The History of a Feud and the Future of Wiglaf’s Geats: Book XXXIX – Book XLI

A Viking Age battle involving, no doubt, a king like Beowulf and a feud.

Thorir Hund dressed in a reindeer-hide tunic kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stiklestad#/media/File:Arbo-Olav_den_helliges_fall_i_slaget_p%C3%A5_Stiklestad.jpg

XXXIX

That which had happened was painfully felt
by the young man when he on the ground saw
that dearest one pitiably suffering
at his life’s end. The slayer also lay so,
the terrible earth dragon was bereaved of life,
overwhelmed by ruin. In the hoard of rings no
longer could the coiled serpent be on guard,
once the sword edge carried it off,
felt the hard, battle-sharp remnant of hammers, just so
the wide-flier was stilled by its wounds and
lay where it had fallen near the treasure house. Never
after did it move about through the air by flight
in the middle of the night, glorying in its rich possessions,
never could it make more appearances,
since it had fallen to earth at the war leader’s deed of the hand.

Indeed few mighty men on earth
have so succeeded, as I have heard,
though every deed they did was daring,
few of them would make a rush against the breath of the
fierce ravager or could disturb a hall of rings by hand,
if he discovered the ward awakened and
dwelling in the barrow. Beowulf had paid
for his share of the noble treasures with his death;
each had reached the end of
their loaned lives.

          It was not long then
before the laggards in battle left the wood,
ten cowardly traitors together,
those that dared not fight by the spear when
their liege lord was in greatest need;
but they were ashamed when they came bearing shields,
dressed in clean war garments, to where their lord lay.
They gazed on Wiglaf.

          The thane sat exhausted,
the warrior on foot near his lord’s shoulder.
He still tried to revive him with water — thought not at all did that speed him.
He might not on earth make that chieftain keep his life,
though he wished well to,
nor could he at all change the decree of the Ruler;
God’s decree would rule over the deeds
of each man, as it does yet.
Then from that young warrior a grim answer
was easy to obtain for those who earlier had lost their courage.

Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son,
the man sad at heart — he saw those gathered as not dear:

“Lo! It may be said, by he who will speak truth,
that the liege lord, he who gave you that treasure,
that military gear, that you there stand in,
when he at ale-bench oft gave
to sitters in the hall helms and byrnies,
the prince over his retainers, the strongest that he could
find either far or near, all that he may
as well have furiously tossed away, that war gear
that he from battle won.
Not at all did that folk-king have cause to boast
of comrades in arms. Yet god allowed him, the
victorious ruler, so that he himself could drive forward
with his sword alone, when he had need for courage.”

“I could offer but little of life protection
to him in the fray, and yet I felt my limits
lessen when I strove to help our lord.
It was ever weakening, when I landed sword blows
on the mortal enemy, the fire from his head then
grew sluggish. As he became desperate, too few rallied
around the prince, at the time of the beast’s final
thrashing. Now shall the sword-gifting and treasure
sharing, all the native-land joy of our people,
our hope, be subdued. Each of us will have
our land-right become idle
among our people, afterwards princes from afar
will come seeking, driving us all to flee,
an inglorious deed. Death is better
to every warrior than a life of dishonour!”

XL

Wiglaf then bade that the battle work be
reported to those encamped on the cliff-edge, where the
noble warrior host had sat sorrow-hearted all through that morning,
the shield bearers, entertaining both possibilities:
that it was the end of the dear man’s days,
that the prized prince would return again.

          The messenger
kept little silent in his story, so that naught was left
unsaid, and so he spoke truth to them all:

“Now is the Weder’s gracious giver,
the lord of the Geats, fast in his deathbed,
gone to the grave by the dragon’s deed:
Beside him, in like state, lay the
mortal enemy, dead from dagger wounds; for his sword
could not work any wound whatever on
that fierce foe. Wiglaf sits
by Beowulf’s side, the son of Weohstan,
a warrior watching over the unliving other,
holding vigil over the Geats’ chief,
he sits by the beloved and the reviled.

          “Now our people may
expect war-time, once the king’s fall
becomes widely and openly known
among Franks and Frisians. The fury of the Franks
was hard rattled, after Hygelac sailed from afar
in a war fleet to Frisian lands, there
Hetware harried him on the field, zealously came out
against him with overpowering might so that the
corseleted warrior was made to give way,
he fell among foot soldiers; not at all did that
lord give treasures to his troop. Ever since then
the Merovingian have shown us no mercy.

“Nor do I expect the Swedes to hold us as kin
or remain peaceful; for it was widely known
that Ongeontheow slew Haethcyn,
son of Hrethel, in the strife at Ravenswood,
when for arrogance the Geats first
sought to strike the Scylfings.
Old and terrible, Ohthere’s wise father
gave the return assault,
destroyed the sea king, kept his bride,
deprived his aged wife of gold,
the mother of Onela and Ohthere.
then he followed the mortal foe,
until they showed themselves
in great leaderless hardship in the Ravenswood.

“Beset he then with an immense host the remnant
wearied by war wounds; all the night
long he twisted their tender spirits with vile boasts,
he said that he would destroy them with the
sword’s edge come morning, that he would hang them
on gallows-trees to feed the birds. Yet joy again
existed in their sorrowful hearts just as day dawned,
for then came Hygelac with his horn and its call,
a sound they recognized, knew that it meant a troop
of great allies had arrived in their final moment.”

