Beowulf: Part II Unferth’s Taunt
Unferth spoke, Ecglaf’s son, 220 Who sat at Hrothgar’s feet, spoke harshly And sharp (vexed by Beowulf’s adventure, By their visitor’s courage, and angry that anyone In Denmark or anywhere on earth had ever Acquired glory and fame greater 225 Than his own):
Jealous Unferth tells of a youthful swimming match.
“You’re Beowulf, are you—the same Boastful fool who fought a swimming Match with Brecca, both of you daring And young and proud, exploring the deepest Seas, risking your lives for no reason 230 But the danger? All older and wiser heads warned you Not to, but no one could check such pride. With Brecca at your side you swam along The sea-paths, your swift-moving hands pulling you Over the ocean’s face. Then winter 235 Churned through the water, the waves ran you As they willed, and you struggled seven long nights To survive. And at the end victory was his, Not yours. The sea carried him close To his home, to southern Norway, near 240 The land of the Brondings, where he ruled and was loved, Where his treasure was piled and his strength protected His towns and his people. He’d promised to outswim you: Bonstan’s son made that boast ring true. You’ve been lucky in your battles, Beowulf, but I think 245 Your luck may change if you challenge Grendel, Staying a whole night through in this hall, Waiting where that fiercest of demons can find you.” Beowulf recounts his version of the adventure and his fight against bloodthirsty sea monsters. Beowulf answered, Edgetho’s great son: “Ah! Unferth, my friend, your face 250 Is hot with ale, and your tongue has tried To tell us about Brecca’s doings. But the truth
Is simple: no man swims in the sea As I can, no strength is a match for mine. As boys, Brecca and I had boasted— 255 We were both too young to know better—that we’d risk Our lives far out at sea, and so We did. Each of us carried a naked Sword, prepared for whales or the swift Sharp teeth and beaks of needlefish.° 260
260. needlefish: flesh-eating fish.
He could never leave me behind, swim faster Across the waves than I could, and I Had chosen to remain close to his side. I remained near him for five long nights, Until a flood swept us apart; 265 The frozen sea surged around me, It grew dark, the wind turned bitter, blowing From the north, and the waves were savage. Creatures Who sleep deep in the sea were stirred Into life—and the iron hammered links 270 Of my mail shirt, these shining bits of metal Woven across my breast, saved me From death. A monster seized me, drew me Swiftly toward the bottom, swimming with its claws Tight in my flesh. But fate let me 275 Find its heart with my sword, hack myself Free; I fought that beast’s last battle, Left it floating lifeless in the sea.
Beowulf chides Unferth for murdering his brothers.
“Other monsters crowded around me, Continually attacking. I treated them politely, 280 Offering the edge of my razor-sharp sword. But the feast, I think, did not please them, filled Their evil bellies with no banquet-rich food, Thrashing there at the bottom of the sea; By morning they’d decided to sleep on the shore, 285 Lying on their backs, their blood spilled out On the sand. Afterwards, sailors could cross That sea-road and feel no fear; nothing. Would stop their passing. Then God’s bright beacon Appeared in the east, the water lay still, 290 And at last I could see the land, wind-swept
Cliff-walls at the edge of the coast. Fate saves The living when they drive away death by themselves! Lucky or not, nine was the number Of sea-huge monsters I killed. What man, 295 Anywhere under Heaven’s high arch, has fought In such darkness, endured more misery or been harder Pressed? Yet I survived the sea, smashed The monsters’ hot jaws, swam home from my journey. The swift-flowing waters swept me along 300 And I landed on Finnish soil. I’ve heard No tales of you, Unferth, telling Of such clashing terror, such contests in the night! Brecca’s battles were never so bold; Neither he nor you can match me—and I mean 305 No boast, have announced no more than I know To be true. And there’s more: you murdered your brothers, Your own close kin. Words and bright wit Won’t help your soul; you’ll suffer hell’s fires, Unferth, forever tormented. Ecglaf’s 310 Proud son, if your hands were as hard, your heart As fierce as you think it, no fool would dare To raid your hall, ruin Herot And oppress its prince, as Grendel has done. But he’s learned that terror is his alone, 315 Discovered he can come for your people with no fear Of reprisal; he’s found no fighting, here, But only food, only delight. He murders as he likes, with no mercy, gorges And feasts on your flesh, and expects no trouble, 320 No quarrel from the quiet Danes. Now The Geats will show him courage, soon He can test his strength in battle. And when the sun Comes up again, opening another Bright day from the south, anyone in Denmark 325 May enter this hall: that evil will be gone!” Hrothgar, gray-haired and brave, sat happily Listening, the famous ring-giver sure, At last, that Grendel could be killed; he believed In Beowulf’s bold strength and the firmness of his spirit. 330 There was the sound of laughter, and the cheerful clanking Of cups, and pleasant words. Then Welthow, Hrothgar’s gold-ringed° queen, greeted
333. gold-ringed: wearing gold bracelets.
