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Beowulf

Beowulf

The Anglo-Saxon epic ‘Beowulf ’ is thought to have been written around the eighth century by a Northumbrian minstrel, and is the oldest in the English language. The original tale drew much of its inspiration from pagan Scandinavian folk history and also includes Christian elements. The principal enemy of the hero Beowulf is the original creature from the black lagoon.

Warrior, conqueror and King of the Danes, Hrothgar was famed far and wide for the glory he had won in battle. Many noble fighting men were his kinsmen and countless warriors served loyally in his bodyguard. His power was immense and his courage a byword among men.

Hrothgar was a descendant of the legendary Scyld, who had arrived on the shores of Denmark as an infant in a boat loaded with gold and jewels. When Scyld had grown up and become king, his conquests for his adoptive land were great. On his death, he was put into a boat again, with treasure surrounding him, and set adrift towards the westward setting sun, from whence he had come. Hrothgar was duly proud of his lineage and of his own considerable accomplishments. He longed for a symbol of them to stand after he had gone, as well as to enjoy while he lived. Summoning the help of all his people, he determined that they build an enormous hall where he might hold feasts and banquets, receive distinguished visitors from abroad and entertain his warriors and thanes. It would be a meeting place for men and a monument to his reign.

Everyone laboured enthusiastically and the vast hall was quickly completed. Glorious were its adornments and lavish its decorations and manly comforts. Towering high and majestic, the walls ended in pinnacles resembling the antlers of a stag, and so the hall was named ‘Heorot’, or The Hart.

On its completion, Hrothgar

His warriors and people were justly proud of the magnificent structure. The first great feast they held in it was like no other in their history. Hrothgar’s heart swelled as he sat on the high seat on the dais and watched his brave thanes and warriors at the long tables eating and drinking merrily beneath the hall’s lofty rafters. 

So proud were the Danes of their great hall that the feasting went on for days and the noise of their revels floated far from the hill upon which the mighty building stood, set apart from all others. Perhaps it seemed the loud carousing and tumult would never end, or perhaps the disturbance merely reminded the fen-monster Grendel of his old enmity and bitter resentment of men.

Roused and angry, the creature conceived a particular hatred for Heorot itself. The great hall became a symbol of his grievance against humanity. The feasting may also have reminded the horrible half-man half-fiend of its fondness for human flesh. It went quickly from pounding its fists in rage to licking its chops in anticipation of savouring this delicacy. Grendel decided to set out from the deep swamp to take his revenge and his dinner.

Born of a race of giants, sea-monsters and goblins, with the hearts of evil demons, Grendel was of enormous stature, covered in slimy green horn-hard skin on which a sword could not bite. He had unnatural strength even for his great size and no mercy for any creature, not even of his own nearly extinct kind.

On a night when Heorot was less than a week old, Grendel left the fen by moonlight and stalked the entrance to the now quiet hall. Inside all were now asleep after their revels, outside a guard of thirty men stood, no more alert than peaceful times demanded.

By stealth, he picked them off in ones and twos and then charged into the midst of the main body, catching everyone by surprise. Before they could call for help from their drunken comrades within, or act with unity, Grendel had dispatched them all. He spent the next few hours carrying back the bodies to his swampy lair and larder. 

In the early morning the men inside the hall staggered out and saw the grizzly evidence of the struggle. Everywhere blood and arms and armour were scattered, and the remains of not a single man could be found. The monster’s bloody tracks were plain and none doubted the reality of the danger or suspected human enemies as responsible for the tragedy.

Hrothgar grieved for his men and kinsmen, lost in this horrible way, and he grieved too for the fact that he himself was too old to track and kill such a monster. The lamentation of all the families of the slain grew as night after night Grendel returned. All their valiant efforts to vanquish the monster were in vain and many good men perished in the attempt and in trying to defend the hall.

Eventually champions stopped coming forward and, despairing, the Danes deserted the glorious hall they had been so proud of. Heorot stood unused for its original purpose. None now dared to sleep within its walls. For twelve years this went on, with no one going near the hall after darkness, for by night the fiend haunted its spaces and shadows in search of prey. Neither his appetite nor his enmity could be appeased, and careless sleepers paid with their lives.

As word spread, from far and wide foreign champions arrived to offer King Hrothgar their assistance, but none of them was sufficiently powerful or cunning enough to kill the monster. Many fine heroes were lost in this fashion until finally even the brave adventurers from afar stopped coming. Grendel remained master of the halls. Hrothgar and the Danes, in misery and shame, tried to reconcile themselves to their bondage, while their king grew old in helpless longing for the arrival of someone with the strength to relieve them of this awful oppression. As these sad events unfolded, far away in the realm of the Geats, of Gotaland, in the south of Sweden, a remarkable boy was growing up and coming to man’s estate. Nephew of Hygelac (a mighty monarch with ambitions to extend his sway into the mainland of Germany), his name was Beowulf. This boy was the son of Hrethal’s only daughter and a great nobleman, Ecgtheow, and had from the age of seven been brought up at court. A gentle, even-tempered lad, he seemed out of place at this warlike apex of a warlike race. While King Hrethel had lived he had been disappointed in the boy’s lack of aggression, his slowness to anger and his kind-heartedness.

By the time Hygelac had succeeded to the throne Beowulf was growing ever bigger and stronger and the king began to see the true qualities of his sister’s son. For a time he was still sneered at by smaller boys because of his good nature, but Beowulf nevertheless demonstrated imperterbability, resolve and patience. On the rare occasions when he was roused to anger, he fought fiercely and skilfully but never blindly.

Soon Beowulf’s cool head and great strength, particularly his mighty hand-grip, which was said to be equal to that of thirty men, were watchwords among his peers and elders. When all saw his potential greatness he blossomed, excelling at feats of endurance and courage. In an arduous swimming contest he bested the famous champion Breca, and enjoyed the glory it brought him .

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