Chapter XI. THE STORY OF BEOWULF
HROTHGAR, King of the Spear Danes, was a mighty man in war, and when he had fought and conquered much, he bethought him that he would build a great and splendid hall, wherein he might feast and be glad with his people.
And so it was done. And when the hall was built, there night by night the thanes gathered and rejoiced with their King; and there, when the feast was over, they lay them down to sleep.
Within the hall all was gladness, but without on the lone moorland there stalked a grim monster, named Grendel, whose dark heart was filled with anger and hate. To him the sound of song and laughter was deep pain, and he was fain to end it.
"He, the Grendel, set off then after night was come to seek the lofty house, to see how the Ring Danes had ordered it after the service of beer. He found them therein, a troup of nobles sleeping after the feast. They knew not sorrow, the wretchedness of men, they knew not aught of misfortune.
"The grim and greedy one was soon prepared, savage and fierce, and in sleep he seized upon thirty of the thanes, and thence he again departed exulting in his prey, to go home with the carcases of the slain, to reach his own dwelling.
"Then was in the morning twilight, at the breaking of day, Grendel's war-craft revealed to men. Then was lamentation upraised after the feast, a great noise in the morning.
"The mighty prince, a noble of old goodness, sat unblithe; the strong in armies suffered, the thanes endured sorrow, after they beheld the track of the hated one, the accursed spirit."
But in spite of all their grief and horror, when night came the thanes again lay down to rest in the great hall. And there again the monster returned and slew yet more thanes, so that in horror all forsook the hall, and for twelve long years none abode in it after the setting of the sun.
And now far across the sea a brave man of the Goths, Beowulf by name, heard of the doings of Grendel, and he made up his mind to come to the aid of King Hrothgar.
"He commanded to make ready for him a good ship; quoth he, he would seek the war-king over the swan's path; the renowned prince since he had need of men.
"The good chieftain had chosen warriors of the Geátish people, the bravest of those who he could find. With fifteen men he sought the sea-wood. A warrior, a man crafty in lakes, pointed out the boundaries of the land.
"The time passed on, the ship was on the waves, the boat beneath a mountain, the ready warriors stept upon the prow. The men bore into the bosom of the bark bright ornaments, their ready warlike appointments.
"The men shoved forth the bounden wood, the men upon the journey they desired.
"The likest to a bird the foam-necked ship, propelled by the wind, started over the deep waves of the sea, till that about one hour of the second day, the wreathed prowed ship had sailed over, so that the traveller saw the land.
"Then quickly the people of the Westerns stepped upon the plain. They tied the sea-wood, they let down their shirts of mail, their war-weeds. They thanked God because that the waves had been easy to them."
And now these new-come warriors were led to King Hrothgar. He greeted them with joy, and after feasting and song the Danes and their King departed and left the Goths to guard the hall. Quietly they lay down to rest, knowing that ere morning stern battle would be theirs.
"Then under veils of mist came Grendel from the moor; he bare God's anger. The criminal meant to entrap some one of the race of men in the high hall. He went under the welkin, until he saw most clearly the wine hall, the treasure house of men, variegated with vessels. That was not the first time that he had sought Hrothgar's home. Never he, in all his life before or since found bolder men keepers of the hall.
"Angry of mood he went, from his eyes, likest to fire, stood out a hideous light. He saw within the house many a warrior sleeping, a peaceful band together. Then his mood laughed. The foul wretch meant to divide, ere day came, the life of each from his body."
Quickly then he seized a warrior and as quickly devoured him. But as he stretched forth his hand to seize another, Beowulf gripped him in his awful grasp.
Then began a terrible combat. The hall echoed with cries and sounds of clashing steel. The Goths awoke, joining in the fight, but all their swords were of no avail against the ogre. With his bare hands alone Beowulf fought, and thought to kill the monster. But Grendel escaped, though wounded to death indeed, and leaving his hand, arm, and shoulder behind in Beowulf's grip.
