Fifty winters have passed since the young monster-slayer Beowulf and his companions returned home from the land of the Danes. This is perhaps the most significant leap forward in time that I have ever encountered in Germanic legend, for much can happen in fifty winters. Indeed, when we resume the telling of Beowulfs tale we learn that much has happened of which we have not been told. In the space of a few lines we are informed that King Hygelac and his son have long since died in their wars against the other tribes, and the lordship over the Geats has fallen into the hands of Beowulf, slayer of demons. He has ruled well for fifty winters until of a sudden one night a runaway slave, fleeing from the whips of his masters, discovers some “pagan treasure” in a barrow on the heath, and absconds into the night with a golden goblet from the vast hoard. But this is a tale after all, and men do not molest stockpiles of treasure in the wilds without incurring the wrath of some primordial guardian. Not in the old tales they don’t.
In the old days, three hundred winters before the slave steals his goblet, some nameless hero stockpiled the treasure after his people had all gone on the Helway into death. Sealing the treasure away in the earth where it would do no good to men, he lay down on the pile of gold and precious gems, and gave his life up to the shades of the dead. But to amass such vast stores of currency as this is to invite creatures of greed and avarice to take up residence. A dragon, crawling through the night upon his belly, discovered the mans treasure and sat himself down to sleep within the barrow. Now in the time of Beowulfs kingship where we find ourselves, the dragon still sleeps atop the hoard, and upon discovering that he has been burgled he gives in to his destructive rage. In the black of night the serpent leaves his barrow and burns to the ground all of the dwellings of humans that he encounters. This fiend is not like Grendel, who was content to occupy the halls of his foes, nor is he like to Grendels Mother who sought only revenge for her son in the price of blood. This dragon is resolved not only to kill men, who have disturbed his wealth, but to destroy everything that they have built. Upon leaving his trail of fiery destruction behind, he retreats behind the walls of his barrow where he feels safe.
King Beowulf, old of age, is told that the dragon has left his people in desolation and has burned his own royal hall to ash. The mighty king gives in to grief upon hearing this and loses himself in dark thoughts, much as old King Hrothgar did in the years of his decline. But Beowulf has learned many a lesson from Hrothgar and he resolves to face this demon as he has faced many before. He commands his blacksmith to fashion a large, heavy shield of iron which would offer protection against the dragons flame. Beowulf may be old, but he is still strong and he trusts to his strength as much as he has ever done. He gathers together eleven companions plus the slave who found the hoard as a guide, and they all set out to seek the dragons lair. The party of thirteen men make their way through the wilds beyond the walls of their community. As they stand outside the ancient walls of the barrow, Beowulf grows melancholic as he bids farewell to his people, knowing full well that it is his time to die. A man who faces a dragon cannot hope to escape the contest with his life intact, though he may gain the victory. Few are the men who withstand the flames of the fire drake. Thinking of Hrothgar and Hygelac, he recalls the many tribal feuds and petty raids which have followed the death of kings in the past, and