WHICH TELLS of how a DRAGON appeared in Geatsland, and how Beowulf and Wiglaf destroyed it, and how sleep came to Beowulf.
MANY years passed, during which we know very little of what befell our hero Beowulf. He returned safely to Geatsland after his adventures among the Danes, and he was received with great acclaim at the court of his uncle Hygelac, and was hailed as the greatest of all living heroes in the North. Minstrels roamed the land singing of his deeds of strength and valor.
At last, however, death came to Hygelac during a momentous battle with the Frisians and the Franks, those warlike tribes, and his son Heardred became king in Hygelac’s place. But Heardred’s reign was not long, and after him Beowulf came to the throne of Geatsland.
WHEN there began a long and happy period in the country of the Geats. Prosperity rained upon them. The Geatish warriors were ever successful in battle, and the treasury was filled to bursting with gold and silver and precious stones and armor.
The nets of the fisher-folk were so laden with sea-spoils that they could scarce be lifted. The crops in the fields increased so that the people were well fed and contented even throughout the long and arduous winters.
Great contests were held at the hall of Beowulf at frequent intervals, and all the heroes from near and far gathered there to match the strength and skill of the Geatish warriors.
So passed the happy years, and Beowulf grew in stature and dignity and strength. A vast beard fell from his cheeks, and as he moved among his people many sought to touch the hand that had slain Grendel. For Beowulf’s fame was known not only in his own land but across the wide seas, and his enemies (for he had excellent ones) trembled at the mention of his name and thought twice before they went to engage him in battle.
The years passed, but no adventure equal to the slaying of Grendel and that monster’s mother came to test out Beowulf’s valor and strength. And the king waxed restless for a great adventure, for his years were now many and he felt that a not long season remained to him on earth.
ONE night, when the winter was at its deepest, and the king sat in his mead-hall with all his lords about him, there came a knocking at the door. When the servants opened to the knocking, there entered the shabbiest visitor that had ever crossed that noble threshold.
The servants would have thrown the stranger out again, so disgraceful was his attire, had not Wiglaf, son of Weohstan, called to them to let the visitor remain, for there was something in the man’s face that caught the earl’s interest.
“Who are you?” demanded Wiglaf. “Whence come you? Speak, and do not fear, for no one will harm you. I see your knees shaking with fright and cold, and your eyes are wild with want of sleep and strange things that you have seen. Come and eat, my good man, and then you shall tell your story to the king.”
But the stranger made a sign with his head that Wiglaf took for a denial, and so led him, a little roughly, before Beowulf.
“This fellow,” the noble Wiglaf said, “will not say his name or whence he comes. But to you, my dear lord, he will speak, I know.”
Then Beowulf bent on him his kindly-strong gaze and bade the visitor have no fear. The man fell on his knees before the king and spoke in a high voice:
“Great king, I have no name and am but a poor escaped slave from a Frankish galley, and I am seeking my own home in the Northland. Early this morning, faint from cold and hunger and want of rest, I came upon a deep barrow in which I discovered, sleeping, the hugest dragon, surely, in all the wide world. At first I was so overcome with fear that I fled from the place. But after a while, when I got back my breath, I was taken with a burning curiosity, and when my hair had lain down again upon my head, I returned, and there I saw, heaped round and about the sleeping dragon, the lordliest treasure that ever man beheld in one place together. Gold and jewels–” the slave raised his arms high and wide–“so much that twenty cart-loads would make no diminishment that the eye could see.”
Beowulf leaned forward in his great chair, his vast hands gripping the carven arms.
“Slave,” he cried in a loud voice, “if you lie, I will have you first beaten like a dog and then torn limb from limb until you are dead!”
But the stranger did not flinch under the blue fire of the king’s glance. Instead, he drew from beneath his tattered cloak a wondrous jeweled cup, set about with a hundred brilliants of all the rainbow’s colors, and standing upon a base of purest gold, most delicately carved.
“Lord,” he replied simply, “I do not lie.”
The court crowded about, better to see this marvel of workmanship and worth. Beowulf handled it lovingly, and held it to the firelight.
But at this point the escaped slave was seen to totter in a faint and quickly he was led away to be given food and warm clothes and a bench to lie upon.
Then Beowulf the king stood up in his place and said to the assembled company:
“My friends, you have heard this man’s tale, and you see that he is no idle spinner of yarns who would obtain food and shelter on a bitter winter’s night, for he has shown us this wondrous cup of gold and jewels. Surely there is no fairer goblet on earth, and this slave says that whence this came there is more and still more treasure. My comrades, eleven men I want, who will follow me to the foul dragon’s lair. This grave menace must be destroyed before he wakens and finds that he has been discovered and plundered. Eleven of you, then, to my side. There will be deeds of bravery for all, and of treasure more than each man can dream.”
Then Wiglaf, the son of Weohstan, the best beloved of Beowulf’s earls, stepped forward, but as he opened his lips to swear allegiance to his king, the night was shattered by a roar that shook the roof of the hall and made the earth tremble underfoot.
The warriors, having laid aside their armor and swords, rushed to secure the door, but as confusion spread among them and women screamed, the roar persisted in its clangor and at the entrance door blue flames began to lick along the sill.
Then Beowulf cried in a loud voice to the court that they must escape from the monster until they could assume their weapons and armor, and secure the women against the hot anger of the furious dragon. So, in orderly manner, the company followed their king through a back way, leaving the vast hall in emptiness, the benches overturned, the fire on the hearths burning low.
From “The Story of Beowulf”