National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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The Story of Beowulf

A mighty man was Scyld, ruler of the Gar-Danes. From far across the whale-path men paid him tribute and bore witness to his power. Beowulf was his son, a youth endowed with glory, whose fame spread far and wide through all the Danish land.

When the time came for Scyld to die he ordered his thanes to prepare the ring-stemmed ship, laden with treasures, battle-weed, and swords, and place him in the death-chamber. Laden with his people’s gifts, and sailing under a golden banner, he passed from sight, none knew whither.

After him ruled Beowulf, and after him Healfdene,–brave warriors and kind monarchs. When, after Healfdene’s death, his son Hrothgar succeeded him, his fame in war inclined all his kinsmen towards him, and he, too, became a mighty monarch.

To the mind of Hrothgar it came to build a lordly mead-hall where he and his men could find pleasure in feasting, drinking mead, and hearing the songs of the minstrels. Heorot it was called, and when its high spires rose glistening in the air, all hailed it with delight.

But, alas! The joy in hall, the melody of the harp, and the shouts of the warriors penetrated to the dismal fen where lay concealed the monster Grendel, descendant of sin-cursed Cain. At night came Grendel to the hall, found sleeping the troop of warriors, and bore away in his foul hands thirty of the honored thanes. Great was the sorrow in Heorot when in the morning twilight the deed of Grendel became known.

For twelve long winters did this sorrow continue; for so long a time was Hrothgar plunged in grief; for so many years did this beautiful mead-hall, destined for joyful things, stand idle.

While thus the grief-stricken lord of the Scyldings brooded over his wrongs, and the people besought their idols vainly for aid, the tidings of Grendel’s ravages were conveyed to the court of the Gothic king, Higelac, and thus reached the ears of a highborn thane, Beowulf. A strong man was he, his grasp equal to that of thirty men.

Straightway commanded he a goodly ship to be made ready, chose fifteen of his bravest Goths, and swiftly they sailed over the swan-path to the great headlands and bright sea-cliffs of the Scyldings.

High on the promontory stood the guard of Hrothgar. “What men be ye who hither come?” cried he. “Not foes, surely. Ye know no pass word, yet surely ye come on no evil errand. Ne’er saw I a greater lord than he who leads the band. Who are ye?”

“Higelac’s man am I,” answered the leader. “Ecgtheow, my sire; my name, Beowulf. Lead me, I pray thee, to thy lord, for I have come over seas to free him forever from his secret foe, and to lift the cloud that hangs over the stately mead-hall.”

Over the stone-paved streets the warder led the warriors, their armor clanking, their boar-tipped helmets sparkling, to the goodly hall, Heorot. There were they warmly welcomed, for Hrothgar had known Beowulf’s sire; the fame of the young man’s strength had also reached him, and he trusted that in his strong grasp Grendel should die.

All took their seats on the mead-benches, and a thane passed from warrior to warrior, bearing the chased wine-cup. Sweet was the minstrel’s song, and the warriors were happy in Heorot.

But Hunferd sat at the banquet, and envious of Beowulf’s fame, taunted him with his swimming match with Breca. “Seven days and nights thou didst swim with Breca; but he was stronger, and he won. Worse will befall thee, if thou dar’st this night await Grendel!”

“Easy it is to brag of Breca’s deeds when drunk with beer, friend Hunferd!” replied Beowulf. “Seven days and nights I swam through the sea-water, slaying the monsters of the deep. Rough was the wave, terrible were the water beasts; but I reached the Finnish land. Wert thou as brave as thou claim’st to be, Grendel would ne’er have wrought such havoc in thy monarch’s land.”

Decked with gold, Queen Waltheow passed through the hall, greeted the warriors, and proffered the mead-cup to Beowulf, thanking God that she had found an earl who would deliver them from their enemy.

When dusky night fell over Heorot, the king uprose. “To no other man have I ever entrusted this hall of gold. Have now and keep it! Great reward shall be thine if thou come forth alive!”

The knights left in the lordly hall composed themselves for slumber, all save Beowulf, who, unarmed, awaited the coming of Grendel.

He came, with wrathful step and eyes aflame, bursting open the iron bolts of the great door, and laughing at the goodly array of men sleeping before him. On one he laid hands and drank his blood; then he clutched the watchful Beowulf.

Ne’er had he found a foe like this! Fearful, he turned to flee to his home in the fen, but the grip of Beowulf forbade flight. Strongly was Heorot builded, but many a gilded mead-bench was torn from the walls as the two combated within the hall. The sword blade was of no avail, and him must Beowulf bring to death by the strength of his grip alone. At last, with a scream that struck terror to every Dane’s heart, the monster sprang from Beowulf and fled, leaving in the warrior’s grasp his arm and shoulder. Great was Beowulf’s joy, for he knew that the wound meant death.

When the king and queen came forth in the morning with their nobles and maids, and saw the grisly arm of Grendel fastened upon the roof of Heorot, they gave themselves up to rejoicing. Gifts were heaped upon Beowulf,–a golden crest, a banner bright, a great and goodly sword and helm and corselet, eight steeds with headstalls ornamented with gold plate, and a richly decorated saddle. Nor were his comrades forgotten, but to each were given rich gifts.

