The Dragon (Beowulf)
The final act of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is about the hero Beowulf's fight with a dragon, the third monster he encounters in the epic. On his return from Heorot where he killed Grendel and Grendel's mother, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and rules peacefully for 50 years until a slave awakens and angers a dragon stealing a jewelled cup from its lair. When the dragon mercilessly burns the Geats' homes and lands, Beowulf decides to kill the monster. He and his thanes climb to the dragon's lair where, seeing the beast, the thanes run away leaving only Wiglaf to battle at Beowulf's side. When the dragon wounds Beowulf fatally, Wiglaf slays it.
This depiction indicates the growing importance and stabilization of the modern concept of the dragon within European mythology. Beowulf is the first piece of English literature to present a dragonslayer. Although many motifs common to the Beowulf dragon existed in the Scandinavian and Germanic literature, the Beowulf poet was the first to combine features and present a distinctive fire-breathing dragon. The Beowulf dragon was later copied in literature with similar motifs and themes such as in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, one of the forerunners of modern high fantasy.
The dragon fight, occurring at the end of the poem, is foreshadowed in earlier scenes. The dragon fight symbolizes Beowulf's stand against evil and destruction, and as the hero, he knows that failure will bring destruction to his people after many years of peace. The scene is structured in thirds, ending with the deaths of the dragon and Beowulf.
After his battles against Grendel and his mother, Beowulf returns to his homeland from Heorot and becomes king of the Geats. Fifty years pass with Beowulf leading as a wise king, when a rampaging dragon (called a "wyrm" in the Old English) begins to attack the countryside. The dragon is angered when a slave enters his lair and takes a cup from his treasure hoard. Beowulf and a troop of his men leave to find the dragon's lair. The men run away, leaving only Beowulf and his young companion Wiglaf to slay the dragon. Beowulf receives a fatal wound from the dragon but Wiglaf impales the dragon's belly to reduce the flames. Beowulf summons the last of his strength, and deals the fatal blow to it. In his death-speech, Beowulf chooses Wiglaf as his successor, leaving to him the dragon's treasure hoard and the kingship.
Beowulf is the oldest extant heroic poem in English literature and the first to present a dragonslayer. The legend of the dragonslayer already existed in Norse sagas such as the tale of Sigurd and Fafnir, and the Beowulf poet incorporates motifs and themes common to dragonlore in the poem. Beowulf is the earliest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature to feature a dragon and the poet would have had access to similar stories from Scandinavian oral tradition, although the original sources have been lost, which obscures the genesis of the Beowulf dragon. Secular Germanic literature and the literature of Christian hagiography featured dragons and dragon fights. Although the dragons of hagiography were less fierce than the dragon in Beowulf, similarities exist in the stories such as presenting the journey to the dragon's lair, cowering spectators, and the sending of messages relaying the outcome of the fight.
The dragon with his hoard is a common motif in early Germanic literature with the story existing to varying extents in the Norse sagas, but it is most notable in the Volsunga Saga and in Beowulf. Beowulf preserves existing medieval dragon-lore, most notable in the extended digression recounting the Sigurd/Fafnir tale. Nonetheless, comparative contemporary narratives did not have the complexity and distinctive elements written into Beowulf's dragon scene. Beowulf is a hero who previously killed two monsters. The scene includes extended flashbacks to the Geatish-Swedish wars, a detailed description of the dragon and the dragon-hoard, and ends with intricate funerary imagery.
Beowulf scholar J.R.R. Tolkien considered the dragon in Beowulf to be one of only two real dragons in northern European literature, writing of it, "dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare. In northern literature there are only two that are significant .... we have but the dragon of the Völsungs, Fáfnir, and Beowulf's bane." Furthermore, Tolkien believes the Beowulf poet emphasizes the monsters Beowulf fights in the poem, and he claims the dragon is as much of a plot device as anything. Tolkien expands on Beowulf's dragon in his own fiction, which indicates the lasting impact of the Beowulf poem. Within the plot structure, however, the dragon functions differently in Beowulf than in Tolkien's fiction. The dragon fight ends Beowulf, while Tolkien uses the dragon motif (and the dragon's love for treasure) to trigger a chain of events in The Hobbit.
