A Book of Myths

Page: 126

“Well hast thou treated us.
If on this earth I can do more to win thy love,
O prince of warriors, than I have wrought as yet,
Here stand I ready now weapons to wield for thee.
If I shall ever hear o’er the encircling flood
That any neighbouring foes threaten thy nation’s fall,
As Grendel grim before, swift will I bring to thee
Thousands of noble thanes, heroes to help thee.”

Then, in their ship, that the Warden of the Coast once had challenged, Beowulf and his warriors set sail for their own dear land.

Gaily the vessel danced over the waves, heavy though it was with treasure, nobly gained. And when Beowulf had come in safety to his homeland and had [Pg 260] told his kinsman the tale of the slaying of the Grendel and of the Wolf-Woman, he gave the finest of his steeds to the King, and to the Queen the jewelled collar, Brisingamen, that the Queen of the Goths had bestowed on him. And the heart of his uncle was glad and proud indeed, and there was much royal banqueting in the hero’s honour. Of him, too, the scalds made up songs, and there was no hero in all that northern land whose fame was as great as was the fame of Beowulf.

“The Must Be often helps an undoomed man when he is brave” was the precept on which he ruled his life, and he never failed the King whose chief champion and warrior he was. When, in an expedition against the Frieslanders, King Hygelac fell a victim to the cunning of his foes, the sword of Beowulf fought nobly for him to the end, and the hero was a grievously wounded man when he brought back to Gothland the body of the dead King. The Goths would fain have made him their King, in Hygelac’s stead, but Beowulf was too loyal a soul to supplant his uncle’s own son. On his shield he laid the infant prince, Hardred, and held him up for the people to see. And when he had proclaimed the child King and vowed to serve him faithfully all the days of his life, there was no man there who did not loyally echo the promise of their hero, Beowulf.

When Hardred, a grown man, was treacherously slain by a son of Othere, he who discovered the North Cape, Beowulf once again was chosen King, and for forty years he reigned wisely and well. The fame of his arms kept war away from the land, and his wisdom as a statesman [Pg 261] brought great prosperity and happiness to his people. He had never known fear, and so for him there was nothing to dread when the weakness of age fell upon him and when he knew that his remaining years could be but few:

“Seeing that Death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”[9]

Through all those years of peace, the thing that was to bring death to him had lurked, unknown, unimagined, in a cave in the lonely mountains.

Many centuries before the birth of Beowulf, a family of mighty warriors had won by their swords a priceless treasure of weapons and of armour, of richly chased goblets and cups, of magnificent ornaments and precious jewels, and of gold “beyond the dreams of avarice.” In a great cave among the rocks it was hoarded by the last of their line, and on his death none knew where it was hidden. Upon it one day there stumbled a fiery dragon—a Firedrake—and for three hundred years the monster gloated, unchallenged, over the magnificent possession. But at the end of that time, a bondsman, who fled before his master’s vengeance and sought sanctuary in the mountains, came on an opening in the rocks, and, creeping in, found the Firedrake asleep upon a mass of red gold and of sparkling gems that dazzled his eyes even in the darkness. For a moment he stood, trembling, then, sure of his master’s forgiveness if he brought him as gift a golden cup all studded with jewels, he seized one and fled with it ere the monster could [Pg 262] awake. With its awakening, terror fell upon the land. Hither and thither it flew, searching for him who had robbed it, and as it flew, it sent flames on the earth and left behind it a black trail of ruin and of death.

When news of its destroyings came to the ears of the father of his people, Beowulf knew that to him belonged the task of saving the land for them and for all those to come after them. But he was an old man, and strength had gone from him, nor was he able now to wrestle with the Firedrake as once he had wrestled with the Grendel and the Wolf-Woman, but had to trust to his arms. He had an iron shield made to withstand the Firedrake’s flaming breath, and, with a band of eleven picked followers, and taking the bondsman as guide, Beowulf went out to fight his last fight. As they drew near the place, he bade his followers stay where they were, “For I alone,” he said, “will win the gold and save my people, or Death shall take me.”

From the entrance to the cave there poured forth a sickening cloud of steam and smoke, suffocating and blinding, and so hot that he could not go forward. But with a loud voice the old warrior shouted an arrogant challenge of defiance to his enemy, and the Firedrake rushed forth from its lair, roaring with the roar of an unquenchable fire whose fury will destroy a city. From its wings of flame and from its eyes heat poured forth scorchingly, and its great mouth belched forth devouring flames as it cast itself on Beowulf.