Beowulf (part one) (full text)

This epic poem is set in Denmark, the land of 'the Spear-Danes in days gone by', but it was written in England hundreds of years after its mythic events. The author of Beowulf is unknown and its date of composition remains hotly debated: anywhere between the 5th and 11th centuries AD. Beowulf was almost certainly an oral epic, like The Iliad, that went through many transformations as it was passed down through the generations. This version, in its own strange way, tells the story of the coming of Christianity to the Barbarian tribes of Europe's northern lands.

An ancient monster stirs from deep in the forest and terrorizes a land that is just beginning to achieve some peace after years of tribal warfare. The mead-hall of Heorot signifies King Hrothgar's sovereignty and the hope that order will finally end centuries of internecine chaos and violence. Hrothgar is a Christian King, the fourth in a line of Christian kings, whom God has given victory in battle, allowing the Danes to glimpse at long last the possibility of peace. Yet even in the first moments of the poem, just as the poet celebrates the glory of Heorot, his ancient Norse fatalism predicts the doom of the hall (Ragnorak) and the unleashing once again of 'the bood-lust rampant'. (86)

This doom seems at hand when the midnight monster Grendel, one of Cain's clan, begins his reign of terror. By night he lurks in the fens and woods nearby the castle, listening to the singing and laughter and reveling of Hrothgar's warriors as they feast and drink next to Heorot's hearth. Finally, enraged by songs of praise to the Almighty God, Grendel steals into the hall and butchers sleeping warriors, carrying corpses off to his swamp lair where he feeds on them with his beast-like mother.

To the rescue from over the seas comes Beowulf, the Viking warrior with the mighty grip, who seems less the prototypical Christian hero of Medieval romance and more an epic hero like Achilles in pursuit of kleos.  Kleos is the name you earn for yourself in your lifetime. Beowulf’s desire for warrior-prowess among the living overwhelms any concern about the soul’s destiny in the afterlife.

                                        It is always better
To avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
Means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
Win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
That will be his best and only bulwark. [1384–9]

The epic recounts Beowulf’s three great fights against creatures of the old religion: the nightmare monster Grendel, his hag-like mother, and as an old man, in a final fatal encounter, Beowulf slays a fire breathing dragon. Beowulf’s demise is tempered some by his Christianity, but the more ancient pagan beliefs retain their potency: none can overcome the wyrd of fate, and the Geat women keen Beowulf’s passing, fearing the return of dark times:

On a height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
And wailed aloud for their lord’s decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
                                            (last lines of the poem)
Close Analysis:

**Lines 1-65 (Prologue) The generations before the reign Hrothgar, the great King of the Danes and builder of the mead-hall Heorot

- Shield Sheafson, the first Christian ruler (see l.17)
- The Viking Funeral of Shield Sheafson (25-53)
- Beow, Halfdane and finally Hrothgar

These warriors carved out a kingdom in these icy, northern lands through conquest. They are fighters who other warriors will stand beside and hold the line! (27)

Shield was still thriving when his time came 
and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping. 

His warrior band did what he bade them 
when he laid down the law among the Danes: 
they shouldered him out to the sea's flood,                                              30
the chief they revered who had long ruled them. 
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, 
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince. 
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, 
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures 
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished 
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure                                                   40
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far 
on out into the ocean's sway.
They decked his body no less bountifully 
with offerings than those first ones did 
who cast him away when he was a child 
and launched him alone out over the waves. 
And they set a gold standard up
high above his head and let him drift 
to wind and tide, bewailing him
and mourning their loss. No man can tell,                                                50
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran 
knows for certain who salvaged that load.

**Lines 65-88 The Construction of Heorot: the wooden lodge, mead hall built for reveling through the deep northern winter.  

After three generations of war under Beow and Halfdane, Hrothgar achieves peace. He builds Heorot as a place where peace can be celebrated: honoring his allies and subjects with feasts, gifts, and entertainments (heroic poems!).

Happy as the singer is to speak of Heorot's magnificence, he still laments that the hall will someday burn; it's doom abides.

                            Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
and torques at the table. The hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.

but in time it would come: the killer instinct 
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, 
nursed a hard grievance.  (79-86)

What kind of Christianity is this? Which religion still predominates in the early days of the Christianity in Europe’s  north country?

**Lines 85-115 Grendel's bitter anger: the clan of Cain

Who is Grendel? Where does he come from? The writer identifies him as one of Cain's clan, but it sounds almost as if he is applying the Bible to an entity far older than Cain. Who did the villagers think Grendel was before the coming of the Christians?

What infuriates Grendel about Heorot Hall?