The Beowulf dragon is the earliest example in literature of the typical European dragon and first incidence of a fire breathing dragon. But the characterization goes beyond fire breathing: the Beowulf dragon is described with Old English terms such as draca (dragon), and wyrm (worm, or serpent), and as a creature with a venomous bite. Also, the Beowulf poet created a dragon with specific traits: a nocturnal, treasure hoarding, inquisitive, vengeful, fire breathing creature.
The fire is likely symbolic of the hell-fire of the Devil, reminiscent of the monster in the Book of Job. In the Septuagint Bible, Job's monster is characterized as a draco: a creature that inhabits not only the land but the air and the water, and is identified with the Devil. Job's dragon would have been accessible to the author of Beowulf, as a Christian symbol of evil, the "great monstrous adversary of God, man and beast alike."
A study of German and Norse texts reveals three typical narratives for the dragonslayer: a fight for the treasure; a battle to save the slayer's people; or a fight to free a woman. The characteristics of Beowulf's dragon appear to be specific to the poem; the poet may have melded together dragon motifs to create a dragon with specific traits to weave together the complicated plot of the narrative.
The third act of the poem differs from the first two. In Beowulf's two earlier battles, Grendel and Grendel's are barely described. They are characterised as descendents of Cain—"[Grendel] had long lived in the land of monsters / since the creator cast them out / as the kindred of Cain." The two monsters seem to humanoid; in the poet's rendition they can be seen as figures from Northern European mythology such as giants, trolls or monsters. The dragon, however, is plainly not human, a stark contrast to the other two antagonists. Moreover, the dragon is more overtly destructive; he burns vast amounts of territory and the homes of the Geats—"the dragon began to belch out flames / and burn bright homesteads".
Beowulf's fight with the dragon has been described variously as an act of altruism, or an act of recklessness. It occurs in Beowulf's kingdom and ends in defeat; Beowulf fought the other monsters victoriously in a land distant from his home. The dragon fight is foreshadowed with earlier events: Scyld Shefing's funeral and Sigmund's death by dragon, as recounted by a bard in Hrothgar's hall. Beowulf scholar Alexander writes that the dragon fight likely signifies Beowulf's (and by extension, society's) battle against evil. The people's fate depend on the outcome of the fight between the hero and the dragon; as a hero Beowulf must knowingly face death as he goes into battle.
Beowulf's eventual death from the dragon presages "warfare, death, and darkness" for his Geats. The dragon's hoard symbolizes the vestige of an older society, now lost to wars and famine, left behind by a survivor of that period. His imagined elegy foreshadows Beowulf's death and elegy to come. Before he faces the dragon, Beowulf thinks of his past: his childhood and wars the Geats endured during that period, foreshadowing the future. At his death, peace in his lands will end, and his people will again suffer a period of war and hardship. An embattled society without "social cohesion" is represented by the avarice of the "dragon jealously guarding its gold hoard", as the elegy for Beowulf becomes an elegy for the entire culture. The dragon's hoard is representative of a people lost to time, which is juxtaposed against the Geatish people, whose history is new, fresh and fleeting. As king of his people, Beowulf defends them against the dragon; and when his thanes desert him, the poem shows the disintegration of a "heroic society" which "depends upon the honouring of mutual obligations between lord and thane."
Wiglaf remains loyal to his king and unlike the other men, stays to confront the dragon. The parallel in the story lies with the similarity to Beowulf's hero Sigemund and his companion; Wiglaf is a younger companion to Beowulf and in his courage shows himself to be Beowulf's successor. The presence of a companion is seen as a motif in other dragon stories, but the Beowulf poet breaks hagiographic tradition with the hero's suffering (hacking, burning, stabbing) and subsequent death. Moreover, the dragon is vanquished through Wiglaf's actions—although Beowulf dies fighting the dragon, the dragon dies at the hand of the companion.
The dragon battle is structured in thirds: the preparation for the battle; the events prior to the battle; and the battle itself. Wiglaf kills the dragon halfway through the scene, Beowulf's death occurs "after two-thirds" of the scene, and the dragon attacks Beowulf three times. Ultimately, as Tolkien writes, the death by dragon "is the right end for Beowulf" for he claims "a man can but die upon his death-day."
J.R.R. Tolkien used the dragon story of Beowulf as a template for Smaug of The Hobbit. In each case the dragon's hoard is disturbed, with a single cup stolen; the dragon flies into a rage; the dragon is slain by a human (as opposed to dwarf, elf, or other creature, in the case of The Hobbit); and one character disturbs the dragon while another does the slaying.
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