Beowulf: Preparing for Battle

This story is part of the Beowulf unit. Story source: The Story of Beowulf by Strafford Riggs with illustrations by Henry Pitz (1933).

Preparing for Battle

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.

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 of 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.

NIGHT was coming down when at last Beowulf and his eleven earls approached the dragon's barrow. It lay deep in a dark and gloomy forest, and the only light was the reflection of the dead day upon the ground-snow. The tall trees stood naked in their places, and all about hung a cold stillness which was broken only by the trampling of the adventurers upon the crunching snow.

(1000 words)

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