XLI

“The gory track Geats and Swedes left there,
from the widely seen onslaught,
was easy to follow back to the erupting feud.
Then he knew the good men among his comrades,
the old sorrowful man sought to secure his soldiers,
Ongeontheow the chief turned to higher ground.
For he had learned first hand of Hygelac’s battlecraft,
his splendid war strength and he trusted not to resistance,
the hope that he might rout those seafarers,
those sea-borne warriors, resist that horde,
protect his son and wife. After that the aged one’s
banners went behind the earthen wall. Then the
persecution of the Swedish people was commanded,
Hygelac’s sign rushed forward into the peaceful plain.

“Afterward the Hrethlings thronged around that fortified enclosure.
There by the sword’s edge Ongeontheow,
the grey-haired lord, was left to suffer at
Eofor’s command alone. Angrily against him
Wulf son of Wonred reached with a weapon,
so that his sword swing struck, sending blood
forth from under his hair. Yet he was
not frightened, the old Scylfing,
he paid him back double for that blow,
turning a far worse death strike against that one,
After the king had turned thither.

“Yet the bold son of Wonred could not
land a blow against that aged man,
for he had sheared the helm from his head,
so that Wulf had to bow his bloodied head,
fell to the ground. But fate called not yet to him,
and he recovered himself, though he fully felt his wound.
Eofor, that hardy thane of Hygelac, then hoisted
his broad blade, as his brother lay there,
an antique edge of giant design, his stroke caught the giant’s helm,
cut through Ongeontheow’s shield wall; then bowed that king,
the people’s protector, he was struck through to his soul.

“There were many then, those who bandaged Wulf,
swiftly raised him up, since it had been cleared,
since they ruled that bloodied field.
At the same time, winning warriors stripped those who lost,
from Ongeontheow went his iron mail,
his hard sword hilt and his helmet also.
These old ornaments were brought to Hygelac.
He accepted these treasures and himself fairly stated
among the people that reward would be had, and so he did.
He paid them for their battle-rush, the Geat lord,
Hrethel’s son, when they arrived home,
Eofor and Wulf were overloaded with gifts;
he gave them lands and linked rings
of great value in gold — no man on earth
need reproach him for that reward — after they
forged their glorious deed;
and to Eofor he also gave his only daughter,
a tender home-shaper, his loyalty to lock.

“That is the root of our feud and foe-ship,
this very deadly hostility, which, as I truly believe,
means that we shall be sought by the Swedes,
after they hear of how our lord is now lifeless,
the one who in earlier days defended
our people and treasures against our enemies,
after our warriors fell, a prelude to the Scylfings,
worked ever for the people’s benefit and went further
than any other to be like a true lord. Now haste is best,
that we our king go to see,
he who gave us rings, and then go with him
to the funeral pyre.

          “None shall match
what will melt amidst his glory, for there shall be the
treasure’s hoarded gold untold, bought at so grim a cost;
and now at his departure those rings bought
with his own life: the fire shall consume them,
all swallowed in the searing heat, no man shall
wear that treasure to remember, nor may
any woman wear those costly rings as shining adornment,
but they shall be sad-hearted, bereaved of gold,
for oft, not once alone, shall they tread foreign lands,
the leader’s laughter now having been silenced,
sport and mirth ceased.

          “The future will see hands habituated to hoisting
morning-cold spears, heaved by hand, not at all shall
the harp’s sweep stir warriors, but wan on the wing
the raven flying over the doomed will speak,
tell the eagle how he vomited and ate,
when he and the wolf tore and tasted the dead.”

Such was the sentence of that speaker’s
dire speech; he did not deceive in
what he told and read of fate. The troop all arose,
went without joy beneath Eagle Cliff,
faces tear-torn, the terrible scene to see.

They found him on the sand where his soul left his body,
emptily guarding his couch, he who had given rings
in days past. That was the final day
of that good man’s journey, indeed that great-king,
lord of the Weders, died a wondrous death.

Yet before that they saw a stranger creature,
opposite him there on the strand was the serpent, there
the loathed one lay: it was the dweller of the drake’s
den, the sombrely splattered horror, glowing like an
ember for its flames. It was full fifty feet long,
laying there; just days ago it knew
the joy of night-flight, keeping a searching eye out for
its den down below; it was held there in death,
never again would it know its earth den.

Beside it stood beakers and cups,
plates laid about and dear swords,
rusty, eaten through, as only those who live
in the embrace of earth for a thousand winters
can be. Yet that huge cache,
the hold of gold of men of old, was spell-bound,
so that no man might enter
that ring-hall, save god itself,
Ruler of Triumph, give its approval
— for god is humanity’s handler — to open that hoard,
even then only for such a man as the Ruler thought fit.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

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One thought on “The History of a Feud and the Future of Wiglaf’s Geats: Book XXXIX – Book XLI

  1. Pingback: Wiglaf Rises, Beowulf Poisoned, Dragon Dies: Book XXXVI – Book XXXVIII | A Blogger's Beowulf

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