The warriors; a noble woman who knew What was right, she raised a flowing cup 335 To Hrothgar first, holding it high For the lord of the Danes to drink, wishing him Joy in that feast. The famous king Drank with pleasure and blessed their banquet. Then Welthow went from warrior to warrior, 340 Pouring a portion from the jeweled cup For each, till the bracelet-wearing queen Had carried the mead-cup among them and it was Beowulf’s Turn to be served. She saluted the Geats’ Great prince, thanked God for answering her prayers, 345 For allowing her hands the happy duty Of offering mead to a hero who would help Her afflicted people. He drank what she poured, Edgetho’s brave son, then assured the Danish Queen that his heart was firm and his hands 350 Ready: “When we crossed the sea, my comrades And I, I already knew that all My purpose was this: to win the good will Of your people or die in battle, pressed In Grendel’s fierce grip. Let me live in greatness 355 And courage, or here in this hall welcome My death!” Welthow was pleased with his words, His bright-tongued boasts; she carried them back To her lord, walked nobly across to his side. The feast went on, laughter and music 360 And the brave words of warriors celebrating Their delight. . . .
The Battle with Grendel
After the banquet the Danes retire for the night, but Beowulf and his followers stay on in Herot as they have requested. Beowulf renews his promise to fight without a weapon and pretends to sleep. His followers take the places of Hrothgar’s men and settle down for the night.
Grendel devours a sleeping man, then attacks Beowulf.
Out from the marsh, from the foot of misty Hills and bogs, bearing God’s hatred, Grendel came, hoping to kill 365 Anyone he could trap on this trip to high Herot. He moved quickly through the cloudy night, Up from his swampland, sliding silently Toward that gold-shining hall. He had visited Hrothgar’s Home before, knew the way— 370 But never, before nor after that night, Found Herot defended so firmly, his reception So harsh. He journeyed, forever joyless, Straight to the door, then snapped it open, Tore its iron fasteners with a touch 375 And rushed angrily over the threshold. He strode quickly across the inlaid Floor, snarling and fierce: his eyes Gleamed in the darkness, burned with a gruesome Light. Then he stopped, seeing the hall 380 Crowded with sleeping warriors, stuffed With rows of young soldiers resting together. And his heart laughed, he relished the sight, Intended to tear the life from those bodies By morning; the monster’s mind was hot 385 With the thought of food and the feasting his belly Would soon know. But fate, that night, intended Grendel to gnaw the broken bones Of his last human supper. Human Eyes were watching his evil steps, 390 Waiting to see his swift hard claws. Grendel snatched at the first Geat He came to, ripped him apart, cut His body to bits with powerful jaws, Drank the blood from his veins and bolted 395 Him down, hands and feet; death And Grendel’s great teeth came together, Snapping life shut. Then he stepped to another Still body, clutched at Beowulf with his claws, Grasped at a strong-hearted wakeful sleeper 400 —And was instantly seized himself, claws Bent back as Beowuif leaned up on one arm. That shepherd of evil, guardian of crime, Knew at once that nowhere on earth Had he met a man whose hands were harder; 405
His mind was flooded with fear—but nothing Could take his talons and himself from that tight Hard grip. Grendel’s one thought was to run From Beowulf, flee back to his marsh and hide there: This was a different Herot than the hall he had emptied. 410 But Higlac’s follower remembered his final Boast and, standing erect, stopped The monster’s flight, fastened those claws In his fists till they cracked, clutched Grendel Closer. The infamous killer fought 415 For his freedom, wanting no flesh but retreat, Desiring nothing but escape; his claws Had been caught, he was trapped. That trip to Herot Was a miserable journey for the writhing monster!
The mead-hall is almost wrecked in the fury of the battle.
