Hark. The tale of Beowulf, good king, is told.
Years since Heorot passed, and Geatland’s peace
Was far renowned. Right well the people
Did rejoice in their weir, for wondrous fair was
Beowulf’s reign, his sword-brothers strong,
The fields of grain were filled with abundance.
Even the north wind, wickedly biting ice-teeth,
Seemed to blow less, checking bitterness with bliss.
Such joy, though craved, cannot last for long
In this painful world. So it was that
Word came soon enough of sore trouble.
A most monstrous bird was sighted on the border,
Winging its evil way towards the waiting Geats.
It was bold Roan, guard of Beowulf’s realm,
Who first saw the beast, its form gigantic, twisted,
Its shriek like Doomsday as it shattered the sky.
Brave man was he, for he did not bolt
Though shudder he did, as any sane man
When confronted with death, the end of all,
In plain and certain view. His sword he put up
To challenge the foe, growling in courageous wrath.
The end was naught. The bird plunged earthward,
Picked up the warrior with its polished talons,
And carried him skyward, then smashed him against
The bones of earth, the rocks which break
Through the fertile soil, wetting the waiting dirt
With the man’s red blood, bashing out his brain.
His close kinsmen, Rand, saw all that happened.
Less brave, more cunning, he broke and ran
Eluding the monster’s beak, until Beowulf’s mead-hall
Was in his sight, the door slammed shut.
He reported the attack, and round the benches
Men stopped their drinks midway to their mouths
And listened, dumb-struck, to the dire tidings.
“Roan lies bravely dead,” Rand spoke to the silent.
“As sure as sunrise or waning of the moon
A most unholy monster now makes its roost
Near the southern border, man-eater, soul-stealer,
Singer of steel-songs, enemy of all men.
We must go hence to make it haste
Towards some other place, better still, to death.”
Then eyes all looked towards their liege lord
And Beowulf, ever calm, did bend his head
As though to think upon these awful words,
But soon he spoke, and they listened silently.
“What manner of bird, monstrous, blasphemous
Against the great Creator’s command to Adam
That all animal nature be under man’s control,
Is it that has robbed us of Roan, good Rand?”
“I know not certainly, but I nearly think
It be the Persian bird, the Roc, that puts
Its evil iron claw even upon the homeland
Of our dear forefathers. I fear it is truth.”
The king did nod, though warriors near at hand
Did tremble despite courage, and some few could
Be seen to slip near to the hall’s sturdy door
As though to dart away from the dire adventure
That now came upon the previously happy crew.
To drink is easy, to boast is common,
To enjoy a given ring, a fine torque, gold
In all its forms from the ring-giver,
All is very pleasant until a perilous day
Arrives which forces action, demanding proof
Of warm fireside boasts before beautiful women.
Not all who claim bravery are truly brave.
Beowulf’s men, shield-bearers, were still but men,
And held life dear, wanting another dawn
More than wondrous glory, more than great fame.
But Beowulf, Grendel-killer, who beneath the waters
Killed the monster’s mother, cheating death, keeping life,
Was of different mettle. He rose and went
To the weapon-cache that hung close by
Upon the mead-hall’s walls: axes, spears, swords, maces,
All most finely wrought and used by warriors
In their daily work to defend the Geats.
Beowulf took in hand a sword of steel,
But the trouble came. His grip too tight,
The hilt did shatter, splinter into sharp fragments.
“The old story again,” he muttered self-wise,
And the warriors grunted. Their king was strong.
He was stronger still than iron-monger’s skill.
“Bring forth old Garr, the blacksmith, from his forge
To try his luck at tempering steel to me
That I may wield it ‘gainst the malevolent foe.”
Pity Garr the blacksmith! He labored in purgatory
Pushing a rock uphill, watching it plummet back,
For no matter his skill, and he was greatly skilled,
His lord’s strength undid his life’s work.
Iron, steel, even stone had he striven with
To make a blade that brooked this baleful blessing.
But to no avail. Beowulf broke everything.
Garr answered the summons, bringing a great sack
Filled with sharp blades, all fine work, wonderful,
And all alike fated to end as metal filings
Once they had but touched the king’s strong hand.
But lo! One sword, so huge in size
It dwarfed even great Beowulf’s gigantic grasp,
Did manage to survive his magnificent grip.
“At last!” Beowulf cried. “This sword likes me!
I shall name it, and it shall be known
By name of Beowulf’s Bride, for none other can bear
My touch but it, in peace, in war.
It is most worthy! A boon to Garr!”
Then Garr was loaded with golden treasure
And sent back home, relieved just to return
With honor, fortune, life not forfeit for failure.
Beowulf hefted the sword, squeezed its hilt again,
Then declared his will: he would dare the Roc.
This quest was his. He would have no friend.
All did this protest (though some did weakly),
But the king was adamant. He went all alone.
They waved him on with blessings and hopes,
Then returned within the hall for mead and meat.
Beowulf did need better shield-brothers and friends.
He noted this thought, then held aloft his sword
And began his journey. By nightfall, his destination
Was already well reached. He waited, was quiet.
No sign of Roc that night surfaced.
The bird of dread slept in a barrow
Near the southern seacoast. At dawn it stretched
And woke from sleep. Its wings swept wide,
Skimming each wall of the grave’s earthen sides,
And from its throat broke forth a cry
That would shatter glass and the hearts of men.
Beowulf, bold warrior-king, heard the foul beast
As he saw the sunrise eat the darkness.
Garr’s sword in hand, he stood and gazed
Towards the yawning mouth of yonder ancient barrow,
The final resting place of an ancient ruler
Now very long forgot by all mortal men,
His deeds undone by time, the harrower of all.
