The Sea Witch of the Mere
Then they sank off to sleep. One sleeper bought his rest for the evening with his life—as would often happen when Grendel guarded that golden hall, working his evil, till he was slaughtered for his sins, meeting his doom.
It was told far and wide how Beowulf the avenger survived his encounter with the fiend. All the while, after that grim fight, Grendel’s mother, monster of women, mourned her loss. She was doomed to dwell in dreary waters, as a descendant of Cain—the son of the first man on earth—Cain who killed his only brother and was banished to roam the wild lands for his crime. Grendel had found a warrior watching, awaiting a fight, who used his God-sent power to conquer mankind’s foe, sending the fiend to the realms of death. And his mother now, sad and angry, would go on a quest to avenge the death of her son.
To Heorot she came, where Danes slept in the hall. The old pain returned as she burst into the hall. She was less powerful than Grendel, as in war, a woman would be less a terror than a man in arms who, with a gore-stained sword, carves his way through the hoards of enemy ranks.
Then were drawn many swords, shields firmly held. Quickly, she seized a single man, killing him where he lay, and, fast and firm, fled with his lifeless body to the swamps. The man taken was most dear to Hrothgar of all his heroes, a clansman famous in battle. Beowulf was not there—he had stayed in a house nearby after the night’s feast and the gifts given to him by his lord.
Uproar filled Heorot, where both Dane and Geat were doomed to give the lives of loved ones, for all had seen her hand dripping with Aeschere’s blood. The weary king was sad at heart when he found that his noble had been killed; dead indeed was his dearest thane. As daylight broke, Beowulf, the dauntless victor, was brought in haste with his noble companions, and all were curious how God would have this tale of woe ultimately told.
Beowulf meant to ask Hrothgar how well he spent his night. Hrothgar, protector of Scyldings, spoke: “Ask not of my pleasure, Beowulf. Pain is renewed to the Danish folk. Dead is Aeschere, elder brother of Yrmenlaf. Aeschere was my wise adviser and comrade in war—all should know the fame that he brought upon himself in battle. But here in Heorot a hand hath slain him; a wandering death-sprite took his life. I know not what path she took, proud of her vengeance for Grendel’s death. Bereft of life, he fell, but now comes another, keen and cruel in her blood-feud. She avenges her son, knowing what would hurt me most—the killing of him who wished to please me most.
“Some have seen a pair of monsters stalking and haunting the moorlands, wandering spirits. One of them, so far as my folk could judge, of womankind, and one, accursed, in male form—though huge—made his miserable way of exile. Folk named him Grendel in days long gone though his father they knew not, nor of any treacherous spirits born to him. Unmapped is their haunt by wolf-cliffs and windy fields, in fearful swamps where streams flow from mountains into the gloom of soggy rocks and into underground rivers. The mere expands not far from here, over which the frost-bound forest hangs, sturdily rooted, shadowing the mire. There, it is a wonder to see fires on those waters and no sons of men have searched those depths! No, even though a hunter might stalk a deer into those lands, driven into such a distance, he would give up his life before plunging into those waters. It is no happy place! There, a flood washes up under the dark heavens when winds bestir evil storms and air grows dusk and the heavens weep.
“Now again, Beowulf, you are the only one that could help me. You don’t know this fearful land or where to find that sin-stained being. Seek her if you dare! I will reward you with ancient treasure for hunting her down, as I did with gold for defeating Grendel—if you make it back alive.”
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke: “Despair not, wise king! It seems better to avenge our dead friends than to pointlessly mourn their loss. Each of us must face his end at the finish of life, so win who may the glory before his death! When a man’s life is spoken of, glory is the warrior’s worthiest fate. Rise, O warden of this realm! We will ride soon and find the trail of the mother of Grendel. No safe place shall hide her—heed my promise!—whether it be thick fields or forested mountain or the floor of the ocean, let her flee where she will! But be patient and endure your sorrows this day, for they will be your last.”
Hrothgar leaped up and thanked God, our mighty Lord, for the man’s brave words.
