Mighty and canny,
Hygelac’s kinsman was keenly watching
for the first move the monster would make.
Nor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot. Venturing closer,
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf
where he lay on the bed, he was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero’s
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth. Every bone in his body
quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
with the devil’s litter, for in all his days
he had never been clamped or cornered like this.
Then Hygelac’s trusty retainer recalled
his bedtime speech, sprang to his feet
and got a firm hold. Fingers were bursting,
the monster back-tracking, the man overpowering.
The dread of the land was desperate to escape,
to take a roundabout road and flee
to his lair in the fens. The latching power
in his fingers weakened; it was the worst trip
the terror-monger had taken to Heorot.
And now the timbers trembled and sang,
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building.
The hall clattered and hammered, but somehow
survived the onslaught and kept standing:
it was handsomely structured, a sturdy frame
braced with the best of blacksmith’s work
inside and out. The story goes
that as the pair struggled, mead-benches were smashed
and sprung off the floor, gold fittings and all.
Before then, no Shielding elder would believe
there was any power or person upon earth
capable of wrecking their horn-rigged hall
unless the burning embrace of a fire
engulf it in flame. Then an extraordinary
wail arose, and bewildering fear
came over the Danes. Everyone felt it
who heard that cry as it echoed off the wall,
a God-cursed scream and strain of catastrophe,
the howl of the loser, the lament of the hell-serf
keening his wound. He was overwhelmed,
manacled tight by the man who of all men
was foremost and strongest in the days of this life.
Background to the poem
Beowulf, composed somewhere between AD700 and AD1000 by an unknown poet, is one of the most important works of Anglo‑Saxon literature. An alliterative poem of astonishing imaginative vitality, it was relatively neglected until the nineteenth century, and even then it was often studied for what it revealed about the Anglo‑Saxon era rather than for its artistic merits.
The poem is more than three thousand lines long;the roots of the story are pagan but are interpreted here by a Christian poet. Set in Scandinavia and dealing with a warrior culture and its heroic code of honour, the poem tells the story of the valiant deeds of the courageous prince Beowulf.
This extract from Seamus Heaney’s brilliant translation of the Anglo‑Saxon epic centres upon the battle between the terrifying monster Grendel and the young warrior Beowulf. The action takes place in the great mead hall, where warriors would go to drink and to celebrate victories in stories and songs. Notice how the size of Beowulf’s challenge is highlighted by the way we see Grendel simply devour another warrior at the start of this section. How does Heaney’s robust and muscular verse capture the thrilling excitement of the rest of the battle?
About The Beowulf Poet
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and Professor of Poetry at Oxford and Harvard universities, Seamus Heaney is perhaps the best‑known and most celebrated poet of the last fifty years. His death in 2013 prompted tributes from across the world.
Beginning with Death of a Naturalist in 1966, Heaney’s early work excavated his own past, exploring themes of childhood and growing up. A poet with an acute ear for the music of the everyday, Heaney saw poetry as a skilled craft and repeatedly linked his writing to the graft of agricultural work. Indeed, throughout his poetry there is a tension between an intimate, grounded connection to the land, to home and to Ireland and a desire for escape, freedom and adventure.
Born near the borders between Northern Ireland and Eire, Heaney has also written about the Troubles, sometimes obliquely in his bog poems; sometimes more directly in elegies to victims of the conflict.