Not long did Beowulf brood upon these thoughts,
But with broad steps, sure and full of purpose,
Speed and righteous fury, did he face his foe.
“Come forth!” Beowulf’s voice called, thunder loud.
“Roc of southern climes, your wrongful trespass is
Discovered, by blood you have bought my anger!
Raise yourself and fly, if blood-soaked wings
May still carry you, and meet your doom,
For I am here to avenge brave Roan,
Good man, good warrior, whom you have murdered!”
At once the Roc, bird of ruby wings,
Scarlet-death and singer of blood,
Erupted straight from the earth’s womb of death
And made for Beowulf, bright eyes a-glitter,
Its beak held wide to taste warm flesh.
The king’s sword was raised, his arm was strong,
And he did smite the bird a smarting blow,
But Garr’s strong blade broke to tiny shards,
Though by the force of the king’s fearsome hands
Or the sudden shock of the Roc’s iron feathers
No one may tell. Anyway, the sword died.
Beowulf stared hard and long at the bladeless hilt,
Then said to himself, “I might have known,”
And pitched Beowulf’s Bride from him into the sea.
The Roc, riding winds of wrathful ecstasy,
Seemed almost to laugh to find this lord
Without a sharpened sword, bereft of weapons,
And yet still fixed upon a hopeless fight.
Then wheeled the bird in midair, wings taut,
And as from pagan times Thor’s deadly lightning bolt
Did strike with speed and destroy all life
(Dark times before light, sad times of violence
Unlike these when blood all has some meaning,
Or so the bards do tell listening ears,
As golden firelight glistens on the axes
That hang and wait upon the mead-house walls),
So the death-bird dropped its talons
Upon high Beowulf’s head, wanting to batter brains.
But the king’s shield was strong and sure,
Buffeting away the attack, bringing the Roc uneasy
Thoughts that perhaps there yet was cause for worry.
As the bird turned and made to swing round
Once again, to sink those talons into sinew,
Beowulf glanced up and down the deserted beach,
His eyes searching for a weapon, but finding none.
Then the water roiled, and he remembered Grendel,
The monster’s mother, the deep water battle,
And he thought aloud, “If once, why not again?”
So plunged himself into the freezing surf.
It was cold, numbing cold, and breath came painfully,
But Beowulf mastered himself, though how he breathed
Beneath the sounding waves, I do not know,
Nor does any man. Mayhap he had gills.
On this the bards stay silent and secret.
Whate’er the reason, whether holy miracle
Or gift of sea or unknown oddity of birth,
Beowulf walked about on the sandy bottom,
The blue light shifting like a second sky,
But peace was shattered. The Roc spied him
And dove beneath the waves, demon-bird, wroth
With fury, its claws searching for flesh.
Beowulf hurled a rock of mighty size
Towards the oncoming bird, and it struck full hard,
Making a cry burst from the carrion-maker’s throat.
It disappeared to air, and Beowulf searched again
For aught that might be used in battle.
Lo! A strange sight! He saw a sword
Lying by a stony bank, its sharp blade
Most odd, and yet he saw it looked mighty.
Beowulf pulled it towards him, but soon found
The mighty sword was in fact a mighty fish!
Upon its piscine face a blade did protrude.
It did not seem happy to leave sleep, either.
“A swordfish!” cried Beowulf, through a series of bubbles.
“The Almighty has sent an awesome gift to me!”
Then he dashed out the fish’s dumbstruck brains,
Grabbed its still-warm corpse, and rushed ashore.
The Roc, which now was returning to fight,
Saw Beowulf come forth, stand on the beach,
Hold aloft the swordfish, and scream a challenge.
The beach was narrow, backed by a cliff
That rose the height of many men skyward.
Here they would fight, and one would live.
The Roc descended, shrieking its death song,
Though for whom it sang, it knew not.
All the wild things of that solitary place
Stayed their racing breaths, still as ancient stone
While that fierce battle reached its boiling.
Beowulf’s sword of bone contended swiftly
With the Roc’s speed, and its descent stopped.
It hovered, wings beating, like unto a hummingbird
Of gigantic size, gore red and onyx eyed,
Pressing the brave king against the unyielding cliff.
He found himself between a Roc and a hard place
In truth. Then swung his arm most terribly.
His sword’s sharp tip pierced the bird’s chest.
With pain it faltered in its flight, fell,
And lay panting on the blood-soaked sand.
Beowulf took the swordfish and swung it home
Once more, burying to the hilt in blood
The piercing sharp blade. The Roc did scream
And breathe its last. So end we all.
Beowulf, satisfied, left the bird corpse to rot,
But the dead swordfish, unwilling yet good servant,
He returned to the sea, flinging it forth
With a grateful prayer for the mighty gift.
The steep, sheer cliff he climbed in stride
For little there was he could not do
When to his mind he set to do it.
Then he collected the remains of Roan,
What little had escaped the Roc’s wrath,
And returned with them to his mead-hall,
Mixing his mighty victory with the due mourning
Of a good warrior. A great funeral pyre
Was ordered by Beowulf, and the other warriors
All amazed to find their lord alive,
Did quickly build one, and burnt upon it
Rich offerings of gold, for Beowulf had much,
And they were earned by the earnest warrior.
Even in death, Beowulf repaid his debts.
This was a good king. He kept the country
Safe of all monsters, and in his might
He protected the weak. Though yet his warriors
Proved less than brave, less than properly noble,
He did forgive them. The Geats rightly declared
That no king ever on earth could compare
To their bold Beowulf, slayer of wicked beasts,
Protector of the land, defender of the people.
For many more long years peace did reign,
And Beowulf, brave king, ruled all in health.