Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Grendel and Beowulf

Sometimes the most enduring heroes are immortalised not through great wit or cunning, but by that most ancient masculine virtue - sheer strength. There is not a civilisation of mankind that has not idolised the strong and worshipped the mighty, from great Heracles of the ancient world to the thunder god Thor of the Norse lands (for the story of Heracles, click here, and for Thor, here). So, many long centuries after the fall of the ancient powers, when the bards of England sang of the deeds of a new hero, Beowulf, a fresh legend was born.

King Hrothgar and Queen Wealtheow
Illustration by J R Skelton
Many years ago, when the Dark Ages held their bleak grip over the Northern Lands, their sat a wise and courageous man on the throne of Denmark. Hrothgar was his name, and Danes far and wide spoke of his valour and glory in the many wars of his reign, and of the beauty of his Queen Wealtheow. The times were good, and Hrothgar celebrated this new golden age with a magnificent banqueting hall, where he could make merry with the boldest thanes in the kingdom. A splendid and awesome sight it was too, towering high, "foremost of all halls under Heaven" and shining with gold. The name of this most glorious hall was Heorot, a name which soon was as revered as its ruler. When Heorot was at last complete and stood proud and tall, many a night of joy and feasting transpired within. As the cold, dark nights drew in beyond its walls, the servants scurried busily through the hall, bearing the most marvellous roasted boars to the many tables in Heorot. The air was rent with the cries of revelry, and the notes struck by the bards of the court, as harp and song could be heard for miles around. This was a place where evil dwelled not, and no blood or wicked ways had yet stained its shining floors. Greatness, however, is always transitory.

Illustration by J R Skelton
Far were the sounds of festivity carried from Heorot's lofty heights, to a distant and stormy lake. One night, within the tormented depths of the dark waters, something stirred. Within the blackened waves, an ageless evil made its grim abode. The monstrous daemon within raised a vast eyelid, awoken by the distant song. The sound of jubilation roused a long dormant hatred in the malevolent beast, who was roused to a towering rage by the thought of it. This was a creature of a damned line. A descendant of Cain, the son of Adam who slew his own brother Abel in the Garden of Eden, and was the first to stain the name of man with murder, the monster cursed God, and was cursed by God. The name of this foul hellion was Grendel, he who held man responsible for his own wicked plight, and was the sworn enemy of man. Rising from the churning waters, Grendel made his way through the freezing night, as the blackness closed in. Though gigantic in stature, the daemon made not a sound as he closed in on Heorot, vengeance burning in his fell mind. In the hall, meanwhile, intoxicated by drink and weary with food, Hrothgar and his valiant band lay in a deep sleep, oblivious to the approaching shadow. In deathly silence, Grendel did steal into Heorot, waking not a soul from its stupor. Furious, and hungry, the monster seized thirty of the mighty thanes, savagely devouring each, before striding back into the winter night to his evil lair.

                                 " Then at dawn, as day first broke,
                                    Grendel's power was at once revealed;
                                    a great lament was lifted, after the feast
                                    an anguished cry at that daylight discovery "
                                                - DAWN AFTER GRENDEL'S FIRST ATTACK        

Hrothgar and his loyal subjects awoke to a ghastly sight. The hall, and the men, were spattered with the gore from their own friends. Shattered bones and armour twisted as though of paper lay strewn across Heorot's once spotless floor. Terror and shock descended over the Danes, as not a man had been woken in the night. Helplessness too, infected each man, for none knew what abominable being could have perpetrated such base crimes. What defence was there against a silent, creeping death? The shadow of the night, however, felt no such horror, or mercy. Twice more did Grendel go about his grisly work at Heorot, and soon ninety of Denmark's finest warriors had now known gruesome deaths. After the third night of the horror, Heorot fell silent. That great hall, which so short a time ago had been witness to such joy, was now barren and devoid of life, abandoned in terror of the murderous shadow of the night.

The original manuscript of Beowulf
The 'Nowell Codex'
Twelve long years passed, and the hairs grew grey in Hrothgar's beard, for the once majestic King of the Danes was now weakened with age, and sick with melancholy. The once mighty Danes fell into dark times, crushed under a fear of the night. Then one day a stranger appeared on the Danish coast. A great warrior from Sweden, a hero of the Geats, had heard of the terror which gripped the Danes, and had made leave of his father, Ecgtheow, for Heorot. Renowned in Sweden for his colossal strength, and for slaying many great creatures which plagued the Northern Men, Beowulf rode again, compelled onward by the hand of God. Arriving at the court of King Hrothgar, the great hero bowed, and offered to conquer the beast of the fens, to honour a pact once made between the King and Ecgtheow. It was with great joy that the aged King accepted Beowulf, for word had indeed reached his ear of Beowulf's heroic exploits. That night, Heorot looked something of its old self again, as Beowulf and the Geats made merry in Hrothgar's Hall. A proud yet honorable man, Beowulf declared that since Grendel carried no weapons, so too would he fight with bare muscle, casting aside his mighty sword, a blade that had felled many a giant.

