Beowulf: The Wanderer's Song

In this episode you will meet the "Wanderer," a minstrel who will sing to King Hygelac about terrible events taking place in the land of Daneland, where Hrothgar is king, events caused by the monster Grendel. Modern archaeologists speculate that the historical Heorot may have been located near the modern village of Lejre on the island of Zealand in east Denmark. You can read more about Heorot at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Beowulf unit. Story source: The Story of Beowulf by Strafford Riggs with illustrations by Henry Pitz (1933).

The Wanderer's Song

Then, at a signal from Hygelac, the murmur of voices died down until there was no sound in the whole length of the vast hall save the spluttering of the flares upon the walls and the snarling of two dogs over a chunk of meat on the earthen floor.

"My brothers," spoke the king, "there is among us this night one who has come a long way over the sea and the land. He brings, he says, a wondrous song for you to hear. It is long since we have had word from the North, and this man's harp is a sweet one. Sing to us, Wanderer, that we may have your news and your entertainment."

Then the minstrel came forward with his harp. He was a tall rugged man, with a beard streaked with gray. He had the air of one who had traveled long distances, and his blue eyes were wide and fixed like one used to watching the horizon of the wide world.

Around him was wrapped a cloak of deep blue, held together by a curious clasp of gold. Beowulf, noting the clasp, thought it resembled a coiled snake, for there were two green stones set in it which glittered. This man, Beowulf thought, has been in far-away places. He will chant us a good song.

Then the Wanderer (for so he was called) sat down upon a wooden stool, threw back the cloak from about his arms, and with long thin fingers struck the resounding strings of his harp.

He sang in a sharp voice that was like the crying of birds on the gray sea, but there was a sweetness in it at the same time which held his hearers, and the lords of Geatsland leaned forward on their benches in eagerness to catch every word.

He sang of the vast and frozen North, where winter lay upon the land for many, many months, and men fought in the gloomy light of the night-burning sun.

He sang of endless forests stretching black and forbidding in a sea of snow, of mountains higher and bleaker than the highest mountains of Geatsland, of the strange and fearful demons that inhabited this ghostly region.

He sang of dragons that had no blood in them but which, when they fought in bitter combat among themselves, oozed a white liquid so cold that even the fir trees withered where it fell.

He sang of the limitless gray sea and the green-white icebergs floating treacherously, and of the sirens who lived in caves upon them, and whose bodies were clothed in blue fish scales and whose hair was swaying seaweed.

He sang of the monsters of the deep, strange wormlike creatures with brazen heads and tails like the tails of serpents, and Beowulf nodded with a knowing air because he had swum in a great race against Breca and had learned something of the sea and what it held of terror for the swimmer.

Then the tune of the Wanderer changed. His voice fell to a lower note, and he sang of Hrothgar who was king of the Danes, that country not far from Geatsland, across the water.

He told a sad story of desolation and despair in Hrothgar's land because of a beast which had struck mortal fear into the hearts of the lords of Daneland. For on one cruel night, twelve years before, there had come to Heorot — which was the great drinking-hall of Hrothgar — a monster, part animal, part man, part bird. The lords of Daneland were sleeping soundly in Heorot, and the monster, who was called Grendel, had forced open the solid doors of the king's hall and carried away in their sleep thirty of the greatest earls of the Danes.

There had been lamentation throughout the land, and many were the attempts to slay Grendel, but none had succeeded. And Hrothgar and his councilors no longer dared to sleep in Heorot since for twelve long years Grendel repeatedly visited the king's hall and wrought destruction there. Yet Heorot had been well built by Hrothgar and for twelve years it had withstood the monster's onslaught, but in those twelve long years the valiant young warriors of the king had not withstood so well the nightly visitations, and now the land was despoiled of its youthful strength, and there remained to the king only those fighters whose early vigor had long since passed, and Daneland had become a country of old men and defenseless women.

The Wanderer sang of the fear that was in the Heart of Hrothgar the king and in the hearts of all his vassals and retainers, and of the sorrowing of the women who were the wives or mothers or sisters of the slain warriors.

He told of Unferth, who was Hrothgar's beloved companion, and how Unferth had not once offered to meet Grendel in combat because the fear in his breast was greater than his love for his master. And at this a scornful murmur ran through the company that listened, and the lords of Geatsland condemned Unferth for a black coward.

(800 words)

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