So times were pleasant for the people there 
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,                                                         100
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon 
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath 
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time 
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts.

**Lines 115-145 Grendel's First Raid

What is uncanny about the nature of Grendel's raids? When do they take place? Why are the results undiscovered until morning? Where does Grendel really reside?

So, after nightfall, Grendel set out
for the lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes
were settling into it after their drink,
and there he came upon them, a company of the best 
asleep from their feasting, insensible to pain 
and human sorrow. Suddenly then                                                         120
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc; 
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair, 
flushed up and inflamed from the raid, 
blundering back with the butchered corpses.

Then as dawn brightened and the day broke 
Grendel's powers of destruction were plain: 
their wassail was over, they wept to heaven
and mourned under morning. Their mighty prince, 
the storied leader, sat stricken and helpless,                                           130
humiliated by the loss of his guard,
bewildered and stunned, staring aghast 
at the demon's trail, in deep distress.

**Lines 145-193 Hrothgar's Helplessness: 

The monster will meet no civilized method of redressing his wrong: no reparations, no payment for hostages, no end to the blood feud. (151) For twelve winters, the Danes suffer Grendel’s raids. In despair, the people turn again to their pagan gods and pray that the killer of souls might come to their aid. (175) The people endure 'panic after dark' as the raids continue.

So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead. 
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under 
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.                                           150
Sad lays were sung about the beset king, 
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel, 
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war; how he would never 
parley or make peace with any Dane
nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price. 
No counsellor could ever expect
fair reparation from those rabid hands. 
All were endangered; young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow                                       160
who lurked and swooped in the long nights 
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

So Grendel waged his lonely war, 
inflicting constant cruelties on the people, 
atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot, 
haunted the glittering hall after dark, 

**Lines 195-230 (Heaney Reading his Translation) Beowulf

A hero from another country across the seas (Geatland) hears tell of Hrothgar's troubles at the great hall of Heorot, and he vows to come to their aid. Why?

When he heard about Grendel, Hygelac's thane 
was on home ground, over in Geatland. 
There was no one else like him alive. 
In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth, 
high-born and powerful. He ordered a boat
that would ply the waves. He announced his plan: 
to sail the swan's road and search out that king,                                     200
the famous prince who needed defenders. 
Nobody tried to keep him from going, 
no elder denied him, dear as he was to them. 

The symbolism that accompanies his voyage over the sea and his arrival in the Dane land: the coming of a Christian hero.

Time went by, the boat was on water,                                                   210
in close under the cliffs.
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship. 
Over the waves, with the wind behind her 
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird
until her curved prow had covered the distance 
and on the following day, at the due hour,                                              220
those seafarers sighted land,
sunlit cliffs, sheer crags
and looming headlands, the landfall they sought.
It was the end of their voyage and the Geats vaulted 
over the side, out on to the sand,
and moored their ship. There was a clash of mail 
and a thresh of gear. They thanked God
for that easy crossing on a calm sea.

Lines 230-300 The Watchman

The watchman on guard at the coastal bluff is amazed at the open and fearless way that this war-like party has arrived on Hrothgar's lands. He questions the leader Beowulf with courtesy but firmness. Beowulf responds directly.  He announces that he has come to do what the Danes could not: fight and defeat this corpse-maker.

The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard; 
the distinguished one delivered this answer: 

"We belong by birth to the Geat people                                                  260
and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac. 
In his day, my father was a famous man, 
a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow. 
He outlasted many a long winter
and went on his way. All over the world
men wise in counsel continue to remember him. 
We come in good faith to find your lord 
and nation's shield, the son of Halfdane. 
Give us the right advice and direction. 
We have arrived here on a great errand                                                   270
to the lord of the Danes, and I believe therefore
there should be nothing hidden or withheld between us.
So tell us if what we have heard is true 
about this threat, whatever it is, 
this danger abroad in the dark nights, 
this corpse-maker mongering death
in the Shieldings' country. I come to proffer 
my wholehearted help and counsel. 
I can show the wise Hrothgar a way 
to defeat his enemy and find respite—                                                     280
if any respite is to reach him, ever.
I can calm the turmoil and terror in his mind. 
Otherwise, he must endure woes 
and live with grief for as long as his hall 
stands at the horizon, on its high ground."

Lines 300-330 The march to Heorot and arrival in the great hall.

Lines 330-355 The Courteous Welcome: Wulfgar asks Beowulf of the reasons for his visit in such war-like garb.

Lines 355-390 Hrothgar agrees to meet with this warrior, saying that he has heard marvelous tales of the strength in the grip of his hand.

Lines 400-455 Beowulf's speech to Hrothgar: he vows to fight Grendel in single combat, hand to hand.

Lines 455-500 Hrothgar remembers times in the past when he and Beowulf's father had come to each other's aid. He agrees to allow Beowulf to do battle for the honor of his hall and for his own renown, and promises rich payment in treasure if he succeeds in killing the monster. None of his warriors have been successful.

**Lines 500-530 Unferth, a Dane, insults Beowulf by questioning the truth of one of his legendary feats, the swimming contest with Breca.

"Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca 
in a swimming match on the open sea,
risking the water just to prove that you could win? 
It was sheer vanity made you venture out 
on the main deep. And no matter who tried,                                                 510
friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you,
neither would back down: the sea-test obsessed you. 
You waded in, embracing water,
taking its measure, mastering currents, 
riding on the swell. The ocean swayed, 
winter went wild in the waves, but you vied 
for seven nights; and then he outswam you, 
came ashore the stronger contender.
He was cast up safe and sound one morning
among the Heathoreams, then made his way                                                 520
to where he belonged in Bronding country, 
home again, sure of his ground
in strongroom and bawn. So Breca made good 
his boast upon you and was proved right. 
No matter, therefore, how you may have fared 
in every bout and battle until now,
this time you'll be worsted; no one has ever 
outlasted an entire night against Grendel."

Lines 530-610 Beowulf corrects Unferth, telling the tale of the swimming match and his own defeat of the sea monsters that had preyed on the ships in the North Seas. He concludes by reminding the Danes that none of their champions have survived a night in the hall with Grendel on the prowl, but he will face the monster unarmed.

Beowulf, Ecgtheow's son, replied:
"Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say                                                 530
about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer 
that was doing the talking. The truth is this:
when the going was heavy in those high waves,
I was the strongest swimmer of all.
We'd been children together and we grew up
daring ourselves to outdo each other, 
boasting and urging each other to risk 
our lives on the sea. And so it turned out. 
Each of us swam holding a sword,
a naked, hard-proofed blade for protection                                                   540
against the whale-beasts. But Breca could never 
move out farther or faster from me 
than I could manage to move from him. 
Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on 
for five nights, until the long flow 
and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold, 
night falling and winds from the north 
drove us apart. The deep boiled up 
and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild. 
My armour helped me to hold out;                                                                550
my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked,
a fine, close-fitting filigree of gold,
kept me safe when some ocean creature
pulled me to the bottom. Pinioned fast
and swathed in its grip, I was granted one 
final chance: my sword plunged
and the ordeal was over. Through my own hands, 
the fury of battle had finished off the sea-beast.

**Lines 605-660 Queen Wealhtheow calms the tension by entering the hall and passing the ale-cup for all to drink from. Beowulf makes a formal boast when he has drunk from the cup that he will free Heorot from Grendel or die in the attempt.

**Lines 660-690 Hrothgar and his Queen retire for the night, confident that the King of Glory has brought them a champion who will be a match for Grendel.

**Lines 688-730 (Grendel's Approach) Beowulf and the Geat warriors bed down for the night in the hall. Grendel makes his uncanny approach [audio], springing locks, doors bursting open, the sleeping warriors at his mercy- all except Beowulf who remains vigilant, silently eyeing the monster's approach.

Then down the brave man lay with his bolster 
under his head and his whole company
of sea-rovers at rest beside him.                                                                       690
None of them expected he would ever see 
his homeland again or get back
to his native place and the people who reared him. 
They knew too well the way it was before, 
how often the Danes had fallen prey
to death in the mead-hall. But the Lord was weaving 
a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats. 
Through the strength of one they all prevailed; 
they would crush their enemy and come through 
in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear:                                                        700
Almighty God rules over mankind
and always has.
                            Then out of the night
came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift; 
the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts, 
all except one; it was widely understood
that as long as God disallowed it,
the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne.
One man, however, was in fighting mood, 
awake and on edge, spoiling for action.

In off the moors, down through the mist bands                                                  710
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping. 
The bane of the race of men roamed forth, 
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it 
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. Nor was that the first time
he had scouted the grounds of Hrothgar's dwelling—
although never in his life, before or since, 
did he find harder fortune or hall-defenders. 
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead                                                     720
and arrived at the bawn. The iron-braced door 
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it. 
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open 
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood, 
pacing the length of the patterned floor 
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light, 
flame more than light, flared from his eyes. 
He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping, 
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors 
quartered together. And his glee was demonic,                                                  730
picturing the mayhem: before morning 
he would rip life from limb and devour them, 
feed on their flesh; but his fate that night 
was due to change, his days of ravening 
had come to an end.

