So it was that after Hrothgar, Halfdane’s son,
Defeated his enemies, he raised a great hall,
With high rafters, carved eaves, and gilded wood.
Glorious it was, the grandest hall in the North,
And Hrothgar named it Heorot.
Then Halfdane’s heir gave generously to his men who aided him,
Gifts of golden rings, weapons wondrously wrought,
Stout shields and marvelously woven chain-mail.
Hrothgar gave as a king should; he was not sparing of his golden horde.
Then there was feasting in the wooden hall,
Meat and mead in abundance, and of harp-sung songs not a few.
At Hrothgar’s height of might did they wend their wassail,
And then retired to sleep in peace.
But the monster Grendel, descendant of murderous Cain,
Dwelling in darkness on the lonely moor,
Heard their feasting and came to plunder the ring-giver’s joy.
Quickly and quietly he devoured many men
Even before they woke from their slumber.
In the morning was loud weeping and wailing in Hrothgar’s hall
When he saw the remains of that man-mauler’s meal
And the fearful footprints leading towards the moor.
Every night came the moor-monster and none could withstand him,
So that Heorot had to be abandoned;
The victory hall became the hell-monster’s haunt.
News of Hrothgar’s plight came from Daneland to Hygelac the Geat,
As he feasted with his valiant men.
When his nephew Beowulf heard the harrowing tale,
He bounded up and made a formal boast
That he would quench Hrothgar’s grief or die in the attempt.
With fifteen men he sailed the swan-way,
Quickly coming to Hrothgar’s shore.
Halfdane’s son gave a feast for him at Heorot,
And Beowulf made his formal boast to the ring-giver,
“I renounce the sword and shield, for a fair fight
Against that man-mauler who has not either;
With only my strength shall I wrestle and win,
Or die the death of valor if wyrd be against me.
So say I, Beowul, thane of Hygelac.”
Then Hrothgar rejoiced and plentious gifts he promised Beowulf,
Then the Danes retired from their hall to sleep hopefully.
Beowulf and his men slept soundly on the benches,
Waiting for the moor-monster’s silent step.
Grendel smelt that a strong savior had come.
He ripped the doors open in rage,
Deftly devouring the first man, coming next to Beowulf’s bench.
But Beowulf sloughed off his feigned sleep,
Grabbing Grendel in a strong armhold he held the monster tight.
Cain’s descendant thrashed violently but escape eluded him.
He gained a tight hold on Beowulf.
Seeing their leader’s life ebb the men hacked with their swords
But no sharp sword could pierce that stonelike skin.
Then gathering his might Beowulf wrenched Grendel’s arm and wrested it away;
The sin-soaked sinews sundered,
The moor-monster fled the hall to leak out his life on the dark moor.
Beowulf hung his trophy in the rafters at the front of the hall;
Hrothgar, coming as dawn dighted Heorot for the day,
Rejoiced as he viewed the victory-token at the entrance.
A fine feast Halfdane’s heir gave them;
His wife Wealhtheow served the men in turn.
Hrothgar gladly gifted trusted treasures from his horde,
And not a man was disappointed with his share, but all readily rejoiced.
The gift-giver spoke that he considered Beowulf a true son.
But in the morning the joy Heorot’s lord was changed to sadness and
Loudly weeping for his best friend and counselor, lost in the night.
Beowulf came at the sound
From the honor-house where had slept he came to hear Hrothgar’s tale:
“Alas, the moor-monster lived not alone!
Last night, in the cold damp of night, Grendel’s mother came,
Bound by the blood-feud, as are we all, she came for her blood-gild.
Our arms near at hand, we leapt up at her coming; not a man fled.
Seeing our stalwart strength, she hastily grabbed Aeschere and Grendel’s arm
And fled into the night with my friend, and your trophy
So that once again Heorot is despoiled by death and despair.”
Beowulf hardly hesitated as he made his formal boast:
“Fair father, I cannot leave you in the lurch;
I will find this fiend’s mother, avenge Aeschere’s death,
and break this blood-feud this day.”
So they rode out to the moor, to the mere deep and dreadful
Where hot waters bubbled and boiled
Which all animals greatly feared,
And harts turned and lowered their horns,
Facing fearful death by their pursuers
Rather than risking those wicked waters.
Here Beowulf armed and armored him,
Girding an ancient sword whose hard edge
Had never failed to cleave foe-helms.
It was lent by Unferth the unready, Hrothgar’s thane.
Then spoke: “New-found father,
Treat my thanes as your foster-sons
If I do not return to your hall.”
Immediately the Geat’s-gift dived,
Into those bale waters Beowulf went,
Dived he down, barely bottoming ere the day was done.
From nearby cave came the mother,
She set her claws to slice his skin and free his life-blood.
The goodly-gifted armor of Heorot’s horde saved him;
The mere-mother could not take the life that the Lord held firm.
