Beowulf: Chapter 22

The intruder who broached the dragon’s treasure
And moved him to wrath had never meant to.
It was desperation on the part of a slave
Fleeing the heavy hand of some master,
Guilt-ridden and on the run,
Going to ground. But he soon began
To shake with terror. In shock
The wretch panicked and ran
Away with the precious
Metalwork. There were many other
Heirlooms heaped inside the earth-house,
Because long ago, with deliberate care,
Somebody now forgotten
Had buried the riches of a high-born race
In this ancient cache. Death had come
And taken them all in times gone by
And the only one left to tell their tale,
The last of their line, could look forward to nothing
But the same fate for himself: he foresaw that his joy
In the treasure would be brief.
A newly constructed
Barrow stood waiting, on a wide headland
Close to the waves, its entryway secured.
Into it the keeper of the hoard had carried
All the goods and golden ware
Worth preserving. His words were few:
“Now, earth, hold what earls once held
And heroes can no more; it was mined from you first
By honorable men. My own people
Have been ruined in war; one by one
They went down to death, looked their last
On sweet life in the hall. I am left with nobody
To bear a sword or burnish plated goblets,
Put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed.
The hard helmet, hasped with gold,
Will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner
Who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps;
The coat of mail that came through all fights,
Through shield-collapse and cut of sword,
Decays with the warrior. Now may webbed mail
Range far and wide on a warlord’s back
Beside his mustered troops. No trembling harp,
No tuned timber, no tumbling hawk
Swerving through the hall, no swift horse
Pawing the courtyard. pillage and slaughter
Have emptied the earth of entire peoples.”
And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
Deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
Day and night, until death’s flood
Brimmed up in his heart.
Then an old harrower of the dark
Happened to find the hoard open,
The burning one who hunts out barrows,
The slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky
With streamers of fire. People on the farms
Are in dread of him. He is driven to hunt out
Hoards under ground, to guard heathen gold
Through age-long vigils, though to little avail.
For three centuries, this scourge of the people
Had stood guard on that stoutly protected
Underground treasury, until the intruder
Unleashed its fury; he hurried to his lord
With the gold-plated cup and made his plea
To be reinstated. Then the vault was rifled,
The ring-hoard robbed, and the wretched man
Had his request granted. His master gazed
On that find from the past for the first time.
When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again.
He rippled down the rock, writhing with anger
When he saw the footprints of the prowler who had stolen
Too close to his dreaming head.
So may a man not marked by fate
Easily escape exile and woe
By the grace of God.
The hoard-guardian
Scorched the ground as he scoured and hunted
For the trespasser who had troubled his sleep.
Hot and savage, he kept circling and circling
The outside of the mound. No man appeared
In that desert waste, but he worked himself up
By imagining battle;; then back in he’d go
In search of the cup, only to discover
Signs that someone had stumbled upon
The golden treasures. The guardian of the mound,
The hoard-watcher, waited for the gloaming
With fierce impatience; his pent-up fury
At the loss of the vessel made him long to hit back
And lash out in flames. Then, to his delight,
The day waned and he could wait no longer
Behind the wall, but hurtled forth
In a fiery blaze. The first to suffer
Were the people on the land, but before long
It was their treasure-giver who would come to grief.
The dragon began to belch out flames
And burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow
That scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger
Would leave nothing alive in his wake.
Everywhere the havoc he wrought was in evidence.
Far and near, the Geat nation
Bore the brunt of his brutal assaults
And virulent hate. Then back to the hoard
He would dart before daybreak, to hide in his den.
He had swinged the land, swathed it in flame,
In fire and burning, and now he felt secure
In the vaults of his burrow; but his trust was unavailing.
Then Beowulf was given bad news,
A hard truth: his own home,
The best of buildings, had been burnt to a cinder,
The throne-room of the Geats. It threw the hero
Into deep anguish and darkened his mood:
The wise man thought he must have thwarted
Ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord,
Broken His commandment. His mind was in turmoil,
Unaccustomed anxiety and gloom
Confused his brain; the fire-dragon
Had rased the coastal region and reduced
Forts and earthworks to dust and ashes,
So the war-king planned and plotted his revenge.
The warriors’ protector, prince of the hall-troop,
Ordered a marvelous all-iron shield
From his smithy works. He well knew
That linden boards would let him down
And timber burn. After many trials,
He was destined to face the end of his days
In this mortal world; as was the dragon,
For all his leasehold on the treasure.