[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 Young Beowulf
For several years he led a lonely life for so great was the strength of his limbs that even among those men of vast vigor he was a youth to be marveled at. As the years slipped by and he grew to manhood, he became more and more sullen in his strength, and his companions dubbed him "The Silent." His movements were clumsy. He tripped over his sword. He broke whatever he touched. The other youths laughed at him for his awkwardness, but in secret they envied the immense spread of his shoulders and the terrible swiftness of his stride when he hunted in the forests.
When he was sixteen years of age, Beowulf was challenged by one of his companions, Breca by name, to a swimming race in the sea. He accepted the challenge because he had been called lazy, and, in his heart, he was angry that his strength had never truly been tried.
For five days and five nights he and Breca fought the waves of the sea until Beowulf reached shore victorious. Later, when he was accused of cowardice in this race, he told the true story of those black nights in the water, and what he related then was to go down in song as a famous legend.
WHEN Beowulf had at last reached the full tide of his manhood and been admitted to the circle of Hygelac's personal retainers, a feast was held one night in the king's drinking-hall. From all over Geatsland, famous warriors and earls gathered at the drinking-benches of their king to hear the songs of the minstrels and take part in games and feats of strength.
The drinking-hall was decorated with the green boughs of fir trees, and fires blazed on the hearths at either end. Along the walls, at intervals, were placed flaming torches which lighted the vast hall with flickering light, and the smoke from the flares and the fires on the hearths was drawn high to the roof, where it disappeared in the gloomy rafters through a hole cut at the peak.
Around the hall stood wooden benches in tiers, one above the other, and at one end, highest of all, was the table at which Hygelac and Hygd his queen sat in their robes of state. The lower benches were crowded with the lords of Geatsland, and waiting upon them with food and drink were their vassals.
In one corner of the hall were piled the armor and helmets of the warriors, and the spears tipped with bright metal, the huge swords glittering in their places. The air was heavy with the smell of burning pine and fir. There was not much laughter among the guests, for these were men of the North, noted for their silence. But now and again a clear deep voice rang out above the continual murmur of the crowd, and there was an answering rise in the applause or disapproval of those who heard.
Here and there stood a huge dog, resting his head upon his master's knee and waiting patiently for a rough caress or a chunk of meat. The servants hurried from bench to bench with ox horns adorned with beaten gold and filled with heady mead, that favorite drink of the Northmen, flavored with honey. Large wooden bowls, painted in bright colors and overflowing with various meats, stood on the tables and were dipped into by the seated guests.
Hygelac and his lady were served separately, from dishes more beautiful and precious than the rest, and the queen paused often to acknowledge with her gracious smile the toasts of her subjects as the drinking-horns were raised and held toward her. The king ate and drank sparingly, as became an old man, but the queen (who was almost young enough to be his daughter) took a lively interest in everything that was placed before her.
At the feet of the royal couple sat Beowulf, at a table especially prepared for the king's earls. These were the most favored and beloved of all the warriors of Geatsland. But many were the murmurs of jealousy and discontent among the lords when they beheld young Beowulf in such a place of honor.
"Who," they asked among themselves, "is this sluggard Beowulf, that he should sit directly below our king!"
And some answered, "It is because he is the son of our king's sister and brave Ecgtheow, and because he has the strength in his arms and legs of thirty men."
The older lords shook their gray heads disapprovingly, and the younger men sighed and scowled with jealousy. Only one spoke up in defense of Beowulf, an ancient warrior with white flowing locks and a gentle sweet voice.
"Look you, you foolish ones," he said, "it is written in the stars that this Beowulf whom you call sluggard will one day be famous in song and story for his deeds of surpassing bravery and strength."
But when the others questioned him further, the old man smiled a wise smile and would say no more, and as he was considered something of a sage and a magician, they exchanged wondering glances among themselves and kept their tongues quiet.
But Beowulf, unmindful of the talk about him, sat in gloomy silence. He ate little, but each time the drinking-horns were passed, he drank long and deep. And like his drafts of ale and of mead, his thoughts, too, were deep and long.
His strength was great, but there was no use for him to put it to, and he longed for wild adventure and the chance to stretch his muscles to the limit of their power.
"True," he thought, "I have fought small dragons and hunted wild boars, but such hazards are mere games for boys, and I am now a man. My uncle Hygelac is at peace with his neighbors, and there is no war in which I can take part." He sat stonily in his place, and his blue eyes were scornful of the earls about him and their big talk of little battles.
Next: The Wanderer's Song