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Beowulf in modern English, translated by Seamus Heaney, Beowulf (3)

And so, my request, O king of Bright-Danes,

dear prince of the Shieldings, friend of the people

and their ring of defence, my one request

is that you won't refuse me, who have come this far,

the privilege of purifying Heorot,

with my own men to help me, and nobody else.

I have heard moreover that the monster scorns

in his reckless way to use weapons;

therefore, to heighten Hygelac's fame

and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce

sword and the shelter of the broad shield,

the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand

is how it will be, a life-and-death

fight with the fiend. Whichever one death fells

must deem it a just judgement by God.

If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;

he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,

swoop without fear on that flower of manhood

as on others before. Then my face won't be there

to be covered in death: he will carry me away

as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;

he will run gloating with my raw corpse

and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,

fouling his moor-nest. No need then

to lament for long or lay out my body:

if the battle takes me, send back

this breast-webbing that Weland fashioned

and Hrethel gave me, to Lord Hygelac.

Fate goes ever as fate must.”

Hrothgar recollects a friendship and tells of Grendel's raids

Hrothgar, the helmet of Shieldings, spoke:

“Beowulf, my friend, you have travelled here

to favour us with help and to fight for us.

There was a feud one time, begun by your father.

With his own hands he had killed Heatholaf,

who was a Wulfing; so war was looming

and his people, in fear of it, forced him to leave.

He came away then over rolling waves

to the South-Danes here, the sons of honour.

I was then in the first flush of kingship,

establishing my sway over all the rich strongholds

of this heroic land. Heorogar,

my older brother and the better man,

also a son of Halfdane's, had died.

Finally I healed the feud by paying:

I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings

and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.

“It bothers me to have to burden anyone

with all the grief Grendel has caused

and the havoc he has wreaked upon us in Heorot,

our humiliations. My household-guard

are on the wane, fate sweeps them away

into Grendel's clutches—

but God can easily

halt these raids and harrowing attacks!

“Time and again, when the goblets passed

and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer

they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot

and wait for Grendel with whetted swords.

But when dawn broke and day crept in

over each empty, blood-spattered bench,

the floor of the mead-hall where they had feasted

would be slick with slaughter. And so they died,

faithful retainers, and my following dwindled.

“Now take your place at the table, relish

the triumph of heroes to your heart's content.”

A feast in Heorot

Then a bench was cleared in that banquet hall

so the Geats could have room to be together

and the party sat, proud in their bearing,

strong and stalwart. An attendant stood by

with a decorated pitcher, pouring bright

helpings of mead. And the minstrel sang,

filling Heorot with his head-clearing voice,

gladdening that great rally of Geats and Danes.

Unferth strikes a discordant note

From where he crouched at the king's feet,

Unferth, a son of Ecglaf's, spoke

contrary words. Beowulf's coming,

his sea-braving, made him sick with envy:

he could not brook or abide the fact

that anyone else alive under heaven

might enjoy greater regard than he did:

“Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca

in a swimming match on the open sea,

risking the water just to prove that you could win?

It was sheer vanity made you venture out

on the main deep. And no matter who tried,

friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you,

neither would back down: the sea-test obsessed you.

Unferth's version of a swimming contest

You waded in, embracing water,

taking its measure, mastering currents,

riding on the swell. The ocean swayed,

winter went wild in the waves, but you vied

for seven nights; and then he outswam you,

came ashore the stronger contender.

He was cast up safe and sound one morning

among the Heathoreams, then made his way

to where he belonged in Bronding country,

home again, sure of his ground

in strongroom and bawn. So Breca made good

his boast upon you and was proved right.

No matter, therefore, how you may have fared

in every bout and battle until now,

this time you'll be worsted; no one has ever

outlasted an entire night against Grendel.”

Beowulf corrects Unferth

Beowulf, Ecgtheow's son, replied:

“Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say

about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer

that was doing the talking. The truth is this:

when the going was heavy in those high waves,

I was the strongest swimmer of all.

We'd been children together and we grew up

daring ourselves to outdo each other,

boasting and urging each other to risk

our lives on the sea. And so it turned out.

Each of us swam holding a sword,

a naked, hard-proofed blade for protection

against the whale-beasts. But Breca could never

move out farther or faster from me

than I could manage to move from him.

Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on

for five nights, until the long flow

and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold,

night falling and winds from the north

drove us apart. The deep boiled up

and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild.

My armour helped me to hold out;

my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked,

a fine, close-fitting filigree of gold,

kept me safe when some ocean creature

pulled me to the bottom. Pinioned fast

and swathed in its grip, I was granted one

final chance: my sword plunged

and the ordeal was over. Through my own hands,

the fury of battle had finished off the sea-beast.

