The Story of Beowulf, by Strafford Riggs , at sacred-texts.com
WHICH TELLS something of the youth and early manhood of Beowulf, how he heard of the monster GRENDEL, and of Daneland.
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ONCE upon a time, in the far north of what is now called Europe, there was a kingdom known as Geatsland, and its ruler was named Hygelac. It was a harsh country, with high mountains and narrow valleys, and it had a long seacoast with many harbors and inlets, and the men who lived there were famous for their bravery, on both sea and land.
Like their neighbors the Danes and the Frisians, the Geats were warlike, and for the greater part of every year Hygelac and his warriors were engaged in fierce battles with various tribes, who would enter the territory of the Geats, to steal cattle and lay waste the fields of grain, and burn the farms of his retainers.
There were other foes, too, to be dealt with. The great caves along the coast were inhabited by all manner of evil monsters that lived partly in the sea and partly upon the land, huge serpents with scales of brass, that patrolled the coast and devoured fishermen when they could be taken by surprise at their nets.
In Geatsland were vast forests where loathsome beasts made their homes in the hollow trunks of dead trees and prowled only by night, feeding upon sleeping pigs and young rabbits and other innocent animals. It was not safe to travel in those woods after dark, and the wandering minstrels who went from place to place in the country-side were careful not to be caught in their ghostly depths.
But for the most part the sea-monsters and the forest terrors kept to their own lairs and seldom invaded the more populous districts. Only when an incautious farmer or fisherman had been foully killed by one of them did the lords of Geatsland wage war upon the strange inhabitants of the coastal caves and the forest fastnesses.
Now, for many years Hygelac ruled over his people with a stern but kind hand. Beside him was his queen, named Hygd, and called the Wise and Fair. About the king and queen were gathered the finest lords of the land. All were valiant warriors whose courage had been tried in many battles. They were tall like the trees of their forests, and broad like the stout beams of their boats, and each man had the strength of ten. They were yellow of hair; their eyes were deep-set and burned blue like the sea; on their arms and around their necks were great circlets of beaten gold; and upon their heads they wore helmets decorated with the horns of bulls or the black wings of ravens.
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In battle these lords were fierce and terrible, and their war-cries froze the blood of their enemies. But in their own halls, in times of peace, they often dropped their warlike mien and sang and laughed and fondled their dogs and played jokes upon one another like children.
When they gathered in the great drinking-hall of the king, the minstrels would come among them after they had eaten; and with horns of ale passing from hand to hand, these lords of Geatsland would listen to songs of other lands and to news of the world which lay beyond their own frontiers. They heard the stirring story of Sigmund, that great hero; or learned how this king was warring with that or how a terrible dragon had destroyed a whole army of brave fighters.
Sometimes Hygd the Wise and Fair would call upon one or another of the assembled company and beg him to recount some particular deed of valor which he had performed in the past; and often Hygelac conferred with his warriors on some point of warfare or on the building of new boats which would better withstand the fierce gales of the winter seas.
And the younger men listened, their blue eyes wide with eagerness, to the tales of bravery and battle, and struck one another upon the knee, vowing themselves to great deeds when they became older, or boasting of their youthful exploits and feats of strength.
AMONG the number of youths who were in thrall to Hygelac was Beowulf, his nephew. Like so many great heroes of old, Beowulf was the son of his king's sister. As a small boy, Beowulf had shown such strength of body that Hygelac had early named him one of his thanes. So his mother and father gave him up, and young Beowulf went to live with his uncle, to learn the arts of war and the handling of ships.
For several years he led a lonely life, for so great was the strength of his limbs that even among those men of vast vigor he was a youth to be marveled at. As the years slipped by and he grew to manhood, he became more and more sullen in his strength, and his companions dubbed him "The Silent." His movements were clumsy. He tripped over his sword. He broke whatever he touched. The other youths laughed at him for his awkwardness, but in secret they envied the immense spread of his shoulders and the terrible swiftness of his stride when he hunted in the forests.
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When he was sixteen years of age, Beowulf was challenged by one of his companions, Breca by name, to a swimming race in the sea. He accepted the challenge because he had been called lazy, and in his heart he was angry that his strength had never truly been tried.
For five days and five nights he and Breca fought the waves of the sea, until Beowulf reached shore victorious. Later, when he was accused of cowardice in this race, he told the true story of those black nights in the water, and what he related then was to go down in song as a famous legend.
