The Story of Beowulf, by Strafford Riggs , at sacred-texts.com
WHICH TELLS of how a DRAGON appeared in Geatsland, and how Beowuif and Wiglaf destroyed it, and how sleep came to Beowulf.
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MANY years passed, during which we know very little of what befell our hero Beowulf. He returned safely to Geatsland after his adventures among the Danes, and he was received with great acclaim at the court of his uncle Hygelac, and was hailed as the greatest of all living heroes in the North. Minstrels roamed the land singing of his deeds of strength and valor.
At last, however, death came to Hygelac during a momentous battle with the Frisians and the Franks, those warlike tribes, and his son Heardred became king in Hygelac's place. But Heardred's reign was not long, and after him Beowulf came to the throne of Geatsland.
WHEN there began a long and happy period in the country of the Geats. Prosperity rained upon them. The Geatish warriors were ever successful in battle, and the treasury was filled to bursting with gold and silver and precious stones and armor.
The nets of the fisher-folk were so laden with sea-spoils that they could scarce be lifted. The crops in the fields increased so that the people were well fed and contented even throughout the long and arduous winters.
Great contests were held at the hall of Beowulf at frequent intervals, and all the heroes from near and far gathered there to match the strength and skill of the Geatish warriors.
So passed the happy years, and Beowulf grew in stature and dignity and strength. A vast beard fell from his cheeks, and as he moved among his people many sought to touch the hand that had slain Grendel. For Beowulf's fame was known not only in his own land but across the wide seas, and his enemies (for he had excellent ones) trembled at the mention of his name and thought twice before they went to engage him in battle.
The years passed, but no adventure equal to the slaying of Grendel and that monster's mother came to test out Beowulf's valor and strength. And the king waxed restless for a great adventure, for his years were now many and he felt that a not long season remained to him on earth.
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ONE night, when the winter was at its deepest, and the king sat in his mead-hall with all his lords about him, there came a knocking at the door. When the servants opened to the knocking, there entered the shabbiest visitor that had ever crossed that noble threshold.
The servants would have thrown the stranger out again, so disgraceful was his attire, had not Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, called to them to let the visitor remain, for there was something in the man's face that caught the earl's interest.
"Who are you?" demanded Wiglaf. "Whence come you? Speak, and do not fear, for no one will harm you. I see your knees shaking with fright and cold, and your eyes are wild with want of sleep and strange things that you have seen. Come and eat, my good man, and then you shall tell your story to the king."
But the stranger made a sign with his head that Wiglaf took for a denial, and so led him, a little roughly, before Beowulf.
"This fellow," the noble Wiglaf said, "will not say his name or whence he comes. But to you, my dear lord, he will speak, I know."
Then Beowulf bent on him his kindly-strong gaze and bade the visitor have no fear. The man fell on his knees before the king and spoke in a high voice:
"Great king, I have no name and am but a poor escaped slave from a Frankish galley, and I am seeking my own home in the Northland. Early this morning, faint from cold and hunger and want of rest, I came upon a deep barrow in which I discovered, sleeping, the hugest dragon, surely, in all the wide world. At first I was so overcome with fear that I fled from the place. But after a while, when I got back my breath, I was taken with a burning curiosity, and when my hair had lain down again upon my head, I returned, and there I saw, heaped round and about the sleeping dragon, the lordliest treasure that ever man beheld in one place together. Gold and jewels--" the slave raised his arms high and wide--"so much that twenty cart-loads would make no diminishment that the eye could see."
Beowulf leaned forward in his great chair, his vast hands gripping the carven arms.
"Slave," he cried in a loud voice, "if you lie, I will have you first beaten like a dog and then torn limb from limb until you are dead!"
But the stranger did not flinch under the blue fire of the king's glance. Instead, he drew from beneath his tattered cloak a wondrous jeweled cup, set about with a hundred brilliants of all the rainbow's colors, and standing upon a base of purest gold, most delicately carved.
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"Lord," he replied simply, "I do not lie."
The court crowded about, better to see this marvel of workmanship and worth. Beowulf handled it lovingly, and held it to the firelight.
But at this point the escaped slave was seen to totter in a faint and quickly he was led away to be given food and warm clothes and a bench to lie upon.
