Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 11Far and wide spread the tidings of this terrible oppression, and many champions came from afar to offer King Hrothgar their aid, but none was heroic enough to conquer the monster, and many a mighty warrior lost his life in a vain struggle against Grendel. At length even these bold adventurers ceased to come; Grendel remained master of Heorot, and the Danes settled down in misery under the bondage of a perpetual nightly terror, while Hrothgar grew old in helpless longing for strength to rescue his people from their foe.
Meanwhile there had come to manhood and full strength a hero destined to make his name famous for mighty deeds of valour throughout the whole of the Teutonic North. In the realm of the Geats (Götaland, in the south of Sweden) ruled King Hygelac, a mighty ruler who was ambitious enough to aim at conquering his neighbours on the mainland of Germany. His only sister, daughter of the dead king Hrethel, had [Pg 6] married a great noble, Ecgtheow, and they had one son, Beowulf, who from the age of seven was brought up at the Geatish court. The boy was a lad of great stature and handsome appearance, with fair locks and gallant bearing; but he greatly disappointed his grandfather, King Hrethel, by his sluggish character. Beowulf as a youth had been despised by all for his sloth and his unwarlike disposition; his good-nature and his rarely stirred wrath made others look upon him with scorn, and the mighty stature to which he grew brought him nothing but scoffs and sneers and insults in the banquet-hall when the royal feasts were held. Yet wise men might have seen the promise of great strength in his powerful sinews and his mighty hands, and the signs of great force of character in the glance of his clear blue eyes and the fierceness of his anger when he was once aroused. At least once already Beowulf had distinguished himself in a great feat—a swimming-match with a famous champion, Breca, who had been beaten in the contest. For this and other victories, and for the bodily strength which gave Beowulf’s hand-grip the force of thirty men, the hero was already famed when the news of Grendel’s ravages reached Geatland. Beowulf, eager to try his strength against the monster, and burning to add to his fame, asked and obtained permission from his uncle, King Hygelac, to seek the stricken Danish king and offer his help against Grendel; then, choosing fourteen loyal comrades and kinsfolk, he took a cheerful farewell of the Geatish royal family and sailed for Denmark.
Thus it happened that one day the Warden of the Coast, riding on his round along the Danish shores, saw from the white cliffs a strange war-vessel running in to shore. Her banners were unknown to him, her crew were strangers and all in war-array, and as the [Pg 7] Warden watched them they ran the ship into a small creek among the mountainous cliffs, made her fast to a rock with stout cables, and then landed and put themselves in readiness for a march. Though there were fifteen of the strangers and the Warden was alone, he showed no hesitation, but, riding boldly down into their midst, loudly demanded: