A short story by Jeanie Lang
Author: Jeanie Lang [More Titles by Lang]
"He was of mankind
It is "the most ancient heroic poem in the Germanic language," and was brought to Britain by the "Winged Hats" who sailed across the grey North Sea to conquer and to help to weld that great amalgam of peoples into what is now the British Race.
But once it had arrived in England, the legend was put into a dress that the British-born could more readily appreciate. In all probability the scene of the story was a corner of that island of Saeland upon which Copenhagen now stands, but he who wrote down the poem for his countrymen and who wrote it in the pure literary Anglo-Saxon of Wessex, painted the scenery from the places that he and his readers knew best. And if you should walk along the breezy, magnificent, rugged Yorkshire coast for twelve miles, from Whitby northward to the top of Bowlby Cliff, you would find it quite easy to believe that it was there amongst the high sea-cliffs that Beowulf and his hearth-sharers once lived, and there, on the highest ness of our eastern coast, under a great barrow, that Beowulf was buried. _Beowulfesby_--_Bowlby_ seems a quite easy transition. But the people of our island race have undoubtedly a gift for seizing the imports of other lands and hall-marking them as their own, and, in all probability, the Beowulf of the heroic poem was one who lived and died in the land of Scandinavia.
In Denmark, so goes the story, when the people were longing for a king, to their shores there drifted, on a day when the white birds were screaming over the sea-tangle and wreckage that a stormy sea, now sinking to rest, was sweeping up on the shore, a little boat in which, on a sheaf of ripe wheat and surrounded by priceless weapons and jewels, there lay a most beautiful babe, who smiled in his sleep. That he was the son of Odin they had no doubt, and they made him their king, and served him faithfully and loyally for the rest of his life.
A worthy and a noble king was King Scyld Scefing, a ruler on land and on the sea, of which even as an infant he had had no fear. But when many years had come and gone, and when Scyld Scefing felt that death drew near, he called his nobles to him and told them in what manner he fain would pass. So they did as he said, and in a ship they built a funeral pyre, and round it placed much gold and jewels, and on it laid a sheaf of wheat. Then with very great pain and labour, for he was old and Death's hand lay heavy upon him, the king climbed into the ship and stretched out his limbs on the pyre, and said farewell to all his faithful people. And the ship drifted out with the tide, and the hearts of the watchers were heavy as they saw the sails of the vessel that bore him vanish into the grey, and knew that their king had gone back to the place from whence he came, and that they should look on his face no more.
Behind him Scyld left descendants, and one after the other reigned over Denmark. It was in the reign of his great-grandson, Hrothgar, that there took place those things that are told in the story of Beowulf.
A mighty king and warrior was Hrothgar, and far across the northern seas his fame spread wide, so that all the warriors of the land that he ruled were proud to serve under him in peace, and in war to die for him. During his long life he and his men never went forth in their black-prowed ships without returning with the joyous shouts of the victor, with for cargo the rich spoil they had won from their enemies. As he grew old, Hrothgar determined to raise for himself a mighty monument to the magnificence of his reign, and so there was builded for him a vast hall with majestic towers and lofty pinnacles--the finest banqueting-hall that his skilled artificers could dream of. And when at length the hall was completed, Hrothgar gave a feast to all his thanes, and for days and for nights on end the great rafters of Heorot--as his palace was named--echoed the shouts and laughter of the mighty warriors, and the music of the minstrels and the songs that they sang. A proud man was Hrothgar on the night that the banquet was ended amidst the acclamations of his people, and a proud and happy man he lay down to rest, while his bodyguard of mighty warriors stretched themselves on the rush-strewn floor of the great room where they had feasted, and deeply slumbered there.
