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Folktales

Beowulf

retold by Robert Hoffman

Nightfall was the worst time for the king. For the coming of darkness brought the return of the dread monster -- Grendel. When the light of the sun left the land in deep shadow, mists would rise from the swamp and Grendel steal over the land to terrorize both the king and his subjects.

For the last twelve years the monster had been killing the king's men. Though they had placed doors of the solid oak bound with the strength of iron against him, Grendel broke these with one tremendous blow.

Grendel was nearly immortal as it had been decreed that no weapon made by man could harm him. And while he himself wielded no weapon, he still raised fear among all because of his strength and cunning.

Grendel stood nearly seven feet tall with the strength of twenty men. He wore no clothing as his skin was hardened like cured-leather. His hands were the most terrible. Their long yellow claws were as strong as steel and curved toward his palms. He spent a significant amount of time each day sharpening them until they had a razor's edge. His teeth were more like a bear's than a human's with sharpened canines extending outside of his lips. When the moonlight reflected upon them, they gleamed with an unearthly glow. He was a formidable enemy.

When each new sunset brought a new night of terror, the misery of the court of Hrothgar became widely known. The story finally reached the shores of Beowulf's Land.

Beowulf was a mighty man whose fame had spread over the world. Although he was still a young man, his strength was legendary. It was said that he once fought a battle and killed thirty men with his bare hands. When he heard the story of Hrothgar's misery, he resolved to travel to help the good king. Fearing that taking an army would do little good, he chose fourteen of his strongest warriors to accompany him. With seven men on each side of the viking ship, they soon rowed the ship from their home port and out onto the ocean. The seas were friendly and when they raised their sails the freshening winds drove their ship easily toward Denmark. In hardly more than a day's journey the harbor beckoned them. Anchoring their ship offshore they walked to the shore bearing their weapons.

When the sentinel on the shore saw an armed group of men led by a stalwart warrior wading ashore, he challenged them, "Who are you and what do you want?" Beowulf looked at the small man and said with a smile, "Why do you want to know?"

"You have landed bearing arms in the land I am pledged to defend. It is my duty to ask your business . . . and if you be foe: to fight to the death."

"We are not enemies. I am Beowulf and I have come to fight with the monster Grendel."

"Then stay and be welcome. I will take you to my king. Are you certain that you wish to fight with Grendel? We have heard that no weapon will harm him . . . ."

"Then I will use no weapon, I will fight with only my hands and my strength."

The coast guard looked at him and saw that this was no idle boast. His arms were the size of other men's legs and his shoulders so broad that no man could hope to wrestle with him. A small amount of hope began to grow in the man's heart, and as he led the group he even began to smile a little.

Arriving at the castle Beowulf saw the doors thrown down and in disarray. He bent and examined them closely. In his mind he felt a small amount of concern. It would not have been an easy thing to destroy these doors. Feeling the challenge rising he smiled grimly and then tossed the heavy doors out of the way as if they weighed no more than dandelion fluff. "When I have completed my task, I will rebuild the doors myself so that all who stay inside will have fear of nothing."

Walking through the entrance to the courtyard he looked the assembled people over until he found Hrothgar. Striding purposefully toward him he knelt on the ground in front of him and said, "Your misery with the monster Grendel has reached even into my land. When I heard the story, I knew I must come and do battle with the monster. I do not know if I will win, I only ask your leave to try."

"If that is all that is required, then your request is granted. But, I have a heavy heart as I have no wish to see such a fine, young man killed by the monster. Many strong men have fought the monster -- the sun is turning their bones white on the road to the lair of Grendel. Sir, if you will take my advice: I tell you to turn and return to your land at once. It is not necessary that you sacrifice your life needlessly."

"I know it is not required but I also know that I was born to do battle with the forces of the evil and Grendel is evil. Do not fear too much for my safety for I have had some small experience in these matters."

