The most ancient relic of literature of the spoken languages of modern Europe is undoubtedly the epic poem "Beowulf," which is supposed to have been composed by the Anglo-Saxons previous to their invasion of England. Although the poem probably belongs to the fifth century, the only existing manuscript is said to date from the ninth or tenth century.
This curious work, in rude alliterative verse (for rhyme was introduced in England only after the Norman Conquest), is the most valuable old English manuscript in the British Museum. Although much damaged by fire, it has been carefully studied by learned men. They have patiently restored the poem, the story of which is as follows:
Hrothgar (the modern Roger), King of Denmark, was a descendant of Odin, being the third monarch of the celebrated dynasty of the Skioldungs. They proudly traced their ancestry to Skeaf, or Skiold, Odin's son who mysteriously drifted to their shores. He was then but an infant, and lay in the middle of a boat, on a sheaf of ripe wheat, surrounded by priceless weapons and jewels. As the people were seeking for a ruler, they immediately recognized the hand of Odin in this mysterious advent, proclaimed the child king, and obeyed him loyally as long as he lived. When he felt death draw near, Skeaf, or Skiold, ordered a vessel to be prepared, lay down in the midst on a sheaf of grain or on a funeral pyre, and drifted out into the wide ocean, disappearing as mysteriously as he had come.
Such being his lineage, it is no wonder that Hrothgar became a mighty chief; and as he had amassed much wealth in the course of a long life of warfare, he resolved to devote part of it to the construction of a magnificent hall, called Heorot, where he might feast his retainers and listen to the heroic lays of the scalds during the long winter evenings.
The inauguration of this hall was celebrated by a sumptuous entertainment; and when all the guests had retired, the king's bodyguard, composed of thirty-two dauntless warriors, lay down the hall to rest. When mourning dawned, and the servants appeared to remove the couches, they beheld with horror the floor and walls all stained with blood, the only trace of the knights who had gone to rest there in full armor.
Gigantic, blood-stained footsteps, leading directly from the festive hall to the sluggish waters of a deep mountain lake, or fiord, furnished the only clew to their disappearance. Hrothgar, the kind, beholding these, declared that they had been made by Grendel, a descendant of the giants, whom a magician had driven out of the country, but who had evidently returned to renew his former depredations.
As Hrothgar was now too old to wield a sword with his former skill, his first impulse was, of course, to offer a princely reward to any man brave enough to free the country of this terrible scourge. As soon as this was known ten of his doughtiest knights volunteered to camp in the hall on the following night, and attack the monster Grendel should he venture to reappear.
But in spite of the valor of these experienced warriors, and of the efficacy of their oft-tried weapons, they too succumbed. A minstrel, hiding in a dark corner of the hall, was the only one who escaped Grendel's fury, and after shudderingly describing the massacre he had witnessed, he fled in terror to the kingdom of the Geates (Jutes or Goths). There he sang his lays in the presence of Hygelac, the king, and of his nephew Beowulf (the Bee Hunter), and roused their deepest interest by describing the visit of Grendel and the vain but heroic defense of the brave knights. Beowulf, having listened intently, eagerly questioned the scald, and, learning from him that the monster still haunted those regions, impetuously declared his intention to visit Hrothgar's kingdom, and show his valor by fighting and, if possible, 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, to Hygelac's amazement; but when Beowulf suddenly reappeared and explained that they had fallen by his hand, his joy knew no bounds. As Breka had returned first, he received the prize for swimming; but the king gave Beowulf his treasured sword, Nägeling, 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, where he was challenged by the coast guard and warmly welcomed as soon as he made his purpose known.
Hrothgar received Beowulf most hospitably, but vainly tried to dissuade him from his perilous undertaking. Then, after a sumptuous banquet, where the mead flowed with true northern lavishness, Hrothgar and his suite sadly left the hall Heorot in charge of the brave band of strangers, whom they never expected to see again.
As soon as the king departed, Beowulf bade his companions lie down and sleep in peace, promising to watch over them, yet laying aside both armor and sword; for he knew that weapons were of no avail against the monster, whom he intended to grapple with hand to hand should it really appear.
The warriors had no sooner stretched themselves out upon the benches in the hall than, overcome by the oppressive air as well as by mead, they sank into a profound sleep. Beowulf alone remained awake, watching for Grendel's coming. In the early morning, when all was very still, the giant appeared, tore asunder the iron bolts and bars which secured the door, and striding into the hall, enveloped in a long, damp mantle of clammy mist, he pounced upon one of the sleepers. He tore him limb from limb, greedily drank his blood, and devoured his flesh, leaving naught but the head, hands, and feet of his unhappy victim. This ghastly repast only whetted the fiend's ravenous appetite, however, so he eagerly stretched out his hands in the darkness to seize another warrior. Imagine his surprise and dismay when he suddenly found his hand caught in so powerful a grasp that all his efforts could not wrench 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 from out of its socket! Bleeding and mortally wounded, he then beat a hasty retreat to his marshy den, leaving a long and bloody trail behind him.
As for Beowulf, exhausted but triumphant, he stood in the middle of the hall, where his companions crowded around him, gazing in speechless awe at the mighty hand and limb, and the clawlike fingers, far harder than steel, which no power had hitherto been able to resist.
At dawn Hrothgar and his subjects also appeared. They 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 Heorot. 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.
While the men were feasting, listening to the lays of the scalds, and carrying with usual toasts, Wealtheow, Hrothgar's beautiful wife, the Queen of Denmark, appeared. She pledged Beowulf in a cup of wine, which he gallantly drained after she had touched it to her lips. The she bestowed upon him a costly necklace (the famous Brisinga-men, according to some authorities) and a ring of the finest gold.
