The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 11

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


710Then from the moorland, by misty crags,
with God’s wrath laden, Grendel came.
The monster was minded of mankind now
sundry to seize in the stately house.
Under welkin he walked, till the wine-palace there,
715gold-hall of men, he gladly discerned,
flashing with fretwork.[1] Not first time, this,
that he the home of Hrothgar sought,—
yet ne’er in his life-day, late or early,
such hardy heroes, such hall-thanes, found!
720To the house the warrior walked apace,[2]
parted from peace;[3] the portal opened,
though with forged bolts fast, when his fists had struck it,
and baleful he burst in his blatant rage,
the house’s mouth. All hastily, then,
725o’er fair-paved floor the fiend trod on,
ireful he strode; there streamed from his eyes
fearful flashes, like flame to see.
He spied in hall the hero-band,
kin and clansmen clustered asleep,
730hardy liegemen. Then laughed his heart;
for the monster was minded, ere morn should dawn,
savage, to sever the soul of each,
life from body, since lusty banquet
waited his will! But Wyrd forbade him
735to seize any more of men on earth
after that evening.[4] Eagerly watched
Hygelac’s kinsman his cursed foe,
how he would fare in fell attack.
Not that the monster was minded to pause!
740Straightway he seized a sleeping warrior[5]
for the first, and tore him fiercely asunder,
the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams,
swallowed him piecemeal: swiftly thus
the lifeless corse was clear devoured,
745e’en feet and hands. Then farther he hied;
for the hardy hero with hand he grasped,
felt for the foe with fiendish claw,
for the hero reclining,—who clutched it boldly,
prompt to answer, propped on his arm.[6]
750Soon then saw that shepherd-of-evils
that never he met in this middle-world,
in the ways of earth, another wight
with heavier hand-gripe; at heart he feared,
sorrowed in soul,—none the sooner escaped!
755Fain would he flee, his fastness seek,
the den of devils: no doings now
such as oft he had done in days of old!
Then bethought him the hardy Hygelac-thane
of his boast at evening: up he bounded,
760grasped firm his foe, whose fingers cracked.
The fiend made off, but the earl close followed.
The monster meant—if he might at all—
to fling himself free, and far away
fly to the fens,—knew his fingers’ power
765in the gripe of the grim one. Gruesome march
to Heorot this monster of harm had made!
Din filled the room; the Danes were bereft,
castle-dwellers and clansmen all,
earls, of their ale.[7] Angry were both[8]
770those savage hall-guards: the house resounded.
Wonder it was the wine-hall firm
in the strain of their struggle stood, to earth
the fair house fell not; too fast it was
within and without by its iron bands
775craftily clamped; though there crashed from sill
many a mead-bench—men have told me—
gay with gold, where the grim foes wrestled.
So well had weened the wisest Scyldings
that not ever at all might any man
780that bone-decked, brave house break asunder,
crush by craft,—unless clasp of fire
in smoke engulfed it.—Again uprose
din redoubled. Danes of the North
with fear and frenzy were filled, each one,
785who from the wall that wailing heard,
God’s foe sounding his grisly song,
cry of the conquered, clamorous pain
from captive of hell. Too closely held him
he who of men in might was strongest
790in that same day of this our life.

  1. Whether the hall “flashed” or “glittered” to the monster’s vision as he came near, in this nocturnal raid, does not concern the poet, who uses a conventional description.
  2. This is the third announcement of the arrival, and it is such seemingly vain repetitions that caused Müllenhoff, ten Brink, Möller, and others to assume interpolations by several hands and to regard the poem as a series of “editions,” on the basis of a general accretion from short lays to the present conglomerate of adaptations, interpolations, and inconsistencies. The accretion theory is not ridiculous by any means; but it does not explain the Beowulf half so well as the assumption of a single author who wrote the present poem on the basis of old lays, and applied in its general construction the same methods of variation and repetition which obtain for every rhythmic period and almost for every sentence in Anglo-Saxon poetry at large. The first announcement of Grendel’s coming emphasizes the fact that it is by night; the second lays stress on the start from the moor; the third brings him to the hall, and to the action. See the same sort of repetition for an arrival, vv. 1640, 1644, below. If we will only apply to the whole web of narrative what we know of the web of sentence and period, much of the supposed awkwardness, “poor mendings,” “patchwork,” and so on, will prove simply the habit of all that national epic.—See also Hart, Ballad and Epic, pp. 194 ff.
  3. That is, he was a “lost soul,” doomed to hell.
  4. It is a trait of the national epic, partly explained by the familiar nature of the stories which it told, to anticipate in this way the issue of an adventure and then go back to the details.
  5. His name was Hondscio. See below, v. 2076.
  6. Some read: “prompt to answer, opposed the arm.” The text is not too clear; but the situation is what one would expect, and the awkwardness of the translation does not cloud the facts.
  7. This rendering, backed by Bugge, Holthausen, and Heyne, is quite as good as the mere “terrified” of translators who balk at the undignified notion of spilt beer. But “the ale-bench” is too familiar in the epic for such scruples; and the hall was primarily intended for the Germanic dream, which meant the revel of drinking men. “The ale was all upset” is as much as to say “men feared there would be no more joy in Heorot,” so rocked and tottered the great building. It is a phrase parallel to the “bulging breast” for anger, and such survivals of the primitive methods of speech; and, as has been suggested, may well have seemed archaic to the poet who copied traditional lines.
  8. Yet Grendel has shown the white feather from the start. This “angry” is also conventional; “desperate with fear” is the word for the fiend.—Beowulf’s easy victory here should be compared to his far more hazardous fight with Grendel’s mother, when his strength seems not to help, and he has to use a weapon.