Night fell once again over Heorot, and the sounds of men reached the darkened lake. As though not a year had passed in twelve, Grendel awakened. The Geats in the hall fell slowly asleep, and soon only the great warrior himself was still awake, listening intently for any sound that pierced the night outside. The great wooden door of Heorot crumpled as though paper before the towering daemon, and in an instant, as Beowulf looked on, stunned with shock, the monster seized a poor soul who had lain nearest the gate, and tore his mortal form asunder. Shaken from his trance, Beowulf hurled himself forward, as Grendel's arm, broader than the greatest oak, darted toward another man. With all his might, Beowulf seized the creature's arm in his iron grip. In that moment, a revelation dawned upon Grendel. Never before had he encountered a man with so strong an embrace. Grendel, a fiend that had never known fear, now knew terror. With a roar, Grendel tried to break free, as the warriors in the hall were roused from their sleep. Seizing their weapons, they rushed to the aid of their hero. But no! Some cruel magic reflected each blade from Grendel's flesh:

                                 " Dread numbed the North-Danes, seized all
                                    who heard the shrieking from the wall,
                                    the enemy of God's grisly lay of terror,
                                    his song of defeat, heard hell's captive... "
                                                 - GRENDEL TRIES TO BREAK FREE

Frantic, Grendel tried to break free, in fear of the strength which he had believed impossible in a human, but Beowulf hung on. The bones in Grendel's arm began to crack, and with one almighty wrench, Grendel escaped, but at a terrible price. With a shout of pain, the muscles burst open and the sinews flew apart, as Grendel's arm was torn from its socket, still grasped in the hero's hands. The Geats cheered, as Beowulf stood still clutching his morbid trophy. Broken and weeping, Grendel staggered back to his lair, blood pouring from his mortal wound. Desperate to staunch the blood which fell in torrents, he buried his shoulder in the mud, but to no avail. Grendel, the seed of Cain, died miserably in the lake, and his soul was received in Hell. As dawn arrived, Beowulf was hailed as a hero by the Danes, and Hrothgar showered glittering gifts upon the mighty man, and joy returned once again to Heorot, and the future seemed bright.

Grendel's Mother and Beowulf
Illustration by J R Skelton
But far away, in the blackened depths, a mother clutched her dead son. The mother of Grendel, an even mightier monster than he, looked on her mutilated progeny and shouted vengeance to the coming night. Blackness fell on Heorot once again, as Grendel's Mother smashed her way into Hrothgar's Hall, seizing his most favoured retainer, Ă†schere, and marching off into the night. Coming to the banks of her lair, she tore the great warrior's head clean from his body, burning with rage at her lost son. Dawn arose once again over Heorot, and not for the first time to the cries of fear."Will our anguish never end?" King Hrothgar despaired to Beowulf. The Danes begged Beowulf to save them once again, gifting him a sword, Hrunting, a blade that had conquered many a foe. Worried that this time he may meet a foe beyond his means, Beowulf set forth from court, determined to vanquish the shadow over the land once and for all. Coming to the edge of the rippling lake, Beowulf and his Geats found the severed head of Æschere, and their spirits were hardened by anger. Bidding his valiant warriors to stay at the surface and watch for him, Beowulf plunged into the stormy lake, resplendent in a shining breastplate and helm, Hrunting at his side. Nigh on a whole day passed before the great hero spied the bottom of the dark lake, when suddenly a grotesque hand seized him, and pulled him to the depths. Though her grip would powder the bones of a normal man, Beowulf's cuirass deflected her crushing strength this time. Dragged into a mighty, vaulted cavern, Beowulf saw her, the monstrous mother of Grendel. As she darted towards him, her hideous face contorted with rage, Beowulf swung desperately with Hrunting, but no! The great blade clanged harmlessly from her neck, failing him in his hour of need. Furious, Beowulf hurled the sword away, as it went spinning into the darkness. Diving, he seized hold of the demonic lady, but not this time would muscle prevail. Effortlessly, she cast him away, as he stumbled and fell to the dank floor. In that moment Beowulf would have met his end, had God not deflected her lethal dagger. Fear surging through him, Beowulf lunged at the cavern wall, where stood arrayed the creature's own weapons:

                                 " Then Beowulf saw among weapons an invincible sword,
                                    wrought by the giants, massive and double-edged,
                                    the joy of many warriors; that sword was matchless,
                                    well-tempered and adorned, forged in a finer age,
                                    only it was so huge that no man but Beowulf
                                    could hope to handle it in the quick of combat..."
                                                     - BEOWULF'S LAST GAMBLE

Taking up the gargantuan blade, Beowulf swung for his life, and with a terrible crack, the monster's head soared clean from her shoulders, and her broken body fell at his feet. With a shout of triumph, Beowulf rejoiced in his victory, as the storm that churned the lake at last subsided, the shadow retreated, and the sun beat down upon the land of the Danes. At long last, after twelve long years, the evil had been cleansed, and Beowulf's name was now legend...

The poem of Beowulf is arguably the cornerstone of English literature, the first great epic poem to be written in English, over one thousand years ago. Short enough to be read in a couple of nights, yet packed with the wisdom of England's oldest poets, and as cheap as a cinema ticket, Beowulf is well worth giving a go!

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Beowulf: Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which is close to the original, yet may be a bit archaic for some)

Oxford World's Classics:
Beowulf: The Fight at Finnsburh (Oxford World's Classics)
(A poetic and easy to read version)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Beowulf: A Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which is close to the original, yet may be a bit archaic for some)

Oxford World's Classics:
Beowulf (Oxford World's Classics)
(A poetic and easy to read version)

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