The red book of animal stories/The Story of Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel's Mother
THE STORY OF BEOWULF, GRENDEL,
AND GRENDEL'S MOTHER
Long, long ago, perhaps nearly a thousand years before the adventures of the Knight of Rhodes of whom you have just heard, there lived a King of Denmark called Hrothgar. That is a curious name, you may think; but you can recognise it in our own word 'Roger,' which, of course, is common enough. This King lived in a palace, called Heorot, a princely abode, beyond what the sons of men had ever heard of; he had a beautiful wife called Waltheow, and gold, silver, and riches in abundance were his; moreover as his knights, earls, and retainers were all devotedly fond of him, he seemed to have everything in the world which could make him happy. In those days, when feasts were being held in the great halls, it was customary for one who was called a 'skald'—that is, a poet or minstrel—to sing or recite poems before the assembled company. On one of these occasions the 'skald' made poems about all sorts of evil things, wicked spirits, demons who abode in darkness, giants, ghosts, and sin and wickedness generally. It was, perhaps, not quite the sort of song to make merry the hearts of the feasters, and, in fact, it had the opposite effect, for they broke up ill at ease, as if some deadly peril were in store; nor were their presentiments without reason. That night there came to the Palace a monstrous and superhuman being named Grendel, who was the very incarnation of all cruelty and malice. He was a creature of enormous strength and size; for we read later in the story that it required four men to carry his head when he was dead. He lived an evil life, and wandered about, a lone dweller in moors, marshes, and in the wilderness. Savage and fierce as he was, nothing exasperated him more than that the King and his people should be so happy; the sound of joy and revelry within the Palace was to him as gall and wormwood. That very night, therefore, when the skald recited his ominous poem, Grendel loft his fens and marshes, and came silently to the Palace, where he found the Danes all asleep. Thirty of them he killed, devouring fifteen in the hall itself, and carrying off the rest to the marshes. Despair there was and lamentation in the morning when the other Danes arose from sleep; but none knew, or could even suggest, what was best to be done. For twelve years were the people grievously afflicted by the cruel Grendel, 'the grim stranger, the mighty haunter of the marshes, the dwelling of this monster race.' He persecuted them right sorely, nor would he have peace with any man of the Danish power. A dark, deadly shadow, he attacked alike tried warriors and youths, he ambushed and plotted, roaming the night long over the misty moors, contriving evil in his heart continually.
Matters, then, were at this pass, when a neighbouring King called Hygelac heard of the Danes' misfortunes. Hygelac reigned over the Jutes in Gotland, and he had a nephew called Beowulf, who, in common with the King and the rest of the people, was distressed to think of Hrothgar's troubles. So Beowulf made him ready a good sea-boat, took fourteen of the bravest men-at-arms as his comrades, and set sail to help Hrothgar and the Danes. When the Danish King was told of Beowulf's arrival, he was, as you may well suppose, only too delighted, and hailed him as a heaven-sent champion, for he already knew all about him, how valiant he was, and how strong; 'for,' said Hrothgar to his people, 'it used to
be said by seafaring men that this fearless warrior had in his grip the strength of thirty men.' When Beowulf came before Hrothgar, he told him, what the King already knew, that often before he had encountered sea-monsters, destroyed the Jotun tribe and slain night Nixes; and that hitherto all his deeds of prowess had been successful. 'I hear,' he said, 'that Grendel, from the thickness of his hide, cares not for weapons; I therefore disdain to carry sword or shield into the combat, but with hand-grips will I lay hold on the foe, and fight for life, man to man.' Beowulf ended by asking that his 'garments of battle' might be sent back to his lord and kinsman Hygelac, if Grendel proved victorious in the fight. The King relied with steadfast faith upon his guest; there was now joy in the Palace of Heorot, and Queen Waltheow herself, golden-wreathed, came forth to greet the men in the hall; to each she gave a costly cup—to each his several share—'until it befell that she, the neck-laced Queen, gentle in manners and mind, bare the mead-cup to Beowulf,' and thanked God that she might find any to trust to for relief in her troubles. They all retired to rest; but not one of Beowulf's comrades thought that they would escape alive, or get them thence in safety to their well-loved homes.
That night from the moor, under the misty slopes, came Grendel prowling; in the gloom he came to the Palace, where the men-at-arms slept, whose duty it was to guard the battlemented hall; they slept, all save one. With his vast strength the monster burst open the door, and strode forward, his eyes blazing like fire. With a grim smile of delight he saw the sleepers, seized one of them and devoured him all but the feet and hands. Then he reached out at Beowulf, but the warrior clasped the extended hand and firmly grappled with the enemy. A battle royal ensued; the hall resounded with cries and shrieks, for the Danes were roused from their slumbers. They tried to help Beowulf with swords and other weapons, not knowing that they were of no avail against the monster. But the Jute yielded never a whit, he pressed Grendel harder and harder with that mighty hand-grip of his, and by sheer strength tore off the monster's hand, arm, and shoulder. Grendel fled; back to the lake he went, to the Nixes' mere, where the water for days afterwards was troubled and discoloured with blood.