Now Beowulf swung the hard-edged sword, lately lent,
And it, too, failed, scarcely scratching the mere-monster.
Then Beowulf saw a sword shimmering in the cavern’s gloom,
A sword made for giants, hoarded in the spoils-pile.
With great strength he swung the giant sword;
He slew the mere-mother and sliced off Grendel’s head.
But as the sword sank into the monster’s corpse
His boiling blood melted the bold blade.
He had but the glittering green-gemmed hilt as he swam to the surface.
Only Beowulf’s men still waited for him at the baleful bank.
He threw Grendel’s head on shore, and climbing out
His thanes rejoiced at his great victory,
Raucously rejoicing they returned in radiance.
Holding Grendel’s head they entered Heorot in high honor:
The blood-feud banished, Hrothgar’s hall safe at last.
Great was the rejoicing, free-flowing was the mead,
Sweat was the singing, loud was the laughing.
Gladly laden with lavish gifts, Beowulf took his leave of Heorot.
“How fared you, Beowulf Strong-arm?” asked Hygelac.
“We feared for your return and anxiously await your tale.”
“As all know, Uncle-Lord, Halfdane’s heir is avenged.
I wrestled the moor-monster Grendel, wrenching off his arm,
And slayed his more monstrous mother in her dark-water hole.
Heorot’s ring-giver was gracious and generous,
Holding me as a son, taking me to his golden horde,
And bidding me choose twelve gifts from among the treasures.”
Thus speaking, Beowulf gave of those twelve treasures
To his kinsman-lord, a proper gift of a generous thane.
“While I sat at the bench with Hrothgar’s sons
I heard of their fair sister Freawaru,
To be given in peace-wedding to Ingeld the Heothobard.
But I doubt that a daughter-gift will heal the feuds and fuming of the Heothobards,
For as the men sit at the marriage meal,
Defeated Heothobards seated across from Danes,
Who wear armor and wield arms they once wore,
An old Heothobard will stir up a young hothead.
‘Will you meekly mind this yonder man,
Wearing your father’s battle-dress, which is rightly yours?’
One or other will yearn for glory and vengeance,
And leap to a cleave-stroke at the wedding wassail.”
Then Hygelac give a precious necklace and large tracts of land
For his valor and aid of the Danes.
In time, Hygelac and his son returned their life’s leasehold,
And bold Beowulf inherited the treasure-chair.
Always glad to risk his life for the protection of people,
He kept the enemies of the Geats at bay,
Those pursuing plunder and those furthering the blood-feud.
The safety under his hand was well-known.
Now when Beowulf grew old and grey,
A slave running away came upon an old barrow.
Built by the last of some tribe,
Heaped with all their treasure,
Useless glitter to those whose bone-cages were broken.
The slave had found an entrance to that treasure-horde
And taken a golden goblet.
But a dragon had found it long ago
And slept atop the spoils.
He missed the cup, and his hot anger ignited his fires;
The dragon vomited his fury,
Burning all the farms within a night’s flight.
When Beowulf heard the news he rose up,
Formally boasting that he would slay the dragon.
For he was confident in his strength;
There was never a battle which had bested him.
But when he arrived at the barren barrow,
Lonely on a spit of land by the sea,
He wondered if his wyrd had finally failed,
And thought his return unlikely.
Yet he never wavered from his walk,
For is not doing bold deeds, earning great glory,
And being sung in song for the ages
The meet measure of a successful man?
Beowulf walked to the stone-arched entrance,
He called loudly for the creature to come fight.
The dragon came with fiery breath.
Sheltering behind his shield,
Beowulf felt the withering heat
And knew he could not keep a distance.
He ran up to the gold-sitter, gave a great swing of his sword;
Although the hard-edge blade had cleaved many a helm
His stroke was so strong that the blade splintered.
Then the wild wyrm bit him on the shoulder.
Beowulf knew that the wound was poisoned
That his life done, but fought on to win his last battle.
His thanes had fled, except one, Wiglaf son of Weohstan,
Who ran to aid his liege-lord.
His battle-swing barely pierced the farm-firer,
But Beowulf saw the fires ebb slightly
And taking a knife, plunged it in the dragon.
That gold-guarder felt his life expire.
Beowulf said, “my life is now spent, but bring
Out some of that treasure trove
That I may see the gold that I have bought.
And when my byre-fires have cooled,
Build a barrow for me by the sea-waves
That all may see it and remember the deeds of Beowulf.”
So the faithful thane went in to that golden horde,
Treasure piled beneath the pillars,
Finely worked gold and glittering gems,
Decaying weapons and mail,
A cursed treasure from the past.
Beowulf saw his battle-fruits and breathed his last.
Then Wiglaf in anger unleashed his necessary word-horde:
“You faithless thanes, you battle-blenchers!
What good were his golden gifts, to buy this sort of service?
Now the strong-arm of the land is broken,
The oaken-door shattered so all may come in.
