Friday, December 16, 2011

Extract from BEOWULF: Fitts 21 & 22


Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgetheow:
“Old man, don’t weep. It’s better to take
bitter revenge than to hide in sorrow.
Each of us must face his end
and the warrior grabs what glory he can
before death stops him. After his death,
that’s what remains. Arise, O King,
let’s study the trail of Grendel’s dam.
I swear to you that I’ll track her down.
No earthly cave nor mountain wood,
no ocean bed, will do to hide her.
Have patience now, endure your woe,
and be the man that I know you are.”

The old king leapt to feet and thanked
God for those words. He called for a horse,
and a handsome mount with braided mane
was swiftly bridled. He rode out shining,
his shield-bearers marching behind him.
The trampled track ran through the forest, 
plunging straight into murky moorland
where the monster had dragged the bloody corpse 
of Heorot’s champion. The thanes then scrambled 
up steep screes, trod single file 
through narrow cliff-ways where demon-haunted
waters tumbled far beneath them.
Beowulf went on with a few good scouts, 
and found by chance a stand of ash 
casting its shadow across grey stone, 
a dismal wood! The water beneath 
seethed with blood, and when they found
Aschere’s head by the edge of the cliff,
each man present felt his grief
break newly open. As they stared,
the flood welled ruddy with hot gore.
A battle horn sang, quickening pulses,
and the troop stood and watched the water.
Sea-snakes curled there and strange dragons
wove through its depths, and on the reefs
such water demons as wait their chance
to strike the ships on the sail-road.
Swollen with rage, the warriors ran
to the wailing horn and one of the Geats
lifted his bow and struck a monster
straight in the vitals, slowing its struggle
against the waves. They snagged it hard
on sharp-hooked boar pikes and dragged it out
of the noisome shallows, staring in wonder
at this strange wave-spawn.
   Fearless Beowulf
put on his armour, hand-braided mail
cunningly made. No grim malice
could pierce his bone-cage to harm his heart
or crush him in a deadly wrestle.
On his head was a royal helm
as bright as when the smiths first made it,
rimmed with boar-shapes, iron-encircled,
to break the bite of the bitterest brand.
Not the least was the ancient blade
lent by Unferth, Hrothgar’s spokesman,
to meet his need. Its name was Hrunting.
Edged with iron, tempered by blood,
pattern-welded and scored with runes,
this sword had never failed in battle
any who bore it, venturing far
into enemy strongholds on dark journeys.
It was well used to courage-work.
Surely that muscle-head forgot
how in his cups he had taunted Beowulf
when he gave his blade to the better swordsman.
He’d never dare to risk his life
under the waves, in the water’s tumult.
He lost his manhood then and all
his chance at glory. Not so Beowulf.


Beowulf spoke, the son of Edgetheow:
“Half Dane’s son, I am eager for battle.
Remember now your earlier pledge,
that if I die serving your need,
you would be a father to me. 
If I lose my life, beloved Hrothgar,
take in your care my young retainers
and send to Hygelac all the treasures
that you have given me.  Gazing on gold,
the lord of the Geats will know my deeds
found generous thanks from a good king. 
Let Unferth have my wave-edged sword, 
this ancient heirloom, to match his fame.
I’ll use Hrunting to forge my glory,
unless death takes me.”
   Waiting no answer,
he plunged into the surging waters.
Long he sank: a day passed by
before he glimpsed the floor of the mere
where she watched, wrathful and greedy,
ravenous ruler of the flood
for a hundred seasons. She knew at once
that an alien from the world of air
sounded her strange home. Groping upwards,
she seized the prince with savage hands,
crushing his body. The ringmail kept him
from deadly harm, her loathsome fingers
fumbled against the handlinked armour.
When she touched bottom, the she-wolf bore
him back to her lair. For all his courage,
Beowulf couldn’t wield his sword
as weird sea-beasts thronged about him
and tore at his mail with war-like tusks.
He found himself then in his enemy’s hall,
free of the water, its roof holding back
the snatch of currents. A bright fire blazed
and in its light he saw his foe,
the mighty mere-wife, cursed mistress
of the deeps. He hefted his sword,
swinging it down with all his strength,
and the ring-marked blade sang hungrily
for blood. But the stranger found 
that the battle-flame refused to bite,
its edge failed the noble lord
in his need. It had endured many
hand-to-hand combats, split the helms
of many doomed men, but for the first time
its glory dimmed.  Resolute still,
remembering fame, Hygelac’s kinsman
angrily hurled that precious sword 
to the ground, trusting his strength,
his mighty hands. So must a man act,
careless of life, if he wants to win
lasting fame in the fury of battle.

He grabbed her hair – keen for the insult –
and swollen with rage, the battle-hard man
flung Grendel’s mother down to the floor.
She quickly repaid him, holding him fast
against her hide in her wrathful grip, 
and then even that sturdy soldier,
the strongest of men, stumbled with weariness,
and fell. Sitting astride him,
she drew her dagger, deadly and edged,
to avenge her son, her only offspring.
His mailcoat saved him, barring the point
its bloody entry. He would have died there,
Edgetheow’s son, far underground,
but for that war-mesh. And holy God
who gives out victory decided easily 
whose was the win when Beowulf sprang
back to his feet.

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