Beowulf tells of his ordeal in the sea

“Time and again, foul things attacked me,

lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,

gave as good as I got with my sword.

My flesh was not for feasting on,

there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating

over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.

Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping

the sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated

like the ocean's leavings. From now on

sailors would be safe, the deep-sea raids

were over for good. Light came from the east,

bright guarantee of God, and the waves

went quiet; I could see headlands

and buffeted cliffs. Often, for undaunted courage,

fate spares the man it has not already marked.

However it occurred, my sword had killed

nine sea-monsters. Such night-dangers

and hard ordeals I have never heard of

nor of a man more desolate in surging waves.

But worn out as I was, I survived,

came through with my life. The ocean lifted

and laid me ashore, I landed safe

on the coast of Finland.

Now I cannot recall

any fight you entered, Unferth,

that bears comparison. I don't boast when I say

that neither you nor Breca were ever much

celebrated for swordsmanship

or for facing danger on the field of battle.

Unferth rebuked. Beowulf reaffirms his determination to defeat Grendel

You killed your own kith and kin,

so for all your cleverness and quick tongue,

you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell.

The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly

as keen or courageous as you claim to be

Grendel would never have got away with

such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,

havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.

But he knows he need never be in dread

of your blade making a mizzle of his blood

or of vengeance arriving ever from this quarter—

from the Victory-Shieldings, the shoulderers of the spear.

He knows he can trample down you Danes

to his heart's content, humiliate and murder

without fear of reprisal. But he will find me different.

I will show him how Geats shape to kill

in the heat of battle. Then whoever wants to

may go bravely to mead, when morning light,

scarfed in sun-dazzle, shines forth from the south

and brings another daybreak to the world.”

Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen, graces the banquet

Then the grey-haired treasure-giver was glad;

far-famed in battle, the prince of Bright-Danes

and keeper of his people counted on Beowulf,

on the warrior's steadfastness and his word.

So the laughter started, the din got louder

and the crowd was happy. Wealhtheow came in,

Hrothgar's queen, observing the courtesies.

Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted

the men in hall, then handed the cup

first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian,

urging him to drink deep and enjoy it

because he was dear to them. And he drank it down

like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.

So the Helming woman went on her rounds,

queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,

offering the goblet to all ranks,

treating the household and the assembled troop

until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her hand.

With measured words she welcomed the Geat

and thanked God for granting her wish

that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive

to ease their afflictions. He accepted the cup,

a daunting man, dangerous in action

and eager for it always. He addressed Wealhtheow;

Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, said:

“I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.

Beowulf's formal boast

As I sat in the boat with my band of men,

I meant to perform to the uttermost

what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,

in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,

prove myself with a proud deed

or meet my death here in the mead-hall.”

This formal boast by Beowulf the Geat

pleased the lady well and she went to sit

by Hrothgar, regal and arrayed with gold.

Hrothgar leaves Heorot in Beowulf's keeping

Then it was like old times in the echoing hall,

proud talk and the people happy,

loud and excited; until soon enough

Halfdane's heir had to be away

to his night's rest. He realized

that the demon was going to descend on the hall,

that he had plotted all day, from dawn-light

until darkness gathered again over the world

and stealthy night-shapes came stealing forth

under the cloud-murk. The company stood

as the two leaders took leave of each other:

Hrothgar wished Beowulf health and good luck,

named him hall-warden and announced as follows:

“Never, since my hand could hold a shield

have I entrusted or given control

of the Danes' hall to anyone but you.

Ward and guard it, for it is the greatest of houses.

Be on your mettle now, keep in mind your fame,

beware of the enemy. There's nothing you wish for

that won't be yours if you win through alive.”

Hrothgar departed then with his house-guard.

The lord of the Shieldings, their shelter in war,

left the mead-hall to lie with Wealhtheow,

his queen and bedmate. The King of Glory

(as people learned) had posted a lookout

who was a match for Grendel, a guard against monsters,

special protection to the Danish prince.

And the Geat placed complete trust

in his strength of limb and the Lord's favour.

He began to remove his iron breast-mail,

took off the helmet and handed his attendant

the patterned sword, a smith's masterpiece,

ordering him to keep the equipment guarded.

And before he bedded down, Beowulf,

that prince of goodness, proudly asserted:

“When it comes to fighting, I count myself

as dangerous any day as Grendel.

Beowulf renounces the use of weapons

So it won't be a cutting edge I'll wield

to mow him down, easily as I might.

He has no idea of the arts of war,

of shield or sword-play, although he does possess

a wild strength.


And so, my request, O king of Bright-Danes,

dear prince of the Shieldings, friend of the people

and their ring of defence, my one request

is that you won't refuse me, who have come this far,

the privilege of purifying Heorot,

with my own men to help me, and nobody else.

I have heard moreover that the monster scorns

in his reckless way to use weapons;

therefore, to heighten Hygelac's fame

and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce

sword and the shelter of the broad shield,

the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand

is how it will be, a life-and-death

fight with the fiend. Whichever one death fells

must deem it a just judgement by God.

If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;

he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,

swoop without fear on that flower of manhood

as on others before. Then my face won't be there

to be covered in death: he will carry me away

as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;

he will run gloating with my raw corpse

and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,

fouling his moor-nest. No need then

to lament for long or lay out my body:

if the battle takes me, send back

this breast-webbing that Weland fashioned

and Hrethel gave me, to Lord Hygelac.

Fate goes ever as fate must.”

Hrothgar recollects a friendship and tells of Grendel's raids

Hrothgar, the helmet of Shieldings, spoke:

“Beowulf, my friend, you have travelled here

to favour us with help and to fight for us.

There was a feud one time, begun by your father.

With his own hands he had killed Heatholaf,

who was a Wulfing; so war was looming

and his people, in fear of it, forced him to leave.

He came away then over rolling waves

to the South-Danes here, the sons of honour.

I was then in the first flush of kingship,

establishing my sway over all the rich strongholds

of this heroic land. Heorogar,

my older brother and the better man,

also a son of Halfdane's, had died.

Finally I healed the feud by paying:

I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings

and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.

“It bothers me to have to burden anyone

with all the grief Grendel has caused

and the havoc he has wreaked upon us in Heorot,

our humiliations. My household-guard

are on the wane, fate sweeps them away

into Grendel's clutches—

but God can easily

halt these raids and harrowing attacks!

“Time and again, when the goblets passed

and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer

they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot

and wait for Grendel with whetted swords.

But when dawn broke and day crept in

over each empty, blood-spattered bench,

the floor of the mead-hall where they had feasted

would be slick with slaughter. And so they died,

faithful retainers, and my following dwindled.

“Now take your place at the table, relish

the triumph of heroes to your heart's content.”

A feast in Heorot

Then a bench was cleared in that banquet hall

so the Geats could have room to be together

and the party sat, proud in their bearing,

strong and stalwart. An attendant stood by

with a decorated pitcher, pouring bright

helpings of mead. And the minstrel sang,

filling Heorot with his head-clearing voice,

gladdening that great rally of Geats and Danes.

Unferth strikes a discordant note

From where he crouched at the king's feet,

Unferth, a son of Ecglaf's, spoke

contrary words. Beowulf's coming,

his sea-braving, made him sick with envy:

he could not brook or abide the fact

that anyone else alive under heaven

might enjoy greater regard than he did:

“Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca

in a swimming match on the open sea,

risking the water just to prove that you could win?

It was sheer vanity made you venture out

on the main deep. And no matter who tried,

friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you,

neither would back down: the sea-test obsessed you.

Unferth's version of a swimming contest

You waded in, embracing water,

taking its measure, mastering currents,

riding on the swell. The ocean swayed,

winter went wild in the waves, but you vied

for seven nights; and then he outswam you,

came ashore the stronger contender.

He was cast up safe and sound one morning

among the Heathoreams, then made his way

to where he belonged in Bronding country,

home again, sure of his ground

in strongroom and bawn. So Breca made good

his boast upon you and was proved right.

No matter, therefore, how you may have fared

in every bout and battle until now,

this time you'll be worsted; no one has ever

outlasted an entire night against Grendel.”

Beowulf corrects Unferth

Beowulf, Ecgtheow's son, replied:

“Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say

about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer

that was doing the talking. The truth is this:

when the going was heavy in those high waves,

I was the strongest swimmer of all.

We'd been children together and we grew up

daring ourselves to outdo each other,

boasting and urging each other to risk

our lives on the sea. And so it turned out.

Each of us swam holding a sword,

a naked, hard-proofed blade for protection

against the whale-beasts. But Breca could never

move out farther or faster from me

than I could manage to move from him.

Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on

for five nights, until the long flow

and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold,

night falling and winds from the north

drove us apart. The deep boiled up

and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild.

My armour helped me to hold out;

my hard-ringed chain-mail, hand-forged and linked,

a fine, close-fitting filigree of gold,

kept me safe when some ocean creature

pulled me to the bottom. Pinioned fast

and swathed in its grip, I was granted one

final chance: my sword plunged

and the ordeal was over. Through my own hands,

the fury of battle had finished off the sea-beast.

