FROM Beowulf: Part I Translated by BURTON RAFFEL
The Coming of Grendel
Hrothgar builds a great mead-hall for his warriors.
Then Hrothgar, taking the throne, led The Danes to such glory that comrades and kinsmen Swore by his sword, and young men swelled His armies, and he thought of greatness and resolved To build a hall that would hold his mighty 5 Band and reach higher toward Heaven than anything That had ever been known to the sons of men. And in that hall he’d divide the spoils Of their victories, to old and young what they’d earned In battle, but leaving the common pastures 10
Untouched, and taking no lives. The work Was ordered, the timbers tied and shaped By the hosts that Hrothgar ruled. It was quickly Ready, that most beautiful of dwellings, built As he’d wanted, and then he whose word was obeyed 15 All over the earth named it Herot. His boast come true he commanded a banquet, Opened out his treasure-full hands. That towering place, gabled and huge, Stood waiting for time to pass, for war 20 To begin, for flames to leap as high As the feud that would light them, and for Herot to burn.
A demon called Grendel comes out of his lair.
A powerful monster, living down In the darkness, growled in pain, impatient As day after day the music rang 25 Loud in that hall, the harp’s rejoicing Call and the poet’s clear songs, sung Of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling The Almighty making the earth, shaping These beautiful plains marked off by oceans, 30 Then proudly setting the sun and moon To glow across the land and light it; The corners of the earth were made lovely with trees And leaves, made quick with life, with each Of the nations, who now move on its face. And then 35 As now warriors sang of their pleasure: So Hrothgar’s men lived happy in his hall Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild Marshes, and made his home in a hell 40 Not hell but earth. He was spawned in that slime, Conceived by a pair of those monsters born Of Cain,° murderous creatures banished By God, punished forever for the crime Of Abel’s death. The Almighty drove 45 Those demons out, and their exile was bitter, Shut away from men; they split Into a thousand forms of evil—spirits And fiends, goblins, monsters, giants, A brood forever opposing the Lord’s 50 Will, and again and again defeated.
43. Cain: Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, was cursed by God for slaying his brother Abel. There was a tradition that Cain sired a family of monsters. See the Biblical story in Genesis 4.
Grendel enters the main hall at night and carries off thirty warriors.
Then, when darkness had dropped, Grendel Went up to Herot, wondering what the warriors Would do in that hall when their drinking was done. He found them sprawled in sleep, suspecting 55 Nothing, their dreams undisturbed. The monster’s Thoughts were as quick as his greed or his claws: He slipped through the door and there in the silence Snatched up thirty men, smashed them Unknowing in their beds and ran out with their bodies, 60 The blood dripping behind him, back To his lair, delighted with his night’s slaughter. At daybreak, with the sun’s first light, they saw How well he had worked, and in that gray morning Broke their long feast with tears and laments 65 For the dead. Hrothgar, their lord, sat joyless In Herot, a mighty prince mourning The fate of his lost friends and companions, Knowing by its tracks that some demon had torn His followers apart. He wept, fearing 70 The beginning might not be the end. And that night Grendel came again, so set On murder that no crime could ever be enough, No savage assault quench his lust For evil. Then each warrior tried 75 To escape him, searched for rest in different Beds, as far from Herot as they could find, Seeing how Grendel hunted when they slept. Distance was safety; the only survivors Were those who fled him. Hate had triumphed. 80
The murders continue for twelve years, and the news is spread abroad.
So Grendel ruled, fought with the righteous, One against many, and won; so Herot Stood empty, and stayed deserted for years, Twelve winters of grief for Hrothgar, king Of the Danes, sorrow heaped at his door 85
By hell-forged hands. His misery leaped The seas, was told and sung in all Men’s ears: how Grendel’s hatred began, How the monster relished his savage war On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud 90 Alive, seeking no peace, offering No truce, accepting no settlement, no price In gold or land, and paying the living For one crime only with another. No one Waited for reparation from his plundering claws: 95 That shadow of death hunted in the darkness, Stalked Hrothgar’s warriors, old And young, lying in waiting, hidden In mist, invisibly following them from the edge Of the marsh, always there, unseen. 100 So mankind’s enemy continued his crimes, Killing as often as he could, coming Alone, bloodthirsty and horrible. Though he lived In Herot, when the night hid him, he never Dared to touch king Hrothgar’s glorious 105 Throne, protected by God—God, Whose love Grendel could not know. But Hrothgar’s Heart was bent. The best and most noble Of his council debated remedies, sat In secret sessions, talking of terror 110 And wondering what the bravest of warriors could do. And sometimes they sacrificed to the old stone gods. Made heathen vows, hoping for Hell’s Support, the Devil’s guidance in driving Their affliction off. That was their way, 115 And the heathen’s only hope, Hell Always in their hearts, knowing neither God Nor His passing as He walks through our world, the Lord Of Heaven and earth; their ears could not hear His praise nor know His glory. Let them 120 Beware, those who are thrust into danger, Clutched at by trouble, yet can carry no solace In their hearts, cannot hope to be better! Hail To those who will rise to God, drop off Their dead bodies and seek our Father’s peace! 125
So the living sorrow of Healfdane’s son° Simmered, bitter and fresh, and no wisdom Or strength could break it: that agony hung
On king and people alike, harsh And unending, violent and cruel, and evil. 130
126. Healfdane’s son: Hrothgar. The word means “half-dane.” Healfdane’s mother was a foreigner.
Beowulf makes plans to go to the aid of the Danes.
