Scyld died at the fated time. Following his wishes, his body was placed on a well-outfitted ship, laden with treasures and weapons. Then his kinsmen let the sea bear him away. No one on earth knows who received that ship's cargo.
I have heard tell how Hrothgar had a great mead-hall built. It was larger and grander than any such hall that anyone had ever heard of. He named the great hall Heorot. Here, with great ceremony, he dispensed lavish gifts to young and old, thus giving thanks for his own victories and prosperity.
Not long afterward the hall's merriment was brought to an end by a grim foe named Grendel, who haunted marshes and moors, fens and heath. This wretched being, along with monsters, elves, sea-beasts, and giants, was a descendent of Cain, whom the Lord had banished from mankind for the slaying of Abel.
These loathsome attacks continued for twelve winters. Night after night Grendel haunted the misty moors, pursuing his victims. Nor was anyone safe in Heorot, where he attacked at will.
Many of the grief-stricken Danes, seeing no other source of help, returned to their old heathen faith. Woe unto him who thus rejects the Lord.
Beowulf had a ship outfitted for the journey, then chose fifteen warriors to accompany him. A skilled mariner pointed out the landmarks to them.
Driven by the wind, the ship sped across the waves. On the second day the sailors caught sight of gleaming cliffs and broad headlands. They went ashore and secured their ship.
A Danish guard saw them from the cliff as they came ashore with their shields and weapons. This thane of Hrothgar approached them on horseback. Waving his spear he challenged them with these words: "What warriors are you, sailing your great ship along the ocean-paths? I am a member of the coastguard, charged with protecting the Danish land. Never have I seen a band of warriors try to land here more openly than you have done. Who is your brave leader, and what is his lineage?"
The coastguardsman pointed the way to Heorot, then returned to his post. Beowulf and his men hurried onward. The boar-images glistened above the cheek-guards on their helmets.
A warrior asked the heroes about their lineage: "Where have you come from, with your shields, war-shirts, visored helmets, and spears. I am Hrothgar's servant and herald. Never before have I seen such a band of strangers in such a courageous mood."
Beowulf answered: "We are table-companions of Hygelac. Beowulf is my name. I will reveal my errand to the son of Healfdene, your great king, if you will take us to him."
Wulfgar (that was the herald's name) quickly went to Hrothgar, now old and white-haired. Wulfgar spoke: "Geatish warriors have arrived here from across the sea. They call their chieftain Beowulf. They have requested to speak with you."
Wulfgar came to the door of the hall and announced from within: "My victorious lord bids me say that he knows your noble lineage. You are welcome here. You may come inside to Hrothgar, wearing your armor and helmets, but leave your spears outside until after you have spoken." Beowulf approached Hrothgar, then spoke: "Hail to thee, Hrothgar! In my native land I learned of Grendel's deeds. Seafarers report that this great hall is useless for all men after nightfall. Knowing my great strength, my people urged me to come to your aid. They have seen me return from battle stained with the blood of my foes. I have destroyed a race of giants and have slain sea-beasts by night. Now I have come to cleanse Heorot of the evil that has come upon it. Furthermore, I have learned that Grendel, the giant monster, has no fear of weapons, so I will fight him with my bare hands, without sword or shield. If I fail, have no concern about my burial; Grendel will devour my corpse. Do, however, send my chainmail back to Hygelac. It is the best of armor, inherited from Hrethel [Beowulf's grandfather], and the work of Weland [a legendary smith].
In the mead-hall a bench was made ready for the Geats. Mead was served. A bard sang with a clear voice. The assembled warriors rejoiced, Geats and Danes alike.
Beowulf answered: "Unferth, my friend, in your drunkenness you have said much about my adventure with Breca. Now I will tell the truth of what happened. When we were still boys Breca and I had boasted that one day we would test our strength at sea; and we did as we had spoken in our youth. To defend ourselves against whales we swam carrying naked swords in our hands. Neither of us could gain an advantage over the other one, and thus we swam together for five nights, until finally the cold waves drove us apart. The sea-fish grew angry, but my shirt of chainmail protected me. An evil monster dragged me to the bottom, but I was able to stab the creature with the point of my sword, and then dispatched him with my hand."
The gray-haired king rejoiced in these words; he trusted in Beowulf for help. Laughter and joyous words rang throughout the hall.
The lord of the Geats had made good his earlier boast. The Danes' affliction was now at an end. Rejoicing, the warrior threw down a token of his victory: the whole claw and arm of Grendel.
With rejoicing the warrior returned to Heorot and to a great celebration. One of the king's thanes who knew old tales without number, cleverly composed a new story, a truthful tale, narrating Beowulf's adventure.
He also told everything that he had heard of the mighty Sigemund, the son of Wælsing [Volsung], including exploits of which the son of men knew nothing, save Fitala [Sinfiötli], his nephew and comrade. Sigemund's great fame carried forth beyond his death, for he had slain the dragon who kept guard over the treasure. In his daring exploits he was by far the most famed of adventurers among the nations.
Then Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke, recounting the details of his battle with Grendel. Unferth, too, was present, but he made no more boastful speeches, now having seen the monster's dismembered hand with its steel-like claws.
"Receive this collar with joy, and prosper well, dear Beowulf," said Wealhtheow.
The celebration then continued with food and wine. When evening fell Hrothgar returned to his lodgings. The guards, as they had often done before, cleared the benches and covered them with bedding and pillows. Doomed to death, one of the revelers laid himself down to rest with his comrades.
Beowulf was not there, for he had been given another lodging place. Awakened, the warriors in the hall sounded the alarm.
He addressed Beowulf: "Once again help rests with you alone. Seek out this savage and cheerless spot, if you dare. I will reward you with great treasure, as I did before, if you succeed in getting there alive."
The old man jumped up, thanking God for Beowulf's words. Accompanied by a troop of warriors they followed the foe's tracks over steep and rocky slopes, over sheer cliffs, and past many a sea-monster's haunt. Suddenly they came upon a mere, overhung with a cheerless wood. And there, to their disgust and dismay, they discovered Æschere's head. Below, the mere's waters seethed with blood and gore.
The troop sat down. They saw serpents and dragons swimming in the water and sea-monsters lying along the headland-slopes. They sounded the battle horn, and the creatures sped away, but not before Beowulf killed one of them with his bow and arrow.
Then Beowulf, taking no thought for his own life, put on his armor of chainmail and his helmet, fitted with boar figures so that no sword could bite it. He picked up the sword, Hrunting by name, that Unferth had lent him. One of the greatest among ancient treasures, its iron blade was stained with poison and hardened with the blood of battle.
The blood-thirsty monster who had lived there for a hundred seasons [fifty years] soon discovered his presence, and she seized the warrior with her horrid claws. His ringed armor protected him, and she did him no harm, but she did drag him into her dwelling. The hero saw that he was in a hall where the water could do him no harm. He attacked the mighty mere-woman, the she-wolf of the deep, with his sword, but he found that he could not wound her with it. Throwing the famous sword to the ground, he again trusted in his strength. He seized Grendel's mother by the shoulder and threw her to the floor. She fought back fiercely, causing him to stumble and fall. She sat on him and stabbed at him with her dagger, but again his coat of chainmail protected him. Finally he regained his feet.
Suddenly light filled the place, and the victorious warrior looked about. He saw Grendel's body. As a final act of vengeance, Beowulf cut off his lifeless head.
On shore Hrothgar and his men were watching the mere. Seeing the troubled waves mingled with blood, they feared that the sea-wolf had torn Beowulf to pieces. At the ninth hour of the day the Danes returned to their homes, but the Geats, Beowulf's comrades-in-arms, remained there sick at heart.
Meanwhile the sword in Beowulf's hand began to waste away. Drenched in blood, it melted away like an icicle at winter's end. Beowulf saw great treasures there in the hall, but all that he took away was Grendel's head and the hilt of the sword, its blade having wasted away.
He swam to the surface, and his valiant thanes rejoiced in seeing him safe and sound. They returned to Heorot, bearing Grendel's head upon a spear.
With these words Beowulf presented to King Hrothgar the hilt, the ancient work of giants, created before the flood destroyed the giant race. Its guard was of shining gold, graven correctly with runic letters and brightly adorned with snakes.
The next morning Beowulf announced his desire to return to his own homeland. With kind thanks he returned the sword Hrunting to Unferth, generously praising the ancient weapon. He was a man of noble spirit!
Hrothgar answered: "Because of you there will always be peace between our people, the Geats and the Danes. Feuds and strife from the past are now behind us."
Then the aged king, unable to contain his grief at Beowulf's parting, gave the hero additional treasures. He was a king blameless in every way until old age robbed him of his strength.
They steered the ship into deep water, then hoisted a cloth sail. The ship groaned, and the wind drove them across the waters, always on course, until at last they saw the familiar headlands and cliffs of their homeland. The harbor guard, who had long looked out to sea for his beloved countrymen, moored their ship with ropes, securing it from the waves.
"My battle with Grendel is already known to many," replied Beowulf. Then he recounted in detail his entire adventure: his arrival at Heorot, his hand-to-hand fight with Grendel, his slaying of the monster's mother at the bottom of the mere, and his reward of great treasures at the hand of King Hrothgar.
Beowulf then had the arms and treasures brought forth, and he told the story behind each heirloom.
