The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 01


Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader belovéd, and long he ruled
55 in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,
haughty Healfdene, who held through life,
sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad.[1]
Then, one after one, there woke to him,
60 to the chieftain of clansmen, children four:
Heorogar, then Hrothgar, then Halga brave;
and I heard that —— was ——’s queen,[2]
the Heathoscylfing’s helpmate dear.
To Hrothgar[3] was given such glory of war,
65 such honor of combat, that all his kin
obeyed him gladly till great grew his band
of youthful comrades. It came in his mind
to bid his henchmen a hall uprear,
a master mead-house, mightier far
70 than ever was seen by the sons of earth,
and within it, then, to old and young
he would all allot that the Lord had sent him,
save only the land[4] and the lives of his men.
Wide, I heard, was the work commanded,
75for many a tribe this mid-earth round,
to fashion the folkstead. It fell, as he ordered,
in rapid achievement that ready it stood there,
of halls the noblest: Heorot[5] he named it
whose message had might in many a land.
80Not reckless of promise, the rings he dealt,
treasure at banquet: there towered the hall,
high, gabled wide, the hot surge waiting
of furious flame.[6] Nor far was that day
when father and son-in-law stood in feud
85for warfare and hatred that woke again.[7]
With envy and anger an evil spirit
endured the dole in his dark abode,
that he heard each day the din of revel
high in the hall: there harps rang out,
90clear song of the singer. He sang who knew[8]
tales of the early time of man,
how the Almighty, made the earth,
fairest fields enfolded by water,
set, triumphant, sun and moon
95for a light to lighten the land-dwellers,
and braided bright the breast of earth
with limbs and leaves, made life for all
of mortal beings that breathe and move.
So lived the clansmen in cheer and revel
100a winsome life, till one began
to fashion evils, that fiend of hell.
Grendel this monster grim was called,
march-riever[9] mighty, in moorland living,[10]
in fen and fastness; fief of the giants
105the hapless wight a while had kept
since the Creator his exile doomed.
On kin of Cain was the killing avenged
by sovran God for slaughtered Abel.
Ill fared his feud,[11] and far was he driven,
110for the slaughter’s sake, from sight of men.
Of Cain awoke all that woful breed,
Etins[12] and elves and evil-spirits,
as well as the giants that warred with God
weary while: but their wage was paid them!

  1. If glæde is adverb, read:

    Haughty Healfdene: hardy and wise,
    though old, he graciously governed the Scyldings.

    The name “Halfdane” means that his mother was foreign born.

  2. “I heard,” the epic formula, often has a merely conjunctive force, as here, when it may be rendered, as Klaeber notes, “and further.”—The name of the daughter is lost; no suggestion so far has enough weight to gain preference. The “Battle-Scylfings” are the race known in Scandinavian annals as Ynglings, a Swedish people. Kluge, using the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, reads: “Sigeneow was Sæwela’s queen.”
  3. Heorogar’s reign, noted below, vv. 465, 2158, is here passed over by the poet, who wishes to come at once to the story.
  4. Literally, “folk’s share.” Gering translates “all that God had given him along with his land and his people.”
  5. That is, “The Hart,” or “The Stag,” so called from decorations in the gables that resembled the antlers of a deer. This hall has been carefully described in a pamphlet by Heyne. The building was rectangular, with opposite doors—mainly west and east—and a hearth in the middle of the single room. A row of pillars down each side, at some distance from the walls, made a space which was raised a little above the main floor, and was furnished with two rows of seats. On one side, usually south, was the high-seat, midway between the doors. Opposite this, on the other raised space, was another seat of honor. At the banquet soon to be described, Hrothgar sat in the south or chief high-seat, and Beowulf opposite to him. The scene for a flyting (see below, v. 499) was thus very effectively set. Planks on trestles—the “board” of later English literature—formed the tables just in front of the long rows of seats, and were taken away after banquets, when the retainers were ready to stretch themselves out for sleep on the benches. Some additional comment will be found in the excellent notes in Mr. Clark Hall’s translation of Beowulf, p. 174.
  6. Fire was the usual end of these halls. See v. 781, below. One thinks of the splendid scene at the end of the Nibelungen, of the Nialssaga, of Saxo’s story of Amlethus, and many a less famous instance.
  7. It is to be supposed that all hearers of this poem knew how Hrothgar’s hall was burnt,—perhaps in the unsuccessful attack made on him by his son-in-law Ingeld. See vv. 2020 fl., and the note, where Beowulf tells of an old feud which this marriage is to set aside, and hints that the trouble will not be cured even by such a remedy. He too thinks that “warfare and hatred will wake again.”—See also Widsith, vv. 45 ff.
  8. A skilled minstrel. The Danes are heathens, as one is told presently; but this lay of beginnings is taken from Genesis.
  9. A disturber of the border, one who sallies from his haunt in the fen and roams over the country near by. This probably pagan nuisance is now furnished with biblical credentials as a fiend or devil in good standing, so that all Christian Englishmen might read about him. “Grendel” may mean one who grinds and crushes.
  10. See notes below on the notion of a water-hell. “Hell and the lower world,” says Bugge, “were connected to some extent in the popular mind with deep or boundless morasses.” Home of the Eddic Poems, tr. Schofield, p. lxxiv.
  11. Cain’s.
  12. The eoten, Norse jotun, or giant, survives in the English ballad-title, Hind Etin. The “giants” of v. 113 come from Genesis, vi, 4. See also the apocryphal book of Enoch, noted by Kittredge, Paul und Braune’s Beiträge, xiii, 210, who accounts for this tradition that Cain was the ancestor of evil monsters.