Then Beowulf the king stood up in his place and said to the assembled company:
"My friends, you have heard this man's tale, and you see that he is no idle spinner of yarns who would obtain food and shelter on a bitter winter's night, for he has shown us this wondrous cup of gold and jewels. Surely there is no fairer goblet on earth, and this slave says that whence this came there is more and still more treasure. My comrades, eleven men I want, who will follow me to the foul dragon's lair. This grave menace must be destroyed before he wakens and finds that he has been discovered and plundered. Eleven of you, then, to my side. There will be deeds of bravery for all, and of treasure more than each man can dream."
Then Wiglaf, the son of Weohstan, the best beloved of Beowulf's earls, stepped forward, but as he opened his lips to swear allegiance to his king, the night was shattered by a roar that shook the roof of the hall and made the earth tremble underfoot.
The warriors, having laid aside their armor and swords, rushed to secure the door, but as confusion spread among them and women screamed, the roar persisted in its clangor and at the entrance door blue flames began to lick along the sill.
Then Beowulf cried in a loud voice to the court that they must escape from the monster until they could assume their weapons and armor, and secure the women against the hot anger of the furious dragon. So, in orderly manner, the company followed their king through a back way, leaving the vast hall in emptiness, the benches overturned, the fire on the hearths burning low.
DAWN came slowly over the snows lying heavy about the house of Wiglaf, and the wife of Beowulf's favorite earl was ordering her servants in their early tasks when Wiglaf burst in upon the family hearth. His face was drawn with rage and fear, and he embraced his wife with such impetuousness that the good lady became instantly consumed with the darkest of thoughts and forebodings.
"My lord," she cried, "what dread errand brings you hither at this hour from the king? Speak! Some disaster has befallen the world, that you should look so distraught."
And she hastened to relieve him of his great cloak.
But he put her away from him, and cried out in anguish:
"Dear lady, gather together all that we have of value which the servants can carry upon swift horses, for this night a dragon, the vastest dragon in all the world, has come upon our Geatsland, and even as I speak pursues his hideous way across the snow toward this our home. Already the mead-hall of the king is naught but a heap of smoldering ashes, and the granaries and storehouses of our people are hiding the sun from the world with the smoke of their burning. Make haste, I pray you, my lady, and fetch me the biggest of my swords and the stoutest of my armor. Then get you gone to the caves by the Whale's Headland while we pursue this hellish demon to his lair.
"I go at once to my king. There is such death and destruction abroad this morn as never man has beheld, and the ruins of our fairest farms and halls are dotting the white land with sorrow and woeful suffering."
Then Wiglaf's wife brought him his great broadsword and his stoutest armor, and embraced him tenderly ere he strode to the door.
Even now the sky was brown with dense smoke, and a vast and sinister rumbling was heard upon the air, proclaiming the steady and awful approach of the dragon.
Gathered together in the depths of the great forest, Beowulf and his band of eleven trusted warriors held a council of war.
There arose a warm debate concerning how the dragon should be fought. Some thought they should attempt to slay him while he wrought destruction. Others, again, would lure him, if possible, to a high cliff, and force him into the boiling sea below. Yet others were in favor of letting him wreak his vengeance at will upon the country-side until such time should come when, sated in his lust for killing, he might fall into an exhausted sleep and become fair game for their sharp swords.
Then Beowulf spoke:
"My lords, each of these three plans has excellent reasons for pursuing it. But it is my opinion that none of them is sufficient for our dear purpose.
"For, in the first instance, if we attack the dragon while he is yet roaring through the land, the creature will be able to retreat in any direction.
"In the second instance, it is not likely that he will permit himself to be forced over a cliff into the sea, for by all tokens he is a wily dragon and the treasure is close to his heart.
"And in the third instance, we cannot permit him to continue his depredations throughout the country-side, and further impoverish our people.
"Therefore, hear you what I have to say: It is necessary that we track this vile enemy to his very lair, there to slay him. For when he finds that Beowulf and his noble earls are gone to his barrow, then will he leave our halls and farms and seek to defend his heart's treasure. Let us away forthwith, for soon enough will he discover our ruse."
And Beowulf was right, for, even as he spoke, the dragon, writhing his way from the desolation or the king s country, was informed, by magic, of the plans that were being made for his destruction, and switching his scaly tail so that twenty stout trees fell at its movement, and snapping gigantic jaws in horrid rage, the creature hastened to protect that which he had guarded during three hundred years of sleepless vigilance.
NIGHT was coming down when at last Beowulf and his eleven earls approached the dragon's barrow. It lay deep in a dark and gloomy forest, and the only light was the reflection of the dead day upon the ground-snow. The tall trees stood naked in their places, and all about hung a cold stillness which was broken only by the trampling of the adventurers upon the crunching snow.
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It was quite dark now, as they neared the spot, and through the dim night they beheld in the distance a reddish glow. Nearer they came, until, peering through the dense wood, they saw a broad clear space among the trees.
At one side was an old burial-mound, and at its entrance there issued in hissing gusts the red steam of the dragon's hot breathing. All about the place, the snow was trampled by huge feet and the tree trunks were blackened and scorched.
Then brave Beowulf drew his earls about him and said to them:
"I go alone to engage this dragon. You shall remain here at the clearing's edge in readiness to stand by me in case I fail. For I am an old man now, and it comes to me, as in a dream, that this will be my last adventure, my final fight."
Then gripping his vast shield of iron surely in his left hand, and in his right the noble sword Naegling, Beowulf advanced to meet the dragon.
But his earls, all those trusted earls, save only that faithful and loving lord Wiglaf, were seized with a sudden fear, and-fled away into the darkness of the night and the shelter of the encircling forests. King Beowulf did not see their fleeing, as his eyes were upon the mouth of the barrow, and his ears were dimmed by the noise of the dragon's breathing and the swishswish of the angry body within the cave's fastness.
Then Beowulf cried out in a ringing voice:
"Come out, O most foul fiend, for Beowulf, King of Geatsland, Prince of Weders, and son of great Ecgtheow, stands without and calls you to battle. Come out, I say, arch-dragon, and pit your vaunted strength against my strength, which is the greatest known in all this cold Northland!"
And Wiglaf, standing ready and alone at the circle's edge, laughed a clarion challenge to the dragon's undoing.
For a moment there was a death-like stillness in the night. No sound came from the cave, and no steamy breath, and no dull glare of fire. Then with sudden roaring that caused the night to splinter and the earth to quiver in horrified response, the lordliest dragon in all the world rushed from its lair.
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Over ten ells in length it measured, from the proud head to the poisoned tail-tip, and its vast body was covered with scales of brass as big as plates and thicker, each, than three fingers. Its forefeet were armed with six-inch claws of razor edge, and helped support a head so large and terrible that Beowulf marveled for a moment at the size. Its eyes were of green fire, its wide nostrils belched red flame and steam, and the immense jaws dripped livid ooze as they snapped in hideous savagery. So great was the issuing heat that Beowulf held up his shield, else he would have perished upon the spot.
Again came a moment's pause while the two antagonists stood firm and eyed each other, each gaging his own strength and that of his adversary.
Battle came upon them with the swiftness of lightning. The still forest was filled with the clamor of their combat. Beowulf slashed out bravely, but his good sword Naegling glanced helplessly against the brazen scales of the dragon's armor, and so great was the heat of the creature's breath that Beowulf was forced to resort to cunning in an attempt both to wear out his enemy and keep himself from being burned to death.
He wove this way and that, feinting now here, now there, until the dragon was so bewildered with this wonderful display of agility that his roaring grew louder and more terrible, and the violent swing of his huge body grew wider and wilder. Trees fell to earth at the flick of his tail, the snow melted beneath his breath, and his green eyes bit through the steamclouds of his breathing.
And always Beowulf fought for the advantage of a well-placed thrust of his sword, for he knew that every dragon has its vulnerable spot, and this he sought to find.
Back and forth over the hard ground they raged. Now the dragon seemed the victor and Beowulf spent and weakening--but only to renew his attack.
And time stood still in the black night, and the stars in their courses stayed to watch this struggle of giants.
Beowulf's breath came short and stifled, his arms grew weak from the weight of his great sword and shield, and this last grew so hot that it no longer served to protect him from the living furnace which he fought. His strong legs shook beneath him, and short cries were wrung from his throat. The encircling trees swam before his faltering eyes, the heavens seemed to close down upon him.
