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Introduction. The only Anglo-Saxon epic which has been preserved entire was probably composed in Sweden before the eighth century, and taken thence to England, where this pagan poem was worked over and Christianized by some Northumbrian bard. Although some authorities declare it dates back as far as the fifth century, most affirm it must have been composed in the seventh. The present manuscript, now preserved in the British Museum, dates back to the tenth century. It contains some 3182 lines, and is written in alliterative verse (that is to say, that all the lines are written in pairs and that each perfect pair contains two similar sounds in the first line and one in the second). Although the author of Beowulf is unknown, the poem affords priceless hints in regard to the armor, ships, and mode of life of our early Saxon fore-fathers. Many translations of the poem have been made, some in prose and others in verse, and the epic as it stands, consisting of an introduction and forty-two "Fits," is the main text for the study of the Anglo-Saxon language.

The Epic. Hrothgar, King of Denmark, traces his origin to Skiold, son of Odin, who as an infant drifted to Denmark's shores. This child lay on a sheaf of ripe wheat, surrounded by priceless weapons, jewels, and a wonderful suit of armor, which proved he must be the scion of some princely race. The childless King and Queen of Denmark therefore gladly adopted him, and in due time he succeeded them and ruled over the whole country. When he died, his subjects, placing his body in the vessel in which he had come, set him adrift.

           Men are not able
  Soothly to tell us, they in halls who reside,
  Heroes under heaven, to what haven he hied.[22]

Hrothgar, his descendant, constructed a magnificent hall, called Heorot, wherein to feast his retainers and entertain them with the songs of the northern skalds.

             It burned in his spirit
  To urge his folk to found a great building,
  A mead-hall grander than men of the era
  Ever had heard of, and in it to share
  With young and old all of the blessings
  The Lord had allowed him, save life and retainers.

The night of the inauguration of this building, the royal body-guard lay down in the hall to sleep; and, when the servants entered the place on the morrow, they were horrified to find floor and walls spattered with blood, but no other trace of the thirty knights who had rested there the night before. Their cry of horror aroused Hrothgar, who, on investigating, discovered gigantic footsteps leading straight from the hall to the sluggish waters of a mountain tarn, above which a phosphorescent light always hovered. These footsteps were those of Grendel, a descendant of Cain, who dwelt in the marsh, and who had evidently slain and devoured all the king's men.

Too old to wield a sword in person, Hrothgar offered a princely reward to whoever would rid his country of this terrible scourge. But, although many warriors gladly undertook the task, the monster proved too strong for all, and none save a minstrel—who hid in one corner of the hall—ever succeeded in escaping from his clutches. This minstrel, after seeing Grendel feed upon his companions, was so impressed by the sight, that he composed a song about it, which he sang wherever he went, and once repeated for the entertainment of King Higelac and his nephew Beowulf. In answer to their eager questions, the bard averred the monster still existed and invariably invaded the hall when a feast was held there. This was enough to arouse in Beowulf a burning desire to visit Denmark and rid the world of this scourge. Knowing his nephew was very brave and having had proof of his endurance (for the young man had once in the course of a swimming match, stayed in the water five whole days and nights, killing many sea monsters who came to attack him), Higelac gladly allowed him to depart with fourteen chosen companions. Thus Beowulf set out "over the Swan-Road" for Denmark, to offer his services to the king.

  The foamy-necked floater fanned by the breeze,
  Likest a bird, glided the waters,
  Till twenty and four hours thereafter
  The twist-stemmed vessel had travelled such distance
  That the sailing-men saw the sloping embankments,
  The sea-cliffs gleaming, precipitous mountains,
  Nesses enormous: they were nearing the limits
  At the end of the ocean.

On seeing a vessel with armed men approach their shores, the Danish coast guards challenged the new-comers, who rejoined their intentions were purely friendly, and begged to be led to the king. There Beowulf and his attendants—after paying their respects to Hrothgar—offered their services to rid him of the terrible scourge which had preyed so long upon his people. On hearing this, the king immediately ordered a feast prepared, and at its close allowed Beowulf, at his request, to remain alone in the hall with his men. Aware that no weapon could pierce the armed hide of the uncanny monster, Beowulf—who had the strength of thirty men—laid aside his armor and prepared to grapple with Grendel by main strength when he appeared.