When the mead-hall had been cleansed and refitted, they gathered therein and listened to the song of the bard who told how Healfdene’s knight, Hnśf, smote Finn. The song over, the queen, crowned with gold, gave gifts to Beowulf, the liberator from the horrors of Grendel,–two armlets, a necklace, raiment, and rings. When the drinking and feasting were over, the king and Beowulf withdrew, leaving many earls to keep the hall. Little guessed they that one of them was that night doomed to die!

The haunt of Grendel was a mile-wide mere. Around it were wolf-haunted cliffs, windy promontories, mist-covered mountains. Close around the mere hung the woods, shrouding the water, which, horrible sight, was each night covered with fire. It was a place accursed; near it no man might dwell; the deer that plunged therein straightway died.

In a palace under the mere dwelt Grendel and his mother; she, a foul sprite, whom the peasants had sometimes seen walking with her son over the meadows. From her dwelling-place she now came forth to avenge the death of her son, and snatched away from the group of sleeping Ring-Danes the good ∆schere, dearest of all his thanes to Hrothgar.

Loud was Hrothgar’s wailing when at morning Beowulf came forth from his bower.

“Sorrow not, O wise man,” spake Beowulf. “I fear not. I will seek out this monster and destroy her. If I come not back it will at least be better than to have lost my glory. She can never hide from me. I ween that I will this day rid thee of thine enemy.”

Accompanied by Hrothgar, some of the Ring-Danes and his Goths, Beowulf sought the dismal mere, on whose brink they found the head of ∆schere. Among the bloody waves swam horrible shapes, Nicors and sea-drakes, that fled at a blast of the war-horn. Beowulf slew one of the monsters, and while his companions were marvelling at the grisly form, he prepared himself for the combat. His breast was guarded by a coat of mail woven most cunningly; upon his head shone the gold-adorned helmet, and in his hand was Hunferd’s sword, Hrunting, made of iron steeped in twigs of bitter poison, annealed in battle blood, and fearful to every foe.

“Hearken unto me, O Hrothgar,” cried the hero. “If I return not, treat well my comrades and send my gifts to Higelac, that he may see the deed I have accomplished, and the generous ring-lord I have gained among the Scyldings.” And without waiting for a reply, he leaped into the waves and was lost to sight.

There was the monster waiting for him; and catching him in her grip, which bruised him not because of his strong mail-coat, she dragged him to her cave, in whose lighted hall he could see the horrible features of the woman of the mere. Strong was Hrunting, but of no avail was its mighty blade against her. Soon he threw it down, and gripped her, reckless of peril. Once he threw her on the ground, but the second time she threw him, and drew her glaive to pierce his breast. Strong was the linked mail, and Beowulf was safe. Then his quick eye lighted on a sword,–a magic, giant sword; few men could wield it. Quickly he grasped it, and smote the neck of the sea-woman. Broken were the bone-rings, and down she fell dead. Then Ecgtheow’s son looked around the hall and saw the body of the dead Grendel. Thirsting to take his revenge, he smote him with his sword. Off flew the head; but when the red drops of blood touched the magic blade it melted, leaving but the massive golden hilt in the hands of the hero. Beowulf took no treasure from the cave, but rose through the waves, carrying only the head of the monster and the hilt of the sword.

When Hrothgar and his men saw the mere red and boiling with blood they deemed that Beowulf was dead, and departed to their citadel. Sorrowful sat the comrades of Beowulf, waiting and hoping against hope for his reappearance. Up sprang they when they saw him, joyfully greeted him, relieved him of his bloody armor, and conducted him to Hrothgar, bearing–a heavy task–the head of Grendel.

When Hrothgar saw the hideous head and the mighty sword-hilt, whose history he read from its Runic inscriptions, he hailed Beowulf with joy, and proclaimed him the mightiest of men. “But ever temper thy might with wisdom,” advised the king, “that thou suffer not the end of Heremod, or be punished as I have been, in this my spacious mead-hall.”

After a night’s rest, Beowulf prepared to return to his country. Returning Hrunting to Hunferd, he praised the sword, saying nothing of its failure in the fight. Then to Hrothgar: “Farewell. If e’er thou art harried by foes, but let me know,–a thousand fighting men I’ll bring. Higelac, well I know, will urge me on to honor thee. If e’er thy son seeks Gothic halls, I will intercede and win friends for him.”

The old king, weeping, bade Beowulf farewell. “Peace be forever between the Goths and the Gar-Danes; in common their treasures! May gifts be interchanged between them!”

The bark was filled with the gifts heaped upon Beowulf and his men; and the warder, who had hailed them so proudly at their coming, now bade them an affectionate farewell. Over the swan-path sailed they, and soon reached the Gothic coast, and landed their treasures.

Then went Beowulf before Higelac and told him of his adventures. Higelac was a mighty king; lofty his house and hall, and fair and gentle was his wife, Hygd. To him, after he had related his adventures, Beowulf presented the boar-head crest, the battle-mail and sword, four of the steeds, and much treasure, and upon the wise and modest Hygd bestowed he the wondrous necklace given him by Waltheow. So should a good thane ever do!

