Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 25

Beowulf and bade him go speedily to his ship, since a friend’s yearning could not retain him longer from his native land. So the little troop of Geats with their gifts and treasures marched proudly to their vessel and sailed away to Geatland, their dragon-prowed ship laden with armour and jewels and steeds, tokens of remembrance and thanks from the grateful Danes.

Beowulf’s Return

Blithe-hearted were the voyagers, and gaily the ship danced over the waves, as the Geats strained their eyes towards the cliffs of their home and the well-known shores of their country. When their vessel approached the land the coast-warden came hurrying to greet them, for he had watched the ocean day and night for the return of the valiant wanderers. Gladly he welcomed them, and bade his underlings help to bear their spoils up to the royal palace, where King Hygelac, himself young and valiant, awaited his victorious kinsman, with his beauteous queen, Hygd, beside him. Then came Beowulf, treading proudly the rocky paths [Pg 30] to the royal abode, for messengers had gone in advance to announce to the king his nephew’s success, and a banquet was being prepared, where Beowulf would sit beside his royal kinsman.

Once more there was a splendid feast, with tumultuous rejoicing. Again a queenly hand—that of the beauteous Hygd—poured out the first bowl in which to celebrate the safe return of the victorious hero. And now the wonderful story of the slaying of the fen-fiends must be told.

Beowulf was called upon to describe again his perils and his victories, and told in glowing language of the grisly monsters and the desperate combats, and of the boundless gratitude and splendid generosity of the Danish king, and of his prophecy of lasting friendship between the Danes and the Geats. Then he concluded:

“Thus that great nation’s king lived in all noble deeds.
Of guerdon I failed not, of meed for my valour,
But the wise son of Healfdene gave to me treasures great,
Gifts to my heart’s desire. These now I bring to thee,
Offer them lovingly: now are my loyalty
And service due to thee, O hero-king, alone!
Near kinsmen have I few but thee, O Hygelac!”

As the hero showed the treasures with which Hrothgar had rewarded his courage, he distributed them generously among his kinsmen and friends, giving his priceless jewelled collar to Queen Hygd, and his best steed to King Hygelac, as a true vassal and kinsman should. So Beowulf resumed his place as Hygelac’s chief warrior and champion, and settled down among his own people.

Fifty Years After

When half a century had passed away, great and sorrowful changes had taken place in the two kingdoms [Pg 31] of Denmark and Geatland. Hrothgar was dead, and had been succeeded by his son Hrethric, and Hygelac had been slain in a warlike expedition against the Hetware. In this expedition Beowulf had accompanied Hygelac, and had done all a warrior could do to save his kinsman and his king. When he saw his master slain he had fought his way through the encircling foes to the sea-shore, where, though sorely wounded, he flung himself into the sea and swam back to Geatland. There he had told Queen Hygd of the untimely death of her husband, and had called on her to assume the regency of the kingdom for her young son Heardred. Queen Hygd called an assembly of the Geats, and there, with the full consent of the nation, offered the crown to Beowulf, the wisest counsellor and bravest hero among them; but he refused to accept it, and so swayed the Geats by his eloquence and his loyalty that they unanimously raised Heardred to the throne, with Beowulf as his guardian and protector. When in later years Heardred also fell before an enemy, Beowulf was again chosen king, and as he was now the next of kin he accepted the throne, and ruled long and gloriously over Geatland. His fame as a warrior kept his country free from invasion, and his wisdom as a statesman increased its prosperity and happiness; whilst the vengeance he took for his kinsman’s death fulfilled all ideals of family and feudal duty held by the men of his time. Beowulf, in fact, became an ideal king, as he was an ideal warrior and hero, and he closed his life by an ideal act of self-sacrifice for the good of his people.

Beowulf and the Fire-Dragon

In the fiftieth year of Beowulf’s reign a great terror fell upon the land: terror of a monstrous fire-dragon, who flew forth by night from his den in the rocks, [Pg 32] lighting up the blackness with his blazing breath, and burning houses and homesteads, men and cattle, with the flames from his mouth. The glare from his fiery scales was like the dawn-glow in the sky, but his passage left behind it every night a trail of black, charred desolation to confront the rising sun. Yet the dragon’s wrath was in some way justified, since he had been robbed, and could not trace the thief. Centuries before Beowulf’s lifetime a mighty family of heroes had gathered together, by feats of arms, and by long inheritance, an immense treasure of cups and goblets, of necklaces and rings, of swords and helmets and armour, cunningly wrought by magic spells; they had joyed in their cherished hoard for long years, until all had died but one, and he survived solitary, miserable, brooding over the fate of the dearly loved treasure. At last he caused his servants to make a strong fastness in the rocks, with cunningly devised entrances, known only to himself, and thither, with great toil and labour of aged limbs, he carried and hid the precious treasure. As he sadly regarded it, and thought of its future fate, he cried aloud:

“Hold thou now fast, O earth, now men no longer can,
The treasure of mighty earls. From thee brave men won it
In days that are long gone by, but slaughter seized on them,
Death fiercely vanquished them, each of my warriors,
Each one of my people, who closed their life-days here
After the joy of earth. None have I sword to wield
Or bring me the goblet, the richly wrought vessel.
All the true heroes have elsewhere departed!
Now must the gilded helm lose its adornments,
For those who polished it sleep in the gloomy grave,
Those who made ready erst war-gear of warriors.
Likewise the battle-sark which in the fight endured
Bites of the keen-edged blades midst the loud crash of shields
Rusts, with its wearer dead. Nor may the woven mail
After the chieftain’s death wide with a champion rove.
[Pg 33] Gone is the joy of harp, gone is the music’s mirth.
Now the hawk goodly-winged hovers not through the hall,
Nor the swift-footed mare tramples the castle court:
Baleful death far has sent all living tribes of men.”

When this solitary survivor of the ancient race died his hoard remained alone, unknown, untouched, until at length the fiery dragon, seeking a shelter among the rocks, found the hidden way to the cave, and, creeping within, discovered the lofty inner chamber and the wondrous hoard. For three hundred winters he brooded over it unchallenged, and then one day a hunted fugitive, fleeing from the fury of an avenging chieftain, in like manner found the cave, and the dragon sleeping on his gold. Terrified almost to death, the fugitive eagerly seized a marvellously wrought chalice and bore it stealthily away, feeling sure that such an offering would appease his lord’s wrath and atone for his offence. But when the dragon awoke he discovered that he had been robbed, and his keen scent assured him that some one of mankind was the thief. As he could not at once see the robber, he crept around the outside of the barrow snuffing eagerly to find traces of the spoiler, but it was in vain; then, growing more wrathful, he flew over the inhabited country, shedding fiery death from his glowing scales and flaming breath, while no man dared to face this flying horror of the night.