Now, in the dark fens of that land there dwelt a monster--fierce, noisome, and cruel, a thing that loved evil and hated all that was joyous and good. To its ears came the ring of the laughter and the shouts of King Hrothgar's revellers, and the sweet song of the gleemen and the melody of harps filled it with fierce hatred. From its wallow in the marshes, where the pestilent grey fog hung round its dwelling, the monster, known to all men as the Grendel, came forth, to kill and to devour. Through the dark night, across the lonely moorland, it made its way, and the birds of the moor flew screaming in terror before it, and the wild creatures of the desolate country over which it padded clapped down in their coverts and trembled as it passed. It came at length to the great hall where
Never a thought did they give to the Grendel,--
"A haunter of marshes, a holder of moors,
They tracked the Grendel back to the marsh from whence he had come, and shuddered at the sight of bestial footprints that left blood-stains behind.
Terrible indeed was the grief of Hrothgar, but still more terrible was his anger. He offered a royal reward to any man who would slay the Grendel, and full gladly ten of his warriors pledged themselves to sleep that night in the great hall and to slay the Grendel ere morning came.
But dawn showed once more a piteous sight. Again there were only trampled and blood-stained rushes, with the loathsome smell of unclean flesh. Again the foul tracks of the monster were found where it had padded softly back to its noisome fens.
There were many brave men in the kingdom of Hrothgar the Dane, and yet again did they strive to maintain the dignity of the great hall, Heorot, and to uphold the honour of their king. But through twelve dismal years the Grendel took its toll of the bravest in the realm, and to sleep in the place that Hrothgar had built as monument to his magnificent supremacy, ever meant, for the sleeper, shameful death. Well content was the Grendel, that grew fat and lusty amongst the grey mists of the black marshes, unknowing that in the land of the Goths there was growing to manhood one whose feet already should be echoing along that path from which Death was to come.
In the realm of the Goths, Hygelac was king, and no greater hero lived in his kingdom than Beowulf, his own sister's son. From the age of seven Beowulf was brought up at the court of his uncle.
A great, fair, blue-eyed lad was Beowulf, lazy, and very slow to wrath. When he had at last become a yellow-haired giant, of wondrous good-temper, and leisurely in movement, the other young warriors of Gothland had mocked at him as at one who was only a very huge, very amiable child. But, like others of the same descent, Beowulf's anger, if slow to kindle, was a terrible fire once it began to flame. A few of those flares-up had shown the folk of his uncle's kingdom that no mean nor evil deed might lightly be done, nor evil word spoken in the presence of Beowulf. In battle against the Swedes, no sword had hewn down more men than the sword of Beowulf. And when the champion swimmer of the land of the Goths challenged the young giant Beowulf to swim a match with him, for five whole days they swam together. A tempest driving down from the twilight land of the ice and snow parted them then, and he who had been champion was driven ashore and thankfully struggled on to the beach of his own dear country once again. But the foaming seas cast Beowulf on some jagged cliffs, and would fain have battered his body into broken fragments against them, and as he fought and struggled to resist their raging cruelty, mermaids and nixies and many monsters of the deep joined forces with the waves and strove to wrest his life from him. And while with one hand he held on to a sharp rock, with the other he dealt with his sword stark blows on those children of the deep who would fain have devoured him. Their bodies, deep-gashed and dead, floated down to the coast of Gothland, and the king and all those who looked for the corpse of Beowulf saw them, amazed. Then at length came Beowulf himself, and with great gladness was he welcomed, and the king, his uncle, gave him his treasured sword, Naegeling, in token of his valour.
In the court of Hrothgar, the number of brave warriors ever grew smaller. One man only had witnessed the terrible slaughter of one of those black nights and yet had kept his life. He was a bard--a scald--and from the land where he had seen such grim horror, he fled to the land of the Goths, and there, in the court of the king, he sang the gloomy tale of the never-ending slaughter of noble warriors by the foul Grendel of the fens and moors.
Beowulf listened, enthralled, to his song. But those who knew him saw his eyes gleam as the good steel blade of a sword gleams when it is drawn for battle, and when he asked his uncle to allow him to go to the land of the Danes and slay this filthy thing, his uncle smiled, with no surprise, and was very well content.
