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Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 27

Beowulf’s Death

Among the cowardly Geats, however, there was one who thought it shameful to flee—Wiglaf, the son of Weohstan. He was young, but a brave warrior, to whom Beowulf had shown honour, and on whom he had showered gifts, for he was a kinsman, and had proved himself worthy. Now he showed that Beowulf’s favour had been justified, for he seized his shield, of yellow linden-wood, took his ancient sword in hand, and prepared to rush to Beowulf’s aid. With bitter words he reproached his cowardly comrades, saying: “I remember how we boasted, as we sat in the mead hall and drank the foaming ale, as we took gladly the gold and jewels which our king lavished upon us, that we would repay him for all his gifts, if ever such need there were! Now is the need come upon him, and we are here! Beowulf chose us from all his bodyguard to help him in this mighty struggle, and we have betrayed and deserted him, and left him alone against a terrible foe. Now the day has come when our lord should [Pg 37] see our valour, and we flee from his side! Up, let us go and aid him, even while the grim battle-flame flares around him. God knows that I would rather risk my body in the fiery cloud than stay here while my king fights and dies! Not such disloyalty has Beowulf deserved through his long reign that he should stand alone in the death-struggle. He and I will die together, or side by side will we conquer.” The youthful warrior tried in vain to rouse the courage of his companions: they trembled, and would not move. So Wiglaf, holding on high his shield, plunged into the fiery cloud and moved towards his king, crying aloud: “Beowulf, my dear lord, let not thy glory be dimmed. Achieve this last deed of valour, as thou didst promise in days of yore, that thy fame should not fall, and I will aid thee.”

The sound of another voice roused the dragon to greater fury, and again came the fiery cloud, burning up like straw Wiglaf’s linden shield, and torturing both warriors as they stood behind the iron shield with their heated armour. But they fought on manfully, and Beowulf, gathering up his strength, struck the dragon such a blow on the head that his ancient sword was shivered to fragments. The dragon, enraged, now flew at Beowulf and seized him by the neck with his poisonous fangs, so that the blood gushed out in streams, and ran down his corslet. Wiglaf was filled with grief and horror at this dreadful sight, and, leaving the protection of Beowulf’s iron shield, dashed forth at the dragon, piercing the scaly body in a vital part. At once the fire began to fade away, and Beowulf, mastering his anguish, drew his broad knife, and with a last effort cut the hideous reptile asunder. Then the agony of the envenomed wound came upon him, and his limbs burnt and ached with intolerable pain. In growing distress he staggered to a rough ancient seat, carved out [Pg 38] of the rock, hard by the door of the barrow. There he sank down, and Wiglaf laved his brow with water from the little stream, which boiled and steamed no longer. Then Beowulf partially recovered himself, and said: “Now I bequeath to thee, my son, the armour which I also inherited. Fifty years have I ruled this people in peace, so that none of my neighbours durst attack us. I have endured and toiled much on this earth, have held my own justly, have pursued none with crafty hatred, nor sworn unjust oaths. At all this may I rejoice now that I lie mortally wounded. Do thou, O dear Wiglaf, bring forth quickly from the cave the treasures for which I lose my life, that I may see them and be glad in my nation’s wealth ere I die.”


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