Beowulf tells of his ordeal in the sea

“Time and again, foul things attacked me,

lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,

gave as good as I got with my sword.

My flesh was not for feasting on,

there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating

over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.

Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping

the sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated

like the ocean's leavings. From now on

sailors would be safe, the deep-sea raids

were over for good. Light came from the east,

bright guarantee of God, and the waves

went quiet; I could see headlands

and buffeted cliffs. Often, for undaunted courage,

fate spares the man it has not already marked.

However it occurred, my sword had killed

nine sea-monsters. Such night-dangers

and hard ordeals I have never heard of

nor of a man more desolate in surging waves.

But worn out as I was, I survived,

came through with my life. The ocean lifted

and laid me ashore, I landed safe

on the coast of Finland.

Now I cannot recall

any fight you entered, Unferth,

that bears comparison. I don't boast when I say

that neither you nor Breca were ever much

celebrated for swordsmanship

or for facing danger on the field of battle.

Unferth rebuked. Beowulf reaffirms his determination to defeat Grendel

You killed your own kith and kin,

so for all your cleverness and quick tongue,

you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell.

The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly

as keen or courageous as you claim to be

Grendel would never have got away with

such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,

havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.

But he knows he need never be in dread

of your blade making a mizzle of his blood

or of vengeance arriving ever from this quarter—

from the Victory-Shieldings, the shoulderers of the spear.

He knows he can trample down you Danes

to his heart's content, humiliate and murder

without fear of reprisal. But he will find me different.

I will show him how Geats shape to kill

in the heat of battle. Then whoever wants to

may go bravely to mead, when morning light,

scarfed in sun-dazzle, shines forth from the south

and brings another daybreak to the world.”

Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen, graces the banquet

Then the grey-haired treasure-giver was glad;

far-famed in battle, the prince of Bright-Danes

and keeper of his people counted on Beowulf,

on the warrior's steadfastness and his word.

So the laughter started, the din got louder

and the crowd was happy. Wealhtheow came in,

Hrothgar's queen, observing the courtesies.

Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted

the men in hall, then handed the cup

first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian,

urging him to drink deep and enjoy it

because he was dear to them. And he drank it down

like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.

So the Helming woman went on her rounds,

queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,

offering the goblet to all ranks,

treating the household and the assembled troop

until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her hand.

With measured words she welcomed the Geat

and thanked God for granting her wish

that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive

to ease their afflictions. He accepted the cup,

a daunting man, dangerous in action

and eager for it always. He addressed Wealhtheow;

Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, said:

“I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.

Beowulf's formal boast

As I sat in the boat with my band of men,

I meant to perform to the uttermost

what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,

in the fiend's clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,

prove myself with a proud deed

or meet my death here in the mead-hall.”

This formal boast by Beowulf the Geat

pleased the lady well and she went to sit

by Hrothgar, regal and arrayed with gold.

Hrothgar leaves Heorot in Beowulf's keeping

Then it was like old times in the echoing hall,

proud talk and the people happy,

loud and excited; until soon enough

Halfdane's heir had to be away

to his night's rest. He realized

that the demon was going to descend on the hall,

that he had plotted all day, from dawn-light

until darkness gathered again over the world

and stealthy night-shapes came stealing forth

under the cloud-murk. The company stood

as the two leaders took leave of each other:

Hrothgar wished Beowulf health and good luck,

named him hall-warden and announced as follows:

“Never, since my hand could hold a shield

have I entrusted or given control

of the Danes' hall to anyone but you.

Ward and guard it, for it is the greatest of houses.

Be on your mettle now, keep in mind your fame,

beware of the enemy. There's nothing you wish for

that won't be yours if you win through alive.”

Hrothgar departed then with his house-guard.

The lord of the Shieldings, their shelter in war,

left the mead-hall to lie with Wealhtheow,

his queen and bedmate. The King of Glory

(as people learned) had posted a lookout

who was a match for Grendel, a guard against monsters,

special protection to the Danish prince.

And the Geat placed complete trust

in his strength of limb and the Lord's favour.

He began to remove his iron breast-mail,

took off the helmet and handed his attendant

the patterned sword, a smith's masterpiece,

ordering him to keep the equipment guarded.

And before he bedded down, Beowulf,

that prince of goodness, proudly asserted:

“When it comes to fighting, I count myself

as dangerous any day as Grendel.

Beowulf renounces the use of weapons

So it won't be a cutting edge I'll wield

to mow him down, easily as I might.

He has no idea of the arts of war,

of shield or sword-play, although he does possess

a wild strength.