Now will our enemies renew their blood-feud.”
They piled the life-bought treasure on the byre;
The heat of the burning melted it.
They mourned their generous lord, faithful defender.
A woman wailed wildly in grief:
“Now will battle, death, and slavery overtake us!”
Ten days it took to build the barrow around the remains.
Thus are the deeds of noble Beowulf remembered.
(This summary is my own creation, but maintains the flavor of Heaney’s translation, albeit I have the freedom to include more alliteration since I am not constrained to a text. Aside from a few standard kennings, most of the kennings [e.g. “moor-monster”] are mine. My kennings are not proper, as they take the form of fairly straightforward adjective-noun more frequently and more directly than Norse kennings, which are typically more riddle-like [e.g. “swan-way” (ocean), “ring-giver” (king, since a ring of gold is a typical gift for service))].)
Heaney’s translation is quite readable. I expected the poem to be a bit of a slog, but it flowed easily and was engaging. He acknowledges in the endnotes that he intentionally made some errors, but does not describe them, nor does he say in what ways the errors favor. However, I note that most Cliffs-notes type summaries say that Grendel was jealous of the joy in the Heorot, whereas Heaney’s translation does not give any reason. Heaney has a good balance of readability and maintaining the flavor of the alliteration that is essential to Anglo-Saxon poetry, so perhaps the errors are to enable a better poetic balance.
Much has been made of the fact that this is both a pagan and a Christian poem. At first glance, the Christian elements seem to be veneer: Grendel is from rebellious Cain’s lineage, and periodically the poet says that Beowulf remained alive because the Lord kept him alive. Certainly the value system of the characters remains pagan. Heroic deeds, service to one’s lord, treasure as a token of both wealth and glory; all are Norse values, from a world where one’s enemies could descend on one at any time (hence why the warriors slept with the weapons nearby), and where one’s honor required taking vengeance on those who had wronged you. However, discussion of Norse society often notes the problem with blood-feuds. Norwegians unhappy with the rise of Harold Bluetooth moved to the newly-discovered Iceland to maintain their independence, but after a century or so of this, they asked the Norwegian king to rule over them because of the blood-feuds. After Beowulf’s victories there is a song sung, contrasting Beowulf’s valor with some historical character, and these highlight the constant tit-for-tat warfare. Likewise, at Beowulf’s homecoming he makes the completely unsolicited and unrelated remark that he does not thing that marrying off a daughter in hopes of buying peace is going to work. Similarly, the poem ends with the Geats lamenting that they are now open to their enemies. Beowulf himself ends blood-feuds with his victories, or protects his people from being on the receiving end, but he does not start anything in a quest for glorying. So one could interpret the poet as relatively faithfully recounting the original poem, but highlighting the nature of blood-feud as a commentary on the deficiency of the old days. This would seem to be in keeping with how stories are frequently re-told, highlighting and embellishing one element or the other that is important to the teller, while still being faithful to the story. I have wondered what about Christianity caused the pagans to embrace it relatively quickly and completely. Certainly the Christian value of forgiving one’s enemy (and enforced/empowered by the essential fact that God set the example by forgiving us at the high price of the death of his only son) would be a compelling reason to adopt Christianity, especially combined with it’s value for loving each other, kindness, humility, not seeking self-glory, etc.
The poem, or at least Heaney’s translation, has a powerful emotional ending. From the glorious victories of his youth to an excess of pride leading to his death, it creates a strong sense of sadness because Beowulf’s death is perhaps unnecessary (if he were not so prideful as to take on the dragon alone) but also inevitable (he must die sometime, and in any case, his comrades-in-arms mostly fled anyway). He dies slowly enough to see the gold and glory that he won, but too quickly to enjoy the benefits of it. Then we are hit with the understanding that his people’s destruction is inevitable now that Beowulf’s might is gone. And here, too, we might see a Christian theme, that protection from our enemy does not come from the great deeds of men, but (unstated, as it would be common knowledge of the poem’s Christian readers) rather by the protection of God.
This thousand-year-old epic poem is clearly a captivating masterpiece. It faithfully captures the allure of gold, glory, and great immortal deeds, yet also critiques those same values that lead to a cycle of blood-feud and one’s inevitable destiny to be destroyed by that same cycle. The critique is unstated and subtle, like some of the books of the Old Testament (notably Judges and the book of Samuel’s critique of Eli the priest and of King Saul), which means one is never sure of the answer. It is not unlikely that there are more than one critique hidden there (or perhaps not so hidden in the minds of the original readers, whose Norse-Christian cultural thinking is lost to us), so the poem makes the reader think. It is a window onto a glorious past, yet the past is bittersweet and clearly not held up to be emulated. So there are many facets to consider. Heaney’s translation makes this masterpiece accessible to speakers of modern English, which clearly maintaining the flavor and content of the original. Definitely a rewarding read.