The Story of Grettir the Strong, by William Morris

Chap. xxi.

Of Grettir and Biorn and the Bear.

There was a man, hight Biorn, who was dwelling with Thorkel; he was a man of rash temper, of good birth, and somewhat akin to Thorkel; he was not well loved of men, for he would slander much those who were with Thorkel, and in this wise he sent many away. Grettir and he had little to do together; Biorn thought him of little worth weighed against himself, but Grettir was unyielding, so that things fell athwart between them. Biorn was a mightily boisterous man, and made himself very big; many young men gat into fellowship with him in these things, and would stray abroad by night. Now it befell, that early in winter a savage bear ran abroad from his winter lair, and got so grim that he spared neither man nor beast. Men thought he had been roused by the noise that Biorn and his fellows had made. The brute got so hard to deal with that he tore down the herds of men, and Thorkel had the greatest hurt thereof, for he was the richest man in the neighbourhood.

Now one day Thorkel bade his men to follow him, and search for the lair of the bear. They found it in sheer sea-rocks; there was a high rock and a cave before it down below, but only one track to go up to it: under the cave were scarped rocks, and a heap of stones down by the sea, and sure death it was to all who might fall down there. The bear lay in his lair by day, but went abroad as soon as night fell; no fold could keep sheep safe from him, nor could any dogs be set on him: and all this men thought the heaviest trouble. Biorn, Thorkel's kinsman, said that the greatest part had been done, as the lair had been found. "And now I shall try," said he, "what sort of play we10 namesakes shall have together." Grettir made as if he knew not what Biorn said on this matter.

Now it happened always when men went to sleep anights that Biorn disappeared: and one night when Biorn went to the lair, he was aware that the beast was there before him, and roaring savagely. Biorn lay down in the track, and had over him his shield, and was going to wait till the beast should stir abroad as his manner was. Now the bear had an inkling of the man, and got somewhat slow to move off. Biorn waxed very sleepy where he lay, and cannot wake up, and just at this time the beast betakes himself from his lair; now he sees where the man lies, and, hooking at him with his claw, he tears from him the shield and throws it down over the rocks. Biorn started up suddenly awake, takes to his legs and runs home, and it was a near thing that the beast gat him not. This his fellows knew, for they had spies about Biorn's ways; in the morning they found the shield, and made the greatest jeering at all this.

At Yule Thorkel went himself, and eight of them altogether, and there was Grettir and Biorn and other followers of Thorkel. Grettir had on a fur-cloak, which he laid aside while they set on the beast. It was awkward for an onslaught there, for thereat could folk come but by spear-thrusts, and all the spear-points the bear turned off him with his teeth. Now Biorn urged them on much to the onset, yet he himself went not so nigh as to run the risk of any hurt. Amid this, when men looked least for it, Biorn suddenly seized Grettir's coat, and cast it into the beast's lair. Now nought they could wreak on him, and had to go back when the day was far spent. But when Grettir was going, he misses his coat, and he could see that the bear has it cast under him. Then he said, "What man of you has wrought the jest of throwing my cloak into the lair?"

Biorn says, "He who is like to dare to own to it."

Grettir answers, "I set no great store on such matters."

Now they went on their way home, and when they had walked awhile, the thong of Grettir's leggings brake. Thorkel bid them wait for him; but Grettir said there was no need of that. Then said Biorn, "Ye need not think that Grettir will run away from his coat; he will have the honour all to himself, and will slay that beast all alone, wherefrom we have gone back all eight of us; thus would he be such as he is said to be: but sluggishly enow has he fared forth to-day."

"I know not," said Thorkel, "how thou wilt fare in the end, but men of equal prowess I deem you not: lay as few burdens on him as thou mayst, Biorn."

Biorn said, that neither of them should pick and choose words from out his mouth.

Now, when a hill's brow was between them, Grettir went back to the pass, for now there was no striving with others for the onset. He drew the sword, Jokul's gift, but had a loop over the handle of the short-sword, and slipped it up over his hand, and this he did in that he thought he could easier have it at his will if his hand were loose. He went up into the pass forthwith, and when the beast saw a man, it rushed against Grettir exceeding fiercely, and smote at him with that paw which was furthest off from the rock; Grettir hewed against the blow with the sword, and therewith smote the paw above the claws, and took it off; then the beast was fain to smite at Grettir with the paw that was whole, and dropped down therewith on to the docked one, but it was shorter than he wotted of, and withal he tumbled into Grettir's arms. Now he griped at the beast between the ears and held him off, so that he got not at him to bite. And, so Grettir himself says, that herein he deemed he had had the hardest trial of his strength, thus to hold the brute. But now as it struggled fiercely, and the space was narrow, they both tumbled down over the rock; the beast was the heaviest of the two, and came down first upon the stone heap below, Grettir being the uppermost, and the beast was much mangled on its nether side. Now Grettir seized the short-sword and thrust it into the heart of the bear, and that was his bane. Thereafter he went home, taking with him his cloak all tattered, and withal what he had cut from the paw of the bear. Thorkel sat a-drinking when he came into the hall, and much men laughed at the rags of the cloak Grettir had cast over him. Now he threw on to the table what he had chopped off the paw.

Then said Thorkel, "Where is now Biorn my kinsman? never did I see thy irons bite the like of this, Biorn, and my will it is, that thou make Grettir a seemly offer for this shame thou hast wrought on him."

Biorn said that was like to be long about, "and never shall I care whether he likes it well or ill."

Then Grettir sang —

"Oft that war-god came to hall

Frighted, when no blood did fall,

In the dusk; who ever cried

On the bear last autumn-tide;

No man saw me sitting there

Late at eve before the lair;

Yet the shaggy one to-day

From his den I drew away."

"Sure enough," said Biorn, "thou hast fared forth well to-day, and two tales thou tellest of us twain therefor; and well I know that thou hast had a good hit at me."

Thorkel said, "I would, Grettir, that thou wouldst not avenge thee on Biorn, but for him I will give a full man-gild if thereby ye may be friends."

Biorn said he might well turn his money to better account, than to boot for this; "And, methinks it is wisest that in my dealings with Grettir one oak should have what from the other it shaves."

Grettir said that he should like that very well. But Thorkel said, "Yet I hope, Grettir, that thou wilt do this for my sake, not to do aught against Biorn while ye are with me."

"That shall be," said Grettir.

Biorn said he would walk fearless of Grettir wheresoever they might meet.

Grettir smiled mockingly, but would not take boot for Biorn. So they were here that winter through.

10 Biorn is Icelandic for bear.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/morris/william/grettir-the-strong/chapter21.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 22:07