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Beowulf: Grappling with Grendel

(Beowulf, lines 702-836, translation by Allan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, now in the Longmans Anthology of British Literature. This excerpt was published on this site in 1999 by permission of the authors)

Cunningly creeping,     a spectral stalker
slunk through the night.     The spearmen were sleeping
who ought to have held     the high-horned house,
all except one,     for the Lord's will
now became known:     no more would the murderer
drag under darkness     whomever he wished.
Wrath was wakeful,     watching in hatred;
hot-hearted Beowulf     was bent upon battle.

Girt with God's anger,     Grendel came gliding
over the moors     beneath misty mounds.
The man-scather sought     someone to snatch
from the high hall.     He crept under cloud
until he caught sight     of the king's court
whose gilded gables     he knew at a glance.
He had often haunted     Hrothgar's house;
but he never found     before or after,
hardier hall-thanes     or harder luck.
The joyless giant     drew near the door,
which swiftly swung back     at a fingertip's touch
though bound and fastened     with fire-forged bars.
The building's mouth     had been broken-open,
and Grendel entered     with ill intent.
Swollen with fury,     he stalked over flagstones
and looked round the manse     where many men lay.
An unlovely light     most like a flame
flashed from his eyes,     flaring through the hall
at young soldiers dozing     shoulder to shoulder,
comradely kindred.     The cruel creature laughed
in his murderous mind,     thinking how many
now living would die     before the day dawned,
how glutted with gore     he would guzzle his fill.
It was not his fate     to finish the feast
he foresaw that night.

                                      Soon the Stalwart,
Hygelac's kinsman,     beheld how the horror,
not one to be idle,     went about evil.
For his first feat     he suddenly seized
a sleeping soldier, slashed at the flesh,
bit through bones     and lapped up the blood,
greedily gorging     on gigantic gobbets.
Swiftly he swallowed     those lifeless limbs,
hands and feet whole;     then he headed forward
with open palm     to plunder the prone.
One man angled     up on his elbow;
the fiend soon found     he was facing a foe
whose hand-grip was harder     than any other
he ever had met     in all Middle-Earth.
Cravenly cringing,     coward at heart,
he longed for a swift     escape to his lair,
his bevy of devils.     He never had known
from his earliest days     such awful anguish.

The captain, recalling     his speech to the king,
straightaway stood     and hardened his hold.
Fingers fractured.     The fiend spun round;
the soldier stepped closer.     Grendel sought
somehow to slip     that grasp and escape,
flee to the fens;     but his fingers were caught
in too fierce a grip.     His foray had failed;
he harm-wreaker rued     his raid on Heorot.
From the hall of the Danes     a hellish din
beset every stalwart     outside the stronghold,
louder than laughter     of ale-sharing earls.
A wonder it was     the wine-hall withstood
this forceful affray     without falling to earth.
That beautiful building     was firmly bonded
by iron bands     forged with forethought
inside and out.     As some have told it,
the struggle swept on     and slammed to the floor
many mead-benches     massive with gold.
No Scylding elders     ever imagined
that any would harm     their elk-horned hall,
raze what they wrought,     unless flames arose
to smother and swallow it.     Awful new noises
burst from the building,     unnerved the North Danes,
each one and all     who heard those outcries
outside the walls.     Wailing in anguish,
the hellish horror,     hateful to God,
sang his dismay,     seized the grip
of a man more mighty     than any then living.

That shielder of men     meant by no means
to let the death-dealer     leave with his life,
a life worthless     to anyone elsewhere.
Then the young soldiers     swung their old swords
again and again     to save their guardian,
their kingly comrade     however they could.
Engaging with Grendel     and hoping to hew him
from every side,     they scarcely suspected
that blades wielded     by worthy warriors
never would cut     to the criminal's quick.
The spell was spun     so strongly about him
that the finest iron     of any on earth,
the sharpest sword-edge     left him unscathed.
Still he was soon     to be stripped of his life
and sent on a sore     sojourn to Hell.
The strength of his sinews     would serve him no more;
no more would he menace     mankind with his crimes,
his grudge against God,     for the high-hearted kinsman
of King Hygelac     had hold of his hand.
Each found the other     loathsome while living;
but the murderous man-bane     got a great wound
as tendons were torn,     shoulder shorn open,
and bone-locks broken.     Beowulf gained
glory in war;     and Grendel went off
bloody and bent     to the boggy hills,
sorrowfully seeking     his dreary dwelling.
Surely he sensed     his life-span was spent,
his days upon days;     but the Danes rejoiced:
the wish was fulfilled     after fearsome warfare.

Wise and strong-willed,     the one from afar
had cleansed Heorot,     hall of Hrothgar.
Great among Geats,     he was glad of the work
he had done in darkness,     his fame-winning feat,
fulfilling his oath     to aid the East Danes,
easing their anguish,     healing the horror
they suffered so long,     no small distress.
As token of triumph,     the troop-leader hung
the shorn-off shoulder     and arm by its hand:
the grip of Grendel     swung from the gable!

Translated by Alan Sullivan & Timothy Murphy
Copyright © Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, 1999