T he saxons were fond of singing at their feasts old songs about a hero named Beowulf. Those of them who left their earlier home and came to England did not forget these songs. More incidents were added, and by and by, just as in the case of the tale of the Nibelungs and that of King Arthur, some one wove them together into one long story. The following is the story of "Beowulf."
The old king Hrothgar, who ruled in the land of the Danes, built a mighty hall in which his heroes might feast when they returned from their hard-fought battles. Every one who saw it admired it, but a wicked monster called Grendel, who prowled about in the darkness, was angry. He could not bear to hear the merry sounds of music and feasting; and one night while the men lay asleep, he crept up to the hall and slew thirty of the warriors, dragging their bodies away with him to devour.
The Wicked Monster Grendel
Night after night this same slaughter went on, and the old king was almost broken-hearted at the loss of his beloved heroes. But help was coming. The young champion Beowulf, of the land of Gotland, had heard of the trouble, and he determined to free the king and his men. So, with some brave comrades, he sailed away from his home, and soon reached the land of the Danes. The young warriors had hardly stepped on shore when the warden of the land, who had been watching them from the cliffs, demanded sharply who they were, for he feared they might be enemies. Upon learning Beowulf's name and the purpose for which he had come, he conducted the strangers to the hall of Hrothgar. Then the king was glad at heart, for he had heard of the amazing prowess of Beowulf.
That night, while the warriors lay asleep, Grendel stole up through the mists, as usual. His eyes shone like fire as he stretched out his arm to seize the newcomer. But Beowulf caught his hand and held it in such a grip as the monster had never known. He was afraid and tried to flee, but he could not. The heroes awoke and drew their swords, but no weapon could pierce the skin of Grendel; he must be overcome by strength alone. At length he escaped, but his arm was torn from its socket and left in the iron grasp of Beowulf.
In the morning there was great rejoicing. The king loaded the hero with lavish gifts. The queen brought him handsome garments and hung about his neck a fair golden collar; and all were glad and happy.
Alas, on the following night Grendel's mother, another monster as terrible as he, came up from her cavern, beneath a lake, for revenge. She seized and carried away with her one who was very dear to the aged Hrothgar. The king grieved sorely, but Beowulf promised vengeance. Then Beowulf and Hrothgar and a company of chosen men found their way by a lonely path to the lake in which was the den of the fiends. The head of him who was dear to Hrothgar lay on a rock, and swimming in the water were fearful serpents and dragons. Beowulf put on his armor and sprang into the lake. Down, down he sank through the gloomy water. Grendel's mother clutched at him and dragged him into her frightful den. The men by the shore saw the water become red with blood and they grew very sorrowful; but after a long, long while they saw Beowulf swimming toward the land. He had slain Grendel's mother, and he bore with him the terrible head of Grendel.
Then there was great joy in the beautiful hall of King Hrothgar. Many costly gifts were bestowed upon him who had delivered the followers of the king, and then Beowulf bade them all farewell and set out for his homeland.
Beowulf was soon chosen chief of his people and ruled for many years. When he was an old man, a fire-breathing dragon that dwelt in his country came forth by night and went through the land killing people and burning towns and cities. This dragon guarded a vast treasure, and King Beowulf said to himself, "I will win this treasure for my people, and I will avenge their wrongs." He did slay the dragon, but he himself was mortally wounded.
His men grieved sorely. They built a great funeral pyre, all hung about with helmets and shields and coats of mail, and on it they laid gently the body of their dead leader. Afterward they reared in his honor a mighty mound on a hill beside the sea, and in it they buried many rings of gold and other treasures which they had brought forth from the dragon's cave. In after days they often spoke together of Beowulf, and they said, "He cared more for glory than did any other king who dwelt on the earth. He was kind and gentle, too, and he truly loved his people."