So it came to pass that Beowulf, in his black-prowed ship, with fourteen trusty followers, set sail from Gothland for the kingdom of Hrothgar.
The warden of the Danish coast was riding his rounds one morning when he beheld from the white cliffs a strange war-vessel making for the shore. Skilfully the men on board her ran her through the surf, and beached her in a little creek between the cliffs, and made her fast to a rock by stout cables. Only for a little time the valiant warden watched them from afar, and then, one man against fifteen, he rode quickly down and challenged the warriors.
Then Beowulf, with fearless eyes, gazed in the face of the warden and told him simply and unboastfully who he was, from whence he came, and what was his errand. He had come as the nation's deliverer, to slay the thing that
"My men shall beach your ship," he said, "and make her fast with a barrier of oars against the greedy tide. Come with me to the king."
It was a gallant band that strode into Heorot, where sat the old king, gloom overshadowing his soul. And fit leader for a band of heroes was Beowulf, a giant figure in ring-mail, spear and shield gleaming in his hand, and by his side the mighty sword, Naegeling. To Hrothgar, as to the warden, Beowulf told the reason of his coming, and hope began again to live in the heart of the king.
That night the warriors from the land of the Goths were feasted in the great banqueting-hall where, for twelve unhappy years, voices had never rung out so bravely and so merrily. The queen herself poured out the mead with which the king and the men from Gothland pledged each other, and with her own hand she passed the goblet to each one. When, last of it all, it came to the guest of honour, Beowulf took the cup of mead from the fair queen and solemnly pledged himself to save the land from the evil thing that devoured it like a pestilence, or to die in his endeavour.
The dawn was breaking dim and grey and very chill when Beowulf heard the stealthy tread without, and the quick-following crash of the bolts and bars that gave so readily. He made no movement, but only waited. In an instant the dawn was blotted out by a vast black shadow, and swifter than any great bear could strike, a scaly hand had struck one of the friends of Beowulf. In an instant the man was torn from limb to limb, and in a wild disgust and hatred Beowulf heard the lapping of blood, the scrunching of bones and chewing of warm flesh as the monster ravenously devoured him. Again the loathsome hand was stretched out to seize and to devour. But in the darkness two hands, like hands of iron, gripped the outstretched arm, and the Grendel knew that he had met his match at last. The warriors of Beowulf awoke to find a struggle going on such as their eyes never before beheld, for it was a fight to the death between man and monster. Vainly they tried to aid their leader, but their weapons only glanced harmlessly off the Grendel's scaly hide. Up and down the hall the combatants wrestled, until the walls shook and the great building itself rocked to its foundations. Ever and again it seemed as though no human power could prevail against teeth and claws and demonic fury, and as tables and benches crashed to the ground and broke under the tramping feet of the Grendel, it appeared an impossible thing that Beowulf should overcome. Yet ever tighter and more tight grew the iron grip of Beowulf. His fingers seemed turned to iron. His hatred and loathing made his grasp crash through scales, into flesh, and crush the marrow out of the bone it found there. And when at length the Grendel could no more, and with a terrible cry wrenched himself free, and fled, wailing, back to the fenland, still in his grasp Beowulf held the limb. The Grendel had freed himself by tearing the whole arm out of its socket, and, for once, the trail of blood across the moors was that of the monster and not of its victims.
