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Outlines of English and American Literature
by Long, William J.

The old epic poem, called after its hero Beowulf, is more than myth or legend, more even than history; it is a picture of a life and a world that once had real existence. Of that vanished life, that world of ancient Englishmen, only a few material fragments remain: a bit of linked armor, a rusted sword with runic inscriptions, the oaken ribs of a war galley buried with the Viking who had sailed it on stormy seas, and who was entombed in it because he loved it. All these are silent witnesses; they have no speech or language. But this old poem is a living voice, speaking with truth and sincerity of the daily habit of the fathers of modern England, of their adventures by sea or land, their stern courage and grave courtesy, their ideals of manly honor, their thoughts of life and death.

Let us hear, then, the story of Beowulf, picturing in our imagination the story-teller and his audience. The scene opens in a great hall, where a fire blazes on the hearth and flashes upon polished shields against the timbered walls. Down the long room stretches a table where men are feasting or passing a beaker from hand to hand, and anon crying Hal! hal! in answer to song or in greeting to a guest. At the head of the hall sits the chief with his chosen ealdormen. At a sign from the chief a gleeman rises and strikes a single clear note from his harp. Silence falls on the benches; the story begins:

  Hail! we of the Spear Danes in days of old
  Have heard the glory of warriors sung;
  Have cheered the deeds that our chieftains wrought,
  And the brave Scyld's triumph o'er his foes.

Then because there are Scyldings present, and because brave men revere their ancestors, the gleeman tells a beautiful legend of how King Scyld came and went: how he arrived as a little child, in a war-galley that no man sailed, asleep amid jewels and weapons; and how, when his life ended at the call of Wyrd or Fate, they placed him against the mast of a ship, with treasures heaped around him and a golden banner above his head, gave ship and cargo to the winds, and sent their chief nobly back to the deep whence he came.

So with picturesque words the gleeman thrills his hearers with a vivid picture of a Viking's sea-burial. It thrills us now, when the Vikings are no more, and when no other picture can be drawn by an eyewitness of that splendid pagan rite.

The Story of Heorot

One of Scyld's descendants was King Hrothgar (Roger) who built the hall Heorot, where the king and his men used to gather nightly to feast, and to listen to the songs of scop or gleeman. [Footnote: Like Agamemnon and the Greek chieftains, every Saxon leader had his gleeman or minstrel, and had also his own poet, his scop or "shaper," whose duty it was to shape a glorious deed into more glorious verse. So did our pagan ancestors build their monuments out of songs that should live in the hearts of men when granite or earth mound had crumbled away.] "There was joy of heroes," but in one night the joy was changed to mourning. Out on the lonely fens dwelt the jotun (giant or monster) Grendel, who heard the sound of men's mirth and quickly made an end of it. One night, as the thanes slept in the hall, he burst in the door and carried off thirty warriors to devour them in his lair under the sea. Another and another horrible raid followed, till Heorot was deserted and the fear of Grendel reigned among the Spear Danes. There were brave men among them, but of what use was courage when their weapons were powerless against the monster? "Their swords would not bite on his body."

For twelve years this terror continued; then the rumor of Grendel reached the land of the Geats, where Beowulf lived at the court of his uncle, King Hygelac. No sooner did Beowulf hear of a dragon to be slain, of a friendly king "in need of a man," than he selected fourteen companions and launched his war-galley in search of adventure.

The Sailing of Beowulf

At this point the old epic becomes a remarkable portrayal of daily life. In its picturesque lines we see the galley set sail, foam flying from her prow; we catch the first sight of the southern headlands, approach land, hear the challenge of the "warder of the cliffs" and Beowulf's courteous answer. We follow the march to Heorot in war-gear, spears flashing, swords and byrnies clanking, and witness the exchange of greetings between Hrothgar and the young hero. Again is the feast spread in Heorot; once more is heard the song of gleemen, the joyous sound of warriors in comradeship. There is also a significant picture of Hrothgar's wife, "mindful of courtesies," honoring her guests by passing the mead-cup with her own hands. She is received by these stern men with profound respect.

When the feast draws to an end the fear of Grendel returns. Hrothgar warns his guests that no weapon can harm the monster, that it is death to sleep in the hall; then the Spear Danes retire, leaving Beowulf and his companions to keep watch and ward. With the careless confidence of brave men, forthwith they all fall asleep:

      Forth from the fens, from the misty moorlands,
      Grendel came gliding--God's wrath he bore--
      Came under clouds until he saw clearly,
      Glittering with gold plates, the mead-hall of men.
      Down fell the door, though hardened with fire-bands,
      Open it sprang at the stroke of his paw.
      Swollen with rage burst in the bale-bringer,
      Flamed in his eyes a fierce light, likest fire.