"Then stay and be welcomed. Tonight we will feast in your honor. In that way if it is your last meal on earth, it will be an enjoyable one." He turned and spoke to his counselor and the counselor showed Beowulf and his men where they could place their belongings and make ready for the coming of night.

The party was marvelous with as fine a food as Beowulf had seen. There was drink for all and he even allowed his men a small amount of mead -- the strong liquor made from honey. As night darkened and the fires began to die, Hrothgar excused himself. Walking to Beowulf he placed his hands on his shoulders and said, "Though we have just met, I think of you as a son. Please, hide yourself for you know not what you are asking to fight. The knowledge that you will perish is darkening my heart."

"If I die, it will not be because of fear. I will conquer the monster or die trying. Tomorrow we shall feast in earnest. I simply hope you have enough mead to satisfy my men in our victory."

"If the monster dies tonight, then all the mead in my kingdom is yours as well as most any thing I own or control. For ridding my kingdom of this curse would be a great boon to my people and me."

With his eyes glistening with tears in the wan firelight, Hrothgar retired for the evening. Beowulf removed his sword and placed it near him while he slept. The mead was working on his mind and it felt good to lay down. Sleep claimed him nearly as soon as he stretched out. The next sounds he heard were the dying screams of his comrade. When Beowulf awoke he was dismayed to find that Grendel had already killed one of his men. Beowulf looked at the man's body on the floor of the great hall. His head lolled to one side with his blackened tongue protruding. With a glance Beowulf could tell that his legs were obviously broken. The man's sword lay on the ground broken in pieces.

As he turned toward the monster he saw Grendel take another man as if he were a twig and break his back. Opening his tremendous jaws he took a giant bite of the man's side and spit it on the ground. The screams of his dying woke the entire hall.

Throwing his drawn weapon aside Beowulf approached the monster. Reaching his hand to grab him he closed his mighty fingers around his arm. When he squeezed, Grendel had never felt such strength. In all of his miserable life he had never known fear: now he did.

Trying to withdraw his arm only made the man grasp more tightly. With a terrible scream Grendel began to move toward the door. Beowulf was dragged behind and his feet scrambled for purchase. Still he continued to slip, but he would not let go. His arms ached from their effort and his muscles rippled in the moonlight: but still he hung on.

The door to the outside drew Grendel and he tried all the harder to leave the castle . Beowulf set his legs and summoning all of his strength: stopped the monster cold. Then with a strength and will of a hero, he began to pull the monster toward him.

Grendel felt himself being drawn toward the mighty man but there was little he could do about it. Turning suddenly he opened his tremendous jaws and struck out with the claw that was not held. Beowulf easily deflected the blow with a laugh and threw Grendel to the ground without loosening his grip.

Grendel had gone beyond being scared into the realm of sheer terror. He knew he had to get away but did not know how. Straining himself he pulled against the man with all of his power. But it was to no avail. As Grendel began to weaken, Beowulf grew stronger.

Finally with all of the effort he could muster Grendel lunged for the door. Beowulf's face grew grim as he held on tightly. Then when Grendel started to make some progress, Beowulf jerked with all the strength he had.

There was a ripping, tearing sound as Grendel's arm separated from his shoulder. Beowulf threw the arm in disgust and reached for the monster. But, he was too late for Grendel had fled. Though mortally wounded he managed to escape the castle and find the road home.

Returning to his broken men Beowulf shed bitter tears. He stood over them and thought of the good times they had enjoyed together. He was deep in thought when he felt the arm of the king surround his shoulders and squeeze gently. "You have done well. We believe that the monster will die of his wounds."

"Yes, I believe he will as well. But, his death will not bring my men back to life."

"I know, my son. I have lost many good men to the monster. But, now he is dead and we shall throw a festival that shall be sung about when we are cold in our graves -- for the monster is dead."

The men retired for the evening and slept until the sun was high in the sky. In truth the men in Hrothgar's Court had their most peaceful night of sleeping in many years. Though Beowulf felt the loss of his men deeply, he also understood that his task had been completed.