  Then the brave-mooded hero bent to his slumber,
  The pillow received the cheek of the noble;
  And many a martial mere-thane attending
  Sank to his slumber.

Just as the chill of morning invades the hall, Beowulf hears stealthy steps approaching and the great door bursts open, admitting a monster, all enveloped in clammy mist, which—pouncing upon one of the men—crunches his bones and greedily drinks his blood. Beowulf, intently watching the fiend, seeing him stretch out a horny hand for another victim, suddenly grasps it with such force and determination that the monster, notwithstanding frantic efforts, cannot free himself. A terrible struggle now takes place, in the course of which Beowulf and Grendel, wrestling madly, overturn tables and couches, shaking the hall to its very foundations. Nevertheless, Beowulf clings so fast to the hand and arm he had grasped, that the monster, trying to free himself by a mighty jerk, tears his arm out of its socket and disappears, uttering a blood-curdling cry, and leaving this trophy in his foe's grasp. Mortally wounded, Grendel hastens back to his marsh, leaving a trail of blood behind him, while Beowulf, exhausted but triumphant, proudly exhibits the huge hand and limb which he has wrenched from the monster, declaring it will henceforth serve to adorn Heorot.

When Hrothgar beholds it on the morrow and hears an account of the night's adventures, he warmly congratulates Beowulf, upon whom he bestows rich gifts, and in whose honor he decrees a grand feast shall be held in this hall. While they are drinking there and listening to the music of the skalds (who sing of Sigmund the dragon-slayer and of a fight at Finnsburgh), Wealtheow, Queen of Denmark, appears in their midst, and bestows upon Beowulf a wonderful necklace and a ring of the finest gold, bidding him wear them in memory of his triumph.

The feast over, Hrothgar escorts his guest to the palace, where he is to rest that night, leaving his own men to guard Heorot, for all feel confident Grendel has been too sorely wounded ever to appear again. But, while the warriors sleep peacefully, the giant's mother—an equally hideous monster—comes into the hall, secures her son's gory arm which hangs there as a trophy, and bears away Aeschere, one of the king's friends.

On learning of this loss on the morrow, Hrothgar is overcome with grief, and Beowulf, hearing his lamentations, suddenly appears to inquire what has occurred. On learning the ghastly news, he volunteers to complete his work and avenge Aeschere by attacking Grendel's mother in her own retreat. But, knowing the perils he is facing, he makes his arrangements in case he should never return, before following the bloody traces left by the monsters. Then he hastens to the pool, where he finds Aeschere's head set aloft as a trophy! Gazing down into the depths, Beowulf now perceives the waters are darkly tinged with the monster's blood, but nevertheless plunges boldly into their depths, where he swims about a whole day seeking Grendel's retreat. Guided at last by a phosphorescent gleam, our hero finally reaches a cave, after slaying on the way a number of monsters sent to check his advance. On nearing the giants' den, a strong eddy suddenly sweeps him within reach of Grendel's mother, who, clutching him fast, flings him on the floor, and is trying to find a joint in his armor, so as to kill him with her knife, when Beowulf, snatching a sword hanging from a rocky projection, deals her so fierce a blow that he severs her head from its trunk.

  Then he saw amid the war-gems a weapon of victory,
  An ancient giant-sword, of edges a-doughty,
  Glory of warriors: of weapons 'twas choicest,
  Only 'twas larger than any man else was
  Able to bear in the battle-encounter,
  The good and splendid work of the giants.
  He grasped then the sword-hilt, knight of Seyldings,
  Bold and battle-grim, brandished his ring-sword,
  Hopeless of living hotly he smote her,
  That the fiend-woman's neck firmly it grappled,
  Broke through her bone-joints, the bill fully pierced her
  Fate-cursèd body, she fell to the ground then:
  The hand sword was bloody, the hero exulted.
  The brand was brilliant, brightly it glimmered,
  Just as from heaven gem-like shineth
  The torch of the firmament.