WHEN Beowulf had at last reached the full tide of his manhood, and been admitted to the circle of Hygelac's personal retainers, a feast was held one night in the king's drinking-hall. From all over Geatsland famous warriors and earls gathered at the drinking-benches of their king to hear the songs of the minstrels and take part in games and feats of strength.
The drinking-hall was decorated with the green boughs of fir trees, and fires blazed on the hearths at either end. Along the walls, at intervals, were placed flaming torches which lighted the vast hall with flickering light, and the smoke from the flares and the fires on the hearths was drawn high to the roof, where it disappeared in the gloomy rafters through a hole cut at the peak.
Around the hall stood wooden benches in tiers, one above the other, and at one end, highest of all, was the table at which Hygelac and Hygd his queen sat in their robes of state. The lower benches were crowded with the lords of Geatsland, and waiting upon them with food and drink were their vassals.
In one corner of the hall were piled the armor and helmets of the warriors, and the spears tipped with bright metal, the huge swords glittering in their places. The air was heavy with the smell of burning pine and fir. There was not much laughter among the guests, for these were men of the North, noted for their silence. But now and again a clear deep voice rang out above the continual murmur of the crowd and there was an answering rise in the applause or disapproval of those who heard.
Here and there stood a huge dog, resting his head upon his master's knee and waiting patiently for a rough caress or a chunk of meat. The servants hurried from bench to bench with ox horns adorned with beaten gold and filled with heady mead, that favorite drink of the Northmen, flavored with honey. Large wooden bowls painted in bright colors and overflowing with various meats stood on the tables and were dipped into by the seated guests.
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Hygelac and his lady were served separately, from dishes more beautiful and precious than the rest, and the queen paused often to acknowledge with her gracious smile the toasts of her subjects as the drinking-horns were raised and held toward her. The king ate and drank sparingly, as became an old man, but the queen (who was almost young enough to be his daughter) took a lively interest in everything that was placed before her.
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At the feet of the royal couple sat Beowulf, at a table especially prepared for the king's earls. These were the most favored and beloved of all the warriors of Geatsland. But many were the murmurs of jealousy and discontent among the lords when they beheld young Beowulf in such a place of honor.
"Who," they asked among themselves, "is this sluggard Beowulf, that he should sit directly below our king!" And some answered, "It is because he is the son of our king's sister and brave Ecgtheow; and because he has the strength in his arms and legs of thirty men."
The older lords shook their gray heads disapprovingly and the younger men sighed and scowled with jealousy. Only one spoke up in defense of Beowulf, an ancient warrior with white flowing locks and a gentle sweet voice.
"Look you, you foolish ones," he said. "It is written in the stars that this Beowulf whom you call sluggard will one day be famous in song and story for his deeds of surpassing bravery and strength."
But when the others questioned him further, the old man smiled a wise smile, and would say no more; and as he was considered something of a sage and a magician, they exchanged wondering glances among themselves and kept their tongues quiet.
But Beowulf, unmindful of the talk about him, sat in gloomy silence. He ate little, but each time the drinking-horns were passed he drank long and deep. And like his drafts of ale and of mead, his thoughts, too, were deep and long.
His strength was great, but there was no use for him to put it to, and he longed for wild adventure and the chance to stretch his muscles to the limit of their power.
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True, he thought, I have fought small dragons and hunted wild boars, but such hazards are mere games for boys, and I am now a man. My uncle Hygelac is at peace with his neighbors, and there is no war in which I can take part. He sat stonily in his place, and his blue eyes were scornful of the earls about him and their big talk of little battles.
Then, at a signal from Hygelac, the murmur of voices died down, until there was no sound in the whole length of the vast hall save the spluttering of the flares upon the walls and the snarling of two dogs over a chunk of meat on the earthen floor.
"My brothers," spoke the king, "there is among us this night one who has come a long way over the sea and the land. He brings, he says, a wondrous song for you to hear. It is long since we have had word from the North, and this man's harp is a sweet one. Sing to us, Wanderer, that we may have your news and your entertainment."
Then the minstrel came forward with his harp. He was a tall rugged man, with a beard streaked with gray. He had the air of one who had traveled long distances, and his blue eyes were wide and fixed like one used to watching the horizon of the wide world.
