Beowulf and the Dragon, Part 2
The sturdy champion stood up with his shield and, solid with the strength of his manhood, and hardy beneath his helmet, bore his armor into the cavernous hole beneath the cliff. It was no coward’s path! Beowulf soon saw by the wall of the cliff an arch of stone, lone survivor of many battles in this place, where foes clashed in furious combat. And from within the barrow ran a lava stream of liquid fire. He could never hope to go near that hollow passage unharmed by the dragon’s flame.
Then the warrior let out a cry of rage that burst forth from his breast. The Geatish prince let out a word that stormed from within, which went ringing clearly through the rocky domain. The hoard guardian heard that human voice and his rage was enkindled. There was no time now for any pact of peace.
The poisonous breath of that foul worm spewed forth hot from the cave. The rocks resounded with the sound. Stout in the stony passage, Beowulf raised his shield against the loathed one while that coiled foe came out seeking strife. The sturdy king had drawn his heirloom sword, not dull of edge, and each felt some fear of his foe, though their moods were fierce. The warrior-king stood solid with his shield raised high as the worm now coiled nearby. The mailed one waited.
Then, through the rocky passages glided the blazing serpent. Beowulf’s shield protected his soul and body for less time than he would have liked. He would have welcomed more time but fate denied it, along with the honors of a deathless victory. The lord of the Geats lifted his arm against the battering beast and smote it with atheling’s heirloom. Its edge turned brown against the bone of the beast, but it bit more feebly than its noble master had need of then in his baleful distress.
The barrow’s keeper went wild from that heavy blow and cast deadly flames, vicious fires driven wide and far. No victor’s glory did the Geats’ lord boast for his brand had failed, naked in battle as never the excellent iron had before. It was no easy path that Ecgtheow’s honored heir had tread over the plain to the place of the foe, for against his will he would win a home elsewhere far, as must all men, leaving this lapsing life!
Not long it was before those champions grimly closed again in battle. The hoard-guard was heartened by his gains and high heaved his breast once more to enfold the folk-commander in flames. Nor yet were any of Beowulf’s comrades surrounding him, armed or standing with a warlike front, running instead for their lives to a nearby wood. But the soul of one there was encumbered with care. Kinship can never be ignored in a noble mind!
Wiglaf was his name, Weohstan’s son, shield-thane loved, the lord of Scylfings, Aelfhere’s kinsman. He now saw his king hard pressed under his helmet by the heat of fire. He thought of all the prizes his prince had given him, a wealthy seat of the Waegmunding line, and the rights of nobility that his father owned.
So not long did he linger but seized his yellow shield and drew his old sword. It was an heirloom of Eanmund, and dwellers of earth knew it well. The friendless exile, son of Ohtere and rebellious nephew of Onela the Swedish king, was killed by Weohstan, Wiglaf’s father. And though Eanmund was a nephew of the Swede king, Onela sought no blood-price for his death but instead rewarded Weohstan with the dead Swede’s war-gear, shield, mail, sword and all. These came to Wiglaf, along with his father’s lands and title, when Weohstan passed from life. For the first time now young Wiglaf was bidden to share the shock of battle with his leader-lord, and both Wiglaf and his sword did their duty to their sworn prince, which the worm quickly heeded during that battle.
Wiglaf spoke, and his words were wise though sad in spirit. He said to his comrades, “I remember the time when at mead we made promises to our breaker-of-rings in the banquet hall, to give him our allegiance for the gear of combat, the hard sword and helmet, if ever such a time as this should fall. He who chose us from his whole army to be here gave us these treasures because he counted us good with a spear and courageous beneath the helm. Though our leader had hoped to finish for us this hero-work alone and without aid, he is now in need of the might of stout warriors. Let us battle alongside the hero to help while the heat is about him, glowing and grim! For God is my witness—I am far more willing to have my limbs burned with fire than to abide safely here while Beowulf dies. It seems wrong to bring our shields home without having tried to use them to defend the life of our lord. It would shame us if, out of all the Geatish warriors, our king alone sank in this struggle. My sword and helmet, breastplate and shield shall serve both of us!”
Wiglaf strode into the reeking slaughter to help his chieftain, bearing his battle-helm and speaking these brief words through the fray: “Dearest Beowulf, do bravely what you vowed to do, as you did in your days of youth, and while you have life let not your glory fail. Shield your life with all your strength, steadfast atheling, and I will be here to help you.”
At these words the worm attacked again, a murderous monster mad with rage, with billows of fire flaming, seeking his foes. In the waves of heat, Wiglaf's wooden shield and his chest plate completely failed to shelter the young spear thane. The eager earl then went quickly under his kinsman's iron shield since his was quickly turned to ash. The bold king again remembered his quest, and with might drove his glaive—his bladed pole—into the dragon's head, powered by the hate of his will. But his old and gray sword Naegling was shivered, broken in battle. It was not granted that the sword would aid him in this battle for his hand was too strong in the stroke, shattering the blade, so the tale is told. This was not the first time this had happened to a sword of that leader though his swords were made with the best steel.
Then that folk-destroying fire-dragon thought a third time on his feud and rushed at the hero, battle grim, burning, and its bitter teeth closed on the hero's neck, covering Beowulf with waves of the blood that welled from his own breast.
It was at this point, men say, that the young earl made known his noble strain and his enduring courage. Heedless of harm, though his hand was burned, Wiglaf helped his kinsman. He smote the loathsome beast a little lower than Beowulf had, driving his bright and polished steel into its flesh, and the blaze belched forth began to subside.
At last the king came to his wits again and drew his war-knife, a biting blade hanging from his breastplate, and the the Weder's protector smote that worm assunder, flinging forth the life of the foe.
