BEOWULF and the Fire-Dragon: Norse

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

 

After his return to the land of the Geats, Beowulf served Higelac faithfully till the day of the king’s death, which befell in an expedition that he made to Friesland. Beowulf was with him on that disastrous journey, and only with difficulty did he escape with his life. But when he returned as a poor solitary fugitive to his people, Hygd, Higelac’s wife, offered him the kingdom and the king’s treasures, for she feared that her young son Heardred was not strong enough to hold the throne of his fathers against invading foes.

Beowulf, however, would not accept the kingdom, but rather chose to uphold Heardred among the people, giving him friendly counsel and serving him faithfully and honorably. But before very long Heardred was killed in battle, and then at last Beowulf consented to become king of the Geats. For fifty years he ruled well and wisely and his people prospered. But at last trouble came in the ravages of a terrible dragon, and once more Beowulf was called forth to a terrific combat.

For three hundred years this dragon had kept watch over a hoard of treasure on a mountain by the seashore in the country of the Geats. The treasure had been hidden in a cave under the mountain by a band of sea-robbers; and when the last of them was dead the dragon took possession of the cave and of the treasure and kept fierce watch over them. 

But one day a poor man came to the spot while the dragon was fast asleep and carried off part of the treasure to his master. When the dragon awoke he soon discovered the man’s footprints, and on examining the cave he found that part of the gold and splendid jewels had disappeared. In wrathful and savage mood he sought all-round the mountain for the robber, but could find no one.

So when evening came he went forth eager for revenge, and throwing out flashes of fire in every direction, he began to set fire to all the land. Beowulf’s own princely manor-house was burnt down and terrible destruction was wrought on every hand, till day broke and the fire-dragon returned to his den.

Great was Beowulf’s grief at this dire misfortune, and eager was his desire for vengeance. He scorned to seek the foe with a great host behind him, nor did he dread the combat in any way, for he called to mind his many feats of war, and especially his fight with Grendel.

So he quickly had fashioned a mighty battle-shield, made entirely of iron, for he knew that the wooden one that he was wont to use would be burnt up by the flames of the fire-dragon. Then he chose out eleven of his earls, and together they set out for the mountain, led thither by the man who had stolen the treasure. When they came to the mouth of the cave Beowulf bade farewell to his companions, for he was resolved to fight single-handed against the foe.

“Many a fight have I fought in my youth,” he said, “and now once more will I, the guardian of my people, seek the combat. I would not bear any sword or other weapon against the dragon if I thought that I could grapple with him as I did with the monster Grendel. But I fear that I shall not be able to approach so close to this foe, for he will send forth hot, raging fire and venomous breath. Yet am I resolute in mood, fearless and resolved not to yield one foot’s-breadth to the monster.

“Tarry ye here on the hill, my warriors, and watch which of us two will survive the deadly combat, for this is no enterprise for you. I only can attempt it, because such great strength has been given to me. Therefore I will do battle alone and will either slay the dragon and win the treasure for my people or fall in the fight, as destiny shall appoint.”

When he had spoken thus Beowulf strode forward to the fight, armed with his iron shield, his sword and his dagger. A stone arch spanned the mouth of the cave, and on one side a boiling stream, hot as though with raging fires, rushed forth. Undaunted by it, Beowulf uttered a shout to summon the dragon to the fight. Immediately a burning breath from the monster came out of the rock, the earth rumbled and then the dragon rushed forth to meet his fate.

Standing with his huge shield held well before him, Beowulf received the attack and struck from beneath his shield at the monster’s side. But his blade failed him and turned aside, and the blow but served to enrage the dragon, so that he darted forth such blasting rays of deadly fire that Beowulf was well-nigh overwhelmed and the fight went hard with him.

Now his eleven chosen comrades could see the combat from where they stood; and one of them, Beowulf’s kinsman Wiglaf, was moved to great sorrow at the sight of his lord’s distress. At last he could bear it no longer, but grasped his wooden shield and his sword and cried to the other thanes: “Remember how we promised our lord in the banquet-hall, when he gave us our helmets and swords and battle-gear that we would one day repay him for his gifts. Now is the day come that our liege lord has need of the strength of good warriors. We must go help him, even though he thought to accomplish this mighty work alone, for we can never return to our homes if we have not slain the enemy and saved our king’s life. Rather than live when he is dead, I will perish with him in this deadly fire.”

 Then he rushed through the noisome smoke to his lord’s side, crying: “Dear Beowulf, take courage. Remember thy boast that thy valor shall never fail thee in thy lifetime, and defend thyself now with all thy might, and I will help thee.” But the other warriors were afraid to follow him, so that Beowulf and Wiglaf stood alone to face the dragon.

