Beowulf: Chapter 23

Yet the prince of the rings was too proud
To line up with a large army
Against the sky-plague. He had scant regard
For the dragon as a threat, no dread at all
Of its courage or strength, for he had kept going
Often in the past, through perils and ordeals
Of every sort, after he had purged
Hrothgar’s hall, triumphed in Heorot
And beaten Grendel. He outgrappled the monster
And his evil kin.
One of his cruelest
Hand-to-hand encounters had happened
When Hygelac, king of the Geats, was killed
In Friesland: the people’s friend and lord,
Hrethel’s son, slaked a sword blade’s
Thirst for blood. But Beowulf’s prodigious
Gifts as a swimmer guaranteed his safety:
He arrived at the shore, shouldering thirty
Battle-dresses, the booty he had won.
There was little for the Hetware to be happy about
As they shielded their faces and fighting on the ground
Began in earnest. With Beowulf against them,
Few could hope to return home.
Across the wide sea, desolate and alone,
The son of Ecgtheow swam back to his people.
There Hygd offered him throne and authority
As lord of the ring-hoard: with Hygelac dead,
She had no belief in her son’s ability
To defend their homeland against foreign invaders.
Yet there was no way the weakened nation
Could get Beowulf to give in and agree
To be elevated over Heardred as his lord
Or to undertake the office of kingship.
But he did provide support for the prince,
Honored and minded him until he matured
As the ruler of Geatland.
Then over sea-roads
Exiles arrived, sons of Ohthere.
They had rebelled against the best of all
The sea-kings in Sweden, the one who held sway
In the Shylfing nation, their renowned prince,
Lord of the mead-hall. That marked the end
For Hygelac’s son: his hospitality
Was mortally rewarded with wounds from a sword.
Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned
To the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf
To ascend the throne, to sit in majesty
And rule over the Geats. He was a good king.
In days to come, he contrived to avenge
The fall of his prince; he befriended Eadgils
When Eadgils was friendless, aiding his cause
With weapons and warriors over the wide sea,
Sending him men. The feud was settled
On a comfortless campaign when he killed Onela.
And so the son of Ecgtheow had survived
Every extreme, excelling himself
In daring and in danger, until the day arrived
When he had to come face to face with the dragon.
The lord of the Geats took eleven comrades
And went in a rage to reconnoiter.
By then he had discovered the cause of the affliction
Being visited on the people. The precious cup
Had come to him from the hand of the finder,
The one who had started all this strife
And was now added as a thirteenth to their number.
They press-ganged and compelled this poor creature
To be their guide. Against his will
He led them to the earth-vault he alone knew,
An underground barrow near the sea-billows
And heaving waves, heaped inside
With exquisite metalwork. The one who stood guard
Was dangerous and watchful, warden of that trove
Buried under earth: no easy bargain
Would be made in that place by any man.
The veteran king sat down on the cliff-top.
He wished good luck to the Geats who had shared
His hearth and his gold. He was sad at heart,
Unsettled yet ready, sensing his own death.
His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain:
It would soon claim his coffered soul,
Part life from limb. Before long
The prince’s spirit would spin free from his body.
Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke:
“Many a skirmish I survived when I was young
And many times of war; I remember them well.
At seven, I was fostered out by my father,
Left in the charge of my people’s lord.
King Hrethel kept me and took care of me,
Was open-handed, behaved lie a kinsman.
While I was his ward, he treated me no worse
As a wean about the place than one of his own boys,
Herebeald and Haethcyn, or my own Hygelac.
For the eldest, Herebeald, an unexpected
Deathbed was laid out, through a brother’s doing,
When Haethcyn bent his horn-tipped bow
And loosed the arrow that destroyed his life.
He shot wide and buried a shaft
In the flesh and blood of his own brother.
That offence was beyond redress, a wrong footing
Of the heart’s affections;; for who could avenge
The prince’s life or pay his death-price?
It was like the misery felt by an old man
Who has lived to see his son’s body
Swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
And weep for his boy, watching the raven
Gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors underground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.