.' "
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.).
The warriors had no sooner stretched themselves out
upon the benches in the hall than, overcome by the
oppressive air as well as by mead, they sank into a
profound sleep. Beowulf alone remained awake, watching
for Grendel's coming. In the early morning, when all
was very still, the giant appeared, tore
asun-  der the iron bolts and bars which secured the door, and
striding into the hall, enveloped in a long, damp
mantle of clammy mist, he pounced upon one of the
sleepers. He tore him limb from limb, greedily drank
his blood, and devoured his flesh, leaving naught but
the head, hands, and feet of his unhappy victim. This
ghastly repast only whetted the fiend's ravenous
appetite, however, so he eagerly stretched out his
hands in the darkness to seize another warrior. Imagine
his surprise and dismay when he suddenly found his hand
caught in so powerful a grasp that all his efforts
could not wrench free!
Grendel and Beowulf struggled in the darkness,
overturning tables and couches, shaking the great hall
to its very foundations, and causing the walls to creak
and groan under the violence of their furious blows.
But in spite of Grendel's gigantic stature, Beowulf
clung so fast to the hand and arm he had grasped that
Grendel, making a desperate effort to free himself by a
jerk, tore the whole limb from out of its socket!
Bleeding and mortally wounded, he then beat a hasty
retreat to his marshy den, leaving a long and bloody
trail behind him.
"Soon the dark wanderer's ample shoulder bore
A gaping wound, each starting sinew crack'd,
And from its socket loosed the strong-knit joint,—
The victory was Beowulf, and the foe,
Howling and sick at heart, fled as he might,
To seek beneath the mountain shroud of mist
His joyless home; for well he knew the day
Of death was on him, and his doom was seal'd."
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.).
As for Beowulf, exhausted but triumphant, he stood in
the middle of the hall, where his companions crowded
around him, gazing in speechless awe at the mighty hand
and limb, and the clawlike fingers, far harder than
steel, which no power had hitherto been able to resist.
At dawn Hrothgar and his subjects also appeared. They
heard with wonder a graphic account of the night's
 gazed their fill upon the monster's limb, which hung
like a trophy from the ceiling of Heorot. After the
king had warmly congratulated Beowulf, and bestowed
upon him many rich gifts, he gave orders to cleanse the
hall, to hang it with tapestry, and to prepare a
banquet in honor of the conquering hero.
While the men were feasting, listening to the lays of
the scalds, and carrying with usual toasts, Wealtheow,
Hrothgar's beautiful wife, the Queen of Denmark,
appeared. She pledged Beowulf in a cup of wine, which
he gallantly drained after she had touched it to her
lips. The she bestowed upon him a costly necklace (the
famous Brisinga-men, according to some authorities)
and a ring of the finest gold.
" 'Wear these,' she cried, 'since thou hast in the fight
So borne thyself, that wide as ocean rolls
Round our wind-beaten cliffs his brimming waves,
All gallant souls shall speak thy eulogy.' "
Beowulf ' (Conybeare's tr.).
When the banquet was ended, Hrothgar escorted his
guests to more pleasant sleeping apartments than they
had occupied the night before, leaving his own men to
guard the hall, where Grendel would never again appear.
The warriors, fearing no danger, slept in peace; but in
the dead of the night the mother of the giant, as
grewsome and uncanny a monster as he, glided into the
hall, secured the bloody trophy still hanging from the
ceiling, and carried it away, together with
Æschere (Askher), the king's bosom friend.
When Hrothgar learned this new loss at early dawn he
was overcome with grief; and when Beowulf, attracted by
the sound of weeping, appeared at his side, he
mournfully told him of his irretrievable loss.
" 'Ask not after happiness;
Sorrow is renewed
To the Danes' people.
Æschere is dead,
The partaker of my secrets
And my counselor,
Who stood at my elbow
Our mail hoods defended,
When in troops rushed together
And boar crests crashed.' "
Beowulf (Metcalfe's tr.).
The young hero immediately volunteered to finish his
work and avenge Æschere by seeking and attacking
Grendel's mother in her own retreat; but as he knew the
perils of this expedition, Beowulf first gave explicit
directions for the disposal of his personal property in
case he never returned. Then, escorted by the Danes and
Geates, he followed the bloody track until he came to a
cliff overhanging the waters of the mountain pool.
