The red book of animal stories/The Story of Beowulf and the Fire Drake


THE STORY OF BEOWULF AND THE
FIRE DRAKE


Beowulf was a wise King, and had ruled his country well for fifty years, during which nothing had happened to mar the happiness of him or his subjects. But now trouble was about to arise. Hidden away in a mound of earth was a vast store of treasure, gold, silver, jewels of great price, and this hoard for three hundred years had been guarded by a monstrous Fire Drake. One night, while this dragon slept, a man succeeded in entering the storehouse, from which he stole a cup and many valuable jewels. When the serpent awoke its rage knew no bounds; it came forth from its cave, endeavouring to track the man, whose footsteps it could see on the shore, but without success. So it waited till evening, vowing that many should pay dearly for that drinking-cup. Then again it came forth, wandered all over the country at night, setting every house it could see on fire, for its scorching breath and the brands it carried with it were irresistible. Beowulf's own home, in common with others, was destroyed, whereupon he bethought him of vengeance, remembering how of old he had been successful in quite as dangerous undertakings, and how he had outlived every quarrel, every perilous enterprise. Knowing well that no ordinary defence would avail him anything against the Fire Drake, he had fashioned for himself a curious battle shield, all of iron. Choosing eleven companions, he went to look for the dragon; the way was hard to find, so the man who had been the cause of all the mischief went with the little band as a guide: indeed, he was the only one who knew where the dragon's hoard was to be found; besides, he was very much ashamed of himself, and was anxious to do all in his power to atone for the disasters which his theft had brought about.

When they arrived at the Fire Drake's lair, which was near the sea, they saw an arch of stone, and a stream issuing out of it from the mound. The water was so hot, by reason of the dragon's flame continually beating upon it, that a man could not bear his hand in it for any length of time. Beowulf told his companions to wait outside, whilst he himself went into the cave. The Fire Drake, hearing his footfall and his voice, knew at once that an enemy was near, so it coiled itself up ready to spring to the attack. Blazing like a live coal, it advanced with a rush, Beowulf defending himself as best he could with his shield. He dealt the monster a terrible blow with his sword, which, however, failed to hurt it, indeed, it only roused it to greater fury. Breathing flames the Fire Drake pressed the valiant King to the utmost extremity, and it seemed as if it was to go ill with him that day. His companions, too cowardly to help him, watched the combat in terror, crouching dowm in the wood near by to save their lives. Yet there was one among them, Wiglaf by name, who plucked up courage to try to help the King, for he remembered how kind Beowulf had been to him in former days, in granting him a wealthy manor, and other favours, and besides, he was in a way related to him. So this brave young warrior grasped his shield of yellow linden wood, and drew his sword, rushing through the smoke to help his liege lord. 'Dear Beowulf,' cried he, 'have courage; remember how thou did'st say aforetime that glory should never depart from thee; now must thou defend thy life to the uttermost—see, I come to help thee.' On rushed the serpent against its new


The death of Beowulf


adversary; from its body and mouth issued many coloured flames, which burnt up Wiglaf's wooden shield, so that for protection he crouched under the iron shield of Beowulf. The King now struck with all his force at the dragon, but, alas! his good old sword shivered in pieces; and now for the third time the monster rushed at him, and succeeded in encircling his neck in its horrid coils. Still, the King's hands were free, so that he could draw a dagger which he bore on his corselet; Wiglaf, meanwhile, was also hewing at the creature, and before long Beowulf was able to stab it to death. Thus they slew the Fire Drake; but Beowulf had received a deadly wound, which soon began to burn and swell, and though Wiglaf brought him water and tended him with all affection, the King felt his end to be near. Anxious to know of what the treasure consisted, he sent Wiglaf into the cave to explore it. Riches of all descriptions were discovered—jewels, gold, handsome bowls, helmets', armlets, and, most curious of all, a gilded standard, which was flapping over the hoard. From this standard there came a ray of bright light, by which Wiglaf could easily see around him. Nothing was to be seen of the dead Fire Drake, so Beowulf's messenger plundered the hoard at will. He piled up bowls and dishes in his bosom, took the standard, and a sword shod with brass, hastening with them back to the King, who, he was half afraid, might die during his absence. Beowulf was alive, however, though in sorry plight, so Wiglaf fetched more water wherewith to refresh him. Then spake the brave old King his last words on earth, the while he looked sadly on the gold: 'I give thanks for these beautiful things, which here I gaze on, to the Lord of all, to the King of Glory, the eternal Lord, for that I have been able before my death-day to gain so much for my people. Fulfil ye now with this hoard my people's needs, for here I may no longer be. Let the warriors build a mound at the headland which juts out into the sea. Rear it that it may tower high up on Hronesness, and so perchance my people may bear me in mind. Yea, let it be for a landmark to seafaring men, who may call it Beowulf's Mound—a beacon of safety for such as are in stress on the storm-tossed sea.' Thus died Beowulf. When the news spread the people flocked out in hundreds to the spot where the fight took place. Sadly they looked on the lifeless body of their chief lying on the sand, and with astonishment they saw the carcass of the Fire Drake, full fifty feet long, and the hoard of treasure beside it. They loaded the treasure on a wain and bore it away; the dragon's body was pushed over the cliff into the sea. Then they made ready a vast funeral-pyre for their beloved King, even as he had wished. Black over the blaze rose the wood smoke; while sad and dejected in spirit sat the people, mourning their lord's fall, bewailing the death of him who among world Kings had been the mildest, the kindest of men, and the most gracious to his people.