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Beowulf Fights the Three Monsters of the Far North

Text only version

Listen! This is a tale from England’s earliest days. When warriors from the frozen lands of Northern Europe first came to farm the gentle green fields of England, they brought stories about the terrible monsters of the jagged landscape they had left behind.

The warriors who protected the lands of King Hrothgar lived for safety in a great fortified hall, named Heorot. They made life good, and Hrothgar thanked them with gifts of gold.

Then disaster struck them in the darkness of the night; the huge door of the hall was suddenly smashed to splinters and, as the warriors woke, one by one, they were gripped in a gruesome fist and torn apart! The monster Grendel lifted up a man, pulled him to pieces....and drank his blood! The ogre brought this agony to thirty men, then, just as suddenly, Grendel was gone!

In horror, the men of Heorot mourned their dead heroes. But the next night, as they slept nervously with their swords nearby, they were woken again by the shriek of a man in the grasp of Grendel. Before their swords had been drawn from the scabbards, more men lay scattered across the floor and the demon ogre had disappeared.

Young Beowulf arrived as an adventurer from a neighbouring country. His family was famous for its brave fighters, and Hrothgar welcomed him to Heorot – but warned him of the recent sadness and danger of the place. Every night now, men died defenceless in the hands of Grendel – no sword could pierce the thick skin of this monster. Bravely, Beowulf volunteered to sleep by the door of the hall.

That night, once again, the hall awoke to the cry of a man being bitten in half. But as Grendel reached out for his second victim, he felt his wrist held fast by the two hands of a young man whose smell he did not know – a stranger to Heorot – it was Beowulf, whose fingers gripped the flesh of Grendel’s arm....

The ogre pulled against the strong young warrior’s grip, but could not move. Then Beowulf gave an almighty split, muscles ripped apart, bone-tendons tore open, and the whole arm of Grendel was wrenched out of its socket at the shoulder! The monster howled in pain and surprise, and ran staggering into the dark, to die.

The men of Heorot rejoiced all day at the defeat and disappearance of Grendel. The hall-poet sang the stories of the old heroes, like Sigemund who had killed a dragon and, in the same breath, praised the strength of Beowulf (the Shield of his People!), giving his listeners the most golden words from his treasure-store of poetry.

Hrothgar rewarded Beowulf with gold rings for his heroic deed; and the severed arm of Grendel was nailed high up in the hall, as a trophy to remember the end of the terrible tragedy Grendel had brought to Heorot. But Grendel was only the first of three great monsters Beowulf was forced to face.

That night as all the warriors slept in Heorot, Grendel’s grieving mother came searching for revenge. This she-demon lived in a dark lake in the high wilderness. The great ogress slunk from her swamp. Down, out of the moorland mists came Grendel’s mother, hunting.

She sniffed at the gate of Heorot. She reached in with her claws and snatched the King’s closest adviser, Ashere, carrying him helplessly back to her home. The warriors awoke in panic. They followed the trail of slime back to the lake.

There they saw the severed head of the wise man Ashere. The body had been eaten. The lake bubbled with blood. The surface of the water writhed with slithering reptiles, eels lashed about at the lake-edge.

Only Beowulf dared to dive into that black depth. He felt himself dragged down and down. Just when he thought his lungs would burst, he saw a cave above the level of the water.

He crawled into a den of treasures the ogres had gathered. He saw the dead body of Grendel, and drew his sword. Suddenly Grendel’s mother slashed at him with her talons. Beowulf stabbed, but the blade melted on her skin. He flung away the useless sword. He was not worried, he still had the strength of his own hands. He hauled the foul monster to the floor, but she tripped him, and he fell.

On the wall hung a huge sword that had been made for Giants in the Ancient Days. Beowulf grabbed the hilt and pulled with all his might. The sword came down and fell across the neck of the ogress – she was killed. Beowulf cut off the great head of the Grendel, and swam with it to the surface, taking it in triumph to Heorot.

He was welcomed as a glorious hero. He was given rings of gold, and fast horses with the finest saddles. When he finally travelled home, he was welcomed by his own people, and became their King for fifty years. In his old age, he was to face a final test.

There came a day when a servant stumbled into a cleft in the rocky coast, and discovered a pile of buried treasure. He stole a goblet and took it to King Beowulf for a reward. But this ancient treasure was guarded by a dragon. Furious at his loss, the fire-breathing fiend looked for his goblet by burning down every house around.

Beowulf knew what he must do. He was not greedy for gold – he was always a generous giver of rings; but the treasure-hoarding dragon was so jealous, its very breath burned. So Beowulf had a long shield specially made of iron, and went willingly to fight the flying Worm.

The other Earls stood far off as Beowulf approached. The dragon slowly unfurled its writhing coils. Beowulf brought his sword down on its bony head – and the blade broke! Beowulf’s arm was too strong for the sword and now he stood without a weapon.

Only one Earl, Wiglaf, came forward to help his king. This youth had never faced a fight but his sense of honour forced him, today, to earn his right to wear a sword. The Dragon spat fire...Wiglaf’s wooden shield was withered into ashes. He sheltered behind Beowulf’s iron shield, and his sword-hand was scorched in the flames.

The Dragon swooped...its red-hot fangs sank into Beowulf’s neck. As the hero desperately wrestled for his life, Wiglaf struck at the underbelly, and the monster weakened. The King staggered. With the last of his strength, he drew a dagger, stabbed, and the dragon fell dead.

But poison was boiling in Beowulf’s blood. Wiglaf helped him to unbuckle his helmet, and the old king’s eyes at last grew dim.
“Bury me on the brow of the cliff, and build a barrow-mound over me, so home-coming ships may see it from far off, and be guided safely to harbour. My father and grandfather were great warriors; fate took them to their deaths, and now, I follow.”

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