When morning came there was much rejoicing. Hrothgar made a great feast, at which he gave rich gifts to Beowulf and his friends. The evening passed in song and laughter, and when darkness fell the Danes lay down to rest in the hall as of old.
But the evil was not over. Grendel indeed was slain, but his mother, an ogre almost as fierce as he, was ready to avenge him. So when night fell she hastened to the hall, and carried off Hrothgar's best loved thane.
"Then was there a cry in Heorot. Then was the prudent king, the hoary warrior, sad of mood, when he learned that his princely thane, the dearest to him, no longer lived. Quickly was Beowulf fetched to the bower, the man happy in victory, at break of day."
And when Beowulf heard the mournful tale he comforted the King with brave and kindly words, and quickly he set forth to the dreadful mere, the dwelling of the water-witch, Grendel's mother. And here he plunged in ready to fight.
"Soon did she, who thirsting for gore, grim and greedy, for a hundred years had held the circuit of the waves, discover that some one of men, some strange being, was trying from above the land. She grappled then towards him, she seized the warrior in her foul claws."
Then beneath the waves was there a fierce struggle, but Beowulf in the end conquered. The water-witch was slain, and rejoicing, the hero returned to Hrothgar.
Now indeed had peace come to the Danes, and loaded with thanks and rewards, Beowulf returned homeward.
Many years passed. Beowulf himself became king in his own land, and for fifty years he ruled well, and kept his folk in peace. Then it fell that a fearful Fire-Dragon wasted all the land, and Beowulf, mindful of his deeds of old, set forth to slay him.
Yet ere he fought, he bade farewell to all his thanes, for he knew well that this should be his last fight.
"Then greeted he every one of the men, the bold helm bearer greeted his dear comrades for the last time. I would not bear sword or weapon against the worm if I knew how else I might proudly grapple with the wretch, as I of old with Grendel did. But I ween this war fire is hot, fierce and poisonous; therefore have I on me shield and byrnie. . . . Then did the famous warrior arise beside his shield, hard under helmet he bare the sword- shirt, under the cliffs of stone, he trusted in the strength of one man; nor is such an expedition for a coward."
Fiercely then did the battle rage between hero and dragon. But Beowulf's sword failed him in his need, and it was like to go ill with him. Then, when his thanes who watched saw that, fear fell upon them, and they fled. One only, Wiglaf was his name, would not forsake his liege lord. Seizing his shield and drawing his sword, he cried, "Come, let us go to him, let us help our chieftain, although the grim terror of fire be hot."
But none would follow him, so alone he went: "through the fatal smoke he bare his war helmet to the assistance of his lord."
Fierce was the fight and long. But at length the dragon lay dead. Beowulf had conquered, but in conquering he had received his death wound. And there, by the wild seashore, he died. And there a sorrowing people buried him.
"For him, then did the people of the Geáts prepare upon the earth a funeral pile, strong, hung round with helmets, with war boards and bright byrnies as he had requested. Weeping, the heroes laid down in the midst their dear lord.
"Then began the warriors to awake upon the hill the mightiest of bale-fires. The wood smoke rose aloft, dark from the foe of wood. Noisily it went mingled with weeping. . . .
"The people of the Westerns wrought then a mound over the sea: it was high and broad, easy to behold by the sailors over the waves, and during ten days they built up the beacon of the war- renowned, the mightiest of fires. . . . Then round the mound rode a troupe of beasts of war, of nobles, twelve in all. They would speak about their King, they would call him to mind. They praised his valor, and his deeds of bravery they judged with praise, even as it is fitting that a man should extol his friendly lord, should love him in his soul, when he must depart from the body to become of naught.
"Thus the people of the Geáts, his hearth comrades, mourned their dear lord. They said that he was of the kings of the world, the mildest and gentlest of men, the most gracious to his people, and the most jealous of glory."
BOOKS TO READ
Stories of Beowulf, by H. E. Marshall. Beowulf, translated by W. Huyshe.