Beowulf’s Dragon: a Hero’s Fate

As promised, I’m back from my Memorial Day weekend trip for a Tuesday post. I had good weather, good company, and some gorgeous scenery, but I’m happy to be back home (and back to Dragon Crossing!).

I just finished reading Beowulf for the first time. Somehow, I managed to successfully graduate with an English degree without ever reading the classic poem, so I figured I should give it a go. The translation I read was Seamus Heaney’s new verse translation (with some good reviews on Amazon). It had the Old English version on every left-hand page, but this time I mainly focused on the modern line-by-line translation on the right.

Maybe you’ve heard the story, and maybe you haven’t:

Beowulf the Geat sails to the land of his allies, the Danes, to free them from Grendel, a horrible monster that repeatedly comes in the night to violently slaughter people. Beowulf single-handedly defeats Grendel, and when the monster’s mother comes looking for revenge, Beowulf tracks her down and kills her, too. He goes home laden with the Danes’ treasure and gratitude.

Beowulf and the Dragon

Beowulf fights the dragon–
Public Domain image from Wikipedia

At home, Beowulf becomes king of his people and rules well for fifty years—but a third of the poem remains. When a runaway slave stumbles into a hidden treasure trove and steals a goblet, he angers the sleeping dragon who guards the stash. The dragon ravishes the land with fire, and Beowulf, now an old man, must attempt one final errand: defeat the dragon to free the treasure and save the lives of his people. With the help of one loyal youth, he kills the dragon, but not until it has fatally wounded him. After all he has accomplished, the hero finally dies, leaving the broken Geats grieving their fallen lord and fearing the trouble that will come with their protector’s death.

Beowulf’s dragon is hardly the sign of a lucky year. After finding and guarding the treasure for three centuries, the dragon is angry enough at the disappearance of a single cup to spend night after night burning the Geats’ land in revenge. Even Beowulf, strong and fearless as he is, has a premonition that he might die while facing the beast.

This dragon is a writhing, looping serpent that can fly and breathe fire. Its scales are so hard that Beowulf cannot cut through its neck, and its body is a scorched color. Most unique are its fangs: this dragon, instead of just toasting the hero, sinks fangs into Beowulf’s neck. The dragon’s bite is toxic—after it is defeated, Beowulf feels the poison in his body as the wound swells and bleeds.

Beowulf wasn’t wrong to defend his people, but was the dragon so wrong in defending its treasure? In the end, certainly, nobody mourns its death. Beowulf gets a fine funeral, but the shimmering, 50-foot serpent gets tossed off a cliff into the sea without a second thought.

If you haven’t read the poem, I encourage you to check it out—it’s a reasonably quick read, it’s the epic story of a great hero, and the dragon fight is as well-written as a reader could hope for. I borrowed a copy from the library, but if you’re a Nook or Kindle user, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have free electronic copies of older Beowulf translations that you can download. When you read it (or if you already have), let me know what you think of the great dragon that proved to be Beowulf’s bane.

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Categories: Western Tradition | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Beowulf’s Dragon: a Hero’s Fate

  1. Pingback: Grendel, John Gardner (Ballantine Books, 1971) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  2. Pingback: Beowulf: A New Translation (a.k.a. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation), Unknown, Translation by Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 1999) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

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