Beowulf Telleth How He Warred with the Sea Folk
Now among all the joyous company who feasted and made merry in the Hart Hall there was one who bore a gloomy face and angry heart. This was a knight named Hunferth. At Hrothgar's feet he sat in jealous wrath, for he could not bear that any knight in all the world should have greater fame than he himself. The praise of Beowulf was bitterness to him, and thus he spake in scoffing words:
"Art thou that Beowulf who didst contend with Breca on the wide sea in a swimming match? Art thou he who with Breca, out of vain pride swam through the sea, and for foolhardiness ventured your lives in deep waters? No man, 'twas said, nor friend nor foe could turn ye from the foolish play. 'Twas winter-time and the waves dashed with loud fury. Yet for a week ye twain strove upon the waters.
"He overcame thee in swimming, he had more strength. Then at morning-time the sea drave him to shore. Thence he departed to his own land where he owned a nation, a town, and much wealth. Yea, in that contest thou hadst not the better. Now although thou art so splendid in war, I expect a worse defeat for thee, if thou darest to abide here the coming of Grendel."
"Friend Hunferth," said Beowulf quietly, "thou hast spoken much of Breca and of our contest. Now will I tell thee the truth of the matter. Rightly I claim to have the greatest strength upon the sea, more skill than any man upon the waves.
"Breca and I when we were boys talked much thereon, and swore that when we were grown to men we should venture our lives upon the sea. And even so we did.
"As we swam forth into the waves, our naked swords we held in hand. That was right needful to defend us against the whale-fishes.
"Breca was not fleeter than I upon the waves. Strive as he might, he could not flee from me. And so for five nights upon the sea we swam. Then a great storm arose and drave us asunder. Fierce and cold were the waves, dark and terrible the night. The north wind drave upon us till the ocean boiled in madness of wrath.
"Then too the anger of the sea-monsters arose. Glad was I then that my shirt of mail, gold adorned and trusty, wrapped my body. For a spotted monster seized me fast in his grim grip and dragged me to the floor of the sea. But I strove with him and my bright blade was dyed in the blood of the sea-brute.
"So I escaped me that time. Yet, although one was slain, around me swarmed many another fearful foe. But my dear sword served me well. They did not have joy of their feast, the Evil-doers! They did not sit around on the floor of the sea to swallow me down. Nay rather, in the morning, put to sleep with the sword, they lay among the sea-weeds on the shore, cast up by the waves. And never since upon the great waters have they troubled the sailors.
"Yea, in that contest I slew nine sea-brutes. Never have I heard of a fiercer fight by night under the arch of heaven. Never have I heard of a man more wretched upon the waves. Yet I escaped. And when the sun at morning rose above the sea, the waves cast me upon the shore of Finland, spent and weary of my journey.
"I have never heard it said that thou, Hunferth, didst make such play of sword, no nor Breca, nor any of you. Ye have not done such deeds. But in sooth I would not boast myself. Yet I say unto thee, Hunferth, that Grendel, the evil monster, had never done so many horrors against thy king, that he had never brought such shame upon this fair Hall, hadst thou been so battle-fierce as thou vauntest that thou art. Yea, he hath seen that he hath no need to fear the boasted courage of the Dane folk. So he warreth, and slayeth, and feasteth as he pleaseth. He looketh not for battle at the hands of the Danes. But I, a Goth, shall offer him war, war fierce and long. And after that, he who will may go proudly to Hart Hall."
When Beowulf had ceased speaking there was a cry from all the thanes and earls. The Hall rang with the sound of clashing armour and loud shouts as the Dane folk cheered the hero.
But Hunferth abashed held his peace.
Then forth from the bower came Wealtheow, Hrothgar's queen. Stately and tall, and very beautiful she came, clothed in rich garments girdled with gold. A golden crown was upon her head, and jewels glittered upon her neck. In her hand she held a great golden cup set with gems. First to King Hrothgar she went and gave to him the beaker.
"Hail to thee," she cried, "mayest thou have joy of the drinking, joy of the feast, ever dear to thy people."
And Hrothgar drank, merry of heart, glad with thoughts of the morrow.
Then through all the Hall Wealtheow moved, speaking gracious words, giving to each warrior, young and old, wine from the golden cup. At last she, the crowned queen, courteous and beautiful, came to Beowulf.
Graciously Wealtheow smiled upon the Goth lord, holding the beaker to him.
"I thank the Lord of All, that thou art come to us," she said. "Thou art come, noble earl, to bring us comfort, and to deliver us out of our sorrows."
The fierce warrior bowed before the beautiful queen, as he held the wine-cup. He felt the joy of battle rise within him, and aloud he spake:
"I sware it when I did set out upon the deep sea, as I stood by my comrades upon the ship. I sware that I alone would do the deed or go down to death in the grip of the monster. As an earl I must fulfil my word, or here in the Hart Hall must I await my death-day."
The queen was well pleased with the proud words of the Goth lord. And so in splendour and high state she moved through the Hall till she came again to the Gift-seat, and there beside the king she sat.
Then again in the Hall there was sound of laughter and merriment. The minstrels sang, and the earls told of mighty deeds until the evening shadows slanted along the wall. Then all arose. The sound of song and laughter was stilled. It was time to be gone.
Farewells were said. Man greeted man, not knowing what the morning might bring forth. But all knew that battle was making ready for those who waited in that great Hall. When the sun had gone down, and dark night covered all the land, ghostly creatures would creep forth to war in the shadow.
So with grave words Hrothgar bade Beowulf farewell.
"Good luck bide with thee," he said. "Into thy keeping I give the Hall of the Dane folk. Never before did I commit it to any man. Keep it now right bravely. Remember thy fame, show thy great valour, and watch against the Evil-doer. If thou overcome him, there is no desire of thine that shall be unfulfilled, so that it lieth in my power to give it thee."
Then Hrothgar and his band of warriors and thanes went forth from the Hall, and Beowulf with his comrades was left to guard it.
The beds were spread around the walls, and Beowulf prepared himself strangely for battle. His coat of mail, firmly wrought with shining rings of steel, he cast aside. He took his helmet from his head, and with his sword and shield, and all his glittering war-harness, gave it to the keeping of a servant.
And thus all unarmed, clad only in his silken coat, he proudly spake:
"In war-craft I deem I am no worse than Grendel. Therefore not with the sword shall I put him to sleep, though that were easy. Not thus shall I take his life, for he is not learned in the use of war-weapons. So without them we twain this night shall fight. And God the all-wise shall give victory even as it shall seem best to Him."
Having so spoken Beowulf laid his head upon his pillow and all around him his warriors lay down to take their rest. None among them thought ever again to see his own land. For they had heard of the terrible death that had carried off so many of the Dane folk from Hart Hall. Little they thought to escape that death. Yet so reckless were they of life that soon they slept. They who were there to guard that high Hall slept—all save one.
Beowulf alone, watchful and waiting for the foe, impatiently longed for the coming battle.