Around him was wrapped a cloak of deep blue, held together by a curious clasp of gold. Beowulf, noting the clasp, thought it resembled a coiled snake, for there were two green stones set in it which glittered. This man, Beowulf thought, has been in far-away places. He will chant us a good song.
Then the Wanderer (for so he was called) sat down upon a wooden stool, threw back the cloak from about his arms, and with long thin fingers struck the resounding strings of his harp.
He sang in a sharp voice that was like the crying of birds on the gray sea, but there was a sweetness in it at the same time which held his hearers, and the lords of Geatsland leaned forward on their benches in eagerness to catch every word.
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He sang of the vast and frozen North, where winter lay upon the land for many, many months, and men fought in the gloomy light of the night-burning sun.
He sang of endless forests stretching black and forbidding in a sea of snow; of mountains higher and bleaker than the highest mountains of Geatsland; of the strange and fearful demons that inhabited this ghostly region.
He sang of dragons that had no blood in them, but which, when they fought in bitter combat among themselves, oozed a white liquid so cold that even the fir trees withered where it fell.
He sang of the limitless gray sea and the green-white icebergs floating treacherously, and of the sirens who lived in caves upon them, and whose bodies were clothed in blue fish scales and whose hair was swaying seaweed.
He sang of the monsters of the deep, strange wormlike creatures with brazen heads and tails like the tails of serpents, and Beowulf nodded with a knowing air, because he had swum in a great race against Breca and had learned something of the sea and what it held of terror for the swimmer.
Then the tune of the Wanderer changed. His voice fell to a lower note, and he sang of Hrothgar who was king of the Danes, that country not far from Geatsland, across the water.
He told a sad story of desolation and despair in Hrothgar's land, because of a beast which had struck mortal fear into the hearts of the lords of Daneland. For on one cruel night, twelve years before, there had come to Heorot--which was the great drinking-hall of Hrothgar--a monster, part animal, part man, part bird. The lords of Daneland were sleeping soundly in Heorot, and the monster, who was called Grendel, had forced open the solid doors of the king's hall and carried away in their sleep thirty of the greatest earls of the Danes.
There had been lamentation throughout the land, and many were the attempts to slay Grendel, but none had succeeded. And Hrothgar and his councilors no longer dared to sleep in Heorot, since for twelve long years Grendel repeatedly visited the king's hall and wrought destruction there. Yet Heorot had been well built by Hrothgar and for twelve years it had withstood the monster's onslaught, but in those twelve long years the valiant young warriors of the king had not withstood so well the nightly visitations, and now the land was despoiled of its youthful strength, and there remained to the king only those fighters whose early vigor had long since passed, and Daneland had become a country of old men and defenseless women.
The Wanderer sang of the fear that was in the Heart of Hrothgar the king and in the hearts of all his vassals and retainers, of the sorrowing of the women who were the wives or mothers or sisters of the slain warriors.
He told of Unferth, who was Hrothgar's beloved companion, and how Unferth had not once offered to meet Grendel in combat, because the fear in his breast was greater than his love for his master. And at this a scornful murmur ran through the company that listened, and the lords of Geatsland condemned Unferth for a black coward.
Now, all the while that the Wanderer was singing, Beowulf sat as one bewitched. Those about him paid no heed to his rapid breathing, and failed to notice the light that had sprung into his blue eyes.
He leaned forward upon the table, his arms folded under his still beardless chin, his eyes fixed upon the minstrel. Now and again he lifted his head and shook out the fair hair that hung beneath the golden band encircling his wide white forehead. The huge bracelets that weighted his wrists gleamed like his eyes, and the jeweled collar about his throat was tight because of the swelling veins of his neck. The thoughts that ran through his head were confused, but one idea held sway over all others:
He would seek out this monster Grendel and slay him--yes! slay him with bare hands, these very hands that gripped each other now upon the table until they showed white beneath the pressure of the fingers. His muscles under the armlets of beaten gold rippled like water ruffled by a breeze. He saw himself face to face with the monster Grendel, and suddenly a wild cry broke from his lips and he leaped from his seat.
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"Lords of Geatsland and earls of Hygelac," he shouted, as the minstrel finished the song, am the son of Ecgtheow and of Hygelac's sister, and in olden times this Hrothgar was a war-brother of my father. Therefore I claim kinship to him, and I will go to the land of the Danes and serve their king. I will slay this Grendel!"
