Long ago, there lived in Daneland a King, beloved of all, called Hrothgar. He was valiant and mighty in war, overcoming all his foes and taking from them much spoil. Looking upon his great treasure, King Hrothgar said, "I will build me a great hall. It shall be vast and wide, adorned within and without with gold and ivory, with gems and carved work. It shall be a hall of joy and feasting."
Then King Hrothgar called his workmen and gave them commandment to build the hall. They set to work, and becoming each day more fair, the hall was at length finished. It stood upon a height, vast and stately, and as it was adorned with the horns of deer, King Hrothgar named it Hart Hall. The King made a great feast. To it his warriors young and old were called, and he divided his treasure, giving to each rings of gold. And so in the hall there was laughter and song and great merriment. Every evening when the shadows fell, and the land grew dark without, the knights and warriors gathered in the hall to feast. And when the feast was over, and the great fire roared upon the hearth, the minstrel took his harp and sang. Far over dreary fen and moorland the light glowed cheerfully, and the sound of song and harp awoke the deep silence of the night. Within the hall was light and gladness, but without there was wrath and hate. For far on the moor there lived a wicked giant named Grendel, prowling at night to see what evil he might do.
Very terrible was this ogre Grendel to look upon. Thick black hair hung about his face, and his teeth were long and sharp, like the tusks of an animal. His huge body and great hairy arms had the strength of ten men. He wore no armor, for his skin was tougher than any coat of mail that man or giant might weld. His nails were like steel and sharper than daggers, and by his side there hung a great pouch in which he carried off those whom he was ready to devour. Day by day the music of harp and song was a torture to him and made him more and more mad with jealous hate.
At length he crept through the darkness to Hart Hall where the warriors slept after feast and song. Arms and armor had been thrown aside, so with ease the ogre slew thirty of the bravest. Howling with wicked joy he carried them off and devoured them. The next night, again the wicked one crept stealthily through the darkening moorland until he reached Hart Hall, stretched forth his hand, and seized the bravest of the warriors. In the morning each man swore that he would not again sleep beneath the roof of the hall. For twelve years it stood thus, no man daring, except in the light of day, to enter it.
And now it came to pass that across the sea in far Gothland the tale of Grendel and his wrath was carried to Beowulf the Goth, who said he would go to King Hrothgar to help him. Taking with him fifteen good comrades, he set sail for Daneland.
When Hrothgar was told that Beowulf had come to help him, he said, "I knew him when he was yet a lad. His father and his mother have I known. Truly he hath sought a friend. I have heard that he is much renowned in war, and hath the strength of thirty men in the grip of his hand. I pray Heaven he hath been sent to free us from the horror of Grendel. Bid Beowulf and his warriors to enter."
Guided by the Danish knight, Beowulf and his men went into Hart Hall and stood before the aged Hrothgar. After friendly words of greeting Beowulf said, "And now will I fight against Grendel, bearing neither sword nor shield. With my hands alone will I grapple with the fiend, and foe to foe we will fight for victory."
That night Beowulf's comrades slept in Hart Hall. Beowulf alone remained awake. Out of the mists of the moorland the Evil Thing strode. Loud he laughed as he gazed upon the sleeping warriors. Beowulf, watchful and angry, curbed his wrath. Grendel seized one of the men, drank his blood, crushed his bones, and swallowed his horrid feast. Then Beowulf caught the monster and fought till the noise of the contest was as of thunder. The knights awoke and tried to plunge their swords into the hide of Grendel, but in vain. By enchantments he had made himself safe. At length the fight came to an end. The sinews in Grendel's shoulder burst, the bones cracked. The ogre tore himself free, leaving his arm in Beowulf's mighty grip.
Sobbing forth his death-song, Grendel fled till he reached his dwelling in the lake of the water-dragons, and there plunged in. The dark waves closed over him and he sank to his home. Loud were the songs of triumph in Hart Hall, great the rejoicing, for Beowulf had made good his boast. He had cleansed the hall of the ogre. A splendid feast was made and much treasure given to Beowulf by the King and Queen.
Again did the Dane lords sleep in the great hall, but far away in the water-dragons' lake the mother of Grendel wept over the dead body of her son, desiring revenge. Very terrible to look upon was this water-witch. As the darkness fell she crept across the moorland to Hart Hall. In she rushed eager for slaughter. A wild cry rang through the hall. The water-witch fled, but in doing so carried off the best beloved of all the King's warriors.