The high hall rang, its roof boards swayed, 420 And Danes shook with terror. Down The aisles the battle swept, angry And wild. Herot trembled, wonderfully Built to withstand the blows, the struggling Great bodies beating at its beautiful walls; 425 Shaped and fastened with iron, inside And out, artfully worked, the building Stood firm. Its benches rattled, fell To the floor, gold-covered boards grating As Grendel and Beowulf battled across them. 430 Hrothgar’s wise men had fashioned Herot. To stand forever; only fire, They had planned, could shatter what such skill had put Together, swallow in hot flames such splendor Of ivory and iron and wood. Suddenly 435 The sounds changed, the Danes started In new terror, cowering in their beds as the terrible Screams of the Almighty’s enemy sang In the darkness, the horrible shrieks of pain And defeat, the tears torn out of Grendel’s 440 Taut throat, hell’s captive caught in the arms Of him who of all the men on earth Was the strongest.
Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from its socket, and the mortally wounded monster crawls to his lair.
That mighty protector of men Meant to hold the monster till its life Leaped out, knowing the fiend was no use 445 To anyone in Denmark. All of Beowulf’s Band had jumped from their beds, ancestral Swords raised and ready, determined To protect their prince if they could. Their courage Was great but all wasted: they could hack at Grendel 450 From every side, trying to open A path for his evil soul, but their points Could not hurt him, the sharpest and hardest iron Could not scratch at his skin, for that sin-stained demon Had bewitched all men’s weapons, laid spells 455 That blunted every mortal man’s blade. And yet his time had come, his days Were over, his death near; down To hell he would go, swept groaning and helpless To the waiting hands of still worse fiends. 460 Now he discovered—once the afflictor Of men, tormentor of their days—what it meant To feud with Almighty God: Grendel Saw that his strength was deserting him, his claws Bound fast, Higlac’s brave follower tearing at 465 His hands. The monster’s hatred rose higher, But his power had gone. He twisted in pain, And the bleeding sinews deep in his shoulder Snapped, muscle and bone split And broke. The battle was over, Beowulf 470 Had been granted new glory: Grendel escaped, But wounded as he was could flee to his den, His miserable hole at the bottom of the marsh, Only to die, to wait for the end Of all his days. And after that bloody 475 Combat the Danes laughed with delight. He who had come to them from across the sea, Bold and strong-minded, had driven affliction Off, purged Herot clean. He was happy, Now, with that night’s fierce work; the Danes 480 Had been served as he’d boasted he’d serve them; Beowulf, A prince of the Geats, had killed Grendel, Ended the grief, the sorrow, the suffering Forced on Hrothgar’s helpless people
By a bloodthirsty fiend. No Dane doubted 485 The victory, for the proof, hanging high From the rafters where Beowulf had hung it, was the monster’s Arm, claw and shoulder and all. And then, in the morning, crowds surrounded Herot, warriors coming to that hall 490 From faraway lands, princes and leaders Of men hurrying to behold the monster’s Great staggering tracks. They gaped with no sense Of sorrow, felt no regret for his suffering, Went tracing his bloody footprints, his beaten 495 And lonely flight, to the edge of the lake Where he’d dragged his corpselike way, doomed And already weary of his vanishing life. The water was bloody, steaming and boiling In horrible pounding waves, heat 500 Sucked from his magic veins; but the swirling Surf had covered his death, hidden Deep in murky darkness his miserable End, as hell opened to receive him. Then old and young rejoiced, turned back 505 From that happy pilgrimage, mounted their hardhooved Horses, high-spirited stallions, and rode them Slowly toward Herot again, retelling Beowulf’s bravery as they jogged along. And over and over they swore that nowhere 510 On earth or under the spreading sky Or between the seas, neither south nor north, Was there a warrior worthier to rule over men. (But no one meant Beowulf’s praise to belittle Hrothgar, their kind and gracious king!) 515 And sometimes, when the path ran straight and clear, They would let their horses race, red And brown and pale yellow backs streaming Down the road. And sometimes a proud old soldier Who had heard songs of the ancient heroes 520 And could sing them all through, story after story, Would weave a net of words for Beowulf’s Victory, tying the knot of his verses° Smoothly, swiftly, into place with a poet’s Quick skill, singing his new song aloud 525 While he shaped it . . .
522-523. Would weave . . verses: The poet compares the composing of a song to the weaving of a tapestry.
