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Beowulf: Fighting the Fire-Drake
(Beowulf, lines 2510-2586, translation by Allan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, now in the Longmans Anthology of British Literature. This excerpt was published on this site in 1999 by permission of the authors.
This passage was first published in The Hudson Review
Now Beowulf spoke his last battle-boast:
"In boyhood I braved bitter clashes;
still in old age I would seek out strife
and gain glory guarding my folk
if the man-bane comes from his cave to meet me."
Then he turned to his troop for the final time,
bidding farewell to bold helmet-bearers,
fast in friendship: "I would wear no sword,
no weapon at all to ward off the worm
if I knew how to fight this fiendish foe
as I grappled with Grendel one bygone night.
but here I shall find fierce battle-fire
and breath envenomed, therefore I bear
this mail-coat and shield. I shall not shy
from standing my ground when I greet the guardian,
follow what will at the foot of this wall.
I shall face the fiend with a firm heart.
Let every man's Ruler reckon my fate:
words are worthless against the war-flyer.
Bide by the barrow, safe in your byrnies,
and watch, my warriors, which of us two
will better bear the brunt of our clash.
This war is not yours; it is meted to me,
matching my strength, man against monster.
I shall do this deed undaunted by death
and get you gold or else get my ending,
borne off in battle, the bane of your lord.
The hero arose, helmed and hardy,
a war-king clad in shield and corselet.
He strode strongly under the stone-cliff:
no faint-hearted man, to face it unflinching!
Stalwart soldier of so many marches,
unshaken when shields were crushed in the clash,
he saw between stiles an archway where steam
burst like a boiling tide from the barrow,
woeful for one close to the worm-hoard.
He would not linger long unburned by the lurker
or safely slip through the searing lair.
Then a battle-cry broke from Beowulf's breast
as his rightful rage was roused for the reckoning.
His challenge sounded under stark stone
where the hateful hoard-guard heard in his hollow
the clear-voiced call of a man coming.
No quarter was claimed; no quarter given.
First the beast's breath blew hot from the barrow
as battle-bellows boomed underground.
The stone-house stormer swung up his shield
at the ghastly guardian. Then the dragon's grim heart
kindled for conflict. Uncoiling, he came
seeking the Stalwart; but the swordsman had drawn
the keen-edged blade bequeathed him for combat,
and each foe confronted the other with fear.
His will unbroken, the warlord waited
behind his tall shield, helm and hauberk.
With fitful twistings the fire-drake hastened
fatefully forward. His fender held high,
Beowulf felt the blaze blister through
hotter and sooner than he had foreseen.
So for the first time fortune was failing
the mighty man in the midst of a struggle.
Wielding his sword, he struck at the worm
and his fabled blade bit to the bone
through blazoned hide: bit and bounced back,
no match for the foe in this moment of need.
Translated by Alan Sullivan & Timothy Murphy
Copyright © Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, 1999