Great indeed was the rejoicing of Hrothgar and of his people when, in the morning, instead of crimson-stained rushes and the track of vermin claws imbrued in human blood, they found all but one of the men from Gothland alive, and looked upon the hideous trophy that told them that their enemy could only have gone to find a shameful death in the marshes. They cleansed out the great hall, hung it with lordly trappings, and made it once more fit habitation for the lordliest in the land. That night a feast was held in it, such as had never before been held all through the magnificent reign of Hrothgar. The best of the scalds sung songs in honour of the triumph of Beowulf, and the queen herself pledged the hero in a cup of mead and gave to him the beautiful most richly jewelled collar Brisingamen, of exquisite ancient workmanship, that once was owned by Freya, queen of the gods, and a great ring of the purest red gold. To Beowulf, too, the king gave a banner, all broidered in gold, a sword of the finest, with helmet and corselet, and eight fleet steeds, and on the back of the one that he deemed the best Hrothgar had placed his own saddle, cunningly wrought, and decked with golden ornaments. To each of the warriors of Beowulf there were also given rich gifts. And ere the queen, with her maidens, left the hall that night she said to Beowulf:
"Enjoy thy reward, O dear Beowulf, while enjoy it thou canst. Live noble and blessed! Keep well thy great fame, and to my dear sons, in time to come, should ever they be in need, be a kind protector!"
With happy hearts in very weary bodies, Beowulf and his men left the hall when the feast was ended, and they slept through the night in another lodging as those sleep who have faced death through a very long night, and to whom joy has come in the morning.
But the Danish knights, careless in the knowledge that the Grendel must even now be in his dying agonies, and that once more Hereot was for them a safe and noble sleeping-place, lay themselves down to sleep in the hall, their shields at their heads, and, fastened high up on the roof above them, the hideous trophy of Beowulf.
Next morning as the grey dawn broke over the northern sea, it saw a sight that made it more chill than death. Across the moorland went a thing--half wolf, half woman--the mother of Grendel. The creature she had borne had come home to die, and to her belonged his avenging. Softly she went to Hereot. Softly she opened the unguarded door. Gladly, in her savage jaws, she seized Aschere, the thane who was to Hrothgar most dear, and from the roof she plucked her desired treasure--the arm of Grendel, her son. Then she trotted off to her far-off, filthy den, leaving behind her the noise of lamentation.
Terrible was the grief of Hrothgar over the death of Aschere, dearest of friends and sharer of his councils. And to his lamentations Beowulf listened, sad at heart, humble, yet with a heart that burned for vengeance. The hideous creature of the night was the mother of Grendel, as all knew well. On her Beowulf would be avenged, for Aschere's sake, for the king's, and for the sake of his own honour. Then once again did he pledge himself to do all that man's strength could do to rid the land of an evil thing. Well did he know how dangerous was the task before him, and he gave directions for the disposal of all that he valued should he never return from his quest. To the King, who feared greatly that he was going forth on a forlorn hope, he said:
Beowulf, his face white and grim like that of an image of Thor cast in silver, watched a little while, then drew his bow and drove a bolt into the heart of one of them, and when they had drawn the slain carcase to shore, the thanes of Hrothgar marvelled at the horror of it.
Then Beowulf took leave of Hrothgar and told him that if in two days he did not return, certain it would be that he would return no more. The hearts of all who said farewell to him were heavy, but Beowulf laughed, and bade them be of good cheer. Then into the black waters he dived, sword in hand, clad in ring-armour, and the dark pool closed over him as the river of Death closes over the head of a man when his day is done. To him it seemed as if the space of a day had passed ere he reached the bottom, and in his passing he encountered many dread dangers from tusk and horn of a myriad evil creatures of the water who sought to destroy him. Then at length he reached the bottom of that sinister mere, and there was clasped in the murderous grip of the Wolf-Woman who strove to crush his life out against her loathsome breast. Again and again, when her hideous embrace failed to slay him, she stabbed him with her knife. Yet ever did he escape. His good armour resisted the power of her arm, and his own great muscles thrust her from him. Yet his own sword failed him when he would have smitten her, and the hero would have been in evil case had he not spied, hanging on the wall of that most foul den,
Swiftly he seized it, and with it he dealt the Wolf-Woman a blow that shore her head from her body. Through the foul blood that flowed from her and that mingled with the black water of the mere, Beowulf saw a very terrible horror--the body of the Grendel, lying moaning out the last of his life. Again his strong arm descended, and, his left hand gripping the coiled locks of the Evil Thing, he sprang upwards through the water, that lost its blackness and its clouded crimson as he went ever higher and more high. In his hand he still bore the sword that had saved him, but the poisonous blood of the dying monsters had made the water of such fiery heat that the blade melted as he rose, and only the hilt, with strange runes engraved upon it, remained in his hand.
Where he left them, his followers, and the Danes who went with them, remained, watching, waiting, ever growing more hopeless as night turned into day, and day faded into night, and they saw the black waters of the lonely fen bubbling up, terrible and blood-stained. But when the waters cleared, hope returned to their hearts, and when, at length, Beowulf uprose from the water of the mere and they saw that in his hand he bore the head of the Grendel, there was no lonely scaur, nor cliff, nor rock of the land of the Danes that did not echo the glad cry of "_Beowulf! Beowulf!_"
Well-nigh overwhelmed by gifts from those whom he had preserved was the hero, Beowulf. But in modest, wise words he spoke to the King:
Then, in their ship, that the Warden of the Coast once had challenged, Beowulf and his warriors set sail for their own dear land.
Gaily the vessel danced over the waves, heavy though it was with treasure, nobly gained. And when Beowulf had come in safety to his homeland and had told his kinsman the tale of the slaying of the Grendel and of the Wolf-Woman, he gave the finest of his steeds to the King, and to the Queen the jewelled collar, Brisingamen, that the Queen of the Goths had bestowed on him. And the heart of his uncle was glad and proud indeed, and there was much royal banqueting in the hero's honour. Of him, too, the scalds made up songs, and there was no hero in all that northern land whose fame was as great as was the fame of Beowulf.
"The Must Be often helps an undoomed man when he is brave" was the precept on which he ruled his life, and he never failed the King whose chief champion and warrior he was. When, in an expedition against the Frieslanders, King Hygelac fell a victim to the cunning of his foes, the sword of Beowulf fought nobly for him to the end, and the hero was a grievously wounded man when he brought back to Gothland the body of the dead King. The Goths would fain have made him their King, in Hygelac's stead, but Beowulf was too loyal a soul to supplant his uncle's own son. On his shield he laid the infant prince, Hardred, and held him up for the people to see. And when he had proclaimed the child King and vowed to serve him faithfully all the days of his life, there was no man there who did not loyally echo the promise of their hero, Beowulf.
When Hardred, a grown man, was treacherously slain by a son of Othere, he who discovered the North Cape, Beowulf once again was chosen King, and for forty years he reigned wisely and well. The fame of his arms kept war away from the land, and his wisdom as a statesman brought great prosperity and happiness to his people. He had never known fear, and so for him there was nothing to dread when the weakness of age fell upon him and when he knew that his remaining years could be but few:
Through all those years of peace, the thing that was to bring death to him had lurked, unknown, unimagined, in a cave in the lonely mountains.
Many centuries before the birth of Beowulf, a family of mighty warriors had won by their swords a priceless treasure of weapons and of armour, of richly chased goblets and cups, of magnificent ornaments and precious jewels, and of gold "beyond the dreams of avarice." In a great cave among the rocks it was hoarded by the last of their line, and on his death none knew where it was hidden. Upon it one day there stumbled a fiery dragon--a Firedrake--and for three hundred years the monster gloated, unchallenged, over the magnificent possession. But at the end of that time, a bondsman, who fled before his master's vengeance and sought sanctuary in the mountains, came on an opening in the rocks, and, creeping in, found the Firedrake asleep upon a mass of red gold and of sparkling gems that dazzled his eyes even in the darkness. For a moment he stood, trembling, then, sure of his master's forgiveness if he brought him as gift a golden cup all studded with jewels, he seized one and fled with it ere the monster could awake. With its awakening, terror fell upon the land. Hither and thither it flew, searching for him who had robbed it, and as it flew, it sent flames on the earth and left behind it a black trail of ruin and of death.