Summary of Beowulf’s Last Two Adventures
The Battle with Grendel’s Mother
The victory over Grendel is celebrated with feasting, drinking, and the giving of gifts to Beowulf and his followers. That night Herot is once more occupied by Hrothgar’s followers. But peace is short-lived. While the thanes (noblemen) are sleeping, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son. She seizes and drags away Hrothgar’s dearest friend. She also recovers her son’s bloody arm and claw. In despair, Hrothgar appeals to Beowulf, who prepares to pursue the female monster to her underwater lair. When Beowulf and his followers arrive at the dreadful wilderness where the monster lives, they see the head of Hrothgar’s thane at the foot of the cliff. Bloody foam on the water of a pool reveals that the thane’s body has been carried below to the monster’s den. Hideous sea serpents play about the surface of the water. Beowulf scatters them with a blast of his horn and kills one of them with a shot from his bow. He then plunges into the whirlpool. He is in full armor and carries Hrunting, a famous sword lent him by Unferth. It takes him hours to touch bottom, but finally he encounters the sea hag. She attacks him with her claws, but he is protected by his chain mail. He swings his sword at her head, but Hrunting has no power against her. At last he overcomes her, and, spying a magic sword, he clutches it and with one violent stroke cuts off her head.
The Fight with the Fire Dragon
Beowulf becomes king of Geatland and rules his country for many years. When he is an old man, his land is ravaged by a fire dragon who has been guarding a huge treasure. Although Beowulf foresees his death, he goes out to do battle with the monster. Beowulf approaches the creature’s cave and challenges it to combat. The dragon appears at the entrance coiled and ready to spring. Beowulf raises his sword and strikes at the dragon’s scaly hide, but his sword fails him and the blow serves only to enrage the creature. They struggle violently. Beowulf’s comrades, witnessing the combat from a distance, retreat in terror. Only Wiglaf, Beowulf’s beloved kinsman and attendant, hurries to help his lord.
Armor and weapons are of little use. For the third time the dragon charges and fixes its tusks in Beowulf’s throat. Then Wiglaf thrusts at the dragon from below. Beowulf plunges his dagger into the creature’s coils, cutting it in two. Together, the warriors put an end to the monster. The wound in Beowulf’s neck begins to throb and swell. Wiglaf unfastens the king’s helmet and bathes the wound, but Beowulf realizes that he is dying. He regrets that he has no heir to inherit his weapons. He tells Wiglaf to give the dragon’s treasure to the Geats. He asks that his funeral pyre be built near the sea and that a great tower be erected on the spot to serve as a guide to sailors in future years. Then Beowulf’s spirit departs. The conclusion of the poem follows.
The Burning of Beowulf’s Body
A huge heap of wood was ready,
Hung around with helmets, and battle Shields, and shining mail shirts, all As Beowulf had asked. The bearers brought 530 Their beloved lord, their glorious king, And weeping laid him high on the wood. Then the warriors began to kindle that greatest Of funeral fires; smoke rose Above the flames, black and thick, 535 And while the wind blew and the fire Roared they wept, and Beowulf’s body Crumbled and was gone. The Geats stayed, Moaning their sorrow, lamenting their lord: A gnarled old woman, hair wound 540 Tight and gray on her head, groaned A song of misery, of infinite sadness And days of mourning, of fear and sorrow To come, slaughter and terror and captivity. And Heaven swallowed the billowing smoke. 545 Then the Geats built the tower, as Beowulf Had asked, strong and tall, so sailors Could find it from far and wide; working For ten long days they made his monument, Sealed his ashes in walls as straight 550 And high as wise and willing hands Could raise them. And the riches he and Wiglaf Had won from the dragon, rings, necklaces,
Ancient, hammered armor—all The treasures they’d taken were left there, too, 555 Silver and jewels buried in the sandy Ground, back in the earth, again And forever hidden and useless to men. And then twelve of the bravest Geats Rode their horses around the tower, 560 Telling their sorrow, telling stories Of their dead king and his greatness, his glory, Praising him for heroic deeds, for a life As noble as his name. So should all men Raise up words for their lords, warm 565 With love, when their shield and protector leaves His body behind, sends his soul On high. And so Beowulf’s followers Rode, mourning their beloved leader, Crying that no better king had ever 570 Lived, no prince so mild, no man So open to his people, so deserving of praise.