Then among the lords of Geatsland there rose a murmur of wonder at Beowulf's daring, but their wonder was touched with mockery that the Sluggard should dream of combat with such a fiend as Grendel. And they knew not whether to laugh or to shout with approval when they saw this youth, who had but lately come to manhood, standing before them, his eyes flashing fire, both hands up-flung.
There was great confusion in the hall of Hygelac, and the earls called to one another, and dogs barked. But Hygd the queen stood up amid the turmoil, and holding a jeweled cup in her two hands because of its weight, stepped down to where Beowulf was, and offered him the cup, and smiled at him in affection and pride.
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Once again Hygelac commanded silence among the guests in the drinking-hall, and turning to Beowulf said in a loud voice:
"The time has come, O Beowulf, for you to prove your worth. The gods have gifted you with the strength of thirty men, and this strength you should use to the advantage of your fellows. Our neighbor Hrothgar is in sore need. Go forth, then, from Geatsland to the land of the Danes, and do mortal combat with this Grendel-fiend to the glory of Geatsland and the satisfaction of your new manhood.
"But I charge you, Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, earl of the Geats, and my own nephew, return not to these halls if you should fail in your attempt. Again I say to you, you have great strength. Go you, Beowulf, and use it nobly!"
Thus spoke Hygelac the king, and great was the shout of approval that went up from all the lords of Geatsland as they crowded round the brave young Beowulf. For here was a Beowulf they had never known before, and they greeted him for the first time as one of themselves, and not as a sullen boy whose strength had been so great that he had been made to seem a fool for it.
Then Beowulf drank from the jeweled goblet of Hygd, called the
Wise and Fair, and he fell on his knees before his uncle Hygelac and received the king's embrace.
FOR seven days and seven nights there were great preparations in the halls of Hygelac the Geat, that Beowulf might go on his adventure fully equipped for whatever awaited him in Daneland. From the group of companions who hid- come to manhood at the same time as himself, Beowulf selected fourteen earls to accompany him. He had wished to go alone to the land of the Danes, but his uncle the king had commanded that he be suitably companioned on such a voyage, so that at the court of Hrothgar it could not be said that Hygelac had sent the youth upon a fool's errand and badly equipped. So, with the best grace he could muster (for Beowulf was stubborn, as you have seen and shall see again) he named his earls, and Hygelac ordered that they be furnished with the finest head-pieces and spears and swords in the kingdom.
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Special shields were made, of stout wood covered with thick hides and bound with iron and studded with golden nails. Rich cloaks of scarlet and blue there were for the warriors, and massive bracelets of fine gold for their arms and wrists, and collars of gold wire for their throats.
When at last they stood ready in the mead-hall of Hygelac, they were a fine company of young men, whose like was not to be seen in all the countries of the North. Each stood well over six feet in height, with broad shoulders and sturdy legs; and each was as swift of foot as a reindeer.
But Beowulf overtopped them all in stature and in strength and in the speed of his running, and as Hygd beheld him she thought: This is indeed a fine son that my husband's sister was mother to, and his father Ecgtheow would have been a proud man to look upon him.
Hygelac made a speech to the fourteen earls and charged them to be faithful to Beowulf and to the tradition of the Geats in battle. He put them under the command of Beowulf, and urged them to obey their lord in every particular and to find no service too difficult to render him and no hardship too great to endure for his sake.
Then he turned to Beowulf, and gave the earls into the young man's keeping and begged him to uphold the honor of Geatsland and of his king. Then he nodded to Hygd, who stood beside him clad in a marvelous soft robe of red, her lovely arms covered with bracelets of green gems, and took from her hands a golden collar which he clasped about the throat of his nephew. As Beowulf knelt to receive the gift, a great shout went up from the assembled company, swords were brandished in the air, and there was a tumult of excitement in the high hall of Hygelac.
Then came the signal for the journey down to the beach where a ship lay in readiness to receive Beowulf and his earls, and with torches flaming in the grayness of approaching dawn, the company took its departure.
THE way led for a little time through woodland cleared of all underbrush, where at night and in the light of the flares the company seemed to be passing through some vast mysterious dwelling-place; so tall were the trees that their tops could not be seen and the tree trunks looked like the mighty pillars of a huge hall.
As they passed, the birds that slept in the branches of the trees wakened because of the light, and thought it must be daytime, and flew about calling to one another that the dawn had come. And the little animals scurried underfoot, not knowing what to make of this strange disturbance, and squeaking or growling to warn their small comrades.
