Beowulf and the Dragon, Part 1
Now as the years flew, full of war and strife, Hygelac perished and Heardred too was slaughtered in battle. Then Beowulf came to rule as king, which he did for 50 winters, a wise old prince, watching over his land, until a dragon began to rage there in the dark of night. In a stone-barrow deep, in a grave on a hill, the dragon guarded his hoard of treasure. A straight path reached his cave, unknown to mortals.
One day, a man chanced to come into the cave filled with the heathen hoard. He took a golden goblet and stole away while the watcher slept. People and princes must pay for the wrath of such a treasure-guardian.
This way the serving man went, seeking shelter, fearing for his life, to escape the wrath of his angry master. The guilty man entered the cave and the awful sight seized him with terror. But soon his fear left him, and he took a golden cup from the treasure-hoard of which there was plenty.
Old heirlooms were left there by some forgotten earl in ancient years, the last of his lofty race, who had hidden away his dearest treasure. Death had taken all of his people and he was the last of his clan. He wept for his lost friends, yet wished to live, guarding his treasure, his one delight, though brief was his remaining life. The cave stood near the waves, hidden and closed. He laid within it his lordly heirlooms and a heaping hoard of heavy gold. He spoke few words: “Earth, hold this that earls have owned and heroes can hold no longer. Brave men brought it forth from your bosom, but all of my clansmen have been seized by battle and robbed of life. None have been left to wield a sword or to polish the carven cups and bright beakers. My brave warriors are gone and the gold plating shall break off from every helmet with none to clean them. And those weapons of war that were carried over clashing shields shall rust as their bearers rot in the earth. The ringed mail travels not with the famous chieftain. No harps delight the hearer. No hawk flies through the hall. No horse stamps in the town center. Battle and death have taken away the flower of my race!” Mournful of mood, he thus moaned his woe, alone, for them all, until death's fell wave overwhelmed his heart.
That evil beast found his blissful cave opened. He had been dreaded by all, he who flew at night, haunting the barrows, blazing at twilight, enfolded in fire. It was his way to seek treasure in the graves of men and to watch over heathen gold. Thus, this people's-plague guarded the treasure he found in that barrow for three hundred winters―that is, until one stole a cup from his barrow, trying to win the favor of the king and thereby be vindicated of his crime. The wretched man's boon was granted, and the ruler saw for the first time what was crafted in far-off days.
But the dragon awoke and new woe was rekindled. He sniffed the stones and found the footprints of the one who had fled―so may the undoomed easily flee into exile, if only he can gain the grace of God. That guardian of gold went hunting, greedy to find the man who did him wrong while he slept. Savage and burning, he circled the barrow but he found no one there, none in that wasteland. Yet he desired war and was eager for battle. He entered the barrow, counted his treasure pieces, and soon discovered that some mortal had searched through his treasure and taken a cup of gold. The guardian waited, impatiently, for nightfall, boiling with wrath and the desire to make the man pay for the dear cup's loss.
Now the day had fled and the dragon brought a fearful beginning to the sons of the soil. It flew, folded in flame, to bring doom and a dreadful end.
Then the baleful fiend belched out fire, and bright homes burned. The blaze frightened the landsfolk, leaving few alive as it flew aloft. The dragon's fiendish fury was seen far and near as it hounded and hated the Geatish people. At the hint of dawn, the loathly worm hastened to its hidden lair. After it had lapped the folk of the land in flame, the dragon trusted the bullwarks of its barrow-cave in vain.
Beowulf's own home, the throne of the Geats, had been melted in the fiery onslaught, so the great king quickly knew the tale. The good old man was sad in heart, heavy with sorrow, thinking that he had angered our sovereign God by somehow breaking his ancient Law. Black thoughts welled up within his breast, which was not something native to his nature. The stronghold of the Geats had been destroyed but the warlike king, the prince of the Weders, plotted vengeance. Beowulf had his smiths craft a shield of iron, a wondrous war-shield, knowing well that holding a shield of forest-wood against the dragon's fire would be futile.
Beowulf, the brave Atheling, was fated to lose his fleeting life, and the dragon with him, though it had watched over its treasure for centuries. He followed the flier afar with a host of men, fearing no battle nor deeming dreadful a war with such a vigorous and valorous foe.
Beowulf had passed through many perils of war and desperate ventures since he had purged Hrothgar's hall of Grendel's kin, that loathsome breed. Not least of his ventures included the battle in which Hygelac, son of Hrethel, fell, when the ruler of Geats rushed into battle in the Frisian land and was beaten down by the swords of his enemy. Beowulf was the only Geat to escape, by strength in battle and by swimming the open waters, carrying thirty coats of Geatish mail! Even then Hetwaras could not boast of beating Beowulf in battle―in fact few who carried shields against the mighty warrior escaped in that battle to seek their homes.
So the son of Ecgtheow, lonely and sorrowful, swam over the ocean, seeking his land. When he arrived and gave news of the lost battle and king, Queen Hygd made him offer of hoard and realm, rings and the royal seat, not realizing how well her adopted son would save their kingdom from hostile hoardes, after Hygelac's death. But Beowulf would not take the kingdom from young Heardred, son of Hygelac, but rather the young hero upheld him with honorable words until, grown older, Beowulf would eventually lead the Weder-Geats.
Wandering exiles sought Heardred, son of Hygelac, over the seas. The two sons of Ohtere had rebelled against the rule of their uncle, Onela of Sweden, taking refuge in the court of Heardred. Heardred's end came when Onela came looking for his wayward nephews. A blade fell, his sword-death came, and Heardred was killed; Beowulf was left lord of the Geats―he was a good king.
Beowulf was eager to repay Onela with the edge of his sword for the death of Heardred, his Geatish lord. He proved friend to the friendless Eadgils and sent forces over the sea, with Eadgils, to successfully slay Onela for the exile which he had been forced to endure and for the death of the Geatish king. Thus, Beowulf passed through many dire perils with daring deeds till this day came that doomed him to strive with the dragon.
With eleven comrades, the lord of Geats, swollen with rage, went seeking the dragon. He had heard of the source of all the harm caused, of the killing of his clansmen, and of the source of the cup that had been laid upon his lap by the finder. In the hunting party was that reluctant 13th man, he who started all the strife, a care-laden captive, cringing, and forced to lead the cadre of warriors to that cavern hall, that barrow near the billowy surges of ocean seas. The cave was full of wiry gold and jewels, but also there was the jealous guardian, lurking in the shadows.
Not easy was the task of entering that cave for any man, and the hero-king, the gold-friend of Geats, sat on the headland and spoke words to his hearth-companions. His soul was gloomy, wavering, and death-bound. Fatal Wyrd stood ready to greet the grey-haired man, to seize his soul, and sunder his life from his body. Not long would the warrior’s spirit be enshrouded with flesh.
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke: “I fought through many struggles in youth, mighty feuds, and I remember them all. I was seven years old when Hrethel, the sovereign of rings, took me and raised me, faithful in kinship. Never while I lived in his stronghold was I held in less esteem than his own sons, Herebeald and Haethcyn and Hygelac. Haethcyn by accident killed Herebeald with the bow, laying his own liege low with an arrow shot that was meant for a foe in battle, a loss from which a father could claim no man-price, and a fearful sin, a horror to Hrethel.
It was hard to see an atheling die that could not be avenged, and awful it is for an aged man to bear the blow of a son’s death, to see a son so young ride the gallows. He writes a death-song for his son hanging there, the rapture of ravens, and he feels useless, for no rescue of his son can come now from the old, disabled man! Even still, as morning breaks, he is reminded of his heir gone to his doom, and he cringes at the idea of his wealth awarded to another after his own death. Forlorn he looks on the house in which his son lived, the wine-hall empty, and the wind-swept chambers bereft of revel. The rider sleeps, the hero is now far hidden. No harp sounds in the court, no spirited toasts, as once was heard.
“Then he goes to his chamber alone and chants a grief-song for his lost one. Too large now seems homestead and house. So the protector of Weders hid in his heart waves of suffering for Herebeald. No way could he avenge his son for his slaughter so foul. Nor could he even harass that hero, Haethcyn, for his loathsome deed, though he loved him not. And so in the sorrow of his soul, he gave up his life, seeking God’s light. He left his sons, as the wealthy do, lands and cities, when he left the earth.
“There was strife and struggle between Swede and Geat, and over the waters war arose, a hard battle-horror, when Hrethel died. Ongentheow’s offspring grew desirous of strife, bold, accepting no pact for peace from Geats over the seas. Men of my folk sought vengeance for those feuds through woeful war, though one of them paid for it with his blood, a hard bargain for vengeance. Haethcyn died in that fray. I heard about it the next morning. I also heard then that his death was avenged by Eofor, who met Ongentheow on the battlefield, splitting the Swede’s war helmet and skull, ever mindful of the death of his leader.
“For all that Hygelac gave me, my gleaming sword repaid him at war. I wielded power in payment for his lordly treasure and land, homestead and house, entrusted to me. He had no need to pay mercenaries from Sweden or Daneland or men from the Gifths to bring him help. I always fought in the front, sole to the fore, and so shall I fight while I have breath in this life and so long as this blade shall not fail me.
“And my blade has not failed me, from both early and late in life proving loyal, proven, for instance, in the slaying of Daeghrefn, the Hugas’ champion. Yes, he didn’t make it back to his Frisian king with Geatish rings and golden necklaces, but that standard-bearer was slain in our fight. Indeed, he was not killed with my blade, but with my brawny grip I broke his bones and silenced his heart. The sword’s edge and my arm will now strive for the hoard of this cave.”
Beowulf spoke a final battle-vow, his last: “I have lived through many wars from my youth and now, once again, as an old defender of my people, I will seek a feud and demonstrate that I am still a man of courage, if the dark destroyer comes forth from his cavern to fight me!”
Then he hailed the helmeted heroes and for the last time greeted his dear comrades of war: “I would carry no weapon, no sword, to this serpent—as I did in Grendel’s day—if I knew of some other way to back up my boasts. But fire and poisonous breath I must meet in this fight, so I bring with me breastplate and shield. I will not flee a foot from this barrow’s keeper, but this one fight shall end this war, as fate allows, master of mankind. My mood is bold, but hesitates in boasting over this battling-flier. Now, stay by the barrow all of you mailed heroes, and watch which of us two will better bear his wounds from this battle. Wait until it is over, for the fight is not yours, nor would it be right for any but me alone to measure might with this monster here and play the hero. I shall win that wealth or cruel war will take your king and lord!”
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Elements and Paradigms
Found in the Anglo-Saxon
Authorial Intrusion: The Narrator frequently gives his opinion of the persons and events rather than staying objective or distanced from his subject.
Aliteration: A favorite Old English literary device. In many lines, the repetition of consonant sounds exists, changing with each line. Example: Notice the repetition of the "d" sound in the following line: "Hast done such deeds, that for days to come . . ."
Apositives: There is a heavy use of descriptive phrases surrounded by commas, describing the thing coming before them. Notice the two back-to-back apositives in this example: "Of wounden gold, she offered, to honor him, arm-jewels twain, corselet and rings, . . ."
Comitatus: An agreement between a Germanic lord and his subservients, is the direct source of the practice of Feudalism. The thane would pledge military service and protection to the lord. In return, the lord would reward the inferior with land, compensation, or privileges. In other words, Beowulf kills for glory but would also expect to be well-paid by Hrothgar.
Epic Boast: A long speech by the hero during which he either commits him to accomplishing a daring task or reflects on daring tasks already accomplished.
Epic Digression: Usually through the speeches of the characters, the folk epic contains a number of retellings of past stories to give credence, parallels, or further background regarding the current characters or situations.
Epic Foreshadowing: The speaker tells of the results of a battle or situation before they have happened, giving hints of a future event--usually involving someone's death.
Episodic: Multiple plots. The story of Beowulf, for instance, is told in chunks, not as a single story but rather as a cluster of stories about one hero. Thus, the unity of Beowulf exists not in its having a single plot but rather in centering on a single character.
Fatalism: Many Anglo-Saxons believed that man's destiny is governed more by Wyrd, one of the three sisters who parallel the three Greek Fates, and less by his or her own actions. Thus, if a person's life were predetermined, s/he would be powerless to change what would happen from moment to moment.
Heathenism: The scop or narrative speaker of Beowulf has clearly been converted to some form of Christianity. Thus, the heathen gods worshiped by Hrothgar and his men—and undoubtedly the Geats as well—would involve the Norse gods (Odin, Thor, etc.) Hence Beowulf’s mentioning that his armor had been woven by Wayland—the Norse god of craftsmanship. The scop equates their naïve worship of these gods to an unknowing worship of demons.
Kenning: A commonly-used and often hyphenated two or three-part metaphorical word that replaces a more common one in the folk epic. Some examples are "whale-road" for sea and "word-hoard" for long speech. These add loftiness to the language of the epic. These commonly-used descriptive phrases are often used as a substitute for the original word to elevate and color the language of the poet and can refer to a person, place, or thing. More examples include "helmet of Scyldings" for Hrothgar, "gold hall of men" for Heorot, and "shepherd of evils" for Grendel.
Kinship: In the Anglo-Saxon world, it was difficult for one to be considered apart from his or her family ties. One's pride or dishonor was often the result of one's family history that one could do nothing to change. Grendel's curse provides one such example of this emphasis.
Litotes: A kind of understatement occasionally used in Beowulf that uses the word "not" or "no" to elevate the language of the epic and emphasize the severity of a situation by seeming to deemphasize elements of it. (Example: "No light thing that, the flight for safety"  emphasizes Grendel's difficulty in getting away from the grasp of Beowulf).
Ring-Giver: A king or lord would often have an armband on which many rings of gold would hang. For payment, he would often break off one of these rings and give them to the worthy thane. This does not suggest that he was a giver of finger rings.
Scop: The epic poet and/or singer who would often journey between kingdoms to give accounts of the brave ancestors of the chieftains in exchange for payment, food, and shelter.