Beowulf: Chapter 25

Before long
The fierce contenders clashed again.
The hoard-guard took heart, inhaled and swelled up
And got a new wind; he who had once ruled
Was furled in fire and had to face the worst.
No help or backing was to be had then
From his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop
Broke ranks and ran for their lives
To the safety of the wood. But within one heart
Sorrow welled up: in a man of worth
The claims of kinship cannot be denied.
His name was Wiglaf, a son of Weohstan’s,
A well-regarded Shylfing warrior
Related to Aelfhere. When he saw his lord
Tormented by the heat of his scalding helmet,
He remember the bountiful gifts he bestowed on him,
How well he lived among the Waegmundings,
The freehold he inherited from his father before him.
He could not hold back: one hand brandished
The yellow-timbered shield, the other drew his sword–
An ancient blade that was said to have belonged
To Eanmund, the son of Ohthere, the one
Weohstan had slain when he was in exile without friends.
He carried the arms to the victim’s kinfolk,
The burnished helmet, the webbed chain-mail
And that relic of the giants. But Onela retuned
The weapons to him, rewarded Weohstan
With Eadmund’s war-gear. He ignored the blood-feud,
The fact that Eadmund was his brother’s son.
Weohstan kept that war-gear for a lifetime,
The sword and the mail-shirt, until it was the son’s turn
To follow his father and perform his part.
Then, in old age, at the end of his days
Among the Weather-Geats, he bequeathed to Wiglaf
Innumerable weapons.
And now the youth
Was to enter the line of battle with his lord,
His first time to be tested as a fighter.
His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade
Would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered
As soon as they came together in combat.
Sad at heart, addressing his companions,
Wiglaf spoke wise and fluent words:
“I remember that time when the mead was flowing,
How we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall,
Promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,
Make good the gift of the war-gear,
Those swords and helmets, as and when
His need required it. He picked us out
From the army deliberately, honored us and judged us
Fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts–
And all because he considered us the best
Of his arms-bearing thanes. And now, although
He wanted this challenge to be the one he’d face
By himself alone–the shepherd of our land,
A man unequalled in the quest for glory
And a name for daring–now the day has come
When this lord we serve needs sound men
To give him their support. Let us go to him,
Help our leader through the hot flame
And dread of the fire. As God is my witness,
I would rather my body were robbed in the same
Burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body
Than go back home bearing arms.
That is unthinkable, unless we have first
Slain the foe and defended the life
Of the prince of the Weather-Geats. I well know
That things he has done for us deserve better.
Should he alone be left exposed
To fall in battle? We must bond together,
Shield and helmet, mail-shirt and sword.”
Then he wadded the dangerous reek and went
Under arms to his lord, saying only:
“Go on, dear Beowulf, do everything
You said you would when you were still young
And vowed you would never let your name and fame
Be dimmed while you lived. Your deeds are famous,
So stay resolute, my lord, defend your life now
With the whole of your strength. I shall stand by you.”
After those word, a wildness rose
In the dragon again and drove it to attack,
Heaving up fire, hunting for enemies,
The humans it loathed. Flames lapped the shield,
Charred it to the boss, and the body armor
On the young warrior was useless to him.
But Wiglaf did well under the wide rim
Beowulf shared with him once his own had shattered
In sparks and ashes.
Inspired again
By the thought of glory, the war-king threw
His whole strength behind a sword-stroke
And connected with the skull. And Naegling snapped.
Beowulf’s ancient iron-gray sword
Let him down in the fight. It was never his fortune
To be helped in combat by the cutting-edge
Of weapons made of iron. When he yielded a sword,
No matter how blooded and hard-edged the blade
His hand was too strong, the stroke he dealt
(I have heard) would ruin it. He could reap no advantage.
Then the bane of that people, the fire-breathing dragon,
Was mad to attack for a third time.
When a chance came, he caught the hero
In a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs
Into his neck. Beowulf’s body
Ran wet with his life-blood: it came welling out.