Translated by Stephen Mitchell

November 10, 2017 
The following is from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Beowulf.If the definition of a superhero is “someone who uses his special powers to fight evil,” then Beowulf is our first English superhero story, and arguably our best. It is also a deeply pious poem, bold in its reverence for a virtuous pagan past. Stephen Mitchell’s many books include Tao Te Ching, which has sold over a million copies, The Gospel According to Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, Gilgamesh, and The Iliad.

Then up from the moor, in a veil of mist,

Grendel came slouching. He bore God’s wrath.

The evil brute intended to trap

and eat some human in the great hall.

Under the clouds he crept, until

he saw the mead-hall, glistening with gold.

It was not the first time he had called on the king,

but never before had he found bad luck:

a fearless warrior waiting for him.

The creature, exiled from all man’s joys,

came to the hall; the heavy door,

though bound with iron, burst from its hinges

as soon as he touched it. He stood there, seething,

maddened with rage, then he ripped open

the hall’s mouth and hurried across

the patterned floor. From his fierce eyes

an evil light flared like two flames.

He saw the young men in the mead-hall, sleeping

close together, a troop of kinfolk,

and his heart laughed; before dawn’s light

he intended to tear the life from each body

and devour the flesh in a gruesome feast.

It was not his fate, though, to feed on mankind

after this onslaught.

Beowulf watched

to see where the killer would strike first.

And the demon did not delay; in a flash

he lunged and seized a warrior sleeping,

tore him apart, gnawed bones, drank blood

gushing from veins, gorged on gobbets

of flesh, and soon had devoured the victim

utterly, even his hands and feet.

He strode to where Beowulf lay in bed

and grasped at him. But the hero’s grip

took his hand and tightened around it

as he leaned on one arm and sat up straight.

The evil creature instantly knew

that in no man he had ever met

on the face of the earth had he confronted

such a hand-grip. His heart froze;

fear shook his bones, but he could not flee.

He longed to break loose, into the darkness,

and return to the tumult of demons. Never

in his whole life had he been greeted

as harshly as this. Then Hygelac’s kinsman

remembered his evening speech, stood up,

and grappled him close. Fingers cracked.

With his uttermost strength Grendel was straining

to pull away, but the warrior held him.

The foul thing thought that he might be able

to run from there to his dismal den,

but he felt his fingerbones being crushed

in Beowulf’s grip. A bitter journey

the ruthless marauder had made to the hall.

The king’s house rumbled. All around,

those who heard it were harrowed with fear.

Both huge wrestlers, raging, reeled

and crashed through the hall. Timbers clattered;

it was a wonder that Heorot withstood

the fight and did not fall to the ground,

that beautiful building; but smiths had forged

strong iron bands to brace its walls

both inside and out. Many mead-benches

with golden fittings were smashed to the floor,

so I have heard, as the two struggled.

Before this combat no counselor,

even the wisest, would have believed

that there was anybody on earth

who could destroy that splendid house

with its horn-trimmed fixtures, unless some fire

swallowed it in consuming flames.

An uncanny cry came through the walls.

Dread descended on every Dane

who was there to hear that horrible shriek—

God’s enemy singing his terror song,

a howl of defeat—hell’s prisoner

bewailing his wound. But he was held tight

by that mighty hero, the strongest man

who ever lived on the wide earth.

The noble hero would not allow

his evil guest ever to leave;

he was convinced that the vicious thing

should be quickly killed. His comrades-in-arms

drew their ancient ancestral swords;

they wished to defend the famous captain,

their belovèd lord, however they could.

But they did not know, those noble retainers,

as they stepped forward to enter the fray—

to strike the enemy from all sides

and cut him down—that the wicked creature

could not be wounded by any weapon;

no sword on earth, not even the finest,

could kill him, for he had cast a spell

to blunt all blades. But he was doomed

to be slain that night; his alien spirit

would journey far to the fiends’ realm.

Then he who had broken the hearts of so many

and inflicted such misery on mankind

with foul crimes in his fight against God,

found that his body’s strength was failing.

Beowulf, that bold-hearted man,

held his arm fast; hateful to each

was the life of the other. That loathsome thing

felt a pain-flash. A huge wound gaped

in his shoulder, sinews split, and muscles

burst from the bone. The victory

was granted to Beowulf. Grendel fled

with a mortal wound, under the moor-hills

to his joyless den. During that journey

he knew that his end was near, his hours

numbered. The dearest wish of all Danes

had been fulfilled in that deadly fight.

The warrior from far away,

that proud hero who had just purged

Hrothgar’s hall and saved it from evil,

gloried in the night’s great achievement;

he had kept his daring pledge to the Danes

and relieved them at last of their long torment,

the devastation they had endured,

the agony each had had to suffer.

And as a sign, the hero hung

Grendel’s whole arm—hand to shoulder—

from a high rafter upon the roof.


From Beowulf. Used with permission of Yale University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Mitchell

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