First City, Mythos, Jan 2008.
Nobody knew of Beowolf until Hollywood turned his tale into a film. Composed previous to the Norman invasion of England around the fifth century, the tale comes from lands now known as Denmark and Sweden, once the land of the dreaded and barbaric Vikings. The story begins in the grand hall newly constructed by one Hrothgar (the modern Roger), King of Denmark, where he hoped to feast his retainers and listen to the bards during the long winter evenings. The inauguration of this hall was celebrated by a sumptuous entertainment. The next day, to everyone’s horror, the floor and walls were all stained with blood, the only trace of the knights who had slept there in full armor. Gigantic, blood-stained footsteps, led from the festive hall to the sluggish waters of a deep mountain lake, or fiord. This carnage was clearly the work of Grendel, a descendant of the giants. Hrothgar was now too old to wield a sword, so he offered a princely reward to any man brave enough to free the country of this terrible scourge. Many tried but failed. News of this finally reached the kingdom of the Geates (Goths). The king’s nephew Beowulf (the Bee Hunter) was so roused by the tale of the monster that he impetuously declared his intention to show his valor by slaying Grendel. Although very young, Beowulf was quite distinguished, and had already won great honors in a battle against the Swedes. He had also proved his endurance by entering into a swimming match with Breka, one of the lords at his uncle’s court. The two champions had started out, sword in hand and fully armed, and, after swimming in concert for five whole days, they were parted by a great tempest. Breka was driven ashore, but the current bore Beowulf toward some jagged cliffs, where he desperately clung, trying to resist the fury of the waves, and using his sword to ward off the attacks of hostile mermaids, nicors (nixies), and other sea monsters. The gashed bodies of these slain foes soon drifted ashore. As Breka had returned first, he received the prize for swimming; but the king gave Beowulf on his return his treasured sword and praised him publicly for his valor. Beowulf had successfully encountered these monsters of the deep in the roaring tide, so he now expressed a hope that he might prevail against Grendel also; and embarking with fourteen chosen men, he sailed to Denmark. On the evening of his arrival, after a great feast, Beowolf waited in Hrothgar’sï»¿ grand hall with his companions for the monster. Sure enough, in the early morning, when all was very still, the giant appeared, tearing asunder the iron bolts and bars which secured the door. He tore one of Beowolf’s companions limb from limb, greedily drank his blood, and devoured his flesh. He then eagerly stretched out his hands in the darkness to seize another victim, but found his hand caught in so powerful a grasp that all his efforts could not wrench it free! Grendel and Beowulf struggled in the darkness, overturning tables and couches, shaking the great hall to its very foundations, and causing the walls to creak and groan under the violence of their furious blows. But in spite of Grendel’s gigantic stature, Beowulf clung so fast to the hand and arm he had grasped that Grendel, making a desperate effort to free himself by a jerk, tore the whole limb out of its socket! Bleeding and mortally wounded, he then beat a hasty retreat to his marshy den, leaving a long, bloody trail behind him. At dawn, the king heard with wonder a graphic account of the night’s adventures, and gazed their fill upon the monster’s limb, which hung like a trophy from the ceiling of the great hall. After the king had warmly congratulated Beowulf, and bestowed upon him many rich gifts, he gave orders to cleanse the hall, to hang it with tapestry, and to prepare a banquet in honor of the conquering hero. After the banquet everyone went to sleep fearing no monster. But in the dead of night the mother of the giant Grendel, as gruesome and uncanny a monster as he, glided into the hall, secured the bloody trophy still hanging from the ceiling, and carried it away, together with Aeschere (Askher), the king’s bosom friend. Beowolf immediately volunteered to finish his work and avenge Aeschere by seeking and attacking Grendel’s mother in her own retreat. A great fight ensued between Beowolf and Grendel’s mother in her slimy retreat. She clutched him fast, wrestled with him, deprived him of his sword, flung him down, and finally tried to pierce his armor with her trenchant knife. Fortunately, however, the hero’s armor was weapon-proof, and his muscles were so strong that before she could do him any harm he had freed himself from her grasp. Seizing a large sword hanging upon a projection of rock near by, he dealt her a mighty blow, severing her head from the trunk at a single stroke. On his return, Beowolf was almost overwhelmed with gifts by the grateful Danes. A few days later Beowulf and his companions returned home, where the story of their adventures, and an exhibition of all the treasures they had won, formed the principal topics of conversation. Several years of comparative peace ensued. In one of the many Viking raids, Beowolf’s uncle was killed. Fearing for the young prince, the queen bade the people set her own child’s claims aside in favor of Beowulf. This proposal was hailed with enthusiasm; but Beowulf refused to usurp his kinsman’s throne, and raising his infant cousin upon his shield, he declared that he would protect and uphold him as long as he lived. The people, following his example, swore fealty to the new king, and faithfully kept this oath until he died. Years later, in the prime of his youth, the young king was assassinated forcing Beowolf to accept the now vacant throne. As there were none to dispute his claims, the hero no longer refused to rule, and he bravely defended his kingdom against many attacks. After a reign of forty years of comparative peace, when Beowolf had naturally lost much of his former vigor, a terrible, fire-breathing dragon took up its abode in the mountains near by, where it watched over a hoard of glittering gold. A fugitive slave, having made his way unseen into the monster’s den during one of its temporary absences, bore away a small portion of this gold. Infuriated, the dragon flew all over the land, vomiting venom and flames, setting houses and crops afire, and causing so much damage that the people were almost beside themselves with terror. The people implored Beowulf to deliver them as he had delivered the Danes, and to slay this oppressor, which was even worse than the terrible Grendel. Such an appeal could not be disregarded, and in spite of his advanced years Beowulf donned his armor once more. Accompanied by eleven of his bravest men, he then went out to seek the monster in its lair. A desperate struggle followed, in the course of which Beowulf’s sword and strength both failed him. The dragon coiled its long, scaly folds about the aged hero, and was about to crush him to death when Wiglaf, Beowolf’s oldest and most faithful companion, perceiving his master’s imminent danger, sprang forward and distracted the monster from harming Beowolf. Beowulf, recovering, then drew his dagger and soon put an end to the dragon’s life. But even as the dragon breathed its last the hero sank fainting to the ground. Feeling that his end was near, he warmly thanked Wiglaf for his timely aid, rejoiced in the death of the monster, and bade his faithful follower bring out the concealed treasure and lay it at his feet, that he might feast his eyes upon the glittering gold he had won for his people’s use. This is a simple tale of a hero who kills monsters, defends the weak, brings his people fortune, and demonstrates honor and integrity. This reflects the worldview of the Vikings — of what they considered perfection. The gods here are conspicuous by their absence. Man here is expected to solve his own problems. No explanations are given for the existence of monsters just as life offers no explanations for the existence of problems. One has to solve them with brain or brawn or with a little help from a hero.