The Old English epic Beowulf follows the story of the titular Geat warrior Beowulf, who bravely and heroically defeats several monsters throughout his lifetime. The last of his opponents is the dragon, who wreaks havoc upon Beowulfs land after a piece of the dragons treasure is stolen.
After a fight, the elderly Beowulf defeats the dragon with the assistance of his loyal retainer Wiglaf, although Beowulf perishes along with the dragon. The dragon is the central antagonist of the last third of Beowulf and adds understanding to the epic regarding the central conflicts between man and monster.
The description of the dragons final fate at Beowulfs hands illustrates the alluring yet illusory nature of the dragon as well as the greed and pride he represents through contradictory characterization and imagery of the dragon, while also emphasizing the steadfast and dependable brand of heroism employed by Beowulf and Wiglaf as a stark contrast to the evil they defeat. Through this, the passage regarding the dragon further clarifies the devious and unpredictable nature of evil in Beowulf and contextualizes its relationship with the stable heroism capable of defeating it.
The dragon is a symbol of the evils of the overt greed and pride that characters in Beowulf are often warned against. He guards his riches such that his snakefolds/ply themselves to safeguard hidden gold in the treasure-lodge, creating a vivid image that personifies how his very own hide insistently and seemingly independently works at hoarding the treasure greedily (Beowulf 2826-27). Not only is the dragon greedy with his riches, but the poet describes the dragon as exulting in his riches which demonstrates a deep-seated pride held by the dragon. However, while the dragon undoubtedly symbolizes the evils of greed and pride, he also demonstrates a fickle character that reflects upon the sins he represents.
The fickle and devious nature of the dragon is characterized by several literary devices that invoke contradictory interpretations, including appositive epithets. The dragon is first described as a destructive and malevolent force as the dragon from underearth,/his nightmarish destroyer (2824b-25). The descriptor of nightmarish destroyer solidifies the terrifying and destructive potential of the dragon. However, the poet also describes the dragon with the kenning sky-roamer, contrasting with the underearth origin of the dragon, suggesting a connotation of freedom and lightness associated with the dragon (2830, 2824b). Through the appositions of the dragon, he is at once a creature crawling from the dark bowels of earth to destroy Beowulf as well as a free roamer of the skies, which emphasizes how the dragon himself is a character of contrasts.
This contradictory element within the dragon is further developed by the imagery present within the passage, where the dragon initially evokes animalistic imagery through his snakefolds which highlights the negative and devious nature of the dragon by comparing it to a snake (2826). However, the poets use of alliterative and connotative imagery in the line Never again would he glitter and glide evokes a strong sense of beauty and grace, while also calling back to a comparison to gold in line 2827 in other words, the dragon glitters like gold. The Beowulf poet further paints an image where the dragon can show himself off in the midnight air suggesting that even in the dark of night, the dragon is beautiful and alluring (2833).
In this way, the contrasting imagery serves as a dichotomy with earlier descriptions of the dragon. The dichotomy observed in the dragons characterization consequently begs the question of which side of the dragons dual nature is the true representation of him, and by extension of greed and pride in Beowulf. The epithet nightmarish destroyer sheds light upon this problem and is strengthened by the word and setting choice of midnight air (2825, 2833). Nightmarish implies the dragon is an unnatural horror, but it also suggests the origin of the dragon: from the unreal and illusory realm of dreams. Furthermore, the dragon in its glittering and gliding glory is placed during the time of midnight, where dreams and nightmares are at their strongest. In other words, the diction highlights that the dragons beauty is an illusion, which explains his contradictory nature and emphasizes a certain unreliability inherent in the dragon. In essence, the dragon is a negative force, but he is also illusory and deceptive, inciting a sense of unpredictability and instability within the passage.
In contrast, the heroics that defeat the dragon are characterized as stable and solid compared to the dragons unstable and shifting nature. In the lines Hard-edged blades, hammered out/and keenly filed, had finished him the Beowulf poet makes use of strong and forceful phrases like hard-edged hammered keenly filed and finished (2828-29). The sense of solidity emanating from the choice of diction marks a great difference from the fickler nature of the dragon and suggests a basis for a stable force defeating an unstable force. Moreover, the plural Hard-edged blades remind the reader of how the dragon was defeated that is, by the combined efforts of Beowulfs bravery and Wiglafs staunch loyalty, thus laying out a literal and metaphorical stability borne out of the unwavering loyalty between king and retainer (2828).