Quickly was Beowulf called and he rode forth to the dark lake. Down and down he dived till he came to the cave of the water-witch whom he killed after a desperate struggle. Hard by on a couch lay the body of Grendel. Drawing his sword he smote off the ogre's head. Swimming up with it he reached the surface and sprang to land, and was greeted by his faithful thanes. Four of them were needed to carry the huge head back to Hart Hall.
His task being done Beowulf made haste to return to his own land that he might seek his own King, Hygelac, and lay before him the treasures that Hrothgar had given him. With gracious words the old King thanked the young warrior, and bade him to come again right speedily. Hygelac listened with wonder and delight to all that had happened in Daneland and graciously received the splendid gifts.
For many years Beowulf lived beloved of all, and when it befell that Hygelac died in battle, the broad realm of Gothland was given unto Beowulf to rule. And there for fifty years he reigned a well-loved King.
And now when many years had come and gone and the realm had long time been at peace, sorrow came upon the people of the Goths. And thus it was that the evil came.
It fell upon a time that a slave by his misdeeds roused his master's wrath, and when his lord would have punished him he fled in terror. And as he fled trembling to hide himself, he came by chance into a great cave.
There the slave hid, thankful for refuge. But soon he had cause to tremble in worse fear than before, for in the darkness of the cave he saw that a fearful dragon lay asleep. Then as the slave gazed in terror at the awful beast, he saw that it lay guarding a mighty treasure.
Never had he seen such a mass of wealth. Swords and armor inlaid with gold, cups and vessels of gold and silver set with precious stones, rings and bracelets lay piled around in glittering heaps.
For hundreds of years this treasure had lain there in secret. A great prince had buried it in sorrow for his dead warriors. In his land there had been much fighting until he alone of all his people was left. Then in bitter grief he gathered all his treasure and hid it in this cave.
"Take, O earth," he cried, "what the heroes might not keep. Lo! good men and true once before earned it from thee. Now a warlike death hath taken away every man of my people. There is none now to bear the sword or receive the cup. There is no more joy in the battle-field or in the hall of peace. So here shall the gold-adorned helmet molder, here the coat of mail rust and the wine-cup lie empty."
Thus the sad prince mourned. Beside his treasure he sat weeping both day and night until death took him also, and of all his people there was none left.
So the treasure lay hidden and secret for many a day.
Then upon a time it happened that a great dragon, fiery-eyed and fearful, as it flew by night and prowled seeking mischief, came upon the buried hoard.
As men well know, a dragon ever loveth gold. So to guard his new-found wealth lest any should come to rob him of it, he laid him down there and the cave became his dwelling. Thus for three hundred years he lay gloating over his treasure, no man disturbing him.
But now at length it chanced that the fleeing slave lighted upon the hoard. His eyes were dazzled by the shining heap. Upon it lay a cup of gold, wondrously chased and adorned.
"If I can but gain that cup," said the slave to himself, "I will return with it to my master, and for the sake of the gold he will surely forgive me."
So while the dragon slept, trembling and fearful the slave crept nearer and nearer to the glittering mass. When he came quite near he reached forth his hand and seized the cup. Then with it he fled back to his master.
It befell then as the slave had foreseen. For the sake of the wondrous cup his misdeeds were forgiven him.
But when the dragon awoke his fury was great. Well knew he that mortal man had trod his cave and stolen of his hoard.
Round and round about he sniffed and searched until he discovered the footprints of his foe. Eagerly then all over the ground he sought to find the man who, while he slept, had done him this ill. Hot and fierce of mood he went backwards and forwards round about his treasure-heaps. All within the cave he searched in vain. Then coming forth he searched without. All round the hill in which his cave was he prowled, but no man could he find, nor in all the wilds around was there any man.
Again the old dragon returned, again he searched among his treasure-heap for the precious cup. Nowhere was it to be found. It was too surely gone.
But the dragon, as well as loving gold, loved war. So now in angry mood he lay couched in his lair. Scarce could he wait until darkness fell, such was his wrath. With fire he was resolved to repay the loss of his dear drinking-cup.
At last, to the joy of the great winged beast, the sun sank. Then forth from his cave he came, flaming fire.
