In the Old English poem Beowulf, the plot of the poem follows the titular hero through his life, focusing primarily on his battles with monsters and the glory he wins from them. The monsters that Beowulf encounters are Grendel, his mother, and a fierce dragon, each fight progressively being more taxing and more glorious.
The dragon is the final of the three, and the ensuing battle results in the death of both combatants. Beowulf initially answers the call to action to face the beast when he learns of the dragon’s pillaging of the landscape: it is revealed that the dragon is enacting revenge for a goblet stolen from its hoard.
After the fight, as Beowulf lays dying in his kinsman’s arms, he foreshadows the coming troubles for his people, the Geats. His death is a harbinger of unrest to come and the end of the Germanic hero.
Thinking about the monsters, it is important to investigate what purpose they serve in relation to Beowulf and to the society they act upon. In particular, other than to kill Beowulf, what purpose does the dragon serve? Is he simply an evil opposition to the virtue of Beowulf?
Previous critics have mentioned that the monsters of Beowulf matter the least in the story, a misplace in weight, the real worth being in what historians can glean about the movements and actions of medieval people, culture and politics. However, the dragon is a powerful symbol, recognizable in texts and cultures across the world. What can we decipher about his meaning to the text? Is he just an enemy for Beowulf to defeat?
Here is a passage describing the dragon’s death, lines 2824-2835
The dragon from underearth,
his nightmarish destroyer, lay destroyed as well,
utterly without life. No longer would his snakefolds
ply themselves to safeguard hidden gold.
Hard-edged blades, hammered out
and keenly filed, had finished him
so that the sky-roamer lay there rigid,
brought low beside the treasure-lodge.
Never again would he glitter and glide
and show himself off in the midnight air,
exulting in his riches: he fell to earth
through the battle-strength in Beowulf’s arm
Noticeably, the dragon is abstracted of human form, being described as having “snakefolds” and being a “sky-roamer” who “glides”. While the poet does divorce the form of the dragon from the human, they do assemble a link between the psyche and habits of humans to the beast, the emphasis being on greed. The concept of the “treasure-lodge” filled with “hidden gold”, home for the dragon and origin of his fury, is not unlike the gilded hall of Heorot, nor the funeral of Shield described as littered with piles of “far-fetched treasures”(36) and gold. The kings and ring-givers of this world are immensely rich, atop massed treasure. Such is the dragon, though his lair is secluded underground.
Also of note is the treatment of the dragon as grudge-bearing creature. In the book, we see him as a “nightmarish destroyer” (2825), lashing out at the theft of a goblet from his hoard.
The goblet is a small item, but that is exactly the point. Such a small point of contention is the catalyst for the dragon’s path of destruction. His wealth and his property have been invaded, and there is no weregild to ease him. This echoes a similar passage of the fight at Finnsburh, where uneasy peace is broken to slaughter by the old hostilities of the Danes and Frisians, one unbridgeable by the “peace-weaver” wife Wealtheow.
The dragon operates on a somewhat parallel basis to the rulers of the poem, hogging and caching, invested in fortune and honor.
Therefore, the claim is this: The dragon is, symbolically, the societies of north Germany and Scandinavia: the Geats, Heathobards, Frisians, all of whom are greedy and quarrelsome, grudge-bearing people. Much like the simple stealing of a goblet from the dragon’s hoard acts as the inciting event that enrages the dragon, petty claims and disputes trigger hostilities and war for the people of these tribes. They are war-like and conquest-minded, and ultimately this conquest is futile and cyclical.
Beowulf’s honor, if he can be said to have any, comes not from defeating a litany of monsters. It comes from his symbolic destruction of his people through the slaying of the dragon. In this sense, Beowulf occupies a paradoxical space: he is the leader of the geats but estranged by his society for his heroism and virtue. Just as they dragon must die, so must the Geats, and ultimately, Beowulf destroys himself as a matter of necessity. By this conclusion, Beowulf is a martyr for the Geats as well as their unwilling murderer.
Why does this matter, and how does it color our interpretation of Beowulf?
Firstly, it means that the monsters of the narrative are objects of value, included by the poet as items to be discussed and explored. As with the dragon, Grendel and Grendel’s mother are similarly dense figures, with the author maintaining echoes of the human form in them. As such, the monsters and their images of what monstrosity means to the world of Beowulf are important.
This also intuits a few things the author values: chief among these is the concept of transience and the passage of time. Evidence for this is supported in numerous examples, such as many of Beowulf’s speeches where he emphasizes that “fate goes ever as fate must” (455), and the ephemeral nature of man on this earth.
In relation to the monsters, it is certain upon their mere introduction that they are fated to be slain (such is the nature of the hero poem). But analyzing what concepts each monsters espouses begins a talk on what each monster stands for, if anything, and what it means when Beowulf slays them. Thusly, the dragon’s mere existence is not so much more important as the dragon’s death nor the act of its slaying. These events are unified by the subject, but the interpretation changes based on the moment of the subject. The action must be assessed in three parts: decision, action, and reaction. For our dragon, this follows as such: What the dragon represents, be it greed, grudge, or Nordic tribal culture, What it’s death means: an end to the cycle of feuds and quarrels and the ultimate destruction of Beowulf, and how it effects the world thereafter: altering the course of history for the Geats.
Death, and it’s relation to life, is a landmark event in Beowulf’s characters’ lives whether shown or ruminated on. Who dies, when, where, and what of are all important pieces of information. Though the monsters are more abstracted and mutated from the human form, these conceptual characters should be treated with the same respect, their baser aspects inspected as matters of meaning. Understanding the agency to kill or to spare, and what that means in larger context, is the heart of the Beowulf monsters and their lives and deaths.