This was the model of kingship in the mind of the Anglo-Saxons, who were the tellers of this tale. They regarded a generous lord as a good lord, and a selfish and mean lord as unworthy of their allegiance. Hrothgar was, we are told, a good king. He shared all of his wealth with his people and handed out many gifts. Later he decided to honour himself and his people by building a decadent mead-hall, ornamented with gold and furnished with the highest standards of craftsmanship. He named his hall "Heorot", and many a merry feast was held within its high walls.
But those who made merry within the walls of Heorot gave little thought to those who dwelt without. One night, the sound of revelry and of song carried across the moors and reached the ears of an outsider, one who was not welcomed amongst the dwellings of Men. Grendel was his name, and some say that Grendel was a huge and malevolent demon, a descendant of Cain who committed the first murder against his own brother and was cursed for his deed.
Others say that he was merely a man though a very strong one and that he was outcast from Hrothgar's realm and made his home in the wild, away from human civilization. Whatever the case may be, it is apparent that he was an "Other", an outsider who lived beyond the walls of the Danish polis and harboured a spiteful grudge against those who made merry inside the hall.
Grendel entered Heorot one night as the Danes lay asleep inside, he grabbed thirty men and placed them in a huge sack. He took the men home to his miserable lair outside of the settlement and presumably had a rather large and bloody feast. The following night he struck again and slaughtered more Danes in Heorot, and every night afterwards Grendel made the hall his own.
It wasn't long before people began to avoid the hall altogether for fear of the beast. King Hrothgar had to find somewhere else to sleep as he could only rule in Heorot by daylight. For twelve years the Danes suffered the incursion of Grendel, the outsider, inside their sacred hall. But as is the way of things, word of Grendel's atrocities spread far across the land and seas until it reached the tribe of Geats in southern Sweden.
Beowulf was his name, and it is said that he possessed the strength of thirty men. At this time Beowulf was in need of glory, as he had been regarded by his tribal elders as a bit dim-witted and of little worth. Though he was the strongest of men, he had not yet proven himself or earned the honour of his peers.
So with fourteen other companions he sails over the sea to the land of the Danes. A watchman stands guard on the beach upon which Beowulf and his men land their ship in Denmark. From a high distant position, the Danish Coastwarden spies a long-ship full of foreign warriors clad in gleaming war-gear. Outnumbered fourteen to one, he wields his spear, mounts his horse and rides out to question the strange men who have boldly come uninvited to his homeland, dressed for battle.
He questions them sternly, but he believes Beowulf when he claims to have landed with the intention of aiding the Danes in their plight with the demon, Grendel. After having to demonstrate his lineage, worth and intent several times to doubtful retainers, Beowulf finds himself before Hrothgar, King of the Danes by daylight. This is where Beowulf reveals himself, both to the Danes and to the reader, as a man of worth. A man who backs up his many fine words with deeds of valour.
Beowulf greets Hrothgar in a courtly fashion before introducing himself as the son of Ecgtheow, who owed Hrothgar a great debt since his youth. What follows is a sequence of events which make up a "Flyting". Beowulf makes a series of boasts concerning his skills as a monster slayer and destroyer of giants. Just the man for the task of fighting Grendel.
But there is a man in Hrothgar's court who doubts Beowulf, whose job it is to doubt him in fact. Unferth acts as the Thyle in the Danish hall, and it is the responsibility of the Thyle to ascertain whether the men who make great claims in his lord's presence are capable of proving true on those claims. Unferth greets Beowulf in a friendly manner at first, but he quickly turns to insult and questions the truth of Beowulf's boasts. He calls Beowulf's abilities into question and attempts to publicly disgrace and shame him in front of the Danish King.
But his wits are easily bested by the wits of Beowulf, who is a master of words. Unferth is revealed to be a kinslayer, like the Biblical Cain, having killed his own brother with his ancestral sword. But Beowulf does not stop at merely shaming Unferth in retaliation to his jibes.
He goes on to question the masculinity of all living Danish men who hide from Grendel instead of facing the demon like true men. Usually this kind of insult would earn a foreign warrior death at the hands of his host's warband, but Hrothgar sees the truth in Beowulf's words and he admires his cocky bravado.
