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IT was heavy hap for that hero young
on his lord beloved to look and find him
lying on earth with life at end,
sorrowful sight. But the slayer too,
awful earth-dragon, empty of breath,
lay felled in fight, nor, fain of its treasure,
could the writhing monster rule it more.
For edges of iron had ended its days,
hard and battle-sharp, hammers’ leaving;
and that flier-afar had fallen to ground
hushed by its hurt, its hoard all near,
no longer lusty aloft to whirl
at midnight, making its merriment seen,
proud of its prizes: prone it sank
by the handiwork of the hero-king.
Forsooth among folk but few achieve,
—though sturdy and strong, as stories tell me,
and never so daring in deed of valor,—
the perilous breath of a poison-foe
to brave, and to rush on the ring-board hall,
whenever his watch the warden keeps
bold in the barrow. Beowulf paid
the price of death for that precious hoard;
and each of the foes had found the end
of this fleeting life.
It was difficult for Wiglaf to watch Beowulf die. But his killer was dead as well. Blades had ended its life and made sure that it wouldn’t haunt the land at night any longer. There are few men, even among the bravest, who would dare face a dragon’s fire and poison breath. Beowulf paid for the dragon’s treasure with his life, but he killed every enemy he ever fought.
Befell erelong
that the laggards in war the wood had left,
trothbreakers, cowards, ten together,
fearing before to flourish a spear
in the sore distress of their sovran lord.
Now in their shame their shields they carried,
armor of fight, where the old man lay;
and they gazed on Wiglaf. Wearied he sat
at his sovran’s shoulder, shieldsman good,
to wake him with water. Nowise it availed.
Though well he wished it, in world no more
could he barrier life for that leader-of-battles
nor baffle the will of all-wielding God.
Doom of the Lord was law o’er the deeds
of every man, as it is to-day.
Grim was the answer, easy to get,
from the youth for those that had yielded to fear!
Wiglaf spake, the son of Weohstan,—
mournful he looked on those men unloved:—
“Who sooth will speak, can say indeed
that the ruler who gave you golden rings
and the harness of war in which ye stand
—for he at ale-bench often-times
bestowed on hall-folk helm and breastplate,
lord to liegemen, the likeliest gear
which near of far he could find to give,—
threw away and wasted these weeds of battle,
on men who failed when the foemen came!
Not at all could the king of his comrades-in-arms
venture to vaunt, though the Victory-Wielder,
God, gave him grace that he got revenge
sole with his sword in stress and need.
To rescue his life, ’twas little that I
could serve him in struggle; yet shift I made
(hopeless it seemed) to help my kinsman.
Its strength ever waned, when with weapon I struck
that fatal foe, and the fire less strongly
flowed from its head.—Too few the heroes
in throe of contest that thronged to our king!
Now gift of treasure and girding of sword,
joy of the house and home-delight
shall fail your folk; his freehold-land
every clansman within your kin
shall lose and leave, when lords highborn
hear afar of that flight of yours,
a fameless deed. Yea, death is better
for liegemen all than a life of shame!”
The other men approached. They had been too afraid to come to Beowulf’s aid, and now they were ashamed. They saw Wiglaf sitting beside their dead king, trying to revive Beowulf. It was too late. He could not bring that great warrior back from where God had taken him. The Lord’s will rules over every man. The cowardly men looked at Wiglaf’s grim face. He looked up at them and said, “Anyone can see that all of the gifts Beowulf gave you were a waste. You threw away the honor he showed you when you refused to help him. Our king would have no reason to brag about his men. But God favored him by helping him to kill that dragon with his own sword. There wasn’t much I could do to help him, but I did the little that I could. I weakened the dragon by stabbing it with my sword. It’s a shame that I was the only one to help. Now all of this treasure will be useless to you. Men will lose their feelings of loyalty to you and your lands will become deserted. It’s better for a warrior to die than to live a life of shame.”