Great American Novels, Ranked by How Much We Hate Them
BEOWULF spake, bairn of Ecgtheow:—
“Have mind, thou honored offspring of Healfdene
gold-friend of men, now I go on this quest,
sovran wise, what once was said:
if in thy cause it came that I
should lose my life, thou wouldst loyal bide
to me, though fallen, in father’s place!
Be guardian, thou, to this group of my thanes,
my warrior-friends, if War should seize me;
and the goodly gifts thou gavest me,
Hrothgar beloved, to Hygelac send!
Geatland’s king may ken by the gold,
Hrethel’s son see, when he stares at the treasure,
that I got me a friend for goodness famed,
and joyed while I could in my jewel-bestower.
And let Unferth wield this wondrous sword,
earl far-honored, this heirloom precious,
hard of edge: with Hrunting I
seek doom of glory, or Death shall take me.”
|Before he dove into the deep water, Beowulf turned to Hrothgar. “Remember what you said earlier, my lord. If I die in this battle, you will treat me as a son. Take care of my men and send the treasures you gave me to Hygelac. Let him see what a generous king you are. And give this sword back to Unferth. With Hrunting in my hand, I will achieve glory or death.”|
After these words the Weder-Geat lord
boldly hastened, biding never
answer at all: the ocean floods
closed o’er the hero. Long while of the day
fled ere he felt the floor of the sea.
|With that, Beowulf strode into the water and disappeared. It took Beowulf nearly all day to reach the bottom.|
Soon found the fiend who the flood-domain
sword-hungry held these hundred winters,
greedy and grim, that some guest from above,
some man, was raiding her monster-realm.
She grasped out for him with grisly claws,
and the warrior seized; yet scathed she not
his body hale; the breastplate hindered,
as she strove to shatter the sark of war,
the linked harness, with loathsome hand.
Then bore this brine-wolf, when bottom she touched,
the lord of rings to the lair she haunted
whiles vainly he strove, though his valor held,
weapon to wield against wondrous monsters
that sore beset him; sea-beasts many
tried with fierce tusks to tear his mail,
and swarmed on the stranger. But soon he marked
he was now in some hall, he knew not which,
where water never could work him harm,
nor through the roof could reach him ever
fangs of the flood. Firelight he saw,
beams of a blaze that brightly shone.
Then the warrior was ware of that wolf-of-the-deep,
mere-wife monstrous. For mighty stroke
he swung his blade, and the blow withheld not.
Then sang on her head that seemly blade
its war-song wild. But the warrior found
the light-of-battle was loath to bite,
to harm the heart: its hard edge failed
the noble at need, yet had known of old
strife hand to hand, and had helmets cloven,
doomed men’s fighting-gear. First time, this,
for the gleaming blade that its glory fell.
Firm still stood, nor failed in valor,
heedful of high deeds, Hygelac’s kinsman;
flung away fretted sword, featly jewelled,
the angry earl; on earth it lay
steel-edged and stiff. His strength he trusted,
hand-gripe of might. So man shall do
whenever in war he weens to earn him
lasting fame, nor fears for his life!
Seized then by shoulder, shrank not from combat,
the Geatish war-prince Grendel’s mother.
Flung then the fierce one, filled with wrath,
his deadly foe, that she fell to ground.
Swift on her part she paid him back
with grisly grasp, and grappled with him.
Spent with struggle, stumbled the warrior,
fiercest of fighting-men, fell adown.
On the hall-guest she hurled herself, hent her short sword,
broad and brown-edged, the bairn to avenge,
the sole-born son.—On his shoulder lay
braided breast-mail, barring death,
withstanding entrance of edge or blade.
Life would have ended for Ecgtheow’s son,
under wide earth for that earl of Geats,
had his armor of war not aided him,
battle-net hard, and holy God
wielded the victory, wisest Maker.
The Lord of Heaven allowed his cause;
and easily rose the earl erect.
|Grendel’s mother soon realized that someone from the land was invading her watery lair. She reached out and grabbed Beowulf, trying to tear him apart, but his armor was too strong. She headed for her den, holding him so tightly that he could not use his sword. He saw all sorts of monsters, which kept trying to attack him. The vile beast swam to some kind of underwater hall, an area kept dry by walls and a roof. A fire burned inside. Beowulf spun free and slashed at Grendel’s mother with his sword. His blade crashed against her skin but didn’t penetrate. Though it was a powerful sword with a great history in battle, it could not harm this evil demon. Beowulf tossed the sword aside. As he had done before, he would seek glory by fighting with his bare hands. He grabbed Grendel’s mother by the shoulder and drove her into the ground. She jumped back to her feet and knocked Beowulf over with her powerful claw. She drew out a short sword and swung it at the hero, determined to avenge her son. The Geat’s armor, however, was too strong, and the sword bent against it. He would have died if the sword had hit its mark, but God decided to spare him.|