Beowulf Becomes King and Faces a Dragon-Sized Crisis: Book XXXI – Book XXXIII

The thief steals the cup from the treasure hoard of the dragon in Beowulf in translation on A Blogger's Beowulf.

The thief behind the Geats’ dragon crisis sneaking up to the dragon and reaching for the fateful treasure cup. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_Beowulf_slave_stealing_golden_cup.jpg

XXXI

“These to you, oh noble king, I will bring
and point out the delicate points of each. After all,
all my grace still relies on you. I have few
kin — indeed there are none but you!”

Beowulf then commanded that the boar helm, head-topper for battle,
a war-steeped hat, the ancient mail shirt, and the precious war sword
be brought forth, saying thus after all this garb was brought out:

“Hrothgar gave me this battle-keened gear,
oh wise lord. And along with them he commanded me
to first tell of these treasures’ journey.
He said that they had been Heorogar’s, the king,
lord of the Scyldings, for a long while.
Yet Heorogar did not bequeath them to his son,
the one called Heremod, though he was loyal,
a true wanderer through his father’s heart. Enjoy each of them well!”

I heard that next four ornate horses were brought in,
quickly, each of them as beautiful as the last,
bay and brilliant. Beowulf gave unto his lord such gifts
in horses and treasures. And so shall all kinsmen do;
they should not scheme and lay out nets laced with malice for others
through deceitful craft, should not arrange death
for hand-companions. Hygelac proved a grand uncle
to Beowulf, a nephew who held fast to the bond,
and each was mindful of the other’s joy.

I heard that then Beowulf gave the gorget to Hygd,
Wealhtheow’s well-wrought wonder treasure, that which
the queen had given him, daughter of the prince, three horses as well,
each supple and with ornamented saddles.
The gorget shone like the sun upon Hygd’s breast.

So, boldly onward went the son of Ecgtheow,
a man known for war, known, too, for good deeds,
living according to justice, never slaying
any hearth companion while drinking, never was he rough minded.
Indeed, he was the strongest of the children of men.
So much so that he gained a great stronghold, which god granted him,
and he carried himself as a warrior ought. All of which was cause for surprise,
long had he been lowly, regarded as little good among sons of the Geats,
nor had he done any deeds of great renown or anything
to be recalled by the Weder lord while men were on the mead bench.
Yet he set out on the way of strength, though they believed him slack,
an ill-formed prince. But Beowulf’s persistence led to a reversal,
now every little deed of his further enriched his newfound fame.

After those gifts were given the protector of the earls,
the battle-famed king, ordered Hrethel’s heirloom be brought in.
It was a wondrous, gold-chased thing, there was no other
amid the whole Geat treasure hold to best that sword.
This Hygelac laid upon Beowulf’s lap,
and to him he gave seven thousand hides of land,
a hall and a throne. Both already owned land
by right of kin, though Hygelac of greater
hereditary right had more — lands were ample among
those of high rank — to him the best of the
earth was bequeathed.
After that came many days
full of the fury of battle. Hygelac fell,
Heardred’s protection proved useless,
it collapsed under the phalanx that brought his death
when they, the victorious people of the Heatho-Scylfings,
attacked with seasoned swordsmen.
That brought about fatal strife for his nephew Hereric.
Yet, after that strife, those lands turned to Beowulf’s hand.

He ruled the Geats well for fifty winters,
indeed Beowulf became a wise king,
an aged lord of the realm — until one began to trouble them:
in the dark of night a prowling dragon appeared.

The wyrm held a treasure in his high hall,
all beneath a steep stone roof, led to by a narrow footpath
unknown to men. There into the abyss stumbled
someone or other … who seized by hand from that heathen hoard …
a gleaming treasure that he afterward …
though the dragon slept he had outwitted
it with a thief’s wiles. Soon the people thereabouts,
those under the shield of the local lord, discovered
that the thief’s act unlocked the serpent’s rage.

XXXII

Though not at all with evil intent did the thief break into the dragon’s hoard,
it was not for his own greedy desire; he had been sorely oppressed.