So he gives Beowulf his hall for the night, while he sneaks away with the womenfolk to sleep in safer dwellings. Well, in the night Grendel comes. Smashing the heavy doors of the hall with ease he snatches the sleeping body of Hondscio, who slept near the door, and chews him up like grizzled meat in front his companions.
Beowulf watches Grendel, sizing him up as his friend is eaten alive, and casts aside his weapons and armour. Trusting only in his own strength, he grabs Grendel's great arm with his bare hands.
In this moment Grendel feels a terror that he has never known before. Beowulf, with the strength of thirty men, has such a hold of the monster that he cannot shake loose from his grip. They wrestle in such a fury that the entire hall is broken and is barely left standing. Eventually Grendel flees, his courage gives out, but still the Geatish warrior has a grip on his arm and will not relent.
Beowulf has seized his chance for eternal glory and he will die sooner than he will let it escape his grasp. The monster's shoulder joint is what gives way first, then his sinews and flesh.
Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from off of his still living body and the monster's blood blackens the stones of Heorot. He flees back through the door into the black night and returns to his den in the marshes where he lies down and gives up his miserable life as he bleeds the last of his blood, which has never before been spilled by the hands of Men. In the morning the King awakens to witness the severed arm of Grendel hanging from the roof of his hall.
The Danes rejoice that their curse is lifted. The court poet composes songs in Beowulf's honour and Hrothgar gifts him with vast amounts of wealth, even going so far as to adopt him as a son despite the fact that he already has sons, as his wife gently reminds him. Lo and behold, even Unferth is a bit more friendly to the Geats now and he gifts Beowulf with his ancestral sword, named Hrunting. Presumably this is the sword that Unferth used to kill his brother and as such it is a cursed kinslaying blade that any man would be sensible to get rid of.
But when morning comes Beowulf does not leave, for the rising sun reveals that his work is not yet complete. In the deep darkness of the night another demon has crept into the hall, which housed the sleeping Danish men. Grendel's mother even monsters must have mothers , maddened with grief, seizes up one of King Hrothgar's most trusted friends and drags him away to her den. As we might expect from an aged old king who has been bent by age and weakness, Hrothgar's grief is deep.
Very convenient. Well Beowulf cares not if he has to double his glory by slaying a second foe, so he agrees to meet Hrothgar's challenge. But first he tells the aged King to get a grip on himself:. Better is it for a man to avenge his friends rather than to lament overmuch. To each of us comes the end of life, but let him who can earn glory before his death.
Wise words, and as is usual with Beowulf these words are followed swiftly with action. In the cave is a deep pool filled with serpents and sea-dragons. Beowulf keeps his armour on this time, and his helmet too. At his hip he carries Hrunting the kinslaying blade which Unferth gifted him after the slaying of Grendel.
After the customary boast, down he dives into the deep mere. Here we glimpse more evidence of Beowulf's superhuman ability. He seems to breathe underwater as well as on land. Down to the murky depths of the pool he delves and wrestles with Grendel's mother in a cavern. She slashes at him with her claws and stabs him with some cursed dagger, but he is protected by his armour.
Hrunting, the sword of Unferth the kinslayer, fails Beowulf when he needs it most. As he strikes the monster with the blade it does no damage and the hero's sword fails him, not for the last time. It should be noted that the sea-hag is descended from Cain, the kinslayer. It is possible that a kinslaying weapon would make no wound upon those who bore the curse of kinslaying on their souls, but this is mere speculation on my part.
He grapples with her then in the same manner as he grappled with her son Grendel. She proves to be an equal match for Beowulf's strength and he almost meets his end in the sea-hags den. But he spies in the cave a massive sword, engraved with runes of victory. It is no mere human weapon but the work of ancient giants. Grasping the blade with two hands he smites the monster on the neck and beheads her where she stands. As he composes himself after his fiercest battle to date, he stumbles upon the body of Grendel. The Geatish hero has a tendency to take trophies after his victories and he severs Grendel's head with the Giants blade.
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