Chapter XXIII

THEN AMONG THE battle gear there he saw a blade triumphant—an old sword of the giants, an heirloom of warriors, a peerless weapon. It was larger than other men could carry into battle-bandying, as it had been wrought by giants. Then did he, champion of the Scyldings, grasp the hilt of the blade and brandish the sword; heedless of his life, he smote so ferociously that it caught her by the neck, breaking her bones. The sword pierced through the flesh of that doomed one; she fell to the floor. The sword was gory, and the man was pleased with his work.

Then light shone forth; it was bright in there, as when heaven's candle shines in a sky without clouds. Then he scanned the hall, going by the wall with his weapon raised by the hilt, fierce and aggressive. The edge was not useless to the warrior now; he wished to promptly repay Grendel for the many grim raids he had made in his war on the Western-Danes; far more than just once had he done this, when he murdered Hrothgar's hearth-companions in their slumber, devouring fifteen Danes and carrying off an equal number—a horrible prey! The furious prince had paid him back well for that. For he now saw Grendel lying there, weary of war and bereft of life, for so had Heorot's battle ravaged him. The carcass opened wide, even in death, when it received this blow: with a savage sword-strike, he severed the head.

Soon, the observant men who, with Hrothgar, were watching the waters saw them grow turbid; the waves were tinged with blood. Old men with gray hair spoke together about the brave hero; they did not expect the warrior, proud in conquest, to come seek their mighty master again. It seemed to many that the wave-wolf had taken his life.

The ninth hour of the day came. The noble Scyldings left the headland, and the gold-friend of men headed homeward. But the foreigners stayed and stared at the waves; sick at heart, they wished and yet did not expect to see their winsome lord again.

Then that sword, bloodied with battle-gore from the fight, began to waste away; it was a marvelous thing that the war-blade melted away just as ice dissolves when the Father loosens the frosty fetters, and unwinds the wave's chains—he is the true God!

That lord of the Geats did not take from those halls any precious things, though he saw much, but only the head and the jewel-encrusted hilt; the blade had already melted away, and the decorated sword had burned away, so fiercely hot was that blood, and so poisonous was the hell-spirit that perished there.

Soon he who safely saw the downfall of demons in combat was swimming and diving up through the waters. The turbulent waves in the watery domain where that wandering one had spent her life in this ephemeral world were now cleansed.

Then he who was sturdy in spirit swam to the strand; that crown among men was proud of the lake's booty, the burden that he bore bravely with him. The valiant band of thanes went to greet him, and they thanked God that they could see their chieftain safe and sound again. They soon loosed helmet and armor from that ardent hero. The mere subsided; the water under heaven was stained with war's blood.

They went forth from there by the paths they had taken earlier, passing over the highways and country roads. Those stalwart men carried the head away from the lake's cliffs—it was a daunting task for the whole company, for four strong men were required to strenuously bear Grendel's head on the spear to the golden hall. The brave adventurers presently arrived at the hall; fourteen Geats came marching, with their mighty chieftain amid them as they trod the meadow-ways. Then that prince of thanes proceeded to enter; the fearless fighting man of wide renown, the valiant hero, went to greet Hrothgar. After him, Grendel's head was borne into the hall where the men were drinking; it struck awe in the clansmen and queen alike, and the men looked upon this monstrous visage.

Footnotes

  1. Beowulf has cleansed the water, permanently calming the mere. Supernatural beings like Grendel and his mother no longer inhabit this horrific place. The poet uses this detail to illustrate how humans, and by extension God, have triumphed over the supernatural world.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. This is one of the first times the poet mentions the ephemeral, or transient, world. One of the less-discussed themes in the poem is that life and all of one's triumphs are only temporary. No matter how powerful one is, death and the end of one's power are the inevitable result.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. Even though we shortly learn that Grendel's blood is so toxic that it melts the blade, this event is symbolic of the supernatural in the tale. The poet tells his audience that this blade, made by supernatural beings, has done its job and has no place in the human world.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. The poet interrupts Beowulf's scene by returning to the men on the surface waiting for his return. This style helps provide perspective on what Hrothgar's and Beowulf's men are doing during this time and how they respond to the coming of night. Shortly, the poet will very quickly transition back to Beowulf.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Recall that Grendel was immune to weapons and that Beowulf's victory came about by battling Grendel on equal footing, hand-to-hand. Similarly, human weapons will not harm Grendel's mother, so Beowulf uses one made by giants. The poet makes it clear that the world of the supernatural differs from Beowulf's, and his success in this realm depends on his using a weapon that is also not from the world of humans.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. In this passage, which focuses on the supernatural, this sentence seems like such a jarring addition that it may be one of many Christian references that have been added to the original poem that was composed much earlier than the date of the manuscript.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. This is significant because it signals the coming of darkness. The mere and its surroundings were a threat to the men, especially in the dark, so they would naturally want to be on their way back to Heorot before dark.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. The taking of Grendel's head serves two purposes: Beowulf needs proof that he has killed Grendel, and based on what we now know about Scandinavian tribal warfare, the taking of heads is an established and accepted practice. So Beowulf is, in effect, taking the head as a war-trophy to be put on display (just as Grendel's arm was).

    — Stephen Holliday