A horse was soon saddled for Hrothgar and the wise king rode stately on. His men in armor followed in force. The footprints of the hag led along the woodland, easily seen, and along the plain and then into the murky swamp. She had borne the bravest and best, now dead, who had ruled with Hrothgar at their homestead.
On then went Beowulf over steep stone cliffs steep, through narrow passes, and into unknown ways—into the haunts of the goblins. Hrothgar took the lead and quickly saw the forested hill hanging over a mossy rock, and the waves below the cliff were dyed red with blood. The Danish men were sorrowful when they found Aeschere’s head upon the shore. It was a hard thing to bear for many a hero. Waves were hot with blood but a horn was blown, singing softly the song of battle.
The companions sat down and watched strange worm-like creatures, sea-dragons, nicors, writhing up from the deep, and water-goblins lying on the edge of the deep waters, such as might be found attacking ships at dawn in their ruthless quest for blood. These monsters and sea-snakes were alarmed by the war-horn’s blast and the protector of Geats, with an arrow from his bow, shot his keen war-shaft into the heart of one of the monsters. It was indeed less of a swimmer now that death had taken it. Stabbed with spears, well-sharpened, the beast’s body was dragged to the shore and warriors viewed the grisly wave-roamer.
Then, Beowulf, fearing not for his own life, put on his warlike hand-woven armor and waded into the depths. Well would his chain-mail protect his heart from the hands of his foes. The helmet protecting his head was wound with chains of gold and beset with the forms of boars that a weapons maker had wondrously formed. No sword brandished in battle could harm his helm.
Nor was the sword he carried the weakest known, which Hrothgar’s orator, Unferth, had given to Beowulf. The sword was called “Hrunting” one of the oldest of heirlooms. Its edge was of iron, etched with poison, and battle-hardened with the blood of foes. Not the first time was this sword taken on a daring task. Forgetting the speech he had in drunkenness made, Unferth, son of Ecglaf, lent the sword to a stouter swordsman than himself. Unferth would not, under the cover of water, risk his own life though he was Hrothgar’s loyal follower. So he lost his chance for glory and honor among the earls. It was not so with Beowulf, who prepared himself for the grim encounter.
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke: “Honored offspring of Healfdene, gold-friend of men, wise king, consider now what I said earlier: If I should lose my life in this dark task, treat me as if I were your son, lost in battle. Watch over my thanes, my friends, if I should die, and send to Hygelac the treasures you have bestowed upon me! May Geatland’s king know the good and kind friend I have made here as he views the treasure you have given to me. And take this sword, this precious heirloom, back to Unferth, for with it, I seek glory or death.” Without awaiting a response, the Geatish lord dove into the depths, and the ocean floods closed over the hero.
Much time passed before he came to the floor of the sea. Beowulf soon found the battle-hungry fiend who had ruled this watery domain for a hundred winters. She knew some man had come from above to raid her monstrous realm. She seized Beowulf with her loathsome claws but could not penetrate his ringed armor or breastplate. Then she bore this lord of rings to her lair as he struggled vainly to be free of her grip, keeping his valor, holding his sword to wield against the wondrous monsters that attacked him. Many of them tried in vain to tear his mail with their fierce tusks, swarming the Geat. But Beowulf soon realized that he was in some hall that held air, where he could breathe, where water could not drown him. He saw the bright beams of firelight blazing and became aware of the presence of the she-beast. He swung his blade with a mighty stroke but the blow would not stick. Then he swung the blade at her head but again the blade’s edge would not bite through her fleshy skull. The sword was bewitched into uselessness, this singing blade that had once cloven helmets and penetrated shields in the raw of battle.
Hygelac’s kinsman, standing firm, angrily threw away the jeweled sword and instead trusted his own strength against this fiend, which men will do in war when they wish to earn lasting fame, not fearing for their lives. Then, the Geatish war-prince seized Grendel’s mother by the shoulder, shrinking not from the combat. Filled with wrath, the fierce one flung his deadly foe to the ground, but she paid him back with a hard grip, grappling with him so that he was spent by attack and fell to the ground.
She hurled herself onto the hall-guest, taking up a burnished sword, bent to avenge her only son, seeking to sink the sword deep into Beowulf’s shoulder. His life would have ended there had not his war-armor and holy God, wisest Creator, aided him. The Lord of Heaven allowed him to survive, and Beowulf easily stood up.
Amid the weapons in that hall Beowulf saw a gigantic blade, an old sword, unmatched in size, clearly forged by giants. Few could have picked it up at all. Beowulf, bold and battle-grim, seized its chained hilt, careless of his own life, and wrathfully smote the neck of the foul she-beast, sinking it deep into her flesh and biting through her bone-rings. The blade was bloodied and to the floor she sank.
Then a bright light blazed forth, bright like the sky when clouds depart from before heaven’s candle. Beowulf could not view the hall, and he went to the wall of the cave, raising the sword. He wished to strike Grendel with speed for his many grim raids against the Danes, for having slain Hrothgar’s hearth-companions in their slumber. He had devoured fifteen Danish men and had taken many others from the place. Beowulf had avenged them, he now saw, for now lying on the floor, Grendel’s body was stretched out, spoiled of life, from his battle at Heorot. As Beowulf severed Grendel’s head, the body flew far from it.
Hrothgar’s somber companions watched the waters that churned where Beowulf had descended. Old men spoke over the blood-stained mere, saying that the warrior would not return, after these nine hours, to seek ever again Hrothgar’s counsel. To many it seemed that the wave-wolf had won his life after the coming of the ninth hour. The noble Scyldings left the headland and Hrothgar also went home. But the Geats sat on, staring into the surging waters, sick at heart, wishing—though not expecting—to again see their charming lord.
Beowulf took nothing from that hall save the head of Grendel and the hilt of the giants’sword, blazoned with jewels. Her hot blood had melted the blade, so poisoned was this hell-sprite who perished there. Like dripping icicles, the sword that felled the she-beast dissolved.
Soon, Beowulf, who had seen the downfall of demons, was swimming up through the waters. He had cleansed the clashing waters of the wandering fiend. The Geats’ chieftain bore Grendel’s head to the surface of the mere, and soon his band of thanes saw him emerge, carrying the monstrous trophy. They greeted him cheerfully, thanking God for his life. Soon, they took off of him his helmet and armor, blood-stained and heavily soaked from the mere. From the cliff by the sea, they returned on known footpaths to the gold-hall, merry at heart. Four men, straining at the task, were needed to carry Grendel’s head, which was borne hanging from two spears. So presently fourteen Geats marched to the palace, foemen fearless. Their famous and mighty master trod the meadows amidst them, the hardy hero seeking to greet Hrothgar.
By the hair, Grendel’s head was taken into the hall, where the Danes were drinking; both men and queen alike were in awe of the monstrous sight.
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke: “See now, son of Healfdene, this sea-booty we have brought you. Witness here a glorious sight! Not easily did I escape with my life. This battle took great effort and I would have lost all my strength had the Lord not protected me. I could do nothing with Hrunting, though it is a good weapon. Instead, God directed my eyes to a sword hanging on the wall there, old and gigantic—how often He helps the friendless soul! And I fought with that blade, winning the battle, since fate was with me. The war-sword melted under the gush of the battle-sweat and blood of the she-fiend, but I brought back the hilt.
“Thus, I have avenged the fiendish deeds against the Danes, as was due and right. This is my request—that every thane, both young and old, will sleep well tonight, fearing no evil, King Hrothgar.”
Then the ancient golden hilt, wrought by giants, was placed in the hands of the gray-haired leader. Hrothgar enjoyed this new possession that had struck down devils, this wondrous work of giant smiths, now that the world was rid of the grim-souled enemy of God and his mother.