The blood from this monster, pouring out of the cave, mingles with the waters without, which begin to seethe and bubble in so ominous a way that Hrothgar and his men, exclaiming Beowulf is dead, sadly depart. The hero's attendants, however, mindful of orders received, linger at the side of the mere, although they cherish small hope of ever beholding their master again.

Having disposed of Grendel's mother, Beowulf rushes to the rear of the cave, where, finding Grendel dead, he cuts off his head, and with this trophy makes his way up through the tainted waters, which melt his sword, so that he has nothing but the hilt left on reaching the shore.

                   The sword-blade began then,
  The blood having touched it, contracting and shrivelling
  With battle-icicles; 'twas a wonderful marvel
  That it melted entirely, likest to ice when
  The Father unbindeth the bond of the frost and
  Unwindeth the wave-bands, He who wieldeth dominion
  Of times and of tides: a truth-firm Creator.

It is just as his followers are about to depart that Beowulf emerges from the waters, and, when they behold his trophy and hear his tale, they escort him back in triumph to Heorot, where the grateful Danes again load him with presents.

His task accomplished, Beowulf returns home, where he bestows the necklace he has won upon the Queen of the Geats, and continues faithfully to serve the royal couple, even placing their infant son upon the throne after their death, and defending his rights as long as he lives. Then the people elect Beowulf king, and during a reign of fifty years he rules them wisely and well. Old age has robbed Beowulf of part of his fabulous strength, when his subjects are suddenly dismayed by the ravages of a fire-breathing dragon, which has taken up its abode in some neighboring mountains, where he gloats over a hoard of glittering gold. A fugitive slave having made his way into the monster's den during one of its absences and abstracted a small portion of its treasure, the incensed firedrake, in revenge, flies all over the land, vomiting fire and smoke in every direction, and filling all hearts with such terror that the people implore Beowulf to deliver them from this monster too.

Although Beowulf realizes he no longer enjoys youthful vigor, he, nevertheless, sets out bravely with eleven men to attack the monster. On reaching the mountain gorge, he bids his small troop stand still, and, advancing alone, challenges the dragon to come forth. A moment later the mountain shakes as a fire-breathing dragon rushes out to attack Beowulf, who feels his fiery breath even through shield and armor. With deadly fury the dragon attacks the warrior, coiling his scaly folds around and around Beowulf, who vainly slashes at him with his sword, for scales made him invulnerable.

Seeing his master about to be crushed to death, Wiglaf—one of Beowulf's followers—now springs forward to aid him, thus causing sufficient diversion to enable Beowulf to creep beneath the dragon, and drive his sword deep into its undefended breast! Although the monster's coils now drop limply away from his body, poor Beowulf has been so sorely burned by its breath that he feels his end is near. Turning to his faithful follower, he thanks, him for his aid, bidding him hasten into the cave and bring forth the treasure he has won for his people, so he can feast his eyes upon it before he dies.

                   "Fare thou with haste now
  To behold the hoard 'neath the hoar-grayish stone,
  Well-lovèd Wiglaf, now the worm is a-lying,
  Sore-wounded sleepeth, disseized of his treasure
  Go thou in haste that treasures of old I
  Gold-wealth may gaze on, together see lying
  The ether-bright jewels, be easier able,
  Having the heap of hoard-gems, to yield my
  Life and the land-folk whom long I have governed."

Sure that the monster can no longer molest them, the rest of the warriors press forward in their turn, and receive the farewells of their dying chief, who, after rehearsing the great deeds he has done, declares he is about to close honorably an eventful career. When he has breathed his last, his followers push the corpse of the dragon off a cliff into the sea, and erect on the headland a funeral barrow for Beowulf's ashes, placing within it part of the treasure he won, and erecting above it a memorial, or bauta stone, on which they carve the name and deeds of the great hero who saved them from Grendel and from the fiery dragon.

  So lamented mourning the men of the Geats,
  Fond-loving vassals the fall of their lord,
  Said he was kindest of kings under heaven,
  Gentlest of men, most winning of manner,
  Friendliest to folk-troops and fondest of honor.


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