So the two kinsmen had killed it, acting as earls should on a dangerous day. But this was the last hour of the conqueror's deeds of valor on this earth. The wound worsened which the dragon had inflicted, swelling and hurting. Soon Beowulf found his breast boiling with pain, deeply taken by the poison. The thoughtful prince walked to the wall of rock and sat, staring at the structure built by giants, the arch of stone and solid column forever upholding the hall's ceiling under the earth. Here, the peerless henchman removed the helmet and washed his noble lord with water, rinsing his bloody wounds, his strength and life nearly spent.
In spite of his pain, Beowulf spoke, knowing well that his portion of earthly bliss was nearly gone and that death was near: “I would bestow this war gear on a son of mine if any blood-heir had come after me. I ruled these people for fifty winters. No king of any neighboring clan would wage war on me or my people during that time. I cared for my people and stayed at home, regardless of what fate would come. I sought no feuds nor ever falsely swore an oath. I am glad for all these things, though I know I am fatally wounded. I have lived honorably, knowing that from God, ruler of men, no wrath shall come upon me for killing a kinsman or any ignoble deed.
“Loved Wiglaf, go quickly and gaze upon that treasure hoard beneath the hoary rock, now that the worm lies low, in his eternal sleep, bereaved of his spoil. Bring back some of the gorgeous heirlooms, the stores of gold, jewels, and gems, so that I may die easier after the life and lordship that I have long held.”
I have heard that the son of Weohstan quickly passed the spot where Beowulf lay, to beneath the barrow’s roof in his battle-mail, seeing stores of jewels and glistening gold along the ground. By the wall were marvels and many vessels in the den of the old dawn-flier: unpolished bowls of bygone men, bereft of riches; rusty helms of the olden age; and many arm-rings woven wondrously. Such a wealth of gold can burden a human wight with pride, but let him hide it who will!
His glance fell too on a gold-woven banner of the noblest handiwork, brilliantly embroidered, hanging high over the hoard. So bright was its gleam that Wiglaf could see all of the earthen floor and the vessels there in the darkness. No vestige was seen of the serpent now: the sword had taken him. Then, I have heard, much of the giants’ hoard was taken by one alone. He burdened his bosom with beakers and plate and took the embroidered banner as well, the brightest of beacons. The iron-edged blade of his lord had deeply injured the long-held guardian of the golden hoard, and its murderous fire had spread round the barrow in billows—until it met its doom.
Soon, Wiglaf’s mind was troubled by the doubt that Beowulf was still alive, so the herald hastened in retracing his tracks, finding the lord of Weders weakening fast by the wall of the cave. He carried the load to the bleeding king, the famous king at the end of his life. The liegeman again washed him with water until Beowulf began to speak, sad but wise, staring at the gold: “I give thanks to God for the gold and treasure that I have been blessed to give to my people before my death. Now I’ve bartered the last of my life for you, my treasure, so look well to the needs of my land! No longer shall I tarry. I bid you raise a barrow by the sea for my ashes, shining by the shoreline, as a memorial to me. It will be on Hrones Headland, raised high so that ocean-wanderers may often see Beowulf’s Barrow, as they drive their keels back from afar upon the darkling wave.”
From his neck he unclasped the golden collar, and the valorous king gave it, his bright-gold helmet, breastplate, and ring to the youthful thane, bidding him to use them happily: “You are the end and remnant of all our race—the Waegmunding name. For Wyrd has swept all my line to the land of doom in their glory. I go after them.” This word was the last which the wise old man gave before the death-waves of his balefire took his body. From his bosom fled his soul to seek the saints’ reward.
With a heavy feeling, the young hero looked on the sorrowful sight of his beloved lord, lying on the ground with his life at its end. But the awful earth-dragon, empty of breath, lay felled from the fight; no longer could the writhing monster rule over its treasure. For the hard, battle-sharp edge of iron had ended its days, and that flier-afar had fallen to the ground, hushed by its wounds, near its hoard, no longer able to fly by midnight, proud of its prizes, making merriment. For it sank prone by the handiwork of the hero-king.
In truth, among mankind, few, though courageous in deed of valor, survive the perilous breath of such a poisonous foe after rushing into a ring-laden hall kept by a bold warren of the barrow. Beowulf paid the price of death for that precious hoard; and both foes found the end of this fleeting life.
Before long, the ten cowards and oathbreakers, laggards in war, left the wood. They had feared to flourish a spear throughout the sore distress of their sovereign lord. Now, they carried their shields in shame to where the old man lay, gazing upon Wiglaf. Wearied, he sat at his sovereign’s shoulder, trying to revive him with water, but it did no good. Well he wished that he could bring back his honored lord, but none can baffle the will of all-wielding God. The destiny made by the Lord was law over the deeds of every man—as it is today.
Grim was the answer the youth gave to those who had yielded to fear. Wiglaf spoke, son of Weohstan, looking mournfully on those unloved men: “Who will speak the truth can indeed say that the ruler who freely and generously gave you golden rings and the weapons of war with which you stand threw away and wasted these weeds of battle on men who failed when the foeman came! Nor could the king brag on his comrades in this fight, though God gave him the grace to gain revenge with his sword in this time of need. I could do little in this struggle to rescue his life, but I tried (as hopeless as it seemed) to help my kinsman. The strength of that fatal foe waned when I struck with my weapon, but too few heroes thronged to our king in the throes of this contest! Now, the gifts of treasure and sword, joys of house and home, will be taken away from your families. Every clansman within your kin shall lose his freely held land when our enemies hear from afar of this flight of yours, this fameless deed. Yes, death is better for a warrior than a life of shame.” . . .
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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).
Breaker-of-Rings: 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.
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.