When all were silent, Hrothgar, son of Healfdene, spoke as he viewed the hilt where was etched the story of the great flood that had wiped out the race of giants, a folk severed from eternal God, when they were rightly paid back for their wicked deeds: “Indeed, whoever may have as much authority as I and can remember as far back as I may say that no better hero ever lived than Beowulf. Your fame, my friend, will fly far and wide, and firmly will you ever maintain your strength and wisdom. You have my love and assurance that your people will forever be helped by Danes whenever needed."
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Elements and Paradigms
Found in the Anglo-Saxon
Authorial Intrusion: The Narrator frequently gives his opinion of the persons and events rather than staying objective or distanced from his subject.
Alliteration: A favorite Old English literary device. In many lines, the repetition of consonant sounds exists, changing with each line. Example: Notice the repetition of the "d" sound in the following line: "Hast done such deeds, that for days to come . . ."
Apositives: There is a heavy use of descriptive phrases surrounded by commas, describing the thing coming before them. Notice the two back-to-back apositives in this example: "Of wounden gold, she offered, to honor him, arm-jewels twain, corselet and rings, . . ."
Comitatus: An agreement between a Germanic lord and his subservients, is the direct source of the practice of Feudalism. The thane would pledge military service and protection to the lord. In return, the lord would reward the inferior with land, compensation, or privileges. In other words, Beowulf kills for glory but would also expect to be well-paid by Hrothgar.
Epic Boast: A long speech by the hero during which he either commits him to accomplishing a daring task or reflects on daring tasks already accomplished.
Epic Digression: Usually through the speeches of the characters, the folk epic contains a number of retellings of past stories to give credence, parallels, or further background regarding the current characters or situations.
Epic Foreshadowing: The speaker tells of the results of a battle or situation before they have happened, giving hints of a future event--usually involving someone's death.
Episodic: Multiple plots. The story of Beowulf, for instance, is told in chunks, not as a single story but rather as a cluster of stories about one hero. Thus, the unity of Beowulf exists not in its having a single plot but rather in centering on a single character.
Fatalism: Many Anglo-Saxons believed that man's destiny is governed more by Wyrd, one of the three sisters who parallel the three Greek Fates, and less by his or her own actions. Thus, if a person's life were predetermined, s/he would be powerless to change what would happen from moment to moment.
Heathenism: The scop or narrative speaker of Beowulf has clearly been converted to some form of Christianity. Thus, the heathen gods worshiped by Hrothgar and his men—and undoubtedly the Geats as well—would involve the Norse gods (Odin, Thor, etc.) Hence Beowulf’s mentioning that his armor had been woven by Wayland—the Norse god of craftsmanship. The scop equates their naïve worship of these gods to an unknowing worship of demons.
Kenning: A commonly-used and often hyphenated two or three-part metaphorical word that replaces a more common one in the folk epic. Some examples are "whale-road" for sea and "word-hoard" for long speech. These add loftiness to the language of the epic. These commonly-used descriptive phrases are often used as a substitute for the original word to elevate and color the language of the poet and can refer to a person, place, or thing. More examples include "helmet of Scyldings" for Hrothgar, "gold hall of men" for Heorot, and "shepherd of evils" for Grendel.
Kinship: In the Anglo-Saxon world, it was difficult for one to be considered apart from his or her family ties. One's pride or dishonor was often the result of one's family history that one could do nothing to change. Grendel's curse provides one such example of this emphasis.
Litotes: A kind of understatement occasionally used in Beowulf that uses the word "not" or "no" to elevate the language of the epic and emphasize the severity of a situation by seeming to deemphasize elements of it. (Example: "No light thing that, the flight for safety"  emphasizes Grendel's difficulty in getting away from the grasp of Beowulf).
Ring-Giver: A king or lord would often have an armband on which many rings of gold would hang. For payment, he would often break off one of these rings and give them to the worthy thane. This does not suggest that he was a giver of finger rings.
Scop: The epic poet and/or singer who would often journey between kingdoms to give accounts of the brave ancestors of the chieftains in exchange for payment, food, and shelter.
Vivid Imagery: Descriptions are often gory, with sounds, sights and tactile images as a means of bringing the work to life in the minds of the listeners.