At last the hall-like forest gave way to a wide open meadow, and the breath of the sea, damp and salt-smelling, struck the nostrils of the marching warriors. And finally they heard the waves breaking against the headlands not far away, and the moaning of the wind among the rocks of the coast.
As the first streaks of dawn began to touch the dim sky, the company reached the shore.
There, ghostly in the half-light, hung their ship, its prow nosing into the sandy beach, its body rising and falling with the gentle waves of the landlocked cove. Then, as the sun began to touch the towering mountains that hemmed them in, the torches were one by one extinguished.
The wind died suddenly, as it does at sunrise, and the wide sails of the ship hung motionless in the calm. But when the sun at last rose and flooded the world with its warm light, a fresh breeze sprang up.
Beowulf called to the company to hasten aboard, and with much shouting and waving of arms and shields, the fourteen earls clambered into the ship. The vessel was loosed from her moorings; her painted oars were dipped into the water, her sails bellied with the young wind, and slowly she found her way down the harbor to the open sea.
For many hours the sturdy ship fought the waves that crashed and thundered against her sides. For many hours Beowulf and his fourteen companions saw the marvels and terrors of the wide sea.
All kinds of strange monsters, both large and small, were seen on that voyage-playful fishes with scales as blue as the sky overhead and bright small eyes, and long sea-serpents which followed the wake of the ship for hours, turning and rolling in the sea, and looking so evil that even the brave warriors shuddered at the thought of falling into their slimy coils. There were sea-lions of shaggy mane, and bird-like fish with horny claws.
But they came at length to the coast of Daneland and the sea boiled white between them and the land, and the land itself was scarred and pitted with a thousand narrow inlets, which were treacherous to seafarers unfamiliar with them. The forests that clung to the shore line were half hidden in gray mists that moved and twisted like smoke about the trees.
Then, as the adventurers thought they had at last found the entrance to a safe harbor, a mighty storm arose. The land was blotted out with menacing clouds, the waves beat upon the ship with fury, the wind howled through the rigging, and fear darkened the stoutest hearts.
For a time Beowulf's earls tried to prevail upon him to turn away from that black coast, saying that they would be dashed to pieces on the rocks, but Beowulf turned a deaf ear and urged his captain forward.
Then, as by a miracle, they found entrance to a narrow inlet, and the sudden protection of the land stilled the fear in the warriors' hearts. Their sails tattered by the wind, they plied their oars with a great good-will, and as the storm lessened, they beached their boat on a tiny strip of sand at the edge of a deep forest hung with gray fog and silent as death.
No sooner had they landed, however, than they were accosted by an old man, hoary with years but fearless of eye and with a mighty hand ready upon the long spear that stood by his side. Addressing himself at once to Beowulf, he asked:
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"Who are you, stranger in Daneland, that you beach your boat with so much confidence upon these shores?"
And Beowulf answered, standing tall in front of his earls:
"I am Beowulf, and I come from my uncle, Hygelac, the Geatish king, and I am a friend to the Danes."
"That is good," replied the Guardian of the Beach. "I can see by your height and breadth and strength that you are a leader of these fine men who stand behind you. The name of your king is not unknown to me, his fame has long since come to these parts. You and your men are well armed, but I can see by your faces that you come to this unhappy land with no bad intentions. Tell me, Beowulf, what is your errand? For you must know that this is a dead country, that has been dead these twelve years past, that our hearts have no joy in them, and that Hrothgar, our king, is bowed by sorrow in his age."
"I know that well, Guardian of the Beach," Beowulf replied, "and it is to help your good king that I and my earls have come to Daneland."
"Welcome, then, O Beowulf, to these sad shores," the Guardian cried. "Our king will better receive you than it is in my poor power to do. Leave your ship in my care. I will see that no harm comes to it. But I dread beholding such a fine company of young men coming on this fell business. For the fiend Grendel, who has robbed Hrothgar of his rightful estate, and destroyed so many proud young warriors of our kingdom, is terrible beyond words to describe."
But Beowulf cut his discourse short, and begged the Guardian of the Beach to direct them to the hall of Hrothgar, that they might make themselves known to the king, and rest themselves after their long, tiring day at sea.
Then the old man took them a little way into the forest, and pointed out a path to follow, and bade them farewell. And Beowulf and his earls set out at last upon their great adventure in the land of the Danes.