Gateway to the Classics: Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children by H. E. Marshall
Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children by  H. E. Marshall

Beowulf's Last Rest

Then was the heart of Wiglaf sad when he saw upon the earth his dearest king lie still. His slayer, the frightful Fire-Dragon, lay there too. No more would he fly through the midnight air working deadly harm, no more would he guard his treasure. Beowulf had conquered him, but his victory was repaid in death.

Sorrowing, Wiglaf knelt beside his lord. He bathed his face with water, he called to him to awake. But it was of no avail. He could not, however much he longed, call back his king to earth. No prayers could turn back the doom which God the ruler had sent forth.

Now that the fight was over, it was not long before the cowards, who during all the combat had forsaken their king and sheltered in the wood, came forth. Dastard faith breakers, ten of them together now came to the place where Wiglaf knelt beside his king. They durst not draw the sword to aid at this their liege lord's need. But now ashamed, they came bearing their shields, wearing their war-garments now that all need of them was past.

Then Wiglaf, sorrowful in soul, looked with anger at the cowards. No soft words had he for the craven-hearted crew.

"Lo," he cried, "he that would speak truth may well say that the liege lord who gave you these war-garments in which ye stand utterly castaway his gifts. Helmets and coats of mail he gave to those he deemed most worthy. But when war came upon him truly the king had little cause to boast of his warriors. Yet the Lord of All, the Ruler of Victories, granted him valour so that he avenged himself alone with his sword. I could give him in the combat little protection and aid. Yet I undertook above my means to help my kinsman. Weak I am, yet when I struck with my sword the Dragon's fire flamed less fiercely. When I smote the destroyer, fire gushed less violently forth from him.

"Too few defenders thronged round their prince when need came. And now for you there shall be no more sharing of treasure, no more giving of swords, no more joy in your homes. Houseless and beggared shall ye wander when far and wide the nobles shall hear of your flight, of your base deed. Death is better for every warrior than a life of shame."

Then Wiglaf turned from the cowards in scorn. Up over the sea cliff a troop of warriors had sat all day from early morn awaiting the return of their king. To them Wiglaf commanded that the issue of the fight should now be told.

So a messenger rode to the cliff. Loud he spake so that all might hear his baleful news. "Now is the kind Lord of the Goth folk fast on his deathbed. He resteth on his fatal couch through the Dragon's deed. By him lieth his deadly foe done to death with sword-wounds. Beside Beowulf, Wiglaf sits. One warrior over another lifeless holdeth sorrowful ward 'gainst friend or foe.

"Now may the people of the Danes expect a time of war. For as soon as the fall of the king be known among the Franks and Frisians they will make battle-ready. Yea, such is the deadly hate of men, that I ween from all around they will attack us when they shall learn our lord is lifeless. For he it was who defended our land against the foe. He it was who kept safe both treasure and realm with his wisdom and valour.

"Now it were best that with all speed we brought the great king to the funeral pile. It is not meet that treasure of little value be buried with the bold king. For here lieth a house of treasure, of gold uncounted, sadly bought with his life's blood. These the fire must devour, the flame must enwrap. No warrior shall wear bracelet or collar for remembrance. No fair maiden shall deck her neck with the gold's sheen. Nay rather, sad of mood, with golden ornaments laid aside, often shall they tread a strange land now that our war leader has ceased from laughter, from sport, and from song of joy. No longer now shall sound of harp awaken the warriors; but the hand that held the sword shall lie cold. The dark raven over the dead shall croak, he shall tell the eagle how he sped with his meal, while the wolf spoiled the carcasses of the slain."

Thus spake the bold warrior, bringer of evil tidings.

And now the troop all arose. Sadly and with welling tears they went under the cliff-ways to behold the fearful sight.

They found upon the sand, lifeless and soulless, him who before time had given them gifts. So was the end, and the good chief was gone. He in death heroic had perished.