To further support the application of stability to the dragons demise, the Beowulf poet utilizes end-stops correlating to the ends of sentences describing the dragons permanent end: No longer would his snakefolds/ply themselves to safeguard hidden gold so that the sky-roamer lay there rigid,/brought low beside the treasure lodge and he fell to earth/through the battle-strength in Beowulfs arm (2826-27, 2830-31, 2834-35). The repeated correlation between the end-stops with phrases vividly depicting the fallen dragon underlines the finality wrought upon the dragon by Beowulf and overall lends this passage a stable and predictable structure in spite of the dragons contradictory descriptions, reflecting the possible stability that can ensue once the destructive and unpredictable dragon is dead.
A similar message is achieved through enjambment of between the lines he fell to earth/through the battle-strength in Beowulfs arm where the enjambment allows for the interruption of the dragons beauty and exultation by Beowulfs battle-strength (2834-35). The interruption of this nightmare by the solid, real presence of Beowulfs arm, an organic representation of Beowulfs innate strength and courage, accentuates the triumph of stability over instability and links this triumph to the heroism and strength that Beowulf embodies. The devious and illusory dragon is no match for the consistent and stable force of his human foes, both in terms of Beowulfs battle prowess and the loyalty exhibited by the two men. In short, their heroism not only conquers instability, but it also embodies and instills an unyielding stability within the context of the passage. Therefore, the fickle dragons greed and pride is juxtaposed with Beowulfs resolute heroism throughout this passage in order to assert a relationship between stability and instability.
The triumph of heroes over evil in the description of the dragons corpse informs an overarching central conflict of instability versus stability in Beowulf. The sins of pride, greed and perhaps evil in general in Beowulf are unpredictable and destructive, at once seeming attractive yet causing instability and discontent. While the contradictory characterization of the dragon achieves an atmosphere of instability within the passage itself, it also reflects the dragons physical actions of causing chaos and instability in Geatland in the larger context of the story. This aspect is reflected upon the other monsters in Beowulf, such as Grendel who wantonly sheds the Danes blood without meaning or purpose, as well as Grendels mother, who exacts overwhelming and bloody vengeance upon the previously beleaguered Danes. It illuminates the motivation behind Beowulf characters repeated warnings of becoming too prideful and greedy and deviating from their warrior values, as these evils themselves can induce instability in a world already riddled with inconstancy.
However, whenever instability is caused by a monster, Beowulf ultimately provides a stabilizing force and ends the instability. The emphasis upon the battle-strength in Beowulfs arm in its role of casting down both the dragon and its hubris alludes to Beowulfs previous feats of strength, recalling his defeat of Grendel with his bare hands (2835). There is a reassuring innate consistency to Beowulf, to his strength and to his continued heroism, and it is capable of defeating great evils and abolishing instability. His adherence to righteous values such as protecting his own people as well as others is a strength in of itself. This passage suggests that such steadfast dedication may be a key component in ending instability not only caused by the monsters, but perhaps even instability caused by violent feuds between men in Beowulf.
Even when Beowulfs heroism alone seemed not enough to defeat the dragons evil, stability was introduced by Wiglafs own adherence to heroic values of loyalty present throughout Beowulf. Indeed, the heroism embodied by Beowulf is so important to this conflict that once he dies, his absence removes his influence of stability as the poem gives way to a bleak picture of an unstable country left bereft and vulnerable to new disruptions in the future.
Thus, the portrayal of the dragons body and fate through contradictory descriptors as well as its juxtapositions with Beowulfs heroism in this passage not only reveal the fickle nature of the dragons evil and the heroism that defeats the dragon, but also elucidates Beowulfs themes of the conflict between instability and stability. In addition, it highlights heroisms triumph over evil and the resulting aftermath, wherein dangerous instability gives way to a sense of stability for the characters. The Beowulf characters live in a fictional world wrought unstable by otherworldly monsters and men alike.
The themes of instability and stability evoked by comparisons between an unpredictable picture of the dragon and a consistent picture of Beowulf is thus central to understanding the characters conflicts with evil and instability, as well as to understanding not only the value of Beowulfs brand of heroism for confronting such instability, but also the wistful sorrow and despair that the Geats, deprived of their heroic and steadfast leader, experience as they prepare to face impending instability at the somber conclusion of Beowulf.
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Print.
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