In his far-off home Beowulf, Higlac’s° Follower and the strongest of the Geats—greater And stronger than anyone anywhere in this world— Heard how Grendel filled nights with horror And quickly commanded a boat fitted out, 135 Proclaiming that he’d go to that famous king, Would sail across the sea to Hrothgar, Now when help was needed. None Of the wise ones regretted his going, much As he was loved by the Geats: the omens were good, 140 And they urged the adventure on. So Beowulf Chose the mightiest men he could find, The bravest and best of the Geats, fourteen In all, and led them down to their boat; He knew the sea, would point the prow 145 Straight to that distant Danish shore.
134. Higlac: king of the Geats. He is Beowulf’s feudal lord and his uncle.
The Coming of Beowulf
When he reaches the Danish shore, Beowulf explains his mission to the alert watchman, who receives him courteously, posts a guard to protect his ship, and leads him and his men to Herot. There he is welcomed by the noble Wulfgar and presented to King Hrothgar.
Then Wulfgar went to the door and addressed The waiting seafarers with soldier’s words: “My lord, the great king of the Danes, commands me To tell you that he knows of your noble birth 150 And that having come to him from over the open Sea you have come bravely and are welcome. Now go to him as you are, in your armor and helmets, But leave your battle-shields here, and your spears,
Let them lie waiting for the promises your words 155 May make.”
Beowulf tells why he is a fit opponent for Grendel.
Beowulf arose, with his men Around him, ordering a few to remain With their weapons, leading the others quickly Along under Herot’s steep roof into Hrothgar’s Presence. Standing on that prince’s own hearth, 160 Helmeted, the silvery metal on his mail shirt Gleaming with a smith’s high art, he greeted The Danes’ great lord: “Hail, Hrothgar! Higlac is my cousin° and my king; the days
164. cousin: a general term for a relative.
Of my youth have been filled with glory. Now Grendel’s 165 Name has echoed in our land: sailors Have brought us stories of Herot, the best Of all mead-halls, deserted and useless when the moon Hangs in skies the sun had lit, Light and life fleeing together. 170 My people have said, the wisest, most knowing And best of them, that my duty was to go to the Danes’ Great king. They have seen my strength for themselves, Have watched me rise from the darkness of war, Dripping with my enemies’ blood. I drove 175 Five great giants into chains, chased All of that race from the earth. I swam In the blackness of night, hunting monsters Out of the ocean, and killing them one By one; death was my errand and the fate 180 They had earned. Now Grendel and I are called Together, and I’ve come. Grant me, then, Lord and protector of this noble place, A single request! I have come so far, Oh shelterer of warriors and your people’s loved friend, 185 That this one favor you should not refuse me— That I, alone and with the help of my men, May purge all evil from this hall. I have heard, Too, that the monster’s scorn of men Is so great that he needs no weapons and fears none. 190
Nor will I. My lord Higlac Might think less of me if I let my sword Go where my feet were afraid to, if I hid Behind some broad linden° shield: my hands Alone shall fight for me, struggle for life Against the monster.
194. linden: Beowuif’s shield is made of linden wood, a very sturdy wood similar to North American basswood.
Beowulf foresees the possibility of his own death and expresses his last wish.
God must decide Who will be given to death’s cold grip. Grendel’s plan, I think, will be What it has been before, to invade this hall And gorge his belly with our bodies. If he can, 200 If he can. And I think, if my time will have come, There’ll be nothing to mourn over, no corpse to prepare For its grave: Grendel will carry our bloody Flesh to the moors, crunch on our bones And smear torn scraps of our skin on the walls 205 Of his den. No, I expect no Danes Will fret about sewing our shrouds, if he wins. And if death does take me, send the hammered Mail of my armor to Higlac, return The inheritance I had from Hrethel, and he 210 From Wayland.° Fate will unwind as it must!”
211. Wayland: a blacksmith celebrated in many surviving Germanic poems. His workmanship was of the finest, and only aristocrats could afford it. Then Hrothgar’s men gave places to the Geats, Yielded benches to the brave visitors And led them to the feast. The keeper of the mead Came carrying out the carved flasks, 215 And poured that bright sweetness. A poet Sang, from time to time, in a clear Pure voice. Danes and visiting Geats Celebrated as one, drank and rejoiced.