For three nights that slave turned thief
had fled the blows of a prince of men,
he delved into the dragon’s den by need, then entering in
as a man ridden with guilt. Shortly he discovered
that … the man stood terror struck,
which the miserable …
… made … that fed his own fear, treasure piece
… there were many such pieces,
all ancient heirlooms, in that earthen house.
For there in earlier times some man or other,
had left a huge legacy of noble kin,
had thoughtfully buried the treasures there,
those precious pieces of their story. He and all his kin
had since been carried off by death in former times.
But the last one left of that noble people, he who was the eldest,
a barrow guard grieving for lost friends, buried them, knowing indeed
that he would little enjoy those grand and
beautiful treasures apart from all his kin.

          The barrow stood ready
in open ground near the sea-waves.
It was newly made at the headland, made secure with the art of secrecy.
Within there the keeper of the ancient earls’ ringed treasure
carried that share of worthy wrought and crafted goods,
the hoard of plated gold; these few words he spoke:

“Hold you now, oh earth, that which men and women cannot,
enjoy these warriors’ possessions! Indeed it was
obtained from you at the first, dug up
by worthy men. But death in battle bore those delvers away.
Now that terrible mortal harm has carried off each and every one of my people.
They have left this life where they knew and looked back longingly
at the joy had in the hall. I now have no-one to bear the sword
or bring the plated cup, that precious drinking vessel.
That group of tried warriors has since passed elsewhere.
Their hard helmets with gold adornment shall be bereft of their gold plate;
the burnishers sleep the sleep of death, those who should polish the battle mask.
So too the battle garbs, that had endured in battle
through the clash of shields and cut of swords,
they now decay upon the warriors’ husks. Nor may the mail-coats of rings
go with the war-leader on his long journey,
they may not be kept at their masters’ bloodied sides. No harp joy,
no delight of musical instruments, nor any good hawk
flies through the hall, nor any swift mare
stops in the flowered courtyard. Destructive death
has sent forth all others of my race, as it has with countless others.”

Just so, sad at heart, this final one followed his kin.
He expressed his sorrow, he moved about joyless,
for unlit days and for fevered nights, until death’s surging
reached his heart.

          The old ravager by night
later found that delightful hoard left open,
the burning one who seeks out barrows,
the slick, malicious dragon, flew into it by night,
enveloped in flame.

          The dwellers on the land thereabouts
greatly feared that drake. It delved deep
searching the earth for the depths of that hoard, which it guarded
through countless winters, kept watch over heathen gold,
useless treasure. That ravager of the people occupied the earth
hidden in the barricaded treasure house for three hundred years.

But then a man enraged that fire wyrm, stoked the fury of its heart.
To his lord the thief bore a gold-plated cup,
that man also offered a plea for peace with his lord —
a plea the lord heard as certainly as he saw the cup’s glint.
He had that hoard ransacked, the piles of rings and trinkets was diminished,
that wretched man’s request was granted. His lord leered at
the ancient work of long dead men for the first time.

When the dragon awoke to all this, strife stirred with him.
The drake moved quickly over the stones of his home, fierce-hearted.
He found the enemy’s track, the scent of he who had used stealth
and skill to creep close to his head, where the golden cup
had rested. Thus may he who is unfated to die easily survive
misery and exile, so it goes for the one who keeps
the Ruler’s favour. But the guardian of that hoard
searched eagerly along the ground, its fervent wish was to find
the one who had dealt so grievously with his cup as he slept.
Hot and fierce-hearted he often went all around
the outside of that barrow – yet not any man was there
in that deserted place. All the same, the dragon shook and postured
as if at war, as if he were in the midst of deeds of battle. At times he
took turns about the barrow, seeking that precious vessel. Immediately he
found that a man had tampered with his gold,
had his hands upon that rich treasure. The hoard guardian
waited with difficulty until evening came,
he was enraged and impatient, at last he decided
he would payback the precious drinking vessel
with hateful flames. As the day went by
the serpent seethed with desire; no longer could it
wait within the walls. Amidst its flames the wyrm burst forth,
ready with fire. That was but the beginning the terror the people
of that land suffered, and, just so,
it spelled a swift end to their quickly grieving treasure-giver.

