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c. 525 / Denmark

Guest of Honor

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Hrothgar, the helmet of Shieldings, spoke:
“Beowulf, my friend, you have traveled here
to favor us with help and to fight for us.
It bothers me to have to burden anyone
with all the grief Grendel has caused
and the havoc he has wreaked upon us in Heorot,
our humiliations. My household guard
are on the wane, fate sweeps them away
into Grendel’s clutches—
                  but God can easily
halt these raids and harrowing attacks!

“Time and again, when the goblets passed
and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer
they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot
and wait for Grendel with whetted swords.
But when dawn broke and day crept in
over each empty, blood-spattered bench,
the floor of the mead hall where they had feasted
would be slick with slaughter. And so they died,
faithful retainers, and my following dwindled.

“Now take your place at the table, relish
the triumph of heroes to your heart’s content.”

Then a bench was cleared in that banquet hall
so the Geats could have room to be together
and the party sat, proud in their bearing,
strong and stalwart. An attendant stood by
with a decorated pitcher, pouring bright
helpings of mead. And the minstrel sang,
filling Heorot with his head-clearing voice,
gladdening that great rally of Geats and Danes.

So the laughter started, the din got louder
and the crowd was happy. Wealhtheow came in,
Hrothgar’s queen, observing the courtesies.
Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted
the men in hall, then handed the cup
first to Hrothgar, their homeland’s guardian,
urging him to drink deep and enjoy it
because he was dear to them. And he drank it down
like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.
So the Helming woman went on her rounds,
queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,
offering the goblet to all ranks,
treating the household and the assembled troop
until it was Beowulf’s turn to take it from her hand.
With measured words she welcomed the Geat
and thanked God for granting her wish
that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive
to ease their afflictions. He accepted the cup,
a daunting man, dangerous in action
and eager for it always. He addressed Wealhtheow;
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, said:

“I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish the attempt,
in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead hall.”

This formal boast by Beowulf the Geat
pleased the lady well and she went to sit
by Hrothgar, regal and arrayed with gold.

Then it was like old times in the echoing hall,
proud talk and the people happy,
loud and excited; until soon enough
Halfdane’s heir had to be away
to his night’s rest.

© 2000 by Seamus Heaney. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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About the Text

From Beowulf. Perhaps composed as early as 650 and only preserved in one manuscript dating from c. 1000, the Old English epic poem of more than three thousand lines remained unpublished until 1815.

American table manners are, if anything, a more advanced form of civilized behavior than the Europeans, because they are more complicated and further removed from the practical result, always a sign of refinement.
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