DAWN came slowly over the snows lying heavy about the house of Wiglaf, and the wife of Beowulf’s favorite earl was ordering her servants in their early tasks when Wiglaf burst in upon the family hearth. His face was drawn with rage and fear, and he embraced his wife with such impetuousness that the good lady became instantly consumed with the darkest of thoughts and forebodings.
“My lord,” she cried, “what dread errand brings you hither at this hour from the king? Speak! Some disaster has befallen the world, that you should look so distraught.”
And she hastened to relieve him of his great cloak.
But he put her away from him, and cried out in anguish:
“Dear lady, gather together all that we have of value which the servants can carry upon swift horses, for this night a dragon, the vastest dragon in all the world, has come upon our Geatsland, and even as I speak pursues his hideous way across the snow toward this our home. Already the mead-hall of the king is naught but a heap of smoldering ashes, and the granaries and storehouses of our people are hiding the sun from the world with the smoke of their burning. Make haste, I pray you, my lady, and fetch me the biggest of my swords and the stoutest of my armor. Then get you gone to the caves by the Whale’s Headland while we pursue this hellish demon to his lair.
“I go at once to my king. There is such death and destruction abroad this morn as never man has beheld, and the ruins of our fairest farms and halls are dotting the white land with sorrow and woeful suffering.”
Then Wiglaf’s wife brought him his great broadsword and his stoutest armor, and embraced him tenderly ere he strode to the door.
Even now the sky was brown with dense smoke, and a vast and sinister rumbling was heard upon the air, proclaiming the steady and awful approach of the dragon.
Gathered together in the depths of the great forest, Beowulf and his band of eleven trusted warriors held a council of war.
There arose a warm debate concerning how the dragon should be fought. Some thought they should attempt to slay him while he wrought destruction. Others, again, would lure him, if possible, to a high cliff, and force him into the boiling sea below. Yet others were in favor of letting him wreak his vengeance at will upon the country-side until such time should come when, sated in his lust for killing, he might fall into an exhausted sleep and become fair game for their sharp swords.
Then Beowulf spoke:
“My lords, each of these three plans has excellent reasons for pursuing it. But it is my opinion that none of them is sufficient for our dear purpose.
“For, in the first instance, if we attack the dragon while he is yet roaring through the land, the creature will be able to retreat in any direction.
“In the second instance, it is not likely that he will permit himself to be forced over a cliff into the sea, for by all tokens he is a wily dragon and the treasure is close to his heart.
“And in the third instance, we cannot permit him to continue his depredations throughout the country-side, and further impoverish our people.
“Therefore, hear you what I have to say: It is necessary that we track this vile enemy to his very lair, there to slay him. For when he finds that Beowulf and his noble earls are gone to his barrow, then will he leave our halls and farms and seek to defend his heart’s treasure. Let us away forthwith, for soon enough will he discover our ruse.”
And Beowulf was right, for, even as he spoke, the dragon, writhing his way from the desolation or the king s country, was informed, by magic, of the plans that were being made for his destruction, and switching his scaly tail so that twenty stout trees fell at its movement, and snapping gigantic jaws in horrid rage, the creature hastened to protect that which he had guarded during three hundred years of sleepless vigilance.
From “The Story of Beowulf”