Beowulf: Chapter 24

Such was the feeling
Of loss endured by the lord of the Geats
After Herebeald’s death. He was hopelessly placed
To set to rights the wrong committed,
Could not punish the killer in accordance of the law
Of the blood-feud, although he felt no love for him.
Heartsore, wearied, he turned away
From life’s joys, chose God’s light
And departed, leaving buildings and lands
To his sons, as a man of substance will.
“Then over the wide seas Swedes and Geats
Battled and feuded and fought without quarter.
Hostilities broke out when Hrethel died.
Ongentheow’s sons were unrelenting,
Refusing to make peace, campaigning violently
From coast to coast, constantly setting up
Terrible ambushes around Hreasnshill.
My own kith and kin avenged
These evil events, as everybody knows,
But the price was high: one of them paid
With his life. Heathcyn, lord of the Geats,
Met his fate there and fell in battle.
Then, as I have heard, Hygelac’s sword
Was raised in the morning against Ongentheow,
His brother’s killer. When Eofor cleft
The old Swede’s helmet, halved it open,
He fell, death-pale: his feud-calloused hand
Could not stave off the fatal stroke.
“The treasures that Hygelac lavished on me
I paid for as I fought, as fortune allowed me,
With my glittering sword. He gave me land
And the security land brings, so he had no call
To go looking for some lesser champion,
Some mercenary among the Grifthas
Or the Spear-Danes or the men of Sweden.
I marched ahead of him, always there
At the front of the line; and I shall fight like that
For as long as I live, as long as this sword
Shall last, which has stood me in good stead
Late and soon, ever since I killed
Dayraven the Frank in front of the two armies.
He brought back no looted breastplate
To the Frisian king, but fell in battle,
Their standard-bearer, high-born and brave.
No sword blade sent him to his death,
My bare hands stilled his heartbeats
And wrecked the bone-house. Now blade and hand,
Sword and sword-stroke, will assay the hoard.”
Beowulf spoke, made a formal boast
For the last time: “I risked my life
Often when I was young. Now I am old,
But as king of this people I shall pursue this fight
For the glory of winning, if the evil one will only
Abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open.”
Then he addressed each dear companion
One final time, those fighters in their helmets,
Resolute and high-born: “I would rather not
Use a weapon if I knew another way
To grapple with the dragon and make good my boast
As I did against Grendel in days gone by.
But I shall be meeting molten venom
In the fire he breaths, so I go forth
In mail-shirt and shield. I won’t shift a foot
When I meet the cave-guard: what occurs on the wall
Between the two of us will turn out as fate,
Overseer of men, decides. I am resolved.
I scorn further words against this sky-born foe.
“Men at arms, remain here on the barrow,
Safe in your armor, to see which one of us
Is better in the end at bearing wounds
In a deadly fray. This fight is not yours,
Nor is it up to any man except me
To measure his strength against the monster
Or to prove his worth. I shall win the gold
By my courage, or else mortal combat,
Doom of battle, will bear your lord away.”
Then he drew himself up beside his shield.
The fabled warrior in his war-shirt and helmet
Trusted in his own strength entirely
And went under the crag. No coward path.
Hard by the rock-face that hale veteran,
A good man who had gone repeatedly
Into combat and danger and come through,
Saw a stone arch and a gushing stream
That burst from the barrow, blazing and wafting
A deadly heat. It would be hard to survive
Unscathed near the hoard, to hold firm
Against the dragon in those flaming depths.
Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats
Unburdened his breast and broke out
In a storm of anger. Under gray stone
His voice challenged and resounded clearly.
Heat was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
A human voice, the time was over
For peace and parleying. Pouring forth
In a hot battle-fume, the breath of the monster
Burst from the rock. There was a rumble underground.
Down there in the barrow, Beowulf the warrior
Lifted his shield: the outlandish thing
Writhed and convulsed and viciously
Turned on the king, whose keen-edged-sword,
And heirloom inherited by ancient right,
Was already in his hand. Roused to a fury,
Each antagonist struck terror in the other.
Unyielding, the lord of his people loomed
By his tall shield, sure of his ground,
While the serpent looped and unleashed itself.
Swaddled in flames, it came gliding and flexing
And racing toward its fate. Yet his shield defended
The renowned leader’s life and limb
For a shorter time than he meant it to:
That final day was the first time
When Beowulf fought and fate denied him
Glory in battle. So the king of the Geats
Raised his hand and struck hard
At the enameled scales, but hardly cut through:
The blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
Was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
Had need of at the moment. The hoard-keeper
Went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
When he felt the stroke, battle-fire
Billowed and spewed. Beowulf was foiled
Of a glorious victory. The glittering sword,
Infallible before that day,
Failed when he unsheathed it, as it never should have.
For the son of Ecgtheow, it was no easy thing
To have to give ground like that and go
Unwillingly to inhabit another home
In a place beyond; so every man must yield
The leasehold of his days.