A Book of Myths
Page: 122The dawn was breaking dim and grey and very chill when Beowulf heard the stealthy tread without, and the quick-following crash of the bolts and bars that gave so readily. He made no movement, but only waited. In an instant the dawn was blotted out by a vast black shadow, and swifter than any great bear could strike, a scaly hand had struck one of the friends of Beowulf. In an instant the man was torn from limb to limb, and in a wild disgust and hatred Beowulf heard the lapping of blood, the scrunching of bones and chewing of warm flesh as the monster ravenously devoured him. Again the loathsome hand was stretched out to seize and to [Pg 254] devour. But in the darkness two hands, like hands of iron, gripped the outstretched arm, and the Grendel knew that he had met his match at last. The warriors of Beowulf awoke to find a struggle going on such as their eyes never before beheld, for it was a fight to the death between man and monster. Vainly they tried to aid their leader, but their weapons only glanced harmlessly off the Grendel’s scaly hide. Up and down the hall the combatants wrestled, until the walls shook and the great building itself rocked to its foundations. Ever and again it seemed as though no human power could prevail against teeth and claws and demonic fury, and as tables and benches crashed to the ground and broke under the tramping feet of the Grendel, it appeared an impossible thing that Beowulf should overcome. Yet ever tighter and more tight grew the iron grip of Beowulf. His fingers seemed turned to iron. His hatred and loathing made his grasp crash through scales, into flesh, and crush the marrow out of the bone it found there. And when at length the Grendel could no more, and with a terrible cry wrenched himself free, and fled, wailing, back to the fenland, still in his grasp Beowulf held the limb. The Grendel had freed himself by tearing the whole arm out of its socket, and, for once, the trail of blood across the moors was that of the monster and not of its victims.
Great indeed was the rejoicing of Hrothgar and of his people when, in the morning, instead of crimson-stained rushes and the track of vermin claws imbrued in human blood, they found all but one of the men from Gothland [Pg 255] alive, and looked upon the hideous trophy that told them that their enemy could only have gone to find a shameful death in the marshes. They cleansed out the great hall, hung it with lordly trappings, and made it once more fit habitation for the lordliest in the land. That night a feast was held in it, such as had never before been held all through the magnificent reign of Hrothgar. The best of the scalds sung songs in honour of the triumph of Beowulf, and the queen herself pledged the hero in a cup of mead and gave to him the beautiful most richly jewelled collar Brisingamen, of exquisite ancient workmanship, that once was owned by Freya, queen of the gods, and a great ring of the purest red gold. To Beowulf, too, the king gave a banner, all broidered in gold, a sword of the finest, with helmet and corselet, and eight fleet steeds, and on the back of the one that he deemed the best Hrothgar had placed his own saddle, cunningly wrought, and decked with golden ornaments. To each of the warriors of Beowulf there were also given rich gifts. And ere the queen, with her maidens, left the hall that night she said to Beowulf: