Retribution – Excerpt from a prose poetry translation of Beowulf (ll. 1321-1590)

Ted Morrissey

Beowulf, a visiting Geat, has rid King Hrothgar’s hall of Grendel, the menacing creature who has been murdering the Danes for twelve long years, but the next night Grendel’s mother attacks the hall in retribution for her son’s death. And Beowulf is called on again.



Hrothgar, helmet of the Scyldings, replied [to Beowulf]: Ask not after our happiness—for sorrow again lurks in our luckless land. Aeschere, Yrmenlaf’s elder brother, is lost, my keeper of secrets and wellspring of wisdom. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder striking as one when clashing foot soldiers tried to remove our boar-crested heads. However bathed in bravery a man should be, demonstrating a nobility from olden times, that was princely Aeshere. But now a wandering blood-thirsty wight has snatched him from Heorot hoping for a rich reward. The bold terror has fled somewhere, perhaps to devour her hapless victim, I cannot say. She has avenged the crushing grip by which you caught Grendel on his last night, payment for my people’s pernicious annihilation. Something terrible has now befallen Aeschere in this feud, his future likely forfeited, as a new threat, a vicious visitant, has come to continue the deadly quarrel after a death among her clan. Many a thane knows the weight of a heart’s bitter weeping following the loss of a beloved brother-in-arms, a generous bearer of gifts. Now that hand which would have given you—all of you!—your heart’s desire is hidden from us.


It has been reported by those who work the land, and confirmed by my councilors, that two powerful prowlers have been spotted among the marshes, queer characters who rule over the waste-lands. One, according to the most reliable reports, has a feminine form, while the other misshapen outcast seems male, but larger and more powerful than any other . . . man at least: Grendel, or so he was named by the workers of the earth in days long gone. No father for the pair is known, nor whether any other fearsome creatures came before them. They live in a place shrouded in secrecy, a treacherous track thick with wolves, where windy cliffs loom above the waste-land and dark waters cascade into a tumult that races toward the nether-world. Marked off in miles, it is not far, their hoarfrosted fen, where firmly rooted woods darken the wretched water. There, kinsmen claim, flames flicker ominously upon the flood, night after night. No man lives, no matter how old or how wise, who can surmise the mere’s malignant depths. The hard-horned hart, high-stepper of the heath, pushed there by hounds, would rather surrender to the savage pack than hide—it is such an unholy place. Black waves blast toward the heavens when hostile storms further disturb the surge, salting the air as if the sky were weeping. Now you alone can save us, even though you know not this perilous place. You may find her there, this sinister creature. Dare to seek her, and if you survive the fight, I shall again reward you with the worthiest treasure of wound gold.



Beowulf, son Ecgtheow, replied: Your wisdom must inform you it is better to punish those who pile sorrow at our door than to be forlorn over a friend’s sad fate. We must all bear knowing our life in this world will end. Allow whoever is able to achieve their glory before death. For afterward, it will be their most enduring memorial. Take heart, wisest watchman of the realm—we shall swiftly take to the track of Grendel’s dam, and on this threat I will make good: She has no chance to lose herself, not in the earth’s embrace, not among the mountain’s forest, not on the sea’s sandy floor—flee where she will. Patience can be excruciating, but I know you will practice it today. The ancient one’s spirit was lifted by this bold speech, and he gave thanks to God, praised the All-Powerful.


Then Hrothgar’s mount was duly dressed, a haughty warhorse with a mane of intricate braids. The wise old king set off in a magnificent manner, leading a fine troop of linden-bearing footsoldiers. The tracks were easily seen where she had borne the best of thanes along the forest floor and directly to her dark domain. The lifeless captive had always helped Hrothgar watch over his home. The king and his company worked their way along the unwelcoming path, at times so narrow they were compelled to squeeze through one by one, then edge along a high seawall where myriad monsters made their home. He went first, with some seasoned soldiers, to spy out the land. Quickly they came to a forbidding forest where mountain trees angled above gray rock. Below, the water was grim with gore. Misery dealt a murderous blow to the Danes on that sea-cliff—to every last warrior, including the friends of the Scyldings—when they came upon Aeschere’s severed head. The bloody sea-surge boiled with gore, upon which all were drawn to gaze. Then battle-horns sounded, singing their readiness for war—and the waiting soldiers stole a moment’s rest.


The water churned with many strange creatures of the sea, while kindred monsters lay upon the rocks, the sorts of sea-serpents and wild beasts that menace mariners as they navigate early-morning channels. The creatures sank away, furious and fulminating, the second they heard the battle-horns’ sharp song. A Geat, their chief archer, used his bow to bury a war-hardened shaft in one such water-beast, cutting short its struggles. It swam slowly in the surf toward the realm of death. A barbed javelin designed for hunting boars hooked the desperate wave-roamer and hauled it onto the rocks. All gaped at the gruesome guest.


Beowulf dressed for battle, not in the least mindful of his mortality. The well-made mail, ample and artfully adorned, must safeguard his body as he searched the sea, shielding his breast when caught in the grip of war, in the malicious grasp of a murderous foe. A rare helmet—refulgent and complete with a curtain of rings covering the neck, created by a master smith of the olden days—would protect the hero’s head; and when the sandy seafloor was churned into a cloud of chaos, a boar-crest amulet would prove impenetrable to any war-sword or battleax. At this critical moment Hrothgar’s humbled advisor, Unferth, lent Beowulf a powerful aid: the specially hilted sword known as Hrunting, a nightmare of a weapon, highly treasured in times of strife. Its ferric edge was festooned with terrible tendrils, poison-laced thorns hard-varnished with the blood of the vanquished. It had proved worthy of every warrior who had wielded it in the stronghold of his enemies. Indeed, this was hardly the first time it would be relied upon to carry out an act of courage. It seemed certain that Unferth, son of Ecglaf, wanted to forget the drunken insults he had hurled at the superior swordsman, skilled in feats of strength, when he lent him the weapon. He would not dare risk his life beneath that turbulent tide—in his failure to seek fame he lost his good name forever. Not so for the other, the man wardrobed in war-gear.



Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, said: I am eager to set off, son of Healfdene, wisest of kings and gold-friend to your men. Bear in mind our arrangement, of which we spoke before, that should I fall in fulfilling my promise, you will embrace the role of my father. Likewise, grant your guardianship to my young comrades, closest of companions, if this battle carries me off. Furthermore, beloved Hrothgar, forward to Hygelac the spectacular gifts you have showered upon me. Thus the great leader of the Geats, Hrethel’s son, when he is struck by the magnificence of the treasure, will realize that I have made the most of my time here and was richly rewarded by a gracious ring-giver. And you, Unferth, man widely known, have this revered heirloom—this hard-edged sword with its perfect blade expertly patterned after the sea. I shall bear Hrunting in my hunt for fame, or be borne away by death.


After these bold words, the much-loved leader of the Weather-Geats rushed away without awaiting reply, and the swirling sea accepted the impetuous warrior. Then daylight helped him discover the dim bottom.


Soon the grim and greedy one who had ruled that watery realm with a ravenous ferocity for some fifty years sensed that a man from above was penetrating her unwelcoming place. She clutched the warrior in her wicked claws, hoping to pierce the woven rings of his shirt, but it saved his body and his life from her searching, sickening fingers. Coming to the bottom, the mere-wolf managed the ring-clad prince toward her warren, and, in spite of his resolve, he was restrained from freeing his weapon. All the while a bevy of mysterious sea-beasts beat at his battle-mail and tore at it with their tusks as they pursued the tangled pair. Then the hero discovered he had entered some kind of hostile hall, cut off from the water and the current’s cruel grip, due to the hall’s high roof. He saw the white light of a fire, its flames flickering brightly.


