The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 02

The Oldest English Epic by Unknown, translated by Francis Barton Gummere
Beowulf: II


115Went he forth to find at fall of night
that haughty house, and heed wherever
the Ring-Danes, outrevelled, to rest had gone.
Found within it the atheling band
asleep after feasting and fearless of sorrow,
120of human hardship. Unhallowed wight,
grim and greedy, he grasped betimes,
wrathful, reckless, from resting-places,
thirty[1] of the thanes, and thence he rushed
fain of his fell spoil, faring homeward,
125laden with slaughter, his lair to seek.
Then at the dawning, as day was breaking,
the might of Grendel to men was known;
then after wassail was wail uplifted,
loud moan in the morn. The mighty chief,
130atheling excellent, unblithe sat,
labored in woe for the loss of his thanes,
when once had been traced the trail of the fiend,
spirit accurst: too cruel that sorrow,
too long, too loathsome.[2] Not late the respite;
135with night returning, anew began
ruthless murder; he recked no whit,
firm in his guilt, of the feud and crime.
They were easy to find who elsewhere sought
in room remote their rest at night,
140bed in the bowers,[3] when that bale was shown,
was seen in sooth, with surest token,—
the hall-thane’s[4] hate. Such held themselves
far and fast who the fiend outran!
Thus ruled unrighteous and raged his fill
145one against all; until empty stood
that lordly building, and long it bode so.
Twelve years’ tide the trouble he bore,
sovran of Scyldings, sorrows in plenty,
boundless cares. There came unhidden
150tidings true to the tribes of men,
in sorrowful songs,[5] how ceaselessly Grendel
harassed Hrothgar, what hate he bore him,
what murder and massacre, many a year,
feud unfading,—refused consent
155to deal with any of Daneland’s earls,
make pact of peace, or compound for gold:
still less did the wise men ween to get
great fee for the feud from his fiendish hands.[6]
But the evil one ambushed old and young,
160death-shadow dark, and dogged them still,
lured, and lurked in the livelong night
of misty moorlands: men may say not
where the haunts of these Hell-Runes[7] be.
Such heaping of horrors the hater of men,
165lonely roamer, wrought unceasing,
harassings heavy. O’er Heorot he lorded,
gold-bright hall, in gloomy nights;
and ne’er could the prince[8] approach his throne,
—’twas judgment of God,—or have joy in his hall.
170Sore was the sorrow to Scyldings’-friend,
heart-rending misery. Many nobles
sat assembled, and searched out counsel
how it were best for bold-hearted men
against harassing terror to try their hand.
175Whiles they vowed in their heathen fanes
altar-offerings, asked with words[9]
that the slayer-of-souls[10] would succor give them
for the pain of their people. Their practice this,
their heathen hope; ’twas Hell they thought of
180in mood of their mind. Almighty they knew not,
Doomsman of Deeds[11] and dreadful Lord,
nor Heaven’s-Helmet heeded they ever,
Wielder-of-Wonder.—Woe for that man
who in harm and hatred hales his soul
185to fiery embraces;—nor favor nor change
awaits he ever. But well for him
that after death-day may draw to his Lord,
and friendship find in the Father’s arms!

  1. Beowulf, the coming champion, has the strength (v. 379) of “thirty” men in his hand’s grasp, and (v. 2361) swims to safety after Hygelac’s defeat laden with “thirty” suits of mail on his arm. The reader will note the meagreness and haste of this account of the actual attack. No details are given. This brevity is of course due to the poet; and one can only guess at his motive.
  2. See v. 191.
  3. The smaller buildings within the main enclosure but separate from hall.
  4. So the text. Grendel, by his ravaging, is master of the hall; and there is no need to change to “hell-thane.”
  5. The journalists of the day, Widsiths, Deors, Bernlefs, carried such tidings in their “sorrowful songs.” So, too, perhaps, began the story of the actual downfall of the Burgundian kings, afterward the epic of the Nibelungs.
  6. He would of course pay no wergild for the men he had slain. So boasted a Norse bully once.
  7. “Sorcerers-of-hell.” Rune is still used in Low German dialects for “witch.”
  8. Hrothgar, who is the “Scyldings’-friend” of 170. A difficult passage.
  9. That is, in formal or prescribed phrase.
  10. In Psalm xcvi, 5 (Grein-Wülker, number 95): “All the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” The Anglo-Saxon version reads: “All heathen gods are devils-of-war.” . . .
  11. The complimentary excess of kennings for “God” is like the profusion in naming king or chieftain. See v. 345 f.