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Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867). Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry. 1913.

I Hero Myths of the British Race


NOTABLE among the names of heroes of the British race is that of Beowulf, which appeals to all English-speaking people in a very special way, since he is the one hero in whose story we may see the ideals of our English forefathers before they left their Continental home to cross to the islands of Britain.

Although this hero had distinguished himself by numerous feats of strength during his boyhood and early youth, it was as the deliverer of Hrothgar, king of Denmark, from the monster Grendel that he first gained wide renown. Grendel was half monster and half man, and had his abode in the fen-fastnesses in the vicinity of Hrothgar’s residence. Night after night he would steal into the king’s great palace called Heorot and slay sometimes as many as thirty at one time of the knights sleeping there.

Beowulf put himself at the head of a selected band of warriors, went against the monster, and after a terrible fight slew it. The following night Grendel’s mother, a fiend scarcely less terrible than her son, carried off one of Hrothgar’s boldest thanes. Once more Beowulf went to the help of the Danish king, followed the she-monster to her lair at the bottom of a muddy lake in the midst of the swamp, and with his good sword Hrunting and his own muscular arms broke the sea-woman’s neck.

Upon his return to his own country of the Geats, loaded with honors bestowed upon him by Hrothgar. Beowulf served the king of Geatland as the latter’s most trusted counsellor and champion. When, after many years, the king fell before an enemy, the Geats unanimously chose Beowulf for their new king. His fame as a warrior kept his country free from invasion, and his wisdom as a statesman increased its prosperity and happiness.

In the fiftieth year of Beowulf’s reign, however, a great terror fell upon the land in the way of a monstrous fire-dragon, which flew forth by night from its den in the rocks, lighting up the blackness with its blazing breath, and burning houses and homesteads, men and cattle, with the flames from its mouth. When the news came to Beowulf that his people were suffering and dying, and that no warrior dared to risk his life in an effort to deliver the country from this deadly devastation, the aged king took up his shield and sword and went forth to his last fight. At the entrance of the dragon’s cave Beowulf raised his voice and shouted a furious defiance to the awesome guardian of the den. Roaring hideously and flapping his glowing wings together, the dragon rushed forth and half flew, half sprang, on Beowulf. Then began a fearful combat, which ended in Beowulf’s piercing the dragon’s scaly armor and inflicting a mortal wound, but alas! in himself being given a gash in the neck by his opponent’s poisoned fangs which resulted in his death. As he lay stretched on the ground, his head supported by Wiglaf, an honored warrior who had helped in the fight with the dragon, Beowulf roused himself to say, as he grasped Wiglaf’s hand:

  • “Thou must now look to the needs of the nation;
  • Here dwell I no longer, for Destiny calleth me!
  • Bid thou my warriors after my funeral pyre
  • Build me a burial-cairn high on the sea-cliff’s head;
  • So that the seafarers Beowulf’s Barrow
  • Henceforth shall name it, they who drive far and wide
  • Over the mighty flood their foamy keels.
  • Thou art the last of all the kindred of Wagmund!
  • Wyrd has swept all my kin, all the brave chiefs away!
  • Now must I follow them!”
  • These last words spoken, the king of the Geats, brave to seek danger and brave to look on death and Fate undaunted, fell back dead. According to his last desires, his followers gathered wood and piled it on the cliff-head. Upon this funeral pyre was laid Beowulf’s body and consumed to ashes. Then, upon the same cliff of Hronesness, was erected a huge burial cairn, widespread and lofty, to be known thereafter as Beowulf’s Barrow.