When news of its destroyings came to the ears of the father of his people, Beowulf knew that to him belonged the task of saving the land for them and for all those to come after them. But he was an old man, and strength had gone from him, nor was he able now to wrestle with the Firedrake as once he had wrestled with the Grendel and the Wolf-Woman, but had to trust to his arms. He had an iron shield made to withstand the Firedrake's flaming breath, and, with a band of eleven picked followers, and taking the bondsman as guide, Beowulf went out to fight his last fight. As they drew near the place, he bade his followers stay where they were, "For I alone," he said, "will win the gold and save my people, or Death shall take me."
From the entrance to the cave there poured forth a sickening cloud of steam and smoke, suffocating and blinding, and so hot that he could not go forward. But with a loud voice the old warrior shouted an arrogant challenge of defiance to his enemy, and the Firedrake rushed forth from its lair, roaring with the roar of an unquenchable fire whose fury will destroy a city. From its wings of flame and from its eyes heat poured forth scorchingly, and its great mouth belched forth devouring flames as it cast itself on Beowulf.
The hero's sword flashed, and smote a stark blow upon its scaly head. But Beowulf could not deal death strokes as once he had done, and only for a moment was his adversary stunned. In hideous rage the monster coiled its snaky folds around him, and the heat from his body made the iron shield redden as though the blacksmith in his smithy were welding it, and each ring of the armour that Beowulf wore seared right into his flesh. His breast swelled with the agony, and his great heart must have come near bursting for pain and for sorrow. For he saw that panic had come on his followers and that they were fleeing, leaving him to his fate. Yet not all of them were faithless. Wiglaf, young and daring, a dear kinsman of Beowulf, from whom he had received many a kindness, calling shame on the dastards who fled, rushed forward, sword in hand, and with no protection but that of his shield of linden wood. Like a leaf scorched in a furnace the shield curled up, but new strength came to Beowulf with the knowledge that Wiglaf had not failed him in his need. Together the two heroes made a gallant stand, although blood flowed in a swift red stream from a wound that the monster had made in Beowulf's neck with its venomous fangs, and ran down his corselet. A stroke which left the Firedrake unharmed shivered the sword that had seen many fights, but Wiglaf smote a shrewd blow ere his lord could be destroyed, and Beowulf swiftly drew his broad knife and, with an effort so great that all the life that was left in him seemed to go with it, he shore the Firedrake asunder.
Then Beowulf knew that his end drew very near, and when he had thanked Wiglaf for his loyal help, he bade him enter the cave and bring forth the treasure that he might please his dying eyes by looking on the riches that he had won for his people. And Wiglaf hastened into the cave, for he knew that he raced with Death, and brought forth armfuls of weapons, of magnificent ornaments, of goblets and of cups, of bars of red gold. Handfuls of sparkling jewels, too, he brought, and each time he came and went, seizing without choosing, whatever lay nearest, it seemed as though the Firedrake's hoard were endless. A magical golden standard and armour and swords that the dwarfs had made brought a smile of joy into the dying King's eyes. And when the ten shamed warriors, seeing that the fight was at an end, came to where their mighty ruler lay, they found him lying near the vile carcase of the monster he had slain, and surrounded by a dazzlement of treasure uncountable. To them, and to Wiglaf, Beowulf spoke his valediction, urging on them to maintain the honour of the land of the Goths, and then he said:
Such was the passing of Beowulf, greatest of Northern heroes, and under a mighty barrow on a cliff very high above the sea, they buried him, and with him a great fortune from the treasure he had won. Then with heavy hearts, "round about the mound rode his hearth-sharers, who sang that he was of kings, of men, the mildest, kindest, to his people sweetest, and the readiest in search of praise":
"Gentlest, most gracious, most keen to win glory."
And if, in time, the great deeds of a mighty king of the Goths have become more like fairy tale than solid history, this at least we know, that whether it is in Saeland or on the Yorkshire coast--where
 Shakespeare (_Julius Caesar_).
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