XXXIII

Then the stranger among those lands started to spew forth flames,
it burned down all the bright dwellings thereabouts, the glow of fire
turned men stone-still in terror. That hateful sky-flier
left nothing there alive.
The serpent’s onslaught was widely seen,
its cruelly hostile malice was clear to all from near and far.
That war-like ravager of the Geatish people
hated and humiliated them. Afterward it hastened to its hoard,
escaped to the secret splendid hall before the sun summoned daytime.
But with that night of ruin the dragon had encircled the people of the land,
ringed them about in burning fire and bewildering fear. While it was emboldened in
the safety of its barrow, its fighting power, its walls. But by that hope he was deceived.

Then was Beowulf told of that terror,
in a voice trembling with speed and truth, he heard that his own home,
the best of buildings, had been melted in a surge of fire,
the gift seat of the Geats. That good man
was sorrowful at heart, sunken into great grief when he heard that news.
In that moment his thoughts turned to his past,
he wondered if he had acted contrary to the old laws of the Ruler,
the Eternal Lord, severely offended them; within his breast welled up
dark thoughts, as was not customary for him.

The fire dragon had destroyed all the people’s strongholds,
scourged all the land out to the coast, scorched all their earthen work walls
with its flames. For that flying beast the lord of the fray,
prince of the Weders, planned vengeance.
He commanded that a protector of warriors be made,
all of iron, quenched and tempered, so said the lord of earls,
he sought a wondrous war-board from his smiths. Beowulf knew well
that the forest wood warriors so often carried would be no help to him,
that the linden shield would crumble against flames. Beowulf also knew
that he must soon come to the end of his transitory days, the prince of excellence,
his loan of life would soon be due, and so, too, would the dragon’s,
though the wyrm had guarded that hoarded wealth long.

Further, Beowulf, the prince of rings,
was too proud to attack the far-flier with a band of men,
an overpowering army. Nor did he fear further attack from the drake,
he thought but little of the dragon’s strength and courage, since he
had already risked harsh circumstances, survived countless combats,
endured the crash of battle, since he had done so for Hrothgar.
Beowulf had indeed been blessed with victory, cleansed the Dane’s hall,
in combat he crushed to death the hateful kindred
of Grendel.

          Not the least of his deeds happened later,
the hand-to-hand encounter where one man slew Hygelac,
after the Geatish king was caught in the battle onslaught,
the lord and friend of the people fell in Friesland.
Hygelac, Hrethel’s son, had died in the blade brew,
struck by the sword. From there Beowulf
put his strength to use, swimming thence.
In his arm he held the battle gear of thirty men
with which he went to sea.
None of the Hetwares had reason to be exultant
in that battle on foot, with Beowulf against them on the front
bearing a shield. Few would later
return home from their meeting with that warrior.

Thanks to long practice he swam over the sea,
the son of Ecgtheow, a reclusive water treader heading
back to his people. There Hygd urged him to take
the treasure and the throne, rings and the power seat.
She trusted not her son. She doubted that he could hold
the royal seat against foreign foes, for Hygelac was dead.
Yet for nothing could that people find a means
to get Beowulf to accept such power, nothing whatever swayed him,
so long as Heardred was lord,
until the kingdom itself would choose.

Nonetheless, in that time Beowulf proved to be a well
of friendly counsel among the people, freely and with grace,
until he became mature in power, a ruler of the Weder-Geats.
But then miserable men sought for Heardred from over the sea,
Ohthere’s son. Those men had rebelled against the protector
of the Scylfings, the best among sea kings,
he who had dealt out treasure in the Swedish kingdom,
the greatly famed ruler. For Heardred that marked the end.
For his hospitality he gained a terrible wound,
the sting of a swung sword, that unfortunate son of Hygelac.
Afterwards Ongentheow’s son left,
headed for home, after Heardred was slain,
leaving the ruler’s seat for Beowulf to fill,
he was then called to rule the Geats. That was a good king!

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