Spreading his mighty wings, he flew through the air until he came to the houses of men. Then spitting forth flame, he set fire to many a happy homestead. Wherever the lightning of his tongue struck, there fire flamed forth, until where the fair homes of men had been there was naught but blackened ruins. Here and there, this way and that, through all the land he sped, and wherever he passed fire flamed aloft.
The warfare of the dragon was seen from far. The malice of the worm was known from north to south, from east to west. All men knew how the fearful foe hated and ruined the Goth folk.
Then having worked mischief and desolation all night through, the fire-dragon turned back; to his secret cave he slunk again ere break of day. Behind him he left the land wasted and desolate.
The dragon had no fear of the revenge of man. In his fiery warfare he trusted to find shelter in his hill, and in his secret cave. But in that trust he was misled.
Speedily to King Beowulf were the tidings of the dragon and his spoiling carried. For alas! even his own fair palace was wrapped in flame. Before his eyes he saw the fiery tongues lick up his treasures. Even the Gift-seat of the Goths melted in fire.
Then was the good King sorrowful. His heart boiled within him with angry thoughts. The fire-dragon had utterly destroyed the pleasant homes of his people. For this the war-prince greatly desired to punish him.
Therefore did Beowulf command that a great shield should be made for him, all of iron. He knew well that a shield of wood could not help him in this need. Wood against fire! Nay, that were useless. His shield must be all of iron.
Too proud, too, was Beowulf, the hero of old time, to seek the winged beast with a troop of soldiers. Not thus would he overcome him. He feared not for himself, nor did he dread the dragon's war-craft. For with his valor and his skill Beowulf had succeeded many a time. He had been victorious in many a tumult of battle since that day when a young man and a warrior prosperous in victory, he had cleansed Hart Hall by grappling with Grendel and his kin.
And now when the great iron shield was ready, he chose eleven of his best thanes and set out to seek the dragon. Very wrathful was the old King, very desirous that death should take his fiery foe. He hoped, too, to win the great treasure of gold which the fell beast guarded. For already Beowulf had learned whence the feud arose, whence came the anger which had been so hurtful to his people. And the precious cup, the cause of all the quarrel, had been brought to him.
With the band of warriors went the slave who had stolen the cup. He it was who must be their guide to the cave, for he alone of all men living knew the way thither. Loth he was to be their guide. But captive and bound he was forced to lead the way over the plain to the dragon's hill.
Unwillingly he went with lagging footsteps until at length he came to the cave hard by the seashore. There by the sounding waves lay the savage guardian of the treasure. Ready for war and fierce was he. It was no easy battle that was there prepared for any man, brave though he might be.
And now on the rocky point above the sea King Beowulf sat himself down. Here he would bid farewell to all his thanes ere he began the combat. For what man might tell which from that fight should come forth victorious?
Beowulf's mind was sad. He was now old. His hair was white, his face was wrinkled and gray. But still his arm was strong as that of a young man. Yet something within him warned him that death was not far off.
So upon the rocky point he sat and bade farewell to his dear comrades.
"In my youth," said the aged King, "many battles have I dared, and yet must I, the guardian of my people, though I be full of years, seek still another feud. And again will I win glory if the wicked spoiler of my land will but come forth from his lair."
Much he spoke. With loving words he bade farewell to each one of his men, greeting his dear comrades for the last time.
"I would not bear a sword or weapon against the winged beast," he said at length, "if I knew how else I might grapple with the wretch, as of old I did with Grendel. But I ween this war-fire is hot, fierce, and poisonous. Therefore I have clad me in a coat of mail, and bear this shield all of iron. I will not flee a single step from the guardian of the treasure. But to us upon this rampart it shall be as fate will.
"Now let me make no more vaunting speech. Ready to fight am I. Let me forth against the winged beast. Await ye here on the mount, clad in your coats of mail, your arms ready. Abide ye here until ye see which of us twain in safety cometh forth from the clash of battle.
"It is no enterprise for you, or for any common man. It is mine alone. Alone I needs must go against the wretch and prove myself a warrior. I must with courage win the gold, or else deadly, baleful war shall fiercely snatch me, your lord, from life."
Then Beowulf arose. He was all clad in shining armor, his gold-decked helmet was upon his head, and taking his shield in hand he strode under the stony cliffs towards the cavern's mouth. In the strength of his single arm he trusted against the fiery dragon.
No enterprise this for a coward.
Beowulf left his comrades upon the rocky point jutting out into the sea, and alone he strode onward until he spied a great stone arch. From beneath the arch, from out the hillside, flowed a stream seething with fierce, hot fire. In this way the dragon guarded his lair, for it was impossible to pass such a barrier unhurt.
So upon the edge of this burning river Beowulf stood and called aloud in anger. Stout of heart and wroth against the winged beast was he.
The King's voice echoed like a war-cry through the cavern. The dragon heard it and was aroused to fresh hate of man. For the guardian of the treasure-hoard knew well the sound of mortal voice. Now was there no long pause ere battle raged.
First from out the cavern flamed forth the breath of the winged beast. Hot sweat of battle rose from out the rock. The earth shook and growling thunder trembled through the air.
The dragon, ringed around with many-colored scales, was now hot for battle, and, as the hideous beast crept forth, Beowulf raised his mighty shield and rushed against him.
Already the King had drawn his sword. It was an ancient heirloom, keen of edge and bright. Many a time it had been dyed in blood; many a time it had won glory and victory.
But ere they closed, the mighty foes paused. Each knew the hate and deadly power of the other.
The mighty Prince, firm and watchful, stood guarded by his shield. The dragon, crouching as in ambush, awaited him.
Then suddenly like a flaming arch the dragon bent and towered, and dashed upon the Lord of the Goths. Up swung the arm of the hero, and dealt a mighty blow to the grisly, many-colored beast. But the famous sword was all too weak against such a foe. The edge turned and bit less strongly than its great king had need, for he was sore pressed. His shield, too, proved no strong shelter from the wrathful dragon.
The warlike blow made greater still the anger of the fiery foe. Now he belched forth flaming fire. All around fierce lightnings darted.
Beowulf no longer hoped for glorious victory. His sword had failed him. The edge was turned and blunted upon the scaly foe. He had never thought the famous steel would so ill serve him. Yet he fought on ready to lose his life in such good contest.
Again the battle paused, again the King and dragon closed in fight.
The dragon-guardian of the treasure had renewed his courage. His heart heaved and boiled with fire, and fresh strength breathed from him. Beowulf was wrapped in flame. Dire was his need.
Yet of all his comrades none came near to help. Nay, as they watched the conflict they were filled with base fear, and fled to the wood hard by for refuge.
Only one among them sorrowed for his master, and as he watched his heart was wrung with grief.
Wiglaf was this knight called, and he was Beowulf's kinsman. Now when he saw his liege lord hard pressed in battle he remembered all the favors Beowulf had heaped upon him. He remembered all the honors and the wealth which he owed to his King. Then could he no longer be still. Shield and spear he seized, but ere he sped to aid his King he turned to his comrades.
"When our lord and King gave us swords and armor," he cried, "did we not promise to follow him in battle whenever he had need? When he of his own will chose us for this expedition he reminded us of our fame. He said he knew us to be good warriors, bold helmet-wearers. And although indeed our liege lord thought to do this work of valor alone, without us, because more than any man he hath done glorious and rash deeds, lo! now is the day come that hath need of strength and of good warriors. Come, let us go to him. Let us help our chieftain although the grim terror of fire be hot.
"Heaven knoweth I would rather the flame would blast my body than his who gave me gold. It seemeth not fitting to me that we should bear back our shields to our homes unless we may first fell the foe and defend the life of our King. Nay, it is not of the old custom of the Goths that the King alone should suffer, that he alone should sink in battle. Our lord should be repaid for his gifts to us, and so he shall be by me even if death take us twain."
But none would hearken to Wiglaf. So alone he sped through the deadly smoke and flame, till to his master's side he came offering aid.
"My lord Beowulf," he cried, "fight on as thou didst in thy youth-time. Erstwhile didst thou say that thou wouldst not let thy greatness sink so long as life lasteth. Defend thou thy life with all might. I will support thee to the utmost."
When the dragon heard these words his fury was doubled. The fell wicked beast came on again belching forth fire, such was his hatred of men. The flame-waves caught Wiglaf's shield, for it was but of wood. It was burned utterly, so that only the stud of steel remained. His coat of mail alone was not enough to guard the young warrior from the fiery enemy. But right valiantly he went on fighting beneath the shelter of Beowulf's shield now that his own was consumed to ashes by the flames.