As soon as the monster advanced upon them, Wiglaf’s wooden shield was burnt away by the flames, so that he was forced to take refuge behind Beowulf’s iron shield; and this time when Beowulf struck with his sword, it was shivered to pieces. Then the dragon flung himself upon him and caught him up in his arms, crushing him till he lay senseless and covered with wounds.

But now Wiglaf showed his valor and strength, and smote the monster with such mighty blows that at last the fire coming forth from him began to abate somewhat. Then Beowulf came once more to his senses, and drawing his deadly knife, struck with it from beneath; and at last the force of the blows from the two noble kinsmen felled the fierce fire-dragon and he sank down dead beside them.

But Beowulf’s wounds were very great, and he knew that the joys of life were ended for him and that death was very near. So while Wiglaf with wonderful tenderness unfastened his helmet for him and refreshed him with water, he spoke, saying: “Though I am sick with mortal wounds, there is yet some comfort remaining for me. For I have governed my people for fifty winters and kept them safe from invading foes; yet have not sought out quarrels nor led my kinsmen to dire slaughter when there was no need. Therefore the Ruler of all men will not blame me when my life departs from my body. “And now go thou quickly, dear Wiglaf, to spy out the treasure within the cave, so that I may see what wealth I have won for my people before I die.”

So Wiglaf went into the cave and there he saw many precious jewels, old vessels, helmets, gold armlets and other treasures, which excelled in beauty and number any that mankind has ever known. Moreover, high above the treasure flapped a marvelous gilded standard, from which came a ray of light which lit up all the cave.

Then Wiglaf seized as much as he could carry of the precious spoils, and taking the standard also, hastened back to his lord, dreading lest he should find him already dead. Beowulf was very near his life’s end, but when Wiglaf had again revived him with water, he had strength to speak once more. “Glad am I,” he said, “that I have been able before my death to gain so much for my people. But now I may no longer abide here. Bid the gallant warriors burn my body on the headland here which juts into the sea, and afterwards raise a huge mound on the same spot, that the sailors who drive their vessels over the misty floods may call it Beowulf’s Mound.”

Then the dauntless prince undid the golden collar from his neck and gave it to Wiglaf with his helmet and coat of mail, saying: “Thou art the last of all our race, for Fate has swept away all my kindred save thee to their doom, and now I also must join them,” and with these words the aged king fell back dead. Now as Wiglaf sat by his lord, grieving sorely at his death, the other ten thanes who had shown themselves to be faithless and cowardly approached with shame to his side. Then Wiglaf turned to them, crying bitterly: “Truly our liege lord flung away utterly in vain the battle-gear that he gave ye. Little could he boast of his comrades when the hour of need came. I myself was able to give him some succor in the fight, but ye should have stood by him also to defend him. But now the giving of treasure shall cease for ye and ye will be shamed and will lose your land-right when the nobles learn of your inglorious deed. Death is better for every earl than ignominious life.”

After this Wiglaf summoned the other earls and told them of all that had happened and of the mound that Beowulf wished them to build. Then they gathered together at the mouth of the cave and gazed with tears upon their lifeless lord and looked with awe upon the huge dragon as it lay stiff in death beside its conqueror. Afterwards, led by Wiglaf, seven chosen earls entered the cave and brought forth all the treasure, while others busied themselves in preparing the funeral pyre.

When all was ready and the huge pile of wood had been hung with helmets, war-shields and bright coats of mail, as befitted the funeral pyre of a noble warrior, the earls brought their beloved lord’s body to the spot and laid it on the wood. Then they kindled the fire and stood by mourning and uttering sorrowful chants, while the smoke rose up and the fire roared and the body was consumed away. Afterwards they built a mound on the hill, making it high and broad so that it could be seen from very far away. Ten days they spent in building it; and because they desired to pay the highest of honors to Beowulf, they buried in it the whole of the treasure that the dragon had guarded, for no price was too heavy to pay as a token of their love for their lord. So the treasure even now remains in the earth, as useless as it was before.

When at last the mound was completed, the noble warriors gathered together and rode around it, lamenting their king and singing the praise of his valor and mighty deeds. Thus mourned the people of the Geats for the fall of Beowulf, who of all kings in the world was the mildest and kindest, the most gracious to his people, and the most eager to win their praise.

Title: Myths and Legends of All Nations

Editor/Translator: Logan Marshall

CONTRIBUTOR: Jenny Dunnaway

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