Nor did the demon think to delay,
but for his first victim he swiftly seized
a sleeping warrior and slit him wide open,
biting into the body, drinking blood in streams,
swallowing huge mouthfuls—till soon
he had eaten the entire man’s corpse,
even feet and hands.
Warfare is the occupation of heroes. So it is not surprising that mortality is a major theme of heroic poetry and that death scenes contain some of the most vivid images. The Beowulf poet never lets the audience forget that a warrior’s life might be cut short in the most gruesome possible way. Indeed, outrage and fear over a horrible death endow the warrior with extra courage and strength. This passage describes the last murder Grendel commits before the hero Beowulf kills him by ripping out his arm.
Then Hildeburh ordered her son to be placed
fast by Hnaef on the pyre to commit to the flames,
for burning the body, and with him positioned
at his uncle’s shoulder. The woman then wailed,
sang out in her grief, as that warrior was raised up.
The poet recounts a story sung by one of Hrothgar’s bards at the feast given by Hrothgar to honor Beowulf for killing Grendel. Hildeburh is a Dane, who is married to Finn, king of the Jutes. Her brother, Hnaef of the Scyldings, and a party of Danish warriors are visiting the Jutes when fighting breaks out. Hildeburh loses her brother, a Dane, and her son, a Jute. Her behavior at the funeral is one of the most powerful images in the poem, and a grim reminder that there is more death to come in Beowulf’s story.
His spirit was sad,
restless and ready for death—his fate drawing near,
which would seek out the old warrior
to find the hoard of his soul, and to sever the tie
of his life with his body. Not for long after that
was the spirit of the war-chief wound up in the flesh.
The poet describes Beowulf as he prepares for his final battle, in which he will face a fiery dragon that is guarding an ancient hoard of treasure. In the manner of a pagan warrior, Beowulf equates death with fate. But the poet inserts the metaphor of the soul as a treasure, in order to introduce the more Christian idea that life is something separate from the body. The poet is preparing the audience for the death of the hero.