Then again the warlike King called to mind his ancient glories, again he struck with main strength with his good sword upon the monstrous head. Hate sped the blow.
But alas! as it descended the famous sword Nægling snapped asunder. Beowulf's sword had failed him in the conflict, although it was an old and well-wrought blade. To him it was not granted that weapons should help him in battle. The hand that swung the sword was too strong. His might overtaxed every blade however wondrously the smith had welded it.
And now a third time the fell fire-dragon was roused to wrath. He rushed upon the King. Hot, and fiercely grim the great beast seized Beowulf's neck in his horrid teeth. The hero's life-blood gushed forth, the crimson stream darkly dyed his bright armor.
Then in the great King's need his warrior showed skill and courage. Heeding not the flames from the awful mouth, Wiglaf struck the dragon below the neck. His hand was burned with the fire, but his sword dived deep into the monster's body and from that moment the flames began to abate.
The horrid teeth relaxed their hold, and Beowulf, quickly recovering himself, drew his deadly knife. Battle-sharp and keen it was, and with it the hero gashed the dragon right in the middle.
The foe was conquered. Glowing in death he fell. They twain had destroyed the winged beast. Such should a warrior be, such a thane in need.
To the King it was a victorious moment. It was the crown of all his deeds.
Then began the wound which the fire-dragon had wrought him to burn and to swell. Beowulf soon found that baleful poison boiled in his heart. Well knew he that the end was nigh. Lost in deep thought he sat upon the mound and gazed wondering at the cave. Pillared and arched with stone-work it was within, wrought by giants and dwarfs of old time.
And to him came Wiglaf his dear warrior and tenderly bathed his wound with water.
Then spake Beowulf, in spite of his deadly wound he spake, and all his words were of the ending of his life, for he knew that his days of joy upon this earth were past.
"Had a son been granted to me, to him I should have left my war-garments. Fifty years have I ruled this people, and there has been no king of all the nations round who durst meet me in battle. I have known joys and sorrows, but no man have I betrayed, nor many false oaths have I sworn. For all this may I rejoice, though I be now sick with mortal wounds. The Ruler of Men may not upbraid me with treachery or murder of kinsmen when my soul shall depart from its body.
"But now, dear Wiglaf, go thou quickly to the hoard of gold which lieth under the hoary rock. The dragon lieth dead; now sleepeth he for ever, sorely wounded and bereft of his treasure. Then haste thee, Wiglaf, for I would see the ancient wealth, the gold treasure, the jewels, the curious gems. Haste thee to bring it hither; then after that I have seen it, I shall the more contentedly give up my life and the kingship that I so long have held."
Quickly Wiglaf obeyed his wounded lord. Into the dark cave he descended, and there outspread before him was a wondrous sight. Treasure of jewels, many glittering and golden, lay upon the ground. Wondrous vessels of old time with broken ornaments were scattered round. Here, too, lay old and rusty helmets, mingled with bracelets and collars cunningly wrought.
Upon the walls hung golden flags. From one a light shone forth by which the whole cavern was made clear. And all within was silent. No sign was there of any guardian, for without lay the dragon, sleeping death's sleep.
Quickly Wiglaf gathered of the treasures all that he could carry. Dishes and cups he took, a golden ensign and a sword curiously wrought. In haste he returned, for he knew not if he should find his lord in life where he had left him.
And when Wiglaf came again to where Beowulf sat he poured the treasure at his feet. But he found his lord in a deep swoon. Again the brave warrior bathed Beowulf's wound and laved the stricken countenance of his lord, until once more he came to himself.
Then spake the King: "For this treasure I give thanks to the Lord of All. Not in vain have I given my life, for it shall be of great good to my people in need. And now leave me, for on this earth longer I may not stay. Say to my warriors that they shall raise a mound upon the rocky point which jutteth seaward. High shall it stand as a memorial to my people. Let it soar upward so that they who steer their slender barks over the tossing waves shall call it Beowulf's mound."
The King then took from his neck the golden collar. To Wiglaf, his young thane and kinsman, he gave it. He gave also his helmet adorned with gold, his ring and coat of mail, and bade the warrior use them well.
"Thou art the last of our race," he said. "Fate hath swept away all my kinsmen, all the mighty earls. Now I too must follow them."
That was the last word of the aged King. From his bosom the soul fled to seek the dwellings of the just. At Wiglaf's feet he lay quiet and still.