19 August 2012

Fitt 39 Finishes: The cowards return, and Wiglaf criticizes them

The soldiers who had run into the forest come back to their dead king and see Wiglaf sitting, exhausted, beside him. He tells them exactly what he thinks of their cowardice. He points out all the gifts they had received from the king were not paid back by service when he needed it. He forecasts that they and their families will pay for their faithlessness by loss of land and name. Death would be kinder than that

                                          Beowulf paid
by losing his life for lordly treasures.
Each of the pair* passed to the end
of his lease on life. Not long after,
the battle shirkers abandoned the woods—
gutless traitors, ten together—
who lacked the heart to heft their spears
when the lord they followed faced great danger.
Now, caught in shame, they carried shields,
battle armour where the old man lay.

They saw Wiglaf, sitting weary,
the shieldbearer by his baron’s shoulder,
He could not wake his king with water.
No way in the world, though he wished it, existed,
to lengthen the life of his leader in war,
to let or hinder Heaven’s servant.
The judgement of God would govern the deeds
of every man, as it still does.

Then the young man gave a grim answer
that came quickly for those whose courage fled.
Wiglaf spoke out, Weohstan’s son,
a sorehearted swordsman, on seeing the outcasts.

“What one would say, who wants the truth,
“is that the great lord gave you treasures,
“the horseman’s gear and garb you stand in,
“when he often, on the ale bench, gave
“helmet and byrnie to the hall sitters,
“the Lord to his followers, the finest ones
“that could be found, close by or far,
“this one who discarded his war clothing.
“How can you boast, his brothers in arms,
“of your glorious king? Yet God allowed him,
“Triumph's Master, to take his revenge
“alone with a sword when spirit was needed."

“I had small power to save his life
“to bring to battle, but I began
“to better my best, backing my kinsman.
“With every stroke its strength diminished,
“the lethal foe. The fire lessened
“that flowed from its head. Too few heroes
“came to the king in his cusp of need."

“Now gifts of treasure and tendered swords
“will come to a close, accustomed delights;
“your clan will lose their claim to land,
“each man among them, the moment earls,
“however far, hear how you ran,
“dead to glory. Death is better
“to any earl than an empty life.”

*Beowulf and the dragon.

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