21 September 2011

XXII. The Search for Grendel's Mother

The Fitt begins with a few heartening words from Beowulf to Hrothgar, reminding him of the duty to avenge Aeshere and how fame is more important than life, since everyone eventually dies, anyway. Hrothgar is inspired to lead a party out to search for Grendel's mother. They travel through a varied landscape before arriving at an extraordinary body of water, stained with blood and full of monstrous creatures. The warriors kill one of these "nicors," giving an opportunity for grim understatement (Once a creature has its heart pierced by an arrow, "It seemed in the water/to swim more weakly") and bizarre metaphor (dragging the dying creature onto the land is "A wondrous sea birth"). Then Beowulf prepares himself to follow Grendel's mother into the lake. Beowulf's courage is contrasted with Unferth's cowardice.


Then Beowulf said, the son of Ecgtheow,
“Wise sir, it is better to abandon grief,
“to avenge friends than vainly mourn.
“Each one of us waits for the end
“of mortal life. Man should then strive
“for fame before death! To a fighter, that,
“when life closes, lasts as a comfort.
“So rise, realm’s warden! Ride out at once, 1390
“for Grendel’s kin has granted a trail.
“I promise you this: no place will hide her;
“no cover in field, nor forested heights,
“nor rocky sea bottom, run as she may!
“Only endure this day with patience
“and every shock as I am sure you can.”

Then the old man rose and offered thanks
to God Almighty the man had spoken.
A horse was harnessed for Hrothgar then,
with wave-plaited mane. The wise monarch 1400
travelled stately; strong shield-bearers
followed behind. Her footprints were
easily followed on a forest trail;
she cut across the countryside
over a murky moor, making off with the clansman,
the best of men—now merely a body!—
that held the homeland by Hrothgar’s side.
The high-born hero hurried over
drifts of sharp stones and deep valleys,
tight earth fissures and untested fords,
mountain faces and monsters’ nests.  1410
He pushed ahead with a handful of men,
scouts with the skill to scry the land,
till he stumbled on a stand of trees
overhanging ice-covered rocks,
a dismal sight. Unsettled water
was full of blood. The band of Danes,
their hearts aching, and all the Scyldings,
those many men, mourned at the cliff
to see Aeschere as a severed head.

The water roiled. The warriors stared 1420
for it was hot with blood. A horn quickly blew
a song for his soul. They sat themselves down
and saw in the water serpentine creatures,
strange sea-dragons that sounded the deep,
and on stones near shore stretched the nicors
that often launch in the late morning
deadly sorties on the sail-road.
Rough and snaky, they rolled away,
swollen and hating, on hearing the sound
of the war horn. One of the Geats 1430
with an arrow and bow ended a beast
and its struggle with waves, for straight in its heart
he sent the arrow. It seemed in the water
to swim more weakly, the one death had seized.
They rushed into breakers with boar-spears raised,
steeply-angled, and stabbed at it,
pierced its hide, and hauled it to land.
A wondrous sea birth! Warriors stared
at the brute stranger.
                                   Beowulf prepared.
He dressed in fine armour, with no fear of death. 1440
He needed his byrnie, braided by hand,
broad and regal, to risk the lake
so it could armour his arch of bones,
protect his heart from holds that kill,
and keep himself safe from her grip.
The shining helmet that sheltered his head
and would swirl up mire from the mud below,
creating currents, was crusted with treasure
in elaborate bands for long before
a weaponsmith worked, wonderfully lengthened, 1450
and fastened boars as a firm sign
that no blade at all could ever bite.
Another piece of powerful war-gear
Hrothgar’s spokesman had handed over:
Hrunting, an ancient and excellent sword,
with a hilt for two hands, was high among heirlooms.
Its edge was patterned with poison twigs
and tempered in blood. Time and again
the one who held it had won his fight.
So the man who chose this chilling trip 1460
to the foe’s land was far from the only
that the sword had helped with heroes’ work.

Ecglaf’s kinsman could not remember,
that hardy man, what he had said,
when, addled with wine, he offered the sword
to a braver swordsman. He himself would not
risk the deeps and endanger his life
to attest his worth. He tossed away glory,
well-earned honour, as the other did not
after he dressed for a deadly fight. 1470

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