The valiant visitor also saw the sickening lake-wife, duchess of this lepers’ den. He swung the ring-embellished war-sword, saving nothing back, and its aria was a hideous battle-song against her head. But the guest found that the gleaming blade would not bite, let alone prove baneful, its edge failing the imperiled prince. That precious treasure had prevailed countless times in hand-to-hand conflict, cutting helmets, hewing harnesses, delivering enemies to their doom—this was its debut failure.


Recalling his fame and retaining his courage, the determination of Hyglac’s kinsman was intact. The enraged warrior tossed to the ground the artfully adorned sword, though rigid and razor-edged. He must trust in his own tireless grip. Such is required of a man if his reputation in battle is to become legendary. He must be willing to forfeit his life.


The War-Geats’ great prince grasped Grendel’s mother by her hair, harboring no remorse for the move. Many a hard battle helped him to keep his head, and he used his swelling rage to force his lethal lover to the floor. She instantly retaliated with the grasp of her terrible talons, clawing at him. The relentless onslaught wearied the strongest of warriors, the surest of foot, so that he stumbled and fell. She put her full weight upon the visitor to her hall and brandished a short sword, its blade broad and biting, meaning to avenge her only son, her sole offspring. Across his shoulder and breast lay the braided mail, and it protected his body from being pierced or hacked. The Geats’ guardian, Ecgtheow’s son, would have perished there, beneath the wide earth, if not for his battle-tested gear, true to its purpose in helping holy God determine the contest’s victor. The Ruler of the heavens easily foresaw the right result when Beowulf again was upright.



Then he spotted among the scattered war-gear a blade imbued with countless victories in battle, an ancient sword, strong-edged and worthy of the finest fighters. It was a choice weapon but far more than most men could wield in combat—only the hardiest of heroes could harness its special might, manufactured, as it was, by giants. The Scyldings’ bold savior drew the ring-marked blade and struck with fury, breaking the bone-rings of her neck, the ancient blade slicing straight through, her body doomed. Lifeless, it crumpled to the floor. The sword-blade glinted with gore—the swordsman with satisfaction.


A light flared, illuminating the interior, as if heaven’s own candle had pierced the pall. He surveyed the chamber, quickly turning to the wall. Hygelac’s thane, still furiously focused, took up his weapon by its heavy hilt. The blade would prove its worth once more as the warrior wished to repay Grendel for the vicious work he performed on the West-Danes. Hrothgar’s hearth-friends, fifteen dozing Danes, were devoured during a recent attack, and as many carried off as a loathsome prize for later. The fierce champion had rewarded him for that, as was evident when he found Grendel, battle-worn, in his final resting-place. He lay dead, obviously drained of life, fatally injured as he was in Heorot. His shattered corpse split wide open, suffering a sort of second brutal death upon Beowulf’s merciless sword-stroke, severing completely his head.


Beowulf in Old English



Hroðgar maþelode, helm Scyldinga:

Ne frin þu æfter sælum. Sorh is geniwod

Denigea leodum. Dead is æschere,

Yrmenlafes yldra broþor,

min runwita ond min rædbora,

eaxlgestealla, ðonne we on orlege

hafelan weredon, þonne hniton feþan,

eoferas cynsedan. Swylc scolde eorl wesan,

æþeling ærgod, swylc æschere wæs.

Wearð him on Heorote to handbanan

wælgæst wæfre; ic ne wat hwæder

atol æse wlanc eftsiðas teah,

fylle gefægnod. Heo þa fæhðe wræc

þe þu gystranniht Grendel cwealdest

þurh hæstne had heardum clammum,

forþan he to lange leode mine

wanode ond wyrde. He æt wige gecrang

ealdres scyldig, ond nu oþer cwom

mihtig manscaða, wolde hyre mæg wrecan,

ge feor hafað fæhðe gestæled

(þæs þe þincean mæg þegne monegum,

se þe æfter sincgyfan on sefan greoteþ),

hreþerbealo hearde; nu seo hand ligeð,

se þe eow welhwylcra wilna dohte.

Ic þæt londbuend, leode mine,

selerædende, secgan hyrde

þæt hie gesawon swylce twegen

micle mearcstapan moras healdan,

ellorgæstas. ðæra oðer wæs,

þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton,

idese onlicnæs; oðer earmsceapen

on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd,

næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer;

þone on geardagum Grendel nemdon

foldbuende. No hie fæder cunnon,

hwæþer him ænig wæs ær acenned

dyrnra gasta. Hie dygel lond

warigeað, wulfhleoþu, windige næssas,

frecne fengelad, ðær fyrgenstream

under næssa genipu niþer gewiteð,

flod under foldan. Nis þæt feor heonon

milgemearces þæt se mere standeð;

ofer þæm hongiað hrinde bearwas,

wudu wyrtum fæst wæter oferhelmað.

þær mæg nihta gehwæm niðwundor seon,

fyr on flode. No þæs frod leofað

gumena bearna, þæt þone grund wite;

ðeah þe hæðstapa hundum geswenced,

heorot hornum trum, holtwudu sece,

feorran geflymed, ær he feorh seleð,

aldor on ofre, ær he in wille

hafelan hydan. Nis þæt heoru stow!

þonon yðgeblond up astigeð

won to wolcnum, þonne wind styreþ,

lað gewidru, oðþæt lyft drysmaþ,

roderas reotað. Nu is se ræd gelang

eft æt þe anum. Eard git ne const,

frecne stowe, ðær þu findan miht

felasinnigne secg; sec gif þu dyrre.

Ic þe þa fæhðe feo leanige,

ealdgestreonum, swa ic ær dyde,

wundnum golde, gyf þu on weg cymest.”



Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgþeowes:

“Ne sorga, snotor guma; selre bið æghwæm

þæt he his freond wrece, þonne he fela murne.

Ure æghwylc sceal ende gebidan

worolde lifes; wyrce se þe mote

domes ær deaþe; þæt bið drihtguman

unlifgendum æfter selest.

Aris, rices weard, uton raþe feran

Grendles magan gang sceawigan.

Ic hit þe gehate, no he on helm losaþ,

ne on foldan fæþm, ne on fyrgenholt,

ne on gyfenes grund, ga þær he wille.

ðys dogor þu geþyld hafa

weana gehwylces, swa ic þe wene to.”

Ahleop ða se gomela, gode þancode,

mihtigan drihtne, þæs se man gespræc.

þa wæs Hroðgare hors gebæted,

wicg wundenfeax. Wisa fengel

geatolic gende; gumfeþa stop

lindhæbbendra. Lastas wæron

æfter waldswaþum wide gesyne,

gang ofer grundas, þær heo gegnum for

ofer myrcan mor, magoþegna bær

þone selestan sawolleasne

þara þe mid Hroðgare ham eahtode.

Ofereode þa æþelinga bearn

steap stanhliðo, stige nearwe,

enge anpaðas, uncuð gelad,

neowle næssas, nicorhusa fela.

He feara sum beforan gengde

wisra monna wong sceawian,

oþþæt he færinga fyrgenbeamas

ofer harne stan hleonian funde,

wynleasne wudu; wæter under stod

dreorig ond gedrefed. Denum eallum wæs,

winum Scyldinga, weorce on mode

to geþolianne, ðegne monegum,

oncyð eorla gehwæm, syðþan æscheres

on þam holmclife hafelan metton.

Flod blode weol (folc to sægon),

hatan heolfre. Horn stundum song

fuslic fyrdleoð. Feþa eal gesæt.

Gesawon ða æfter wætere wyrmcynnes fela,

sellice sædracan, sund cunnian,

swylce on næshleoðum nicras licgean,

ða on undernmæl oft bewitigað

sorhfulne sið on seglrade,

wyrmas ond wildeor; hie on weg hruron,

bitere ond gebolgne, bearhtm ongeaton,

guðhorn galan. Sumne Geata leod

of flanbogan feores getwæfde,

yðgewinnes, þæt him on aldre stod

herestræl hearda; he on holme wæs

sundes þe sænra, ðe hyne swylt fornam.

Hræþe wearð on yðum mid eoferspreotum

heorohocyhtum hearde genearwod,

niða genæged, ond on næs togen,

wundorlic wægbora; weras sceawedon

gryrelicne gist. Gyrede hine Beowulf

eorlgewædum, nalles for ealdre mearn.

Scolde herebyrne hondum gebroden,

sid ond searofah, sund cunnian,

seo ðe bancofan beorgan cuþe,

þæt him hildegrap hreþre ne mihte,

eorres inwitfeng, aldre gesceþðan;

ac se hwita helm hafelan werede,

se þe meregrundas mengan scolde,

secan sundgebland since geweorðad,

befongen freawrasnum, swa hine fyrndagum

worhte wæpna smið, wundrum teode,

besette swinlicum, þæt hine syðþan no

brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton.

Næs þæt þonne mætost mægenfultuma

þæt him on ðearfe lah ðyle Hroðgares;

wæs þæm hæftmece Hrunting nama.

þæt wæs an foran ealdgestreona;

ecg wæs iren, atertanum fah,

ahyrded heaþoswate; næfre hit æt hilde ne swac

manna ængum þara þe hit mid mundum bewand,

se ðe gryresiðas gegan dorste,

folcstede fara; næs þæt forma sið

þæt hit ellenweorc æfnan scolde.

Huru ne gemunde mago Ecglafes,

eafoþes cræftig, þæt he ær gespræc

wine druncen, þa he þæs wæpnes onlah

selran sweordfrecan. Selfa ne dorste

under yða gewin aldre geneþan,

drihtscype dreogan; þær he dome forleas,

ellenmærðum. Ne wæs þæm oðrum swa,

syðþan he hine to guðe gegyred hæfde.



Beowulf maðelode, bearn Ecgþeowes:

“Geþenc nu, se mæra maga Healfdenes,

snottra fengel, nu ic eom siðes fus,

goldwine gumena, hwæt wit geo spræcon,

gif ic æt þearfe þinre scolde

aldre linnan, þæt ðu me a wære

forðgewitenum on fæder stæle.

Wes þu mundbora minum magoþegnum,

hondgesellum, gif mec hild nime;

swylce þu ða madmas þe þu me sealdest,

Hroðgar leofa, Higelace onsend.

Mæg þonne on þæm golde ongitan Geata dryhten,

geseon sunu Hrædles, þonne he on þæt sinc starað,

þæt ic gumcystum godne funde

beaga bryttan, breac þonne moste.

Ond þu Unferð læt ealde lafe,

wrætlic wægsweord, widcuðne man

heardecg habban; ic me mid Hruntinge

dom gewyrce, oþðe mec deað nimeð.”

æfter þæm wordum Wedergeata leod

efste mid elne, nalas ondsware

bidan wolde; brimwylm onfeng

hilderince. ða wæs hwil dæges

ær he þone grundwong ongytan mehte.

Sona þæt onfunde se ðe floda begong

heorogifre beheold hund missera,

grim ond grædig, þæt þær gumena sum

ælwihta eard ufan cunnode.

Grap þa togeanes, guðrinc gefeng

atolan clommum. No þy ær in gescod

halan lice; hring utan ymbbearh,

þæt heo þone fyrdhom ðurhfon ne mihte,

locene leoðosyrcan laþan fingrum.

Bær þa seo brimwylf, þa heo to botme com,

hringa þengel to hofe sinum,

swa he ne mihte, no he þæs modig wæs,

wæpna gewealdan, ac hine wundra þæs fela

swencte on sunde, sædeor monig

hildetuxum heresyrcan bræc,

ehton aglæcan. ða se eorl ongeat

þæt he in niðsele nathwylcum wæs,

þær him nænig wæter wihte ne sceþede,

ne him for hrofsele hrinan ne mehte

færgripe flodes; fyrleoht geseah,

blacne leoman, beorhte scinan.

Ongeat þa se goda grundwyrgenne,

merewif mihtig; mægenræs forgeaf

hildebille, hond sweng ne ofteah,

þæt hire on hafelan hringmæl agol

grædig guðleoð. ða se gist onfand

þæt se beadoleoma bitan nolde,

aldre sceþðan, ac seo ecg geswac

ðeodne æt þearfe; ðolode ær fela

hondgemota, helm oft gescær,

fæges fyrdhrægl; ða wæs forma sið

deorum madme, þæt his dom alæg.

Eft wæs anræd, nalas elnes læt,

mærða gemyndig mæg Hylaces.

Wearp ða wundenmæl wrættum gebunden

yrre oretta, þæt hit on eorðan læg,

stið ond stylecg; strenge getruwode,

mundgripe mægenes. Swa sceal man don,

þonne he æt guðe gegan þenceð

longsumne lof, na ymb his lif cearað.

Gefeng þa be eaxle (nalas for fæhðe mearn)

Guðgeata leod Grendles modor;

brægd þa beadwe heard, þa he gebolgen wæs,

feorhgeniðlan, þæt heo on flet gebeah.

Heo him eft hraþe andlean forgeald

grimman grapum ond him togeanes feng;

oferwearp þa werigmod wigena strengest,

feþecempa, þæt he on fylle wearð.

Ofsæt þa þone selegyst ond hyre seax geteah,

brad ond brunecg, wolde hire bearn wrecan,

angan eaferan. Him on eaxle læg

breostnet broden; þæt gebearh feore,

wið ord ond wið ecge ingang forstod.

Hæfde ða forsiðod sunu Ecgþeowes

under gynne grund, Geata cempa,

nemne him heaðobyrne helpe gefremede,

herenet hearde, ond halig god

geweold wigsigor; witig drihten,

rodera rædend, hit on ryht gesced

yðelice, syþðan he eft astod.



Geseah ða on searwum sigeeadig bil,

eald sweord eotenisc, ecgum þyhtig,

wigena weorðmynd; þæt wæs wæpna cyst,

buton hit wæs mare ðonne ænig mon oðer

to beadulace ætberan meahte,

god ond geatolic, giganta geweorc.

He gefeng þa fetelhilt, freca Scyldinga

hreoh ond heorogrim hringmæl gebrægd,

aldres orwena, yrringa sloh,

þæt hire wið halse heard grapode,

banhringas bræc. Bil eal ðurhwod

fægne flæschoman; heo on flet gecrong.

Sweord wæs swatig, secg weorce gefeh.

Lixte se leoma, leoht inne stod,

efne swa of hefene hadre scineð

rodores candel. He æfter recede wlat;

hwearf þa be wealle, wæpen hafenade

heard be hiltum Higelaces ðegn,

yrre ond anræd. Næs seo ecg fracod

hilderince, ac he hraþe wolde

Grendle forgyldan guðræsa fela

ðara þe he geworhte to Westdenum

oftor micle ðonne on ænne sið,

þonne he Hroðgares heorðgeneatas

sloh on sweofote, slæpende fræt

folces Denigea fyftyne men

ond oðer swylc ut offerede,

laðlicu lac. He him þæs lean forgeald,

reþe cempa, to ðæs þe he on ræste geseah

guðwerigne Grendel licgan

aldorleasne, swa him ær gescod

hild æt Heorote. Hra wide sprong,

syþðan he æfter deaðe drepe þrowade,

heorosweng heardne, ond hine þa heafde becearf.

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