Zénaïde A. (Zénaïde Alexeïevna) Ragozin.

Siegfried, the hero of the North, and Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxons online

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his long, heavy sleep and the mischief
was done !

When the Worm woke and found him-
self despoiled, his fury was intense ; but he
mastered it at first, to make his vengeance
more complete and sure. First of all he
sniffed at the scent along the rock, and at
once came upon the track of the enemy,
whose foot had stepped unawares by his
very head as he lay asleep. He sought dili-
gently for the man, going over the ground
whither the scent took him ; in more and
more fiery and raging mood he kept swing-
ing around and around the barrow. There
was not any man there in all that desert
waste. All the while he matured in his
breast his purpose of dire and bloody
work. Every now and then he would
dash back into the barrow, as though to
satisfy himself once more of what he knew
already : that there had been plunder



2 9 8



Beowulf



done, then he would dash out again.
He could hardly wait for the night to
come. But presently the day waned at
last, and the Worm had his will : no longer
would he bide in fenced walls, but issue
forth, equipped with fire, to do havoc all
over the land. Thus it was that the
Dragon's vengeance had a sore beginning
for the people ; soon it was to have a
sorer ending for their ruler and benefactor.




II



THE ATTACK

ONCE the monster had begun his fiery
raids, he did not stop them again.
Far into each night blazed the farmsteads,
late so cheerful. The flying pest would fain
have left nothing alive where his vast form
hovered in the air on broad black pinions,
like to a huge smoke-cloud, with live-coal
eyes and flame squirting and snorting from
open maw and distended nostrils. It was
only just before the break of day that he
shot back again to his dark mansion for
protection ; for he trusted his rocky keep ;
only that trust deceived him in the end.

Soon it was reported to Beowulf (for
evil tidings travel swift and sure), that his
own mansion, noblest of buildings, even
his own royal seat, the gift of the Goths,

299



3oo Beowulf

was melting away in fiery waves. So
sorely was the venerable King smitten to
the heart at this great outrage, that he
was tempted to break out into revilings
against Providence, much against his wont,
for never was man gentler in his valour,
more pious in his power.

Deeply did Beowulf revolve in his
thoughts how he should deliver himself
and his people from this new pest, after
the many, many years of peace and happi-
ness. The memories of his youth, of the
time when he, a victorious boy, had purged
Hrothgar's hall, single-handed, of Grendel
and his loathsome brood, were still green
with him, and the thought of going forth
to seek the Dragon with a host, or even
a band of men, was abhorrent to him. He
decided to go and look about him with
only eleven companions, led by the finder
of the first jewelled tankard, the cause of
the baleful feud, who went as the thir-
teenth of the party. Then the aged King
sat him down on the headland, and began
to bid farewell to his hearth-fellows. For
his heart was heavy within him and full of



The Attack 301

boding sadness, and his thoughts travelled
back, as aged men's thoughts are apt to
do when they feel the hour of the last
separation drawing nigh back across the
entire field of life's achievements, dwelling
longest on what looms remotest. Thus
now the ancient warrior, while going over
the days of his youth in rather rambling
speech, dwelt most lovingly on the time
when, as a stripling, he did page's service
at the court of Hygelac's father, Hrethel,
to whom his own father gave him when
only seven years old, and who had raised
and fostered him, and held him as dear as
his own sons. Then, turning back to the
present and its stern necessities, he ad-
dressed an affectionate word to each of
his more familiar comrades, still harping
on his dislike to fight the monster with
any but naked hands :

" I would not willingly bear sword or
weapon to meet this Worm, as I formerly
did not against Grendel. I expect to meet
scorching fire, deadly venom ; therefore
shall I carry a strong shield and wear a
fine mail-shirt. As for you, my men-at-



302 Beowulf

arms, wait ye here on the mountain to see
which of us twain falls, deadly stricken
there on the rock."

As he spoke, the brave old warrior rose
by the brink of the down and sternly
scanned the place around, when, not far
from where they stood, he beheld a rocky
arch, and out of it a stream breaking from
the barrow, steaming hot, so no man
might come nigh the hoard unscorched
and survive the Dragon's flame.

Then did the Prince of the Goths let
forth out of his breast a mighty battle-
shout, which stirred the keeper of the
hoard under his hoary rock. There was
now no time for reflection or for parley-
ing, for from out the rock there came the
hot reeking breath of the monster, like a
cloud of steam ; and hardly had the hero
swung his shield and taken his stand well
up by it, when the ringy Worm suddenly
rolled forth and buckled himself into a
bow, and thus, curved like an arch, emit-
ting flame, advanced upon his human foe
in a rapid, gliding shuffle. The shield,
indeed, protected awhile the glorious



The Attack



303



chieftain, but when he raised his arm to
smite with the sword, which he had been
persuaded to take, the stroke, though
hard, proved inefficient, and only roused
the furious Dragon to greater rage, so
that now it cast forth devouring fire in
volumes and the deadly sparks sprang
every way.

And now, when the combatants closed
again, the monster's breast shot steam in
scalding jets, and the man stood at bay,
unseen for the fire which encompassed
him. And of his own band of eleven com-
rades, sons of ethelings all, not one stood
his ground, but all, horror stricken, slunk
away to the woods for shelter.



Ill

WIGLAF

NO, not all. One among them proved
a faithful follower,- -Wiglaf, Weoh-
stan's son, Beowulf's youngest comrade
and his much-loved kinsman. When he
beheld his liege lord in such sore distress,
his heart smote him, as he thought of the
lands and honours the King had so lately
bestowed on him, and of the justice he
had publicly rendered him and his father
in a just feud and gratitude moved him
deeply.

This was the first adventure on which
the young etheling had embarked with
his liege lord. When he saw his fellows
shamefully scurrying off, mindful only of
their own safety, he turned on them and
upbraided them with hottest words of
noble anger.

304



Wiglaf 305

" What ! ' he cried, " and shall we thus
forsake our lord, with whom we were fain to
revel in the festive hall, drinking his mead,
taking his golden rings and well-tempered
swords? He chose us out of all his host
for this adventure because he counted us
stout warriors and loyal friends. Now
the day is come when he needs the
strength of his followers. No matter that
he intended to achieve this great deed
single-handed- -let us stand by him ! God
knows that I for one had liefer the flame
would swallow me up with him than stand
away now ! I think it shame that we
should bear our shields safe home unless
we rescue the life of our lord. Is this
acting according to our old customs, that
we leave him, alone of noble Goths, to
bear the brunt and fall in an unequal
fight?"

Thus speaking, young Wiglaf boldly
plunged into steam and smoke, with his
helmet on his head, shouting loud :

" My liege Beowulf ! now make good
the boast of thy youth, that never in thy
lifetime wouldst thou suffer thy glory to



306 Beowulf

decline, and I shall stand by thee and
support thee to the uttermost."

The fell, malignant monster heard the
cheering words and came on with re-
doubled fury, to engage his hated enemies.
In an instant the wooden lining of Wig-
laf s shield was consumed by the flame ;
but he went forward under shelter of his
elder kinsman's shield when his own was
reduced to ashes. Then the old fire of
battle burned high in the valiant King's
breast, and he smote the Worm so desper-
ate a blow, that the weapon stood in his
head, deep stuck ; but Naegling, the good
sword, flew in splinters as it struck, be-
traying its master as other blades had
done before ; for it was not given him
that steel should help him in a fight.

And now, enraged even unto death, the
Dragon, after yielding ground somewhat,
made a rush at the hero, whose strength
was giving way apace, and, opening wide
his reeking jaws, enclosed his foe's neck
with his sharp, long fangs, till the blood
flowed in streams.



IV

VICTORY AND DEATH

LOUD is the minstrels' song in praise
of Wiglaf, the fearless young ethel-
ing, and the prowess he displayed in his
aged kinsman's behalf, giving him time
to recover his senses, so that at the mon-
ster's third onslaught, he could draw the
knife from his belt and gash the Worm
from below, in the middle, with deadly
stab. This was the supreme hour of tri-
umph in the hero's career, when his winged,
scaly foe fell off writhing and gasping out
his life.

But in the wound which those cruel
fangs had inflicted, the venom began its
deadly work. In vain young Wiglaf, sit-
ting down on a stone by the mound where
his liege lord lay exhausted, applied all the

307



308 Beowulf

remedies taught him by the leech-lore of
cunning dwarfs,- -unloosened the helmet,
cooled the swelling neck with water which
he ladled on it with his hand, and laid
on healing herbs which grew in plenty
out of the bountiful earth : the hurt was
mortal, with each moment life was burn-
ing away, with the fiery poison spreading
through all the vital parts. Beowulf knew
that the tale of his days was told, and he
was spending his last hours on earth. But
the hero's brave soul did not quail. He
looked death in the face, now that it bent
close over him, as calmly as he was wont
in the days when it was but a distant
shadow on the battle-field. The one re-
gret which he expressed was at having no
son to whom he could bequeath his royal
armour. But he took comfort in the con-
sciousness of having been a just ruler.

" I have ruled this people fifty winters,"
he said ; " there was not a king who dared
threaten them with war. Yet did I hold
my own by justice. I have not sought
unjust quarrels nor have I sworn many
false oaths. Thinking of all this, I am



Victory and Death 309

able, though sick unto death with many
wounds, to take comfort, for the Ruler of
men cannot charge me with murder of
kinsmen, when my life quitteth the body."

Yet the dying hero had one wish which
he begged his young kinsman to satisfy
ere his sight and senses failed him ; he
fain would have a glimpse of the treasure
which he had bought with his life : " Now
quickly go thou, beloved Wiglaf," he said
to his faithful comrade, " and examine the
treasure under the hoary rock, now the
Worm lieth dead. I would have a look
at the curious gems, the hoarded store ;
then would I more contentedly resign my
life and the lordship I have held so long."

Not a moment did the devoted youth
lose in obeying his beloved lord's behest.
He hurried to the lair of the Worm and
gazed with amazement on the numberless
and wondrous things of value which filled
the barrow, heaped and crushed together,
indenting the ground where the Dragon
had lain on them. The gold was losing
its burnish, the precious stones were fall-
ing out, bracelets and helmets were eaten



310 Beowulf

by rust, losing their value day by day.
Thus can treasure, buried idly in the
earth, make fools of men ! One great
marvel of cunningest handicraft Wiglaf
beheld looming high above the hoard ; it
was a banner, all golden, which gave forth
a gleam of light so bright that it illumined
the darkest recesses of the hollow barrow
and made it easy to examine all the hid-
den curiosities.

In great haste, hardly pausing to glance
at the uncovered treasure, Wiglaf gath-
ered into his bosom and arms cups and
platters, bracelets and rings, and snatch-
ing also the magic banner, eagerly re-
turned to the mound with his spoils,
anxiously wondering in his faithful heart
whether he should find his lord alive still
where he left him painfully breathing.
Dropping the riches on the ground with-
out a thought of them, he quickly knelt by
the side of his King, and again began to
sprinkle him with water, till he had re-
stored him to consciousness and speech.
As Beowulf opened his eyes and beheld
the gold for a glimpse of which he had



Victory and Death 311

longed, his brow cleared, and he spoke in
feeble, but cheerful tones :

" I do give thanks to the Lord of all,
the Giver of all things, for those spoils
upon which I here do gaze ; to think that
I have been permitted to acquire such
great wealth for my earls and thanes to
enjoy and to remember me by after my
death ! I have sold my life for this treas-
ure do thou now provide for my men,
for I shall be with them no more. Order
my brave warriors to erect a lofty cairn
a mound of stones, after the death-fire has
burned out, here on the headland above
the sea. It shall tower aloft for a memo-
rial to my friends, and seafaring men shall
call it Beowulf's Barrow, as they drive
their foamy barks over the dangerous
waters."

Then the dying hero took off his gold
collar and with feeble hands gave it to the
young thane ; also bade him take his coro-
neted helmet and his mail-shirt, and wear
them and do honour to his chieftain's
armour.

Once more the King spoke, with failing



312



Beowulf



breath : " Thou art the last remnant of
our race. " Fate has swept all my kins-
men into eternity, princes in chivalry ; and
now I must follow them."

This was the aged monarch's last speech ;
with the words his soul fled from his bosom,
to enter into the everlasting rest of the
righteous.




V



WIGLAF'S REBUKE DISMAY AND TEARS

A SAD, agonizing hour it was for the
warm-hearted youth, new to the
world and its trials, when he sat upon
the ground taking in the first great grief of
his life, as he gazed on the body of the man
who had been dearest to him on earth.
Small comfort he took from the sight of
his dead foe, the horrible Dragon, as he
lay at a little distance, uncoiled and harm-
less for evermore. Weary of heart, but
still nursing some sort of stubborn, una-
vailing hope, he sat by his lord's shoulder
and still kept sprinkling him with water,
till he saw his ten faint-hearted comrades,
as they came sneaking shamefacedly from
the woods, slowly trailing their shields
along to the place where the King lay dead.

313



3H Beowulf

Grief gave way to righteous anger at
the sight. Sternly did young Wiglaf look
upon the men he no longer loved, and bit-
ter rebuke flowed unchecked from his lips.

" Now, look you," he cried ; " well may a
man who is minded to speak the truth,
say that the chieftain who gave you those
costly gewgaws, that warlike apparel in
which you stand there before me, who at
the ale-bench so often presented his thanes
with helmet and mail-shirt, utterly and
wretchedly threw his gifts away. For,
verily, little cause had he to boast of his
companions-in-arms in the hour of danger !
Nevertheless, it was given him by God, the
Ordainer of victories, to avenge himself
single-handed when his valour was put to
the proof. For little protection could I
afford him, though I attempted what was
beyond my strength, in trying to help my
kinsman. Now go, ye cravens ! No
share of the treasure is there for you or
yours. And may every man of your kin
be sent forth into life-long exile, deprived
of lands and rights, as soon as the ethelings
now at a distance come together and are



Wiglaf's Rebuke 3 J 5

told of your disloyalty, your shameful
desertion. Go and learn from experi-
ence that, to a warrior, death is better far
than a life of shame ! '

When he had relieved his feelings by
this thundering outburst, Wiglaf gave
orders to make the woful issue of the con-
flict known to the host of thanes and earls
who, by the master's command, had been
encamped over the sea-cliff and had sat
there all day long by their shields, their
souls divided betwixt hope and fear. One
young thane rode up the bluff, sent by the
rest, to view the fatal scene and report to
them, which he did faithfully, in words
pregnant with grief for the present and
foreboding for the near future.

o

" Now we may soon look for war," he
concluded his report ; " as soon as the
King's death is made known among the
Franks and Frisians. For never, since
Hygelac fell, have we enjoyed the good-
will of the Merovingian Kings of the
Franks, nor do I count upon peace or
good understanding on the side of the
Swedes such is the feud and grudge of



Beowulf

all these nations ever since the fall of
Hygelac on Frisian land. They will surely
attack us as soon as they learn that our
Prince is dead, he who has so long upheld
against all foes our treasure and our realm,
winning ever greater respect in public
counsel, and ever greater fame in war.
Now methinks that quickness were best;
so let us look our last upon the mighty
King, and bring him without delay to the
funeral pyre. And yonder is a hoard of
precious things, gold untold, jewels pur-
chased with our hero's own life-blood.
Never a warrior shall wear any of those
ornaments ; never a maiden have on her
neck one of those collars. Sorrowful and
stripped of gold ornaments shall all come
to the funeral procession, while many a
hand shall swing the spear in the cold of
the morning ; music of the harp shall not
waken the warriors on the fateful day ; but
the ominous raven, fluttering and chatter-
ing of slaughter, will tell the eagle of his
luck, while, alongside of the grim and
hungry wolf, he stripped the slain."

Upon hearing the grief-stricken youth's



Wiglaf s Rebuke 317

discourse, all the troop arose and sadly,
under gushing tears, wended their way
under the crag, to behold the gruesome
sight. There they found, stretched life-
less on the sand, the man who had given
them so many rings in bygone times, and,
at but a short distance from him, the car-
case of the loathsome beast, all scorched
with its own flames- -never saw they more
frightful object. It was fifty feet long
where it lay. No more through the re-
gions of air would he sportively whirl at
midnight, then down again pounce to re-
joice in his lair he would have no use
for caverns any more. And there, un-
watched, open to all men's eyes, lay bowls
and dishes and swords of price, all rusty
and corroded, as though they had lain in
the earth's lap a thousand winters ; for this
treasure had been bound by a magic spell,
so that it might never be touched of man,
unless God Himself granted to one of His
choice to open the enchanted hoard ; and
that man was to leave his life as ransom
such was Beowulf's lot.



VI



THE OBSEQUIES

AND now Wiglaf once more lifted up
his voice :

" Alas ! we were not able to convince our
beloved master that he should not chal-
lenge yonder monster, but should leave
him to dwell unmolested in his haunts to
the end of the world. But it is done
the hoard lies open before us, purchased
at a fearful price. I was inside the cham-
ber of the barrow and explored the whole
of it, and all the stores it held ; for, once
the price was paid, the spell was broken,
and the passage open to all. Hurriedly I
grabbed with my hands a huge burden of
treasure and carried it hither to the feet
of my King. He was still alive then, wise
and sensible ; freely did he talk, although

318



The Obsequies 319

the death-pang was upon him. And he
bade me give you all his greeting and
tell you his will : that ye should build up,
in memory of your chieftain's deeds, on
the very place of the funeral pyre, a stone-
cairn of the highest, forasmuch as he was
of all men the most famous warrior, as
long as it was given him to dwell in his
royal castle. And now let us go, all to-
gether, and visit the fatal hoard. I will
be your guide, and ye shall have your fill
of gazing on gold and jewels. After that,
let us make ready the bier, and promptly
equip it, and so let us convey our beloved
master to the place where he shall tarry
long in the keeping of the Almighty."

Then, by Wiglaf's orders, commands
were sent round to many householders,
that they should haul timber, stout and
sound, to do the last service to the ruler
of men.

While this was being done, Wiglaf
called out of the band seven of the King's
thanes, the choicest ; led by him, the eighth,
they went under the dangerous roof, one
warrior walking in front, bearing in his



320 Beowulf

hand a flaming torch. When they had
taken a view of the treasure, lying there
keeperless and undefended, they did not
stand upon the order of casting lots as to
who should loot the hoard, but went to
work with all despatch to empty the cham-
ber. Then, taking hold of the dead
Dragon, they haled him away and shoved
him over the precipitous cliff. With a
great splash the waves ejigulfed him, and
that was the last of him. In the mean-
time, the gold was laden on waggons, which
followed the bier whereon the hero was
borne to the high, jutting headland which
he had chosen for his resting-place.

There they constructed for him a huge
pyre, which they hung all round with hel-
mets, battle-shields, bright mail-shirts ; and
in the midst of the pyre, heaving deep
sighs, they laid their beloved lord. Then
the warriors set fire to the pile in several
places ; the smoke, heavy and black,
mounted up to the sky, the ruddy flames
shot aloft, their roaring mingling with the
howling of the winds, until the house of
flesh and bone was utterly consumed.



The Obsequies 3 21

With sore hearts and care-laden minds,
the warriors stood around and silently
mourned their liege lord, the while a dirge
of sorrow was sung by an aged dame,
whose dishevelled hair streamed in the
wind. The blue heavens swallowed up
the black smoke.

Then did the people go to work and
construct a barrow and a cairn of stones on
the hill. It was high and broad, and sea-
faring men would behold it from a great
distance. Ten days they laboured. With
great skill they surrounded the ashes of
the pyre with a noble embankment, and
the pile rose like a beacon for all coming
ages, even as the memory of the hero's
deeds and noble character.

As to the fated hoard, they buried the
whole in the barrow under the cairn, and
left it there, where it remains to this day
as useless to mankind as it has been ever
since the last of a company of unknown
earls consigned it to the earth's keeping.

Last of all funeral ceremonies, twelve
youths, sons of ethelings, rode around
the barrow. From time to time they



322



Beowulf



stopped in the race, to bewail their loss, and
bemoan their King, to recite an elegy in his
honour, to celebrate his name and re-
hearse his deeds, extolling his manhood
with admiring words.

Thus did the nobles of the Goths, the
companions of his hearth, lament the fall
of Beowulf, their lord. They said that he
was of all kings in the world the mildest
and most affable to his men, most genial
to his nobles, and most desirous of glory.




NOTE ON THE 'BEOWULF'

NO monument of ancient national liter-
ature has been and to a great ex-
tent still is so overlooked and underrated
as the Anglo-Saxon epic of " Beowulf." It
has, indeed, been edited and re-edited, and
duly commented on, and it is entered in
the university curriculum of Anglo-Saxon.
But how great a proportion of even inter-
ested students pursue their English studies
as far back as Anglo-Saxon ? A cultured
general reader would vainly ask for a
readable translation, even in prose, of the
" Beowulf ; ' nor would he be likely to
ask for one, as there is nothing in even
the best histories of English literature,
native or foreign, to awaken a feeling
of sympathetic curiosity nothing more
than either a bare mention, or at best,
a brief account, always insufficient and fre-

323



324 Beowulf

quently misleading. And proof positive
of the poem's total lack of popularity it
has never yet been illustrated.

An untoward fate seemed to pursue the
" Beowulf ' even before it came into the
hands of the scholars. There is only one
manuscript of it in existence, which is hid
away among nine others, comparatively
unimportant, in a folio volume labelled
Vitellius A, XV., and belonging to the
Cottonian Library in the British Museum.
It was noticed for the first time, in 1705,
in a catalogue of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts
(Wanley's), in which it is described as
containing an account of certain wars
between Sweden and Denmark. Need-


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Online LibraryZénaïde A. (Zénaïde Alexeïevna) RagozinSiegfried, the hero of the North, and Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxons → online text (page 13 of 14)