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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