King Hygelac responded by presenting to Beowulf Hrethel's sword, a famous heirloom. Furthermore, he gave him seven thousand hides of land and a hall. Then he named him prince and successor to his own throne.
At Hygelac's death Beowulf became king. He ruled wisely for fifty winters, and then a reign of terror visited the land of the Geats.
Then one day a thief broke into the dragon's hoard and stole a golden cup. He was not a willful thief, but rather a runaway slave who had escaped a cruel master. Discovering the treasure by chance, the thief took a golden cup, hoping to pacify his master with it.
Discovering his loss, the flaming dragon emerged from his lair to seek revenge.
Beowulf advanced to the dragon's lair alone, trusting in his single strength. That is no coward's way. With a clear voice he challenged the serpent to appear. The evil beast's breath emerged from the rocks. The earth quaked, and the serpent appeared. The lord of the Geats swung his shield against the awful foe, then struck at him with his ancestral sword, but to no avail. The blade failed to penetrate.
This was to be no pleasant journey for Beowulf: he was now doomed to leave this earth forever against his will, the fate of all men.
Before long the two fighters confronted one another again. The serpent plucked up his courage and renewed his attack. Beowulf's companions had all fled into the woods to save their lives. Only one of them came to his lord's aid.
"Beloved Beowulf," he said, "in your youth you swore that you would not let your fame decline as long as you lived. You must now defend your life with all your might. I shall help you!"
Hearing these words, the dragon attacked a second time. The serpent's flaming breath burned Wiglaf's shield to ashes, so the young warrior was forced to seek refuge behind his kinsman's shield. Beowulf, intent on glory, drove his sword Naegling into the dragon's head. So fierce was the blow that it shattered the blade. As I have heard, Beowulf's hand was so strong, that no sword could withstand his full strength.
The fiery dragon attacked a third time, seizing Beowulf by the neck with his sharp teeth. The hero's blood flowed forth in streams.
Beowulf recovered somewhat, and drawing his short sword he cut the serpent in two. Thus they struck down the foe. Together the two noble kinsmen destroyed him, but this was the king's last hour of victory, his final worldly deed.
The wound that the dragon had given Beowulf began to burn and swell. Knowing that his appointed days on earth were now at an end, Beowulf spoke: "Fifty winters have I ruled this people, during which time no neighboring king has dared to attack us. At home I have accepted my fate. I have sought no quarrels and have sworn no false oaths. In all this I can take joy, although I now suffer from fatal wounds."
Beowulf further asked Wiglaf to seek out the dragon's treasure and describe it to him, thus giving him comfort knowing about this part of the legacy he was leaving to his country.
Seeing the treasure, Beowulf spoke: "I give thanks that I was able to gain these precious things for my people before I died. I have paid for this treasure hoard with my aged life. You must now fulfill the needs of the people with it. I can no longer be here. After my body has been burned have the warriors build a memorial mound for me on a coastal promontory. Seafarers will call it Beowulf's Mound."
The generous king then gave the young warrior his golden neck-piece, his helmet, his ring, and his coat of chainmail, then told him to enjoy them well.
"You are now the last of our kin," he said to Wiglaf. Fate has taken away all my kinsmen. I must follow them."
These were the old king's final words. His soul departed to seek the reward of the righteous.
As I have heard, very few men in the world had ever withstood the venomous blasts from such a foe. Beowulf had won the dragon's hoard, but he had paid for his share of this wealth with his life. Not long afterward the cowards who had fled into the woods returned. Ten in number, they shamefully came to where the old man lay. They looked upon Wiglaf who was trying to revive his lord with water, but to no avail.
Wiglaf addressed the traitors: "You stand there wearing chainmail and carrying the finest arms, all given to you by our king, but in his hour of distress, you all abandoned him. Henceforth you shall all be deprived of the landowners' privileges formerly bestowed upon you."
The Geatish people prepared a magnificent pyre for their great king. Mourning warriors laid their beloved lord in its midst, then kindled the funeral fire. Wood smoke ascended, black above the flames. The roar of the fire mingled with the sound of weeping, until at last the body was consumed. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
A Geatish woman sang a sad lament for Beowulf, expressing fear of evil days ahead.
The Geatish people made a mound upon the cliff. It was high and broad, and could be seen from afar by seafaring men. They built a wall around the fire's ashes, the famous Warrior's Beacon. Within the mound they put the rings, jewels, and adornments that the warriors had taken from the hoard. Thus they returned the treasure to the earth, where it still remains, as useless to men now as it was in times of old.
Twelve warriors, sons of princes, rode about the mound, praising their hero's courage and his mighty deeds.
Thus the Geatish people mourned their fallen lord. They said that he was a mighty king, the mildest and kindest of men, most kind to his people, and most desirous of praise.
Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.
Revised October 26, 2010.