The morning brought many preparations as oxen were roasted, sweets of every description were prepared, and giant barrels of mead and other liquors were brought from the storerooms of Hrothgar. When the sun set and the skies darkened, the men and women still danced and listened to the minstrels sing of the victory of Beowulf over Grendel.

When it became time to retire, Hrothgar offered his own quarters to Beowulf and his men. His gratitude to the young man for destroying the monster could not be underestimated. With Grendel dead, Hrothgar and his court slept in the open under the stars in the courtyard. For with the monster dead, what was there to fear?

Stealthily moving over the moors and swamps the mother of Grendel approached the castle of Hrothgar. Though she was much smaller and not blessed with Grendel's ability to withstand the weapons of man, she none-the-less was a study in terror. Walking past the ruined gates she grabbed the first nobleman she saw -- the king's counselor -- and dashed his head on the courtyard stones until his brains were strewn about.

The rest of the court was roused by the sound of the nobleman's dying and all cowered in fear. The hideous monster strode through the court seeking another victim to satisfy her lust for revenge. Spying her son's arm on the ground she took it to her breast and cradled it gently. Seeing that the men were gathering their arms to fight, she left the court and sped toward her home in the trackless swamps.

Beowulf, his head still full of mead, was awakened and returned to the courtyard. "What has happened, King Hrothgar?"

"Another monster -- we believe it might have been some relation to Grendel came and killed my counselor. Now she has run onto the moor toward the swamp."

"Then I will go and do battle with her as well. It is my task to rid this land of the monster and if there is more than one: I will kill more than one."

The blood from the arm of Grendel dripped onto the ground and Beowulf could follow the trail with the tendrils of light from the awakening sun. Moving through the dark fen toward the deepening water, Beowulf drew his weapon. It was an evil place and he knew that death could be around the next tussock.

Trailing the blood until it ended at a low-lying pool of stagnant water, Beowulf looked around and tried to see where the monster might have gone. Seeing no sign of her he assumed she had entered the water. Shedding nearly all but his good sword Hrunting he dived into the slime-encrusted waters.

Down and down he went until he saw it: an underwater chamber. He entered and was relieved to find that he could breathe. How air was delivered this deep into the water was a mystery to him, but with drawn sword he sought his foe. The chamber was decorated with the weapons and relics of the many men that Grendel had killed.

A terrible odor filled Beowulf's nostrils and he turned to where the body of Grendel was decomposing. Seeing Grendel's Mother out of the corner of his eye, he managed to avoid her attack. Drawing his sword high over his head, he drove it toward her with all of his considerable might. The good sword shattered into three pieces and the shards fell at his feet.

Seeing that her enemy was now defenseless she charged toward him. Beowulf sought furtively for another weapon and finding a short sword laying on the floor, he bent to pick it up. As she attacked he lunged -- sinking the sword deep into her heart. Her dying screams filled the chamber..

Beowulf withdrew the weapon and looked at it. The blade was writ with runes of ancient days that contained great power. Searching the chamber he found the body of Grendel. Taking the ancient knife he removed the monster's head and dove for the surface.

Thinking that he had been gone so long that he stood no chance of being alive, his men had returned to the court of Hrothgar and were deep in mourning when they heard a sound outside. Suddenly the head of Grendel was rolled on the floor of the courtyard and Beowulf entered with a great smile on his face.

The partying lasted for three days as Beowulf was toasted in every imaginable way. Finally when the time came for him to leave, Hrothgar called him close, "Anything that is mine, is yours. I give it gladly. What is your desire?"

"I desire nothing more than the chance to help."

"But, Beowulf, you have earned this boon. Please, choose something to take with you on your journey."

"I will take this sword, but I will not leave until I have fixed the doors to the castle. In the morning my men and I will repair them before sailing to Geatland. "

And so in the morning the gates were repaired and Beowulf and his men left Denmark to return home. His legend was spread among all people for his prowess as a warrior is still the stuff of dreams . . . .


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