There too they saw a more strange thing. Near the king lay the Dragon all loathly along the plain. Fifty feet long he lay scorched with his own fires, grim and ghastly to look upon. He who of old joyed to fly through the air in the night-time now lay fast in death. Never more would he fly through the air, never more gloat in his cave. By him stood cups and vessels, dishes and precious swords, rusty and eaten away. They seemed as if they had lain a thousand years in the earth.

Then Wiglaf lifted up his voice and spake. "Often must a brave man endure sorrow for another, as it hath happened with us. We could in no wise hold our king back from this combat. The hoard here hath been dearly bought. I have been within and beheld all the treasures of the cave. As much as I could carry I bore out to my lord who was yet living. Then many things spake he, the wise king. He bade me greet you, prayed that ye would make a lofty cairn, great and glorious, upon the coast here, for he was a warrior most famous throughout all the earth. Come now, let us hasten a second time to see and seek the wonders within the cave. I will be your guide, and ye shall see rings and piled gold such as ye have gazed upon never before.

"Let the bier be made ready against our return. Then let us bear our lord to the place where he shall long rest in the peace of the All-Powerful."

Then did Wiglaf send commandment to all those who possessed land, houses, and slaves, that they should bring wood for the pile for the funeral of the good king.

"Now," he said, "shall the flame devour, the wan fire and the flame shall grow strong, and shall destroy the prince of warriors. He who so often in the thickest of the fight awaited the storm of darts shall now depart hence for evermore."

Then having given commandment that the people should build the funeral pile, Wiglaf called seven of the best of the king's thanes to him. With them he went into the dark treasure-cavern.

Before them marched a warrior bearing in his hand a flaming torch. And when they saw the treasure lying around, gold and jewels in countless numbers, the thanes marvelled greatly. Quickly they gathered of the hoard and carried it forth. A great wagon they loaded with twisted gold and all manner of precious stuffs, and brought it to the funeral pile.

As for the winged beast which lay dead upon the plain, they thrust it over the cliff into the sea below. There he sank, and the waves closed over the dead guardian of the treasure of which the cave was now all despoiled.

And now the aged warrior was laid upon a bier. Then with bowed heads and lagging steps his thanes bore him to the cliff where high above the sea the funeral pile was laid.

Roundabout it was hung with helmets and with shields and with bright coats of mail. And in the midst was laid the great king, while the warriors mourned and wept for their beloved lord.

Then the funeral pyre was lit. Great flames sprang upward, dark clouds of smoke rolled up to the sky. The roar of the flame was mingled with the weeping of the Goth people, as with heavy hearts in woful mood they mourned the death of their liege lord.

Then a dirge of sorrow was sung by an aged dame in honour of Beowulf. Again and again she wailed forth her sore dread of evil days to come. Much blood-shed, shame, and captivity would come upon the land, she cried, now that its lord was dead.

And as she wailed the fire flamed and roared until the wood was all burned away. Then the great pyre sank together in ashes: the body of the great king was all consumed in flame.

Then did the Goth people build a high cairn upon the hill where the fire had been. It was high and broad, and might be seen for many miles by the travellers upon the sea. For ten days they built up the beacon of the war-renowned, famous king. They surrounded it with a wall in the most honourable manner that wise men could devise. Within the cairn they placed the rings and bright jewels and all manner of precious ornaments which they had taken from the Dragon's hoard. And thus they left the great treasure to the earth to hold. Gold they laid in the dust, where it yet remains to men as useless as of old. Then round the cairn twelve war-chiefs slowly rode. And as they rode they spoke and sang of their king.

They praised his valour, they sang of his manhood and his courtesy. Even so it is fitting that a man should praise his liege lord and love him.

Thus the Goth people wept for their fallen lord. His comrades said that he was of all the kings of the earth the best. Of men he was the mildest and the kindest, and to his people the gentlest. Of all rulers he was most worthy of praise.

Thus went the great king to his last rest.

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