08 January 2012

XXXII: The Theft and the Last Survivor

In this fitt, we find out about the man who robbed a cup from the dragon's hoard. He had run away from an abusive master and needed something to appease him, which the cup, he hoped, would do. The fact that he had to walk close to the head of a sleeping dragon to get the cup testifies to his terror of his master.

The hoard itself has a history. It is the remains of the wealth of an extinct nation, placed in the tomb by its last surviving member. The emotions of that last survivor are given in a section often called "The Lay of the Last Survivor." The dragon moves in after the last survivor dies.

The "Lay of the Last Survivor" (lines 2247-2256) restates of one of Beowulf's major themes: sic transit gloria mundi. All power and all wealth passes. We were often told of the civil war, assassination, and invasion that would afflict Hrothgar's kingdom, even though it had a wise king, a strong army, and a new ally, the Geats. We will find later that the same is true of Geatland. The melancholy of the last survivor is the fate of both Hrothgar's and Beowulf's kingdoms. No human can avoid it.

This section could also be one of the funerals that structure to the poem. The first, of course, is Scyld's funeral at the beginning (lines 1 to 52). Another is the funeral in the Finn and Hengest song that is sung in Heorot (lines 1107 to 1124). The one at the end is Beowulf's own (lines 3137 to 3182). Seeing it that way disrupts the neat three-monster, three-funeral structure, so not everyone agrees.

The dragon wakes to find his cup missing and sets out to get revenge. This scene is familiar to anyone who has read J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit
 (which, by the way, is being turned into a two-part film by Peter Jackson, who also directed the Lord of the Ring movies).

The ellipses (...) show where lines or parts of lines cannot be read.

XXXII. The Theft and the Last Survivor

It was not at all out of desire
he went in the wormhoard, the one who did harm,
but bitter distress. The stealer's kin
I have never heard of. He hurried from danger,
needing shelter, knowing anger,
a guilty man. He gazed inside,
and stark terror took hold of the stranger.
The criminal was not deterred
… (2229)
(…) he brought down fear  2230
but had looked for wealth, which was abundant,
ancient heirlooms in an earthen vault,
as a man had left them, many years past,
relics to tell of a titled race.
Thinking deeply, he thrust into hiding
the dear treasures. Death had taken
each man away, with one exception,
the last alive of the land's defenders.
The grieving warden wished to survive
so, for a little, the long-kept treasure     2240
would furnish pleasure. The finished grave
was on a heath, hard by the water,
new on the clifftops, carefully sealed.
He carried off from the earls' treasure
a hoard of rings, a hand-worked portion
of plated gold.
                                He gave these few words:
“Now Earth, you must hold what heroes cannot,
“what earls had owned. It was out of you, listen!
“that good men got it, gone now in battle,
awful killings of all of my kinsmen,   2250
“those I had loved. They left me this:
“The hall, once happy, has none to defend it
“nor give beauty to the golden cup,
“the drinking treasure. The troop dwindled
“and the hard helmet, enhanced with gold,
“its fittings fall. Furbishers sleep
“who could brighten the battle masks.
“Also the links that lasted through battle,
“the breaking of boards and bite of iron,
“rot with the men. The mail cannot   2260
“fare abroad far with fighting men, 
“at hand for heroes. No harp delights
“with glad music, no good hawk now
“soars through the hall, nor swift horses
“clatter in courtyards. Cruel destruction
“has killed what little was left of my kin.”

Grieving greatly, he groaned aloud.
The last of his kind lived in despair
by day and night, till Death covered him.

The wealth was then found and warmed the heart  2270
of an old destroyer. It stood open
to the fiery one, who finds barrows,
the naked black-heart, night-flying dragon,
fulgent with fire. The folk of the earth
(…) He has to seek
harm under ground, where heathen gold
he watches, worse, though wiser with years.
So this threat to the people for three hundred winters
controlled a treasure trapped underground
in towering strength until affronted.  2280

A man proudly proffered his master
the gold-adorned beaker and begged forgiveness
from his master's hand. So the hoard was robbed
the ring-hoard plundered. His plea was granted
that wretched man. His ruler examined
that ancient form for the first time.

Then the worm awoke, and war returned.
He snuffed at the stone. The stern creature found
his foe's footprint, which fell too near,
in silent skill, the serpent's head.    2290
So undoomed men may then survive
grief and hardship, if granted the help
of God's protection. The treasure keeper
searched the grounds,  greedy to find
the one who had robbed him while he rested.
Searing and savage, he circled the cairns,
beating the bounds. It was bare of life,
that wild country, but war called him.
From time to time he returned to the barrow
to search for the cup. He quickly found   2300
that some human handled his gold
worthy of kings. The keeper waited,
restraining himself till sunset came,
then fury took the tomb's keeper
he wished to repay his pain with fire
for the drinking treasure.  Now day had gone
as the worm wanted. His wall he left,
unwilling to wait, but went in flames,
enfolded in fire: a fearful beginning
for the country's people because it soon   2310
ended in grief for their gold-sharer.

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