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Beowulf in modern English, translated by Seamus Heaney, Beowulf (12)

Beowulf spoke: in spite of his wounds,

mortal wounds, he still spoke

for he well knew his days in the world

had been lived out to the end: his allotted time

was drawing to a close, death was very near.

“Now is the time when I would have wanted

to bestow this armour on my own son,

had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir

and live on in his flesh. For fifty years

I ruled this nation. No king

of any neighbouring clan would dare

face me with troops, none had the power

to intimidate me. I took what came,

cared for and stood by things in my keeping,

never fomented quarrels, never

swore to a lie. All this consoles me,

doomed as I am and sickening for death;

because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind

need never blame me when the breath leaves my body

for murder of kinsmen. Go now quickly,

dearest Wiglaf, under the grey stone

where the dragon is laid out, lost to his treasure;

hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard.

Away you go: I want to examine

that ancient gold, gaze my fill

on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier

for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go

of the life and lordship I have long maintained.”

And so, I have heard, the son of Weohstan

quickly obeyed the command of his languishing

war-weary lord; he went in his chain-mail

under the rock-piled roof of the barrow,

exulting in his triumph, and saw beyond the seat

a treasure-trove of astonishing richness,

wall-hangings that were a wonder to behold,

glittering gold spread across the ground,

the old dawn-scorching serpent's den packed with goblets and vessels from the past,

tarnished and corroding. Rusty helmets

all eaten away. Armbands everywhere,

artfully wrought. How easily treasure

buried in the ground, gold hidden

however skilfully, can escape from any man!

And he saw too a standard, entirely of gold,

hanging high over the hoard,

a masterpiece of filigree; it glowed with light

so he could make out the ground at his feet

and inspect the valuables. Of the dragon there was no

remaining sign: the sword had despatched him.

Then, the story goes, a certain man

plundered the hoard in that immemorial howe,

filled his arms with flagons and plates,

anything he wanted; and took the standard also,

most brilliant of banners.

Already the blade

of the old king's sharp killing-sword had done its worst: the one who had for long

minded the hoard, hovering over gold,

unleashing fire, surging forth

midnight after midnight, had been mown down.

Wiglaf went quickly, keen to get back,

excited by the treasure. Anxiety weighed

on his brave heart—he was hoping he would find

the leader of the Geats alive where he had left him

helpless, earlier, on the open ground.

So he came to the place, carrying the treasure,

and found his lord bleeding profusely,

his life at an end; again he began

to swab his body. The beginnings of an utterance

broke out from the king's breast-cage. The old lord gazed sadly at the gold.

“To the everlasting Lord of All,

to the King of Glory, I give thanks

that I behold this treasure here in front of me,

that I have been allowed to leave my people

so well endowed on the day I die.

Now that I have bartered my last breath

to own this fortune, it is up to you

to look after their needs. I can hold out no longer.

Order my troop to construct a barrow on a headland

on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.

It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness

and be a reminder among my people—

so that in coming times crews under sail

will call it Beowulf's Barrow, as they steer ships across the wide and shrouded waters.”

Then the king in his great-heartedness unclasped

the collar of gold from his neck and gave it

to the young thane, telling him to use

it and the warshirt and the gilded helmet well.

“You are the last of us, the only one left

of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,

sent my whole brave high-born clan

to their final doom. Now I must follow them.”

That was the warrior's last word. He had no more to confide. The furious heat

of the pyre would assail him. His soul fled from his breast

to its destined place among the steadfast ones.

It was hard then on the young hero,

having to watch the one he held so dear

there on the ground, going through

his death agony. The dragon from underearth,

his nightmarish destroyer, lay destroyed as well,

utterly without life. No longer would his snakefolds

ply themselves to safeguard hidden gold.

Hard-edged blades, hammered out

and keenly filed, had finished him

so that the sky-roamer lay there rigid,

brought low beside the treasure-lodge.

Never again would he glitter

and glide and show himself off in midnight air,

exulting in his riches: he fell to earth

through the battle-strength in Beowulf's arm. There were few, indeed, as far as I have heard,

big and brave as they may have been,

few who would have held out if they had had to face

the outpourings of that poison-breather

or gone foraging on the ring-hall floor

and found the deep barrow-dweller

on guard and awake.

The treasure had been won,

bought and paid for by Beowulf's death. Both had reached the end of the road

through the life they had been lent.

Before long

the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood,

the ones who had let down their lord earlier,

the tail-turners, ten of them together.

When he needed them most, they had made off.

Now they were ashamed and came behind shields,

in their battle-outfits, to where the old man lay.

They watched Wiglaf, sitting worn out,

a comrade shoulder to shoulder with his lord,

trying in vain to bring him round with water.

Much as he wanted to, there was no way

he could preserve his lord's life on earth or alter in the least the Almighty's will. What God judged right would rule what happened

to every man, as it does to this day.

Then a stern rebuke was bound to come

from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards.

Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, spoke

disdainfully and in disappointment:

“Anyone ready to admit the truth

will surely realize that the lord of men

who showered you with gifts and gave

you the armour you are standing in—when he would distribute

helmets and mail-shirts to men on the mead-benches,

a prince treating his thanes in hall

to the best he could find, far or near—

was throwing weapons uselessly away.

It would be a sad waste when the war broke out.

Beowulf had little cause to brag

about his armed guard; yet God who ordains

who wins or loses allowed him to strike

with his own blade when bravery was needed.

There was little I could do to protect his life

in the heat of the fray, yet I found new strength

welling up when I went to help him.

Then my sword connected and the deadly assaults

of our foe grew weaker, the fire coursed

less strongly from his head. But when the worst happened

too few rallied around the prince.

“So it is goodbye now to all you know and love

on your home ground, the open-handedness,

the giving of war-swords. Every one of you

with freeholds of land, our whole nation,

will be dispossessed, once princes from beyond

get tidings of how you turned and fled

and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner

die than live a life of shame.”

Then he ordered the outcome of the fight to be reported

to those camped on the ridge, that crowd of retainers

who had sat all morning, sad at heart,

shield-bearers wondering about

the man they loved: would this day be his last

or would he return? He told the truth

and did not balk, the rider who bore

news to the cliff-top. He addressed them all:

“Now the people's pride and love, the lord of the Geats, is laid on his deathbed,

brought down by the dragon's attack. Beside him lies the bane of his life,

dead from knife-wounds. There was no way

Beowulf could manage to get the better

of the monster with his sword. Wiglaf sits

at Beowulf's side, the son of Weohstan, the living warrior watching by the dead,

keeping weary vigil, holding a wake

for the loved and the loathed.

Now war is looming

over our nation, soon it will be known

to Franks and Frisians, far and wide,

that the king is gone. Hostility has been great

among the Franks since Hygelac sailed forth

at the head of a war-fleet into Friesland:

there the Hetware harried and attacked

and overwhelmed him with great odds.

The leader in his war-gear was laid low,

fell amongst followers; that lord did not favour

his company with spoils. The Merovingian king

has been an enemy to us ever since.


Beowulf spoke: in spite of his wounds,

mortal wounds, he still spoke

for he well knew his days in the world

had been lived out to the end: his allotted time

was drawing to a close, death was very near.

“Now is the time when I would have wanted

to bestow this armour on my own son,

had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir

and live on in his flesh. For fifty years

I ruled this nation. No king

of any neighbouring clan would dare

face me with troops, none had the power

to intimidate me. I took what came,

cared for and stood by things in my keeping,

never fomented quarrels, never

swore to a lie. All this consoles me,

doomed as I am and sickening for death;

because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind

need never blame me when the breath leaves my body

for murder of kinsmen. Go now quickly,

dearest Wiglaf, under the grey stone

where the dragon is laid out, lost to his treasure;

hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard.

Away you go: I want to examine

that ancient gold, gaze my fill

on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier

for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go

of the life and lordship I have long maintained.”

And so, I have heard, the son of Weohstan

quickly obeyed the command of his languishing

war-weary lord; he went in his chain-mail

under the rock-piled roof of the barrow,

exulting in his triumph, and saw beyond the seat

a treasure-trove of astonishing richness,

wall-hangings that were a wonder to behold,

glittering gold spread across the ground,

the old dawn-scorching serpent's den

packed with goblets and vessels from the past,

tarnished and corroding. Rusty helmets

all eaten away. Armbands everywhere,

artfully wrought. How easily treasure

buried in the ground, gold hidden

however skilfully, can escape from any man!

And he saw too a standard, entirely of gold,

hanging high over the hoard,

a masterpiece of filigree; it glowed with light

so he could make out the ground at his feet

and inspect the valuables. Of the dragon there was no

remaining sign: the sword had despatched him.

Then, the story goes, a certain man

plundered the hoard in that immemorial howe,

filled his arms with flagons and plates,

anything he wanted; and took the standard also,

most brilliant of banners.

Already the blade

of the old king's sharp killing-sword

had done its worst: the one who had for long

minded the hoard, hovering over gold,

unleashing fire, surging forth

midnight after midnight, had been mown down.

Wiglaf went quickly, keen to get back,

excited by the treasure. Anxiety weighed

on his brave heart—he was hoping he would find

the leader of the Geats alive where he had left him

helpless, earlier, on the open ground.