When the banquet was ended, Hrothgar escorted his guests to more pleasant sleeping apartments than they had occupied the night before, leaving his own men to guard the hall, where Grendel would never again appear. The warriors, fearing no danger, slept in peace; but in the dead of the night the mother of the giant, as grewsome 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 Æschere (Askher), the king's bosom friend.
When Hrothgar learned this new loss at early dawn he was overcome with grief; and when Beowulf, attracted by the sound of weeping, appeared at his side, he mournfully told him of his irretrievable loss.
The young hero immediately volunteered to finish his work and avenge Æschere by seeking and attacking Grendel's mother in her own retreat; but as he knew the perils of this expedition, Beowulf first gave explicit directions for the disposal of his personal property in case he never returned. Then, escorted by the Danes and Geates, he followed the bloody track until he came to a cliff overhanging the waters of the mountain pool. There the bloody traces ceased, but Æschere's gory head was placed aloft as a trophy.
Beowulf gazed down into the deep waters, saw that they also were darkly dyed with the monster's blood, and, after taking leave of Hrothgar, bade his men await his return for two whole days and nights ere they definitely gave him up for lost. He then plunged bravely into the bloody waters, swam about seeking for the monster's retreat, and dived deep. At last, descrying a phosphorescent gleam in the depths, he quickly made his way thither, shrewdly conjecturing that it must Grendel's hiding place. But on his way thither he was repeatedly obliged to have recourse to his sword to defend himself against the clutches of countless hideous sea monsters which came rushing toward him on all sides.
A strong current seized Beowulf, and swept him irresistibly along into the slimy retreat of Grendel's mother. 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 nearby, he dealt her a mighty blow, severing her head from the trunk at a single stroke. The blood pouring out of the cave mingled with the waters without, and turned them to such a lurid hue that Hrothgar and his men sorrowfully departed, leaving the Geates alone to watch for the return of the hero, whom they feared they would never see again.
Beowulf, in the mean while, had rushed to the rear of the cave, where, finding Grendel in the last those, he cut off his head also. He seized this ghastly trophy and rapidly made his way up through the tainted waters, which the fiery blood of the two monsters had so overheated that his sword melted in its scabbard and naught but the hilt remained.
The Geates were about to depart in sorrow, notwithstanding the orders they had received, when they suddenly beheld their beloved chief safe and sound, and bearing the evidences of his success. Then their cries of joy echoed and reëchoed from the neighboring hills, and Beowulf was escorted back to Heorot, where he 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, ere the land was invaded by the Friesians, who raided the coast, burning and plundering all in their way, and retreated into their ships before Hygelac or Beowulf could overtake and punish them. The immediate result of this invasion was a counter-movement on Hygelac's part. But although he successfully harried Friesland, he fell into an ambush just as he was about to leave the country, and was cruelly slain, his nephew Beowulf barely escaping a similar untoward fate.
When the little army of the Geates reached home once more, they either buried or consumed Hygelac's remains, with his weapons and battle steed, as was customary in the North. This ceremony ended, Queen Hygd, overwhelmed with grief, and fearing the almost inevitable dissensions arising during the long minority of an infant king, convened the popular assembly known as the Thing, and bade the people set her own child's claim aside; in favor of Beowulf. This proposal was hailed with enthusiasm; but Beowulf refused to usurp his kinsman's throne, and raising Hardred, Hygelac's infant son, 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.
Hardred, having attained his majority, ruled wisely and well; but his career was cut short by the sons of Othere, the discoverer of the North Cape. These youths had rebelled against their father's authority and taken refuge at Hardred's court; but when the latter advised a reconciliation, the eldest youth angrily drew his sword and slew him.
This crime was avenged, with true northern promptitude, by Wiglaf, one of the king's followers; and while the second youth effected an escape, Beowulf was summoned by the Thing 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 Eadgils, Othere's second son. Eadgils was no king of Sweden, and came with an armed host to avenge his brother's death; but he only succeeded in losing his own life.
A reign of forty years of comparative peace brought Beowulf to extreme old age. He had naturally lost much of his former vigor, and was therefore somewhat dismayed when a terrible, fire-breathing dragon took up its abode in the mountains near by, where it gloated 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. On its return the Firedrake discovered the theft, and became so furious that its howling and writhing shook the mountain like an earthquake. When night came on its rage was still unappeased, and it 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. Seeing that all their attempts to appease the dragon were utterly fruitless, and being afraid to attack it in its lair, they finally 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 Wiglaf and eleven of his bravest men, he then went out to seek the monster in its lair. At the entrance of the mountain gorge Beowulf bade his followers pause, and advancing alone to the monster's den, he boldly challenged it to come forth and begin the fray. A moment later the mountain shook as the monster rushed out breathing fire and flame, and Beowulf felt the first gust of its hot breath, even through his massive shield.
A desperate struggle followed, in the course of which Beowulf's sword and strength both failed him. The Firedrake coiled its long, scaly folds about the aged hero, and was about to crush him to death when the faithful Wiglaf, perceiving his master's imminent danger, sprang forward and attacked the monster so fiercely as to cause a diversion and make it drop Beowulf to concentrate its attention upon him.
Beowulf, recovering, then drew his dagger and soon put an end to the dragon's life; but even as it 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.
The mighty treasure was all brought forth to the light of day, and the followers, seeing that all danger was over, crowded round their dying chief. He addressed them affectionately, and, after recapitulating the main events of his career, expressed a desire to be buried in a mighty mound on a projecting headland, which could be seen far out at sea, and would be called by his name.
These directions were all piously carried out by a mourning people, who decked his mound with the gold he had won, and erected above it a Bauta, or memorial stone, to show how dearly they had loved their brave king Beowulf, who had died to save them from the fury of the dragon.