Then at last to his aid came Wiglaf the faithful, and Beowulf's ears were gladdened by the sound of his dear friend's shout, and new strength streamed through his veins. Together they fought, side by side, and the dragon gave way to their onslaught.
But in one wide sweep of the dragon's tail Beowulf was caught, and he sank to the ground broken, at last, in body. But Wiglaf, fresh in the fray, with a great cry of rage, found the weak spot in the dragon's armor, and into the heart of the beast sank his good sword to the hilt.
No sound came from the dragon. But he rose to his full and terrible height in great majesty of dying, and fell prone beside Beowulf.
Then there went up a shout from the cowardly earls who had hidden in the forest to watch the fight in safety, and they crowded about their dying king. But Wiglaf drove them away, saying:
"Away, wretches of faithlessness! Not for you the honors of a battle you feared to engage in. Away, cowards! Our king is done to death in a noble adventure, to save you and your foul breed from the dragon's wrath."
Then turning to Beowulf, he knelt at his side, took him dying into his arms, and loosened the helmet from his brow.
"O my dear master," he cried over him, "leave us not in your hour of triumph!"
"Nay," answered Beowulf, "'tis not my triumph but that of a faithful friend, my Wiglaf. Take the treasure, do what you will with it. But... but let me have one piece of it about me as I die. For I die soon, my friend . . . so haste you . . . haste . . ."
Then Wiglaf went into the dragon's barrow and beheld there the greatest treasure, surely, in all the wide world. And he selected from the heaped-up gold and jewels a wondrous crown of glittering gems, and this he placed upon the brow of his king.
"I die," whispered Beowulf, "and I forgive those others-those foolish ones who deserted me in my hour. Farewell, good Wiglaf, my own true friend. Make a barrow for me upon the Whale's Headland. Farewell . . .and now I shall sleep ... the longest sleep."
And so died Beowulf, greatest and truest of all the early heroes of legend.
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THEY carried his body to the Whale's Headland, where a great barrow was made for him, and Wiglaf ordered all the treasure of the dragon's cave to be brought, that it should burn most rightly upon the funeral pyre of Beowulf the king. And so great was their sense of the fitness of this, and their sorrow at loss of their excellent lord, that not one of the cowardly earls lifted his voice in protest against Wiglaf's order.
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From far and near the men and women of Geatsland gathered to honor and mourn their dead lord and marvel at the great bulk of the dragon.
And beside the huge barrow upon the Whale's Headland, above the darkling sea, many hands raised a vast funeral pyre of scented logs and evergreen boughs.
Then the dragon was dragged to the precipice, and when it fell into the gray sea far, far below, a loud shout went up from a hundred throats as it slipped to the lonely waves.
They brought Beowulf's body to the pyre. He was borne upon his mighty shield, the great sword Naegling was laid upon his breast, and the jeweled crown from the cave was on his brow, and he was carried upon the shoulders of six earls.
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Behind the bier walked fifty barons of Geatsland, the highest and mightiest in all the North; and following them, fifty musicians, with horns and pipes, making a doleful music.
Three times the sad procession marched around the high pyre, and the music rang out clear and loud, and the weeping multitude fell upon its knees.
Darkness came down upon the land, and the sound of the waves beneath the Whale's Headland grew more and more insistent, as though the sea, remembering Beowulf's early mastery of it, lamented also his passing.
Now, at the last, Beowulf was laid upon the sweet-scented pyre, and all about him were heaped the countless treasures from the dragon's mound. Then Wiglaf approached with two flaming torches, to do the dead king honor. Proclaiming the greatness of his dear lord, he held high above his head the flares and plunged them into the pyre. The flames leaped up, staining crimson the dark night, and so great was the glare from the burning that the stars put out their light, and the sea stopped its sad mourning.
Higher and higher rose the flames and with them the lamentations of the people. And the noble earls took up again their sad marching about the burning pyre, and all night long they marched, until at long last there was nothing left of the pyre but a high mound of gray ashes in the gray dawn.
THUS passed to his own gods Beowulf, King of Geatsland, in the North.