The Fight with Grendel

Throwing himself upon the nearest sleeper Grendel crushes and swallows him; then he stretches out a paw towards Beowulf, only to find it "seized in such a grip as the fiend had never felt before." A desperate conflict begins, and a mighty uproar,--crashing of benches, shoutings of men, the "war-song" of Grendel, who is trying to break the grip of his foe. As the monster struggles toward the door, dragging the hero with him, a wide wound opens on his shoulder; the sinews snap, and with a mighty wrench Beowulf tears off the whole limb. While Grendel rushes howling across the fens, Beowulf hangs the grisly arm with its iron claws, "the whole grapple of Grendel," over the door where all may see it.

Once more there is joy in Heorot, songs, speeches, the liberal giving of gifts. Thinking all danger past, the Danes sleep in the hall; but at midnight comes the mother of Grendel, raging to avenge her son. Seizing the king's bravest companion she carries him away, and he is never seen again.

Here is another adventure for Beowulf. To old Hrothgar, lamenting his lost earl, the hero says simply:

      Wise chief, sorrow not. For a man it is meet
      His friend to avenge, not to mourn for his loss;
      For death comes to all, but honor endures:
      Let him win it who will, ere Wyrd to him calls,
      And fame be the fee of a warrior dead!

Following the trail of the Brimwylf or Merewif (sea-wolf or sea-woman) Beowulf and his companions pass through desolate regions to a wild cliff on the shore. There a friend offers his good sword Hrunting for the combat, and Beowulf accepts the weapon, saying:

                   ic me mid Hruntinge
      Dom gewyrce, oththe mec death nimeth.
                         I with Hrunting
      Honor will win, or death shall me take.

The Dragon's Cave

Then he plunges into the black water, is attacked on all sides by the Grundwrygen or bottom monsters, and as he stops to fight them is seized by the Merewif and dragged into a cave, a mighty "sea-hall" free from water and filled with a strange light. On its floor are vast treasures; its walls are adorned with weapons; in a corner huddles the wounded Grendel. All this Beowulf sees in a glance as he turns to fight his new foe.

Follows then another terrific combat, in which the brand Hrunting proves useless. Though it rings out its "clanging war-song" on the monster's scales, it will not "bite" on the charmed body. Beowulf is down, and at the point of death, when his eye lights on a huge sword forged by the jotuns of old. Struggling to his feet he seizes the weapon, whirls it around his head for a mighty blow, and the fight is won. Another blow cuts off the head of Grendel, but at the touch of the poisonous blood the steel blade melts like ice before the fire.

Leaving all the treasures, Beowulf takes only the golden hilt of the magic sword and the head of Grendel, reŽnters the sea and mounts up to his companions. They welcome him as one returned from the dead. They relieve him of helmet and byrnie, and swing away in a triumphal procession to Heorot. The hero towers among them, a conspicuous figure, and next to him comes the enormous head of Grendel carried on a spear-shaft by four of the stoutest thanes.

The Firedrake

More feasting, gifts, noble speeches follow before the hero returns to his own land, laden with treasures. So ends the first part of the epic. In the second part Beowulf succeeds Hygelac as chief of the Geats, and rules them well for fifty years. Then a "firedrake," guarding an immense hoard of treasure (as in most of the old dragon stories), begins to ravage the land. Once more the aged Beowulf goes forth to champion his people; but he feels that "Wyrd is close to hand," and the fatalism which pervades all the poem is finely expressed in his speech to his companions. In his last fight he kills the dragon, winning the dragon's treasure for his people; but as he battles amid flame and smoke the fire enters his lungs, and he dies "as dies a man," paying for victory with his life. Among his last words is a command which reminds us again of the old Greeks, and of the word of Elpenor to Odysseus:

        "Bid my brave men raise a barrow for me on the headland,
        broad, high, to be seen far out at sea: that hereafter
        sea-farers, driving their foamy keels through ocean's mist,
        may behold and say, ''Tis Beowulf's mound!'"

The hero's last words and the closing scenes of the epic, including the funeral pyre, the "bale-fire" and another Viking burial to the chant of armed men riding their war steeds, are among the noblest that have come down to us from beyond the dawn of history.

Such, in brief outline, is the story of Beowulf. It is recorded on a fire-marked manuscript, preserved as by a miracle from the torch of the Danes, which is now one of the priceless treasures of the British Museum. The handwriting indicates that the manuscript was copied about the year 1100, but the language points to the eighth or ninth century, when the poem in its present form was probably composed on English soil. [Footnote: Materials used in Beowulf are very old, and may have been brought to England during the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Parts of the material, such as the dragon-fights, are purely mythical. They relate to Beowa, a superman, of whom many legends were told by Scandinavian minstrels. The Grendel legend, for example, appears in the Icelandic saga of Gretti, who slays the dragon Glam. Other parts of Beowulf are old battle songs; and still others, relating to King Hygelac and his nephew, have some historical foundation. So little is known about the epic that one cannot safely make any positive statement as to its origin. It was written in crude, uneven lines; but a rhythmic, martial effect, as of marching men, was produced by strong accent and alliteration, and the effect was strengthened by the harp with which the gleeman always accompanied his recital.]


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