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the greatest epic poem surviving from Anglo-Saxon times. The materials
on which the poet drew are ancient: some elements derive from the Germanic "homeland"
in Scandinavia, others from folklore. Yet these ancient materials have
been transformed by a later Christian writer. The narrative of the poem
is centred on the hero Beowulf's three great battles, against the ogre Grendel
(in the hall of Hrothgar, king of the Danes), against Grendel's mother (underwater)
and, after a space of time, against a dragon (involving exposure to fire).
Such a bald description makes the poem sound something like a comic-strip adventure.
However, twentieth-century criticism has revealed the religious elements, elegaic
and homiletic, which underlie the poem and which are employed in a sophisticated
and highly-wrought manner. The comparison with the epics of Homer and
Virgil is a valid one.
There are numerous translations of Beowulf. That contained in
S.A.J.Bradley, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London: Dent, 1982) is a convenient
prose version, but it is worth looking at verse-translations as well.
Recommended are those by K.Crossley-Holland (London: Macmillan, 1968), E.Morgan
(Aldington: Hand and Flower Press, 1952) and M.Alexander (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1973), all the work of practising poets. The best editions are those by
F.Klaeber (the major scholarly edition; Lexington: Heath, 1950) and G.Jack (the
best students' edition, but with much of interest for advanced scholars; Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1994). This passage, with a few minor modifications,
follows these editions.
The passage given below comes from early in the poem (lines 64-125).
Hrothgar, king of Denmark, has erected a great hall appropriate to his royal
dignity and expressive of the personal bonds between him and his retainers:
Heorot, whose name has usually been taken to correspond to the hart, a creature
with royal significance in ancient Germanic society. In the hall, men
drink mead; they receive gifts; they listen to hearpan sweg (harp's music).
Thus far we are reminded of the tribal societies recorded by the Roman writer
Tacitus in his Germania (for which see H.Mattingly and S.A.Hanford trans.
Tacitus: The Agricola and the Germania, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).
But the poem to which the king and his courtiers listen nevertheless appears
to correspond in subject-matter to that in Cædmon's Hymn (see Text
(5) above), a deeply Christian poem.
Heorot is therefore in origin a place of joy. However, there are
one or two ominous hints of evils to come, eg. heaðowylma bad ([it] awaited
hostile flames); and the swutol sang scopes (sweet song of [the] poet),
awakens the demon who lurks on the frontiers of tribal society. This semi-human
monster is called Grendel - a phonaesthetically-significant name (cf. PDE grim
grind, gruff etc.). Grendel is infuriated by the presumption of the humans,
and he attacks Heorot, carrying off thirty of Hrothgar's retainers. The
situation is only resolved when Beowulf, a prince of the the Geatish tribe living
in what is now Southern Sweden, hears of Hrothgar's troubles and decides to
prove his valour by destroying Grendel.
Þa wæs Hroðgare heresped
þæt him his winemagas 65
oðð þæt seo geogod geweox,
magodriht micel. Him on mod be-arn,
medoærn micel men gewyrcean
þonne yldo bearn
æfre gefrunon, 70
ond þær on innan
geongum ond ealdum, swylc him God sealde
buton folcscare ond feorum gumena.
Da ic wide gefrægn weorc gebannan
geond þisne middangeard, 75
folcstede frætwan. Him on fyrste gelomp,
ædre mid yldum, þæt
hit wearð ealgearo,
healærna mæst; scop him Heort naman
se þe his wordes geweald
He beot ne aleh,
beagas dælde, 80
sinc æt symle. Sele hlifade
heah ond horngeap;
ne wæs hit lenge þa gen,
þæt se ecghete
wæcnan scolde. 85
Da se ellengæst
se þe in þystrum bad,
þæt he dogora
gehwam dream gehyrde
hludne in healle;
þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes.
Sægde se þe cuþe 90
frumsceaft fira feorran reccan,
se Ælmihtiga eorðan worhte,
swa wæter bebugeð,
gesette sigehreþig sunnan ond monan
leoman to leohte
ond gefrætwade foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum, lif eac gesceop
þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ.
Swa ða drihtguman dreamum
oð ðæt an ongan 100
fyrene fremman feond on helle.
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten; fifelcynnes eard
weardode hwile, 105
siþðan him Scyppend
in Caines cynne. Þone
þæs þe he Abel slog.
Ne gefeah he þære
fæhðe, ac he hine feor forwræc,
Metod for þy mane
mancynne fram. 110
Þanon untydras ealle onwocon,
eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas,
þa wið Gode wunnon
he him ðæs lean forgeald.
Gewat ða neosian,
syþðan niht becom, 115
hean huses, hu hit Hring-Dene
Fand þa ðær
inne æþelinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble;
sorge ne cuðon,
Wiht unhælo, 120
grim ond grædig,
gearo sona wæs,
reoc ond reþe,
ond on ræste genam
þanon eft gewat
huðe hremig to ham faran,
mid þære wælfylle
wica neosan. 125