There had been a time when Beowulf was accounted a sluggish knight, but now the land rang with his glory.

When Higelac died and Hardred was slain, Beowulf succeeded to the throne, and for fifty years ruled the people gloriously.

At this time a great fire-drake cherished a vast hoard in a cave on a high cliff, difficult of access, and known to few men. Thither one day fled a thrall from his master’s wrath, and saw the hoard buried by some weary warrior, and now guarded by the dragon. While the drake slept, the thrall crept in and stole a cup as a peace-offering to his master.

When the drake awoke, he scented the foot-prints of the foe, and discovered his loss. When even was come, he hastened to wreak his revenge on the people, spewing out flames of fire, and laying waste the land.

Far and near were the lands of the Goths devastated, and ere long, tidings were borne to Beowulf that his great hall, his gift seat, was destroyed by fire. Saddened, and fearing that he had in some way angered God, he turned his mind to vengeance, and girded on his armor. A stout shield of iron he took, knowing that the dragon’s fiery breath would melt the wood, and with foreboding of his fate, bade farewell to his hearth-mates. “Many times have I battled, great deeds have I done with sword and with hand-grip; now must I go forth and battle with hand and sword against the hoard-keeper.”

Commanding the men who had accompanied him to remain upon the hillside, leaving him to combat with the dragon alone, Beowulf went proudly forward, shouting his battle-cry. Out rushed the dragon, full of deadly hate. His fiery breath was stronger than the king had deemed it. Stroke upon stroke he gave his enemy, who continued to cast forth his death-fire, so that Beowulf stood girt with flames.

From afar, among the watching thanes, Wiglaf saw his monarch’s peril. “Comrades,” he cried, “do you remember our promises to our king? Was it for this he stirred us up to glorious deeds? Was it for this he heaped gifts upon us? Let us go to his rescue. It is not right that we should see our lord fall, and bear away our shields untouched!”

Rushing forward, he cried, “Beowulf, here am I! Now strike for thy life! Thou hast said that thou never wouldst let thy fame depart from thee!”

Again the dragon came forth; again it enveloped its foeman in flames. The linden shield of Wiglaf burned in his hands, and he sought shelter behind Beowulf’s shield of iron. Again and again Wiglaf smote the monster, and when the flames burnt low, Beowulf seized his dirk and pierced the dragon so that he fell dead.

The dragon lay dead, but Beowulf felt the poison in his wounds and knew that he had not long to live. He commanded Wiglaf to bring forth the treasure that he might gaze upon the hoard,–jewel work and twisted gold,–that he had wrested from the fire-drake.

The den was filled with rings of gold, cups, banners, jewels, dishes, and the arms of the old owner of the treasure. All these did Wiglaf bear forth to his lord, who surveyed them, and uttered thanks to his Maker, that he could win such a treasure. Then, turning to Wiglaf, he said, “Now I die. Build for me upon the lofty shore a bright mound that shall ever remind my people of me. Far in the distance their ships shall descry it, and they shall call it Beowulf’s mound.” Then, giving his arms to Wiglaf, he bade him enjoy them. “Thou art the last of our race. All save us, fate-driven, are gone to doom. Thither go I too.”

Bitterly did Wiglaf denounce his comrades when he saw them steal from their hiding-places. “Well may it be said of you that he who gave you your arms threw them away. No thanks deserve ye for the slaughter of the dragon! I did my little, but it was not in my power to save my kinsman. Too few helpers stood about him! Now shall your kin be wanting in gifts. Void are ye of land-rights! Better is it for an earl to die than to live with a blasted name!”

Sorrowful were the people when they heard of the death of Beowulf. Full well they knew with what joy the tidings would be hailed by their enemies, who would hasten to harry the land, now that their great leader was gone. The Frisians, the Merovingians, the Franks, the Swedes,–all had their grievances, which they would hasten to wreak on the Goths when they learned that the dreaded king was gone. Dreary would be the land of the Goths; on its battle-fields the wolves would batten; the ravens would call to the eagles as they feasted on the slain.

Straight to the Eagle’s Nest went the band, and found their dead monarch; there, too, lay the loathsome fire-drake, full fifty feet long, and between them the great hoard, rust-eaten from long dwelling in the earth. Ever had that hoard brought ill with it.

Down from the cliff they thrust the dragon into the deep, and carried their chief to Hronesness. There they built a lofty pile, decked it with his armor, and burned thereon the body of their glorious ruler. According to his wish, they reared on the cliff a broad, high barrow, surrounded it with a wall, and laid within it the treasure. There yet it lies, of little worth to men!

Then around the barrow rode twelve of the bravest, boldest nobles, mourning their king, singing his praises, chanting a dirge, telling of his glorious deeds, while over the broad land the Gothic folk lamented the death of their tender prince, their noble king, Beowulf.

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Preface  •  The R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the R‚m‚yana  •  Selections From the R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  Selections From the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained