A Book of Myths

Page: 118

Behind him Scyld left descendants, and one after the other reigned over Denmark. It was in the reign of his great-grandson, Hrothgar, that there took place those things that are told in the story of Beowulf.

A mighty king and warrior was Hrothgar, and far across the northern seas his fame spread wide, so that all the warriors of the land that he ruled were proud to serve under him in peace, and in war to die for him. During his long life he and his men never went forth in their black-prowed ships without returning with the joyous shouts of the victor, with for cargo the rich spoil they had won from their enemies. As he grew old, Hrothgar determined to raise for himself a mighty monument to the magnificence of his reign, and so there was builded for him a vast hall with majestic towers and lofty pinnacles—the finest banqueting-hall that his skilled artificers could dream of. And when at length the hall was completed, Hrothgar gave a feast to all his thanes, and for days and for nights on end the great rafters of Heorot—as his palace was named—echoed the shouts and laughter of the mighty warriors, and the music of the minstrels and the songs that they sang. A proud man was Hrothgar on the night that the banquet was ended amidst the acclamations of his people, and a proud and happy man he lay down to rest, while his bodyguard of mighty warriors stretched themselves on the rush-strewn floor of the great room where they had feasted, and deeply slumbered there.

[Pg 247] Now, in the dark fens of that land there dwelt a monster—fierce, noisome, and cruel, a thing that loved evil and hated all that was joyous and good. To its ears came the ring of the laughter and the shouts of King Hrothgar’s revellers, and the sweet song of the gleemen and the melody of harps filled it with fierce hatred. From its wallow in the marshes, where the pestilent grey fog hung round its dwelling, the monster, known to all men as the Grendel, came forth, to kill and to devour. Through the dark night, across the lonely moorland, it made its way, and the birds of the moor flew screaming in terror before it, and the wild creatures of the desolate country over which it padded clapped down in their coverts and trembled as it passed. It came at length to the great hall where

“A fair troop of warrior thanes guarding it found he;
Heedlessly sleeping, they recked not of sorrow.”

Never a thought did they give to the Grendel,—

“A haunter of marshes, a holder of moors,
... Secret
The land he inhabits; dark, wolf-haunted ways
Of the windy hillside, by the treacherous tarn;
Or where, covered up in its mist, the hill stream
Downward flows.”

Soundly slept Hrothgar, nor opened eye until, in the bright light of the morning, he was roused by terrified servants, forgetful of his august royalty, impelled by terror, crying aloud their terrible tale. They had come, they said, to lay on the floor of the banqueting-hall, sweet, fresh rushes from the meadows, and to clear away all trace of the feasting overnight. But the two-and-thirty knights who, in full armour, had lain down [Pg 248] to sleep were all gone, and on the floor was the spoor of something foul and noisome, and on the walls and on the trampled rushes were great and terrible smears of human blood.