**Lines 730-810 Grendel kills one of Beowulf's men, but the hero waits for the perfect moment to strike, and when he does he latches on to the monster's arm and holds him with his grip. The Hall quakes and booms with the violence of their struggle. Beowulf's men try to aid their champion, but their swords are of no use against the monster's charmed hide.

                           Mighty and canny,
Hygelac's kinsman was keenly watching 
for the first move the monster would make. 
Nor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,                                                       740
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood 
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body 
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot. Venturing closer,
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf 
where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in 
with open claw when the alert hero's 
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly. 
The captain of evil discovered himself 
in a handgrip harder than anything                                                                      750
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth. Every bone in his body 
quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape. 
He was desperate to flee to his den 
and hide with the devil's litter, for in all his days
he had never been clamped or cornered like this. 
Then Hygelac's trusty retainer recalled 
his bedtime speech, sprang to his feet 
and got a firm hold. Fingers were bursting,
the monster back-tracking the man overpowering.                                              760
The dread of the land was desperate to escape, 
to take a roundabout road and flee
to his lair in the fens. The latching power
in his fingers weakened; it was the worst trip 
the terror-monger had taken to Heorot. 
And now the timbers trembled and sang, 
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane 
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury
the two contenders crashed through the building. 
The hall clattered and hammered, but somehow                                                  770
survived the onslaught and kept standing:
it was handsomely structured, a sturdy frame 
braced with the best of blacksmith's work 
inside and out. The story goes
that as the pair struggled, mead-benches were smashed 
and sprung off the floor, gold fittings and all. 
Before then, no Shielding elder would believe 
there was any power or person upon earth 
capable of wrecking their horn-rigged hall 
unless the burning embrace of a fire                                                                    780
engulf it in flame. Then an extraordinary 
wail arose, and bewildering fear
came over the Danes. Everyone felt it
who heard that cry as it echoed off the wall,
a God-cursed scream and strain of catastrophe, 
the howl of the loser, the lament of the hell-serf 
keening his wound. He was overwhelmed, 
manacled fight by the man who of all men
was foremost and strongest in the days of this life.

But the earl-troop's leader was not inclined                                                         790
to allow his caller to depart alive:
he did not consider that life of much account 
to anyone anywhere. Time and again, 
Beowulf's warriors worked to defend 
their lord's life, laying about them
as best they could with their ancestral blades. 
Stalwart in action, they kept striking out 
on every side, seeking to cut
straight to the soul. When they joined the struggle 
there was something they could not have known at the time,                                800
that no blade on earth, no blacksmith's art 
could ever damage their demon opponent.
He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge
of every weapon. But his going away 
out of this world and the days of his life 
would be agony to him, and his alien spirit 
would travel far into fiends' keeping.

**Lines 810-851 Beowulf finally wrenches Grendel's arm from his shoulder, and the monster flees into the night, mortally wounded.

Then he who had harrowed the hearts of men 
with pain and affliction in former times 
and had given offence also to God                                                                      810
found that his bodily powers failed him. 
Hygelac's kinsman kept him helplessly 
locked in a handgrip. As long as either lived,
he was hateful to the other. The monster's whole 
body was in pain, a tremendous wound 
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split
and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted 
the glory of winning; Grendel was driven 
under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,
to his desolate lair. His days were numbered,                                                      820
the end of his life was coming over him, 
he knew it for certain; and one bloody clash 
had fulfilled the dearest wishes of the Danes. 
The man who had lately landed among them, 
proud and sure, had purged the hall,
kept it from harm; he was happy with his nightwork 
and the courage he had shown. The Geat captain 
had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes: 
he had healed and relieved a huge distress,
 unremitting humiliations,                                                                                     830
the hard fate they'd been forced to undergo, 
no small affliction. Clear proof of this
could be seen in the hand the hero displayed 
high up near the roof: the whole of Grendel's
shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp.

Then morning came and many a warrior 
gathered, as I've heard, around the gift-hall, 
clan-chiefs flocking from far and near
down wide-ranging roads, wondering greatly 
at the monster's footprints. His fatal departure                                                     840
was regretted by no-one who witnessed his trail, 
the ignominious marks of his flight 
where he'd skulked away, exhausted in spirit 
and beaten in battle, bloodying the path, 
hauling his doom to the demons' mere. 
The bloodshot water wallowed and surged,
there were loathsome upthrows and overturnings 
of waves and gore and wound-slurry. 
With his death upon him, he had dived deep 
into his marsh-den, drowned out his life                                                              850
and his heathen soul: hell claimed him there.