As for Beowulf, the grateful King could hardly thank him enough. A feast was prepared, the walls of the great hall were covered with cloth of gold, and the hero received a war-banner, helmet, and breastplate, besides golden cups, a superb golden collar, and many other precious things. When the banquet was over they all retired to rest, as they supposed, in safety. But an avenger was at hand, Grendel's mother, a monstrous witch, ravenous, wrathful, and cruel as her son. She burst into Heorot, seized the man who was the King's favourite amongst all his nobles, and carried him off to the lake. She also took with her Grendel's blood-stained hand, which had been put up as a trophy. Beowulf was not in the Palace at the time, for another lodging had been given to him; but he was quickly summoned after this new disaster. 'Never fear,' said he, 'I promise thee she shall not escape, neither by water, nor into the earth, nor into the mountain forest, nor into the bottom of the sea, let her go where she will.' So they made ready at once to go to the lake, which was about a mile from the Palace; a gloomy water it was, overhung with trees, and how deep none had ever found out; every night, men said, a strange fire was to be seen on its surface, so none cared about going there. However, the King's horse was now saddled, and his men-at-arms were ready; Beowulf put on armour to protect his body from the enemy's grip, and a white helmet guarded his head. One of Hrothgar"s men lent him a short sword that had never
yet failed anyone who had used it in battle. Then the expedition started: over a steep and stony rise through narrow roads, past precipitous headlands they went, till they came to a bare rock and a cheerless wood, below which lay the water, dreary and troubled. They were maddened with rage when they saw the head of Æschere lying on the ground; he was the noble taken by Grendel's mother.
The water of the lake was bubbling with blood; many strange creatures of the serpent kind glided over the surface, and the men could also see Nixes lying on the headland slopes. Beowulf shot at one of the horrid water creatures with an arrow, wounding it only; but the King's men pursued it with poles and battle-axes, and killed it. Then Beowulf asked Hrothgar to send back all his presents to Hygelac, if it should happen that he, Beowulf, perished in the water. Hastening away, he plunged into the lake, and it was not very long before Grendel's mother found out that some man from above had invaded her dwelling. She grappled with him in her dreadful grasp, endeavouring to crush him to death, but his chain-mail protected him. Then she dragged him down to her den at the bottom; but meanwhile many strange beasts with terrible tusks pressed him hard in those depths, one of them even rent his war-shirt with its talons. Beowulf found himself in some kind of dreadful hall, where no water seemed to touch him; the light of a fire, a glittering ray, lit up the cavern. He could now clearly distinguish the mighty lake-witch, and thrust strongly at her with his war sword, which rang out shrilly on her head. But, alas! its edge would not bite; she had probably bewitched it with spells, as often happened in old days. So Beowulf threw away his sword, and came to close grips with her, trusting in his mighty strength. He seized her by the shoulder, but unluckily tripped and fell. In a moment she was upon him, and seized her broad dagger with deadly intent. Then, indeed, had it gone hard with Beowulf but for his coat of chain-mail, which protected his shoulder from the furious blow she gave. Suddenly he saw lying on the floor a magic sword; a huge weapon with finest edge, forged of old in the time of the Jotuns, or giants, whose work it was. No ordinary man could have wielded that blade, but Beowulf seized it, and smote the witch a fearful blow, almost cleaving her body in twain. A bright light shone up at once in the cavern, which the warrior now began to explore; nor had he gone far before he found Grendel lying on a couch, dead, so Beowulf cut off his head. Meanwhile Hrothgar and the rest of the Danes had been sitting watching the water, which suddenly became thick and stained with blood; they had no hope that Beowulf survived. What, then, was their astonishment and delight to see him swimming towards them, breasting the waves with mighty strokes, and bearing the head of Grendel with him. And now a marvel befell; the sword with which Grendel's mother had been slain began slowly to melt away, just like ice; for the hag's blood was of such power that it consumed the blade, until nothing was left but the hilt, which was of gold, richly chased, and carved with strange characters called 'runes.' Beowulf swam ashore, and gave an account of his adventures; four men, as we have already said, bore Grendel's head to the Palace, where the hilt of the magic sword was closely examined. The characters graven upon it were found to be a description of the battle between the Gods and the Frost-Giants, in which the Giants were defeated and overwhelmed in a flood. There is an account of it in an Icelandic poem, called the 'Voluspa,' or the 'Song of the Prophetess,' which describes the Northern ideas of the creation of the world; and tells how evil and death came upon man, predicts the destruction of the universe, and gives an account of the future abodes of bliss and misery. Thus did Beowulf deliver the Danes from their misfortunes, after which he returned home, and on the death of his uncle, Hygelac, became King of Gotland.