The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 41

The Oldest English Epic by Unknown, translated by Francis Barton Gummere
Beowulf: XLI

XLI

“The bloody swath of Swedes and Geats
and the storm of their strife, were seen afar,
how folk against folk the fight had wakened.
The ancient king with his atheling band
2950sought his citadel, sorrowing much:
Ongentheow earl went up to his burg.
He had tested Hygelac’s hardihood,
the proud one’s prowess, would prove it no longer,
defied no more those fighting-wanderers
2955nor hoped from the seamen to save his hoard,
his bairn and his bride: so he bent him again,
old, to his earth-walls. Yet after him came
with slaughter for Swedes the standards of Hygelac
o’er peaceful plains in pride advancing,
2960till Hrethelings fought in the fencéd town.[1]
Then Ongentheow with edge of sword,
the hoary-bearded, was held at bay,
and the folk-king there was forced to suffer
Eofor’s anger. In ire, at the king
2965Wulf Wonreding with weapon struck;
and the chieftain’s blood, for that blow, in streams
flowed ’neath his hair. No fear felt he,
stout old Scylfing, but straightway repaid
in better bargain that bitter stroke
2970and faced his foe with fell intent.
Nor swift enough was the son of Wonred
answer to render the agéd chief;
too soon on his head the helm was cloven;
blood-bedecked he bowed to earth,
22975and fell adown: not doomed was he yet,
and well he waxed, though the wound was sore.
Then the hardy Hygelac-thane,[2]
when his brother fell, with broad brand smote,
giants’-sword crashing through giants’-helm
2980across the shield-wall: sank the king,
his folk’s old herdsman, fatally hurt.
There were many to bind the brother’s wounds
and lift him, fast as fate allowed
his people to wield the place-of-war.
2985But Eofor took from Ongentheow,
earl from other, the iron-breastplate,
hard sword hilted, and helmet too,
and the hoar-chief’s harness to Hygelac carried,
who took the trappings, and truly promised
2990rich fee ’mid folk,[3]—and fulfilled it so.
For that grim strife gave the Geatish lord,
Hrethel’s offspring, when home he came,
to Eofor and Wulf a wealth of treasure.
Each of them had a hundred thousand[4]
2995in land and linked rings; nor at less price reckoned
mid-earth men such mighty deeds!
And to Eofor he gave his only daughter
in pledge of grace, the pride of his home.

“Such is the feud, the foeman’s rage,
3000death-hate of men: so I deem it sure
that the Swedish folk will seek us home
for this fall of their friends, the fighting-Scylfings,[5]
when once they learn that our warrior leader
lifeless lies, who land and hoard
3005ever defended from all his foes,
furthered his folk’s weal, finished his course
a hardy hero.—Now haste is best,
that we go to gaze on our Geatish lord,
and bear the bountiful breaker-of-rings
3010to the funeral pyre. No fragments merely
shall burn with the warrior.[6] Wealth of jewels,
gold untold and gained in terror,
treasure at last with his life obtained,
all of that booty the brands shall take,
3015fire shall eat it. No earl must carry
memorial jewel. No maiden fair
shall wreathe her neck with noble ring:
nay, sad in spirit and shorn of her gold,
oft shall she pass o’er paths of exile
3020now our lord all laughter has laid aside,
all mirth and revel. Many a spear
morning-cold shall be clasped amain,
lifted aloft; nor shall lilt of harp
those warriors wake; but the wan-hued raven,[7]
3025fain o’er the fallen, his feast shall praise
and boast to the eagle how bravely he ate
when he and the wolf were wasting the slain.”

So he told his sorrowful tidings,
and little[8] he lied, the loyal man
3030of word or of work. The warriors rose;
sad, they climbed to the Cliff-of-Eagles,
went, welling with tears, the wonder to view.
Found on the sand there, stretched at rest,
their lifeless lord, who had lavished rings
3035of old upon them. Ending-day
had dawned on the doughty-one; death had seized
in woful slaughter the Weders’ king.
There saw they, besides, the strangest being,
loathsome, lying their leader near,
3040prone on the field. The fiery dragon,
fearful fiend, with flame was scorched.
Reckoned by feet, it was fifty measures
in length as it lay. Aloft erewhile
it had revelled by night, and anon come back,
3045seeking its den; now in death’s sure clutch
it had come to the end of its earth-hall joys.
By it there stood the stoups and jars;
dishes lay there, and dear-decked swords
eaten with rust, as, on earth’s lap resting,
3050a thousand winters they waited there.
For all that heritage huge, that gold
of bygone men, was bound by a spell,[9]
so the treasure-hall could be touched by none
of human kind,—save[10] that Heaven’s King,
3055God himself, might give whom he would.
Helper of Heroes, the hoard to open,—
even such a man as seemed to him meet.

  1. The line may mean: till Hrethelings stormed on the hedgéd shields,—i.e. the shield-wall or hedge of defensive war.—Hrethelings, of course, are Geats.
  2. Eofor, brother to Wulf Wonreding. As was noted above, this Homeric account of the fight is not difficult to follow. Wulf wounds Ongentheow, who replies with a terrific stroke, felling Wulf to earth, but not killing him. Eofor, the brother, avenges Wulf speedily, and gets his reward for killing the old hero-king.
  3. Conjectural but obvious reading, with the general sense of “open”—public, prominent.
  4. Sc. “value in” hides and the weight of the gold. See note on v. 2195, above.
  5. Transposed from its place as v. 3005, and reading “Scylfings” for the “Scyldings” of the Ms. Then no gap need be assumed.
  6. Beowulf was glad he had won such treasure for his folk, v. 2794, above. Earls and maids should be glad for it. But the herald, who foresees for earl and maid another fate—exile for one, and death in battle after surprise at dawn (or is it that the spear shall be found clasped by a cold, dead hand?) for the other—will heap all the treasure in the tomb. Compare the treasures for Scyld’s ship-burial.
  7. See Finnsburg, vv. 6, 36.
  8. Not at all.
  9. Laid on it when it was put in the barrow. This spell, or in our days the “curse,” either prevented discovery or brought dire ills on the finder and taker. The Nibelungs’ gold is cited by Holthausen as a case in point.—See below, v. 3069.
  10. One of our poet’s mild “riders” to correct obvious remains of gentilism.