So he came to the place, carrying the treasure,

and found his lord bleeding profusely,

his life at an end; again he began

to swab his body. The beginnings of an utterance

broke out from the king's breast-cage.

The old lord gazed sadly at the gold.

“To the everlasting Lord of All,

to the King of Glory, I give thanks

that I behold this treasure here in front of me,

that I have been allowed to leave my people

so well endowed on the day I die.

Now that I have bartered my last breath

to own this fortune, it is up to you

to look after their needs. I can hold out no longer.

Order my troop to construct a barrow on a headland

on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.

It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness

and be a reminder among my people—

so that in coming times crews under sail

will call it Beowulf's Barrow, as they steer

ships across the wide and shrouded waters.”

Then the king in his great-heartedness unclasped

the collar of gold from his neck and gave it

to the young thane, telling him to use

it and the warshirt and the gilded helmet well.

“You are the last of us, the only one left

of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,

sent my whole brave high-born clan

to their final doom. Now I must follow them.”

That was the warrior's last word.

He had no more to confide. The furious heat

of the pyre would assail him. His soul fled from his breast

to its destined place among the steadfast ones.

It was hard then on the young hero,

having to watch the one he held so dear

there on the ground, going through

his death agony. The dragon from underearth,

his nightmarish destroyer, lay destroyed as well,

utterly without life. No longer would his snakefolds

ply themselves to safeguard hidden gold.

Hard-edged blades, hammered out

and keenly filed, had finished him

so that the sky-roamer lay there rigid,

brought low beside the treasure-lodge.

Never again would he glitter

and glide and show himself off in midnight air,

exulting in his riches: he fell to earth

through the battle-strength in Beowulf's arm.

There were few, indeed, as far as I have heard,

big and brave as they may have been,

few who would have held out if they had had to face

the outpourings of that poison-breather

or gone foraging on the ring-hall floor

and found the deep barrow-dweller

on guard and awake.

The treasure had been won,

bought and paid for by Beowulf's death.

Both had reached the end of the road

through the life they had been lent.

Before long

the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood,

the ones who had let down their lord earlier,

the tail-turners, ten of them together.

When he needed them most, they had made off.

Now they were ashamed and came behind shields,

in their battle-outfits, to where the old man lay.

They watched Wiglaf, sitting worn out,

a comrade shoulder to shoulder with his lord,

trying in vain to bring him round with water.

Much as he wanted to, there was no way

he could preserve his lord's life on earth

or alter in the least the Almighty's will.

What God judged right would rule what happened

to every man, as it does to this day.

Then a stern rebuke was bound to come

from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards.

Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, spoke

disdainfully and in disappointment:

“Anyone ready to admit the truth

will surely realize that the lord of men

who showered you with gifts and gave

you the armour you are standing in—when he would distribute

helmets and mail-shirts to men on the mead-benches,

a prince treating his thanes in hall

to the best he could find, far or near—

was throwing weapons uselessly away.

It would be a sad waste when the war broke out.

Beowulf had little cause to brag

about his armed guard; yet God who ordains

who wins or loses allowed him to strike

with his own blade when bravery was needed.

There was little I could do to protect his life

in the heat of the fray, yet I found new strength

welling up when I went to help him.

Then my sword connected and the deadly assaults

of our foe grew weaker, the fire coursed

less strongly from his head. But when the worst happened

too few rallied around the prince.

“So it is goodbye now to all you know and love

on your home ground, the open-handedness,

the giving of war-swords. Every one of you

with freeholds of land, our whole nation,

will be dispossessed, once princes from beyond

get tidings of how you turned and fled

and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner

die than live a life of shame.”

Then he ordered the outcome of the fight to be reported

to those camped on the ridge, that crowd of retainers

who had sat all morning, sad at heart,

shield-bearers wondering about

the man they loved: would this day be his last

or would he return? He told the truth

and did not balk, the rider who bore

news to the cliff-top. He addressed them all:

“Now the people's pride and love,

the lord of the Geats, is laid on his deathbed,

brought down by the dragon's attack.

Beside him lies the bane of his life,

dead from knife-wounds. There was no way

Beowulf could manage to get the better

of the monster with his sword. Wiglaf sits

at Beowulf's side, the son of Weohstan,

the living warrior watching by the dead,

keeping weary vigil, holding a wake

for the loved and the loathed.

Now war is looming

over our nation, soon it will be known

to Franks and Frisians, far and wide,

that the king is gone. Hostility has been great

among the Franks since Hygelac sailed forth

at the head of a war-fleet into Friesland:

there the Hetware harried and attacked

and overwhelmed him with great odds.

The leader in his war-gear was laid low,

fell amongst followers; that lord did not favour

his company with spoils. The Merovingian king

has been an enemy to us ever since.