THE way led for a little time through woodland cleared of all underbrush, where at night and in the light of the flares the company seemed to be passing through some vast mysterious dwelling-place; so tall were the trees that their tops could not be seen and the tree trunks looked like the mighty pillars of a huge hall.
As they passed, the birds that slept in the branches of the trees wakened because of the light, and thought it must be daytime, and flew about calling to one another that the dawn had come. And the little animals scurried underfoot, not knowing what to make of this strange disturbance, and squeaking or growling to warn their small comrades.
At last the hall-like forest gave way to a wide open meadow, and the breath of the sea, damp and salt-smelling, struck the nostrils of the marching warriors. And finally they heard the waves breaking against the headlands not far away, and the moaning of the wind among the rocks of the coast.
As the first streaks of dawn began to touch the dim sky, the company reached the shore.
There, ghostly in the half-light, hung their ship, its prow nosing into the sandy beach, its body rising and falling with the gentle waves of the landlocked cove. Then, as the sun began to touch the towering mountains that hemmed them in, the torches were one by one extinguished.
The wind died suddenly, as it does at sunrise, and the wide sails of the ship hung motionless in the calm. But when the sun at last rose and flooded the world with its warm light, a fresh breeze sprang up.
Beowulf called to the company to hasten aboard, and with much shouting and waving of arms and shields, the fourteen earls clambered into the ship. The vessel was loosed from her moorings; her painted oars were dipped into the water, her sails bellied with the young wind, and slowly she found her way down the harbor to the open sea.
For many hours the sturdy ship fought the waves that crashed and thundered against her sides. For many hours Beowulf and his fourteen companions saw the marvels and terrors of the wide sea.
All kinds of strange monsters, both large and small, were seen on that voyage-playful fishes with scales as blue as the sky overhead and bright small eyes, and long sea-serpents which followed the wake of the ship for hours, turning and rolling in the sea, and looking so evil that even the brave warriors shuddered at the thought of falling into their slimy coils. There were sea-lions of shaggy mane, and bird-like fish with horny claws.
But they came at length to the coast of Daneland and the sea boiled white between them and the land, and the land itself was scarred and pitted with a thousand narrow inlets, which were treacherous to seafarers unfamiliar with them. The forests that clung to the shore line were half hidden in gray mists that moved and twisted like smoke about the trees.
Then, as the adventurers thought they had at last found the entrance to a safe harbor, a mighty storm arose. The land was blotted out with menacing clouds, the waves beat upon the ship with fury, the wind howled through the rigging, and fear darkened the stoutest hearts.
For a time Beowulf’s earls tried to prevail upon him to turn away from that black coast, saying that they would be dashed to pieces on the rocks, but Beowulf turned a deaf ear and urged his captain forward.
Then, as by a miracle, they found entrance to a narrow inlet, and the sudden protection of the land stilled the fear in the warriors’ hearts. Their sails tattered by the wind, they plied their oars with a great good-will, and as the storm lessened, they beached their boat on a tiny strip of sand at the edge of a deep forest hung with gray fog and silent as death.
No sooner had they landed, however, than they were accosted by an old man, hoary with years but fearless of eye and with a mighty hand ready upon the long spear that stood by his side. Addressing himself at once to Beowulf, he asked:
“Who are you, stranger in Daneland, that you beach your boat with so much confidence upon these shores?”
And Beowulf answered, standing tall in front of his earls:
“I am Beowulf, and I come from my uncle, Hygelac, the Geatish king, and I am a friend to the Danes.”
“That is good,” replied the Guardian of the Beach. “I can see by your height and breadth and strength that you are a leader of these fine men who stand behind you. The name of your king is not unknown to me, his fame has long since come to these parts. You and your men are well armed, but I can see by your faces that you come to this unhappy land with no bad intentions. Tell me, Beowulf, what is your errand?
For you must know that this is a dead country, that has been dead these twelve years past, that our hearts have no joy in them, and that Hrothgar, our king, is bowed by sorrow in his age.”
“I know that well, Guardian of the Beach,” Beowulf replied, “and it is to help your good king that I and my earls have come to Daneland.”
“Welcome, then, O Beowulf, to these sad shores,” the Guardian cried. “Our king will better receive you than it is in my poor power to do. Leave your ship in my care. I will see that no harm comes to it. But I dread beholding such a fine company of young men coming on this fell business. For the fiend Grendel, who has robbed Hrothgar of his rightful estate, and destroyed so many proud young warriors of our kingdom, is terrible beyond words to describe.”
But Beowulf cut his discourse short, and begged the Guardian of the Beach to direct them to the hall of Hrothgar, that they might make themselves known to the king, and rest themselves after their long, tiring day at sea.
Then the old man took them a little way into the forest, and pointed out a path to follow, and bade them farewell. And Beowulf and his earls set out at last upon their great adventure in the land of the Danes.
From “The Story of Beowulf”