The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 23

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

XXIII

’Mid the battle-gear saw he a blade triumphant,
old-sword of Eotens, with edge of proof,
warriors’ heirloom, weapon unmatched,
1560—save only ’twas more than other men
to bandy-of-battle could bear at all—
as the giants had wrought it, ready and keen.
Seized then its chain-hilt the Scyldings’ chieftain,
bold and battle-grim, brandished the sword,
1565reckless of life, and so wrathfully smote
that it gripped her neck and grasped her hard,
her bone-rings breaking: the blade pierced through
that fated-one’s flesh: to floor she sank.
Bloody the blade: he was blithe of his deed.
1570Then blazed forth light. ’Twas bright within
as when from the sky there shines unclouded
heaven’s candle. The hall he scanned.
By the wall then went he; his weapon raised
high by its hilts the Hygelac-thane,
1575angry and eager. That edge was not useless
to the warrior now. He wished with speed
Grendel to guerdon for grim raids many,
for the war he waged on Western-Danes
oftener far than an only time,[1]
1580when of Hrothgar’s hearth-companions
he slew in slumber, in sleep devoured,
fifteen men of the folk of Danes,
and as many others outward bore,
his horrible prey. Well paid for that
1585the wrathful prince! For now prone he saw
Grendel stretched there, spent with war,
spoiled of life, so scathed had left him
Heorot’s battle. The body sprang far
when after death it endured the blow,
1590sword-stroke savage, that severed its head.
Soon,[2] then, saw the sage companions
who waited with Hrothgar, watching the flood,
that the tossing waters turbid grew,
blood-stained the mere. Old men together,
1595hoary-haired, of the hero spake;
the warrior would not, they weened, again,
proud of conquest, come to seek
their mighty master. To many it seemed
the wolf-of-the-waves had won his life.
1600The ninth hour[3] came. The noble Scyldings
left the headland; homeward went
the gold-friend of men.[4] But the guests sat on,
stared at the surges, sick in heart,
and wished, yet weened not, their winsome lord
1605again to see.
Now that sword began,
from blood of the fight, in battle-droppings,[5]
war-blade, to wane: ’twas a wondrous thing
that all of it melted as ice is wont
when frosty fetters the Father loosens,
1610unwinds the wave-bonds, wielding all
seasons and times: the true God he!
Nor took from that dwelling the duke of the Geats
precious things, though a plenty he saw,
save only the head and that hilt withal
1615blazoned with jewels: the blade had melted,
burned was the bright sword, her blood was so hot,
so poisoned the hell-sprite who perished within there.
Soon he was swimming who safe saw in combat
downfall of demons; up-dove through the flood.
1620The clashing waters were cleanséd now,
waste of waves, where the wandering fiend
her life-days left and this lapsing world.
Swam then to strand the sailors’-refuge,
sturdy-in-spirit, of sea-booty glad,
1625of burden brave he bore with him.
Went then to greet him, and God they thanked,
the thane-band choice of their chieftain blithe,
that safe and sound they could see him again.
Soon from the hardy one helmet and armor
1630deftly they doffed: now drowsed the mere,
water ’neath welkin, with war-blood stained.
Forth they fared by the footpaths thence,
merry at heart the highways measured,
well-known roads. Courageous men
1635carried the head from the cliff by the sea,
an arduous task for all the band,
the firm in fight, since four were needed
on the shaft-of-slaughter[6] strenuously
to bear to the gold-hall Grendel’s head.
1640So presently to the palace there
foemen fearless, fourteen Geats,
marching came. Their master-of-clan
mighty amid them the meadow-ways trod.
Strode[7] then within the sovran thane
1645fearless in fight, of fame renowned,
hardy hero, Hrothgar to greet.
And next by the hair into hall was borne
Grendel’s head, where the henchmen were drinking,
an awe to clan and queen alike,
1650a monster of marvel: the men looked on.

  1. This belittling variation of the “many raids” just mentioned, the solemnity of the favorite litotes, give an enfeebled air to modern English. The ancient English had other views of poetical style than ours.—The long parenthesis, too, while Beowulf’s sword is uplifted over the dead Grendel, is not to present taste.—The cutting off of the head, as Gering suggests, is to prevent Grendel from visiting his old haunts as a ghost and stirring up new troubles. He could not be harmed by ordinary swords, as all were conjured; but this old giant blade of the monsters has no spell laid on it.
  2. After the killing of the monster and Grendel’s decapitation.
  3. Strictly this would be three o’clock in the afternoon; but the close of the day, perhaps the shorter northern day in winter, seems indicated. Gering translates “evening.”
  4. Hrothgar.
  5. The blade slowly dissolves in blood-stained drops like icicles.
  6. Spear.
  7. See note to v. 720.