There the bloody traces ceased, but Æschere's gory
head was placed aloft as a trophy.
"Now paused they sudden where the pine grove clad
The hoar rock's brow, a dark and joyless shade.
Troublous and blood-stain'd roll'd the stream below.
Sorry and dread were on the Scylding's host,
In each man's breast deep working; for they saw
On that rude cliff young Æschere's mangled head."
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.).
Beowulf gazed down into the deep waters, saw that they
also were darkly dyed with the monster's blood, and,
after taking leave of Hrothgar, bade his men await his
return for two whole days and nights ere they
definitely gave him up for lost. He then plunged
bravely into the bloody waters, swam about seeking for
the monster's retreat, and dived deep. At last,
descrying a phosphorescent gleam in the depths, he
quickly made his way thither, shrewdly conjecturing
that it must Grendel's hiding place. But
 on his way thither he was repeatedly obliged to have
recourse to his sword to defend himself against the
clutches of countless hideous sea monsters which came
rushing toward him on all sides.
"While thro' crystal gulfs were gleaming
Ocean depths, with wonders teeming;
Shapes of terror, huge, unsightly,
Loom's thro' vaulted roof translucent."
J.C. Jones, Valhalla.
A strong current seized Beowulf, and swept him
irresistibly along into the slimy retreat of Grendel's
mother. She clutched him fast, wrestled with him,
deprived him of his sword, flung him down, and finally
tried to pierce his armor with her trenchant knife.
Fortunately, however, the hero's armor was
weapon-proof, and his muscles were so strong that
before she could do him any harm he had freed himself
from her grasp. Seizing a large sword hanging upon a
projection of rock nearby, he dealt her a mighty blow,
severing her head from the trunk at a single stroke.
The blood pouring out of the cave mingled with the
waters without, and turned them to such a lurid hue
that Hrothgar and his men sorrowfully departed, leaving
the Geates alone to watch for the return of the hero,
whom they feared they would never see again.
Beowulf, in the mean while, had rushed to the rear of
the cave, where, finding Grendel in the last those, he
cut off his head also. He seized this ghastly trophy
and rapidly made his way up through the tainted waters,
which the fiery blood of the two monsters had so
overheated that his sword melted in its scabbard and
naught but the hilt remained.
"That stout sword of proof,
Its warrior task fulfill'd, dropp'd to the ground
(So work'd the venom of the felon's blood)
A molten mass."
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.).
The Geates were about to depart in sorrow,
notwithstanding the orders they had received, when they
suddenly beheld their
 beloved chief safe and sound, and bearing the evidences
of his success. Then their cries of joy echoed and
reëchoed from the neighboring hills, and Beowulf
was escorted back to Heorot, where he was almost
overwhelmed with gifts by the grateful Danes. A few
days later Beowulf and his companions returned home,
where the story of their adventures, and an exhibition
of all the treasures they had won, formed, the
principal topics of conversation.
Several years of comparative peace ensued, ere the land
was invaded by the Friesians, who raided the coast,
burning and plundering all in their way, and retreated
into their ships before Hygelac or Beowulf could
overtake and punish them. The immediate result of this
invasion was a counter-movement on Hygelac's part. But
although he successfully harried Friesland, he fell
into an ambush just as he was about to leave the
country, and was cruelly slain, his nephew Beowulf
barely escaping a similar untoward fate.
When the little army of the Geates reached home once
more, they either buried or consumed Hygelac's remains,
with his weapons and battle steed, as was customary in
the North. This ceremony ended, Queen Hygd, overwhelmed
with grief, and fearing the almost inevitable
dissensions arising during the long minority of an
infant king, convened the popular assembly known as the
Thing, and bade the people set her own child's claim
aside; in favor of Beowulf. This proposal was hailed
with enthusiasm; but Beowulf refused to usurp his
kinsman's throne, and raising Hardred, Hygelac's infant
son, upon his shield, he declared that he would protect
and uphold him as long as he lived. The people,
following his example, swore fealty to the new king,
and faithfully kept this oath until he died.
Hardred, having attained his majority, ruled wisely and
well; but his career was cut short by the sons of
Othere, the discoverer of the North Cape. These youths
had rebelled against their father's authority and taken
refuge at Hardred's court; but when the latter advised
a reconciliation, the eldest youth angrily drew his
sword and slew him.
 This crime was avenged, with true northern promptitude,
by Wiglaf, one of the king's followers; and while the
second youth effected an escape, Beowulf was summoned
by the Thing to accept the now vacant throne. As there
were none to dispute his claims, the hero no longer
refused to rule, and he bravely defended his kingdom
against Eadgils, Othere's second son. Eadgils was no
king of Sweden, and came with an armed host to avenge
his brother's death; but he only succeeded in losing
his own life.
A reign of forty years of comparative peace brought
Beowulf to extreme old age. He had naturally lost much
of his former vigor, and was therefore somewhat
dismayed when a terrible, fire-breathing dragon took up
its abode in the mountains near by, where it gloated
over a hoard of glittering gold.
"The ranger of the darksome night,
The Firedrake, came."
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.).
A fugitive slave, having made his way unseen into the
monster's den during one of its temporary absences,
bore away a small portion of this gold. On its return
the Firedrake discovered the theft, and became so
furious that its howling and writhing shook the
mountain like an earthquake. When night came on its
rage was still unappeased, and it flew all over the
land, vomiting venom and flames, setting houses and
crops afire, and causing so much damage that the people
were almost beside themselves with terror. Seeing that
all their attempts to appease the dragon were utterly
fruitless, and being afraid to attack it in its lair,
they finally implored Beowulf to deliver them as he had
delivered the Danes, and to slay this oppressor, which
was even worse than the terrible Grendel.
Such an appeal could not be disregarded, and in spite
of his advanced years Beowulf donned his armor once
more. Accompanied by Wiglaf and eleven of his bravest
men, he then went out to seek the monster in its lair.
At the entrance of the
moun-  tain gorge Beowulf bade his followers pause, and advancing
alone to the monster's den, he boldly challenged it to
come forth and begin the fray. A moment later the
mountain shook as the monster rushed out breathing fire
and flame, and Beowulf felt the first gust of its hot
breath, even through his massive shield.
"First from his lair
Shaking firm earth, and vomiting as he strode
A foul and fiery blast, the monster came."
Beowulf (Conybeare's tr.).
A desperate struggle followed, in the course of which
Beowulf's sword and strength both failed him. The
Firedrake coiled its long, scaly folds about the aged
hero, and was about to crush him to death when the
faithful Wiglaf, perceiving his master's imminent
danger, sprang forward and attacked the monster so
fiercely as to cause a diversion and make it drop
Beowulf to concentrate its attention upon him.
Beowulf, recovering, then drew his dagger and soon put
an end to the dragon's life; but even as it breathed
its last the hero sank fainting to the ground. Feeling
that his end was near, he warmly thanked Wiglaf for his
timely aid, rejoiced in the death of the monster, and
bade his faithful follower bring out the concealed
treasure and lay it at his feet, that he might feast
his eyes upon the glittering gold he had won for his
"Saw then the bold thane
Treasure jewels many,
Heavy on the ground,
Wonders in the mount
And the worm's den,
The old twilight flier's,
Vessels of men of yore,
With the mountings fall'n off.
There was many a helm
Old and rusty,
He also saw hang heavily
An ensign all golden
High o'er the hoard,
Of hand wonders greatest,
Wrought by spells of song,
From which shot a light
So, that he the ground surface
The wonders overscan."
Beowulf (Metcalf's tr.).
The mighty treasure was all brought forth to the light
of day, and the followers, seeing that all danger was
over, crowded round their dying chief. He addressed
them affectionately, and, after recapitulating the main
events of his career, expressed a desire to be buried
in a mighty mound on a projecting headland, which could
be seen far out at sea, and would be called by his
" 'And now,
Short while I tarry here—when I am gone,
Bid them upon you headland's summit rear
A lofty mound, by Rona's seagirt cliff;
So shall my people hold to after times
Their chieftain's memory, and the mariners
That drive afar to sea, oft as they pass,
Shall point to Beowulf's tomb.' "
Beowulf '(Conybeare's tr.).
These directions were all piously carried out by a
mourning people, who decked his mound with the gold he
had won, and erected above it a Bauta, or memorial
stone, to show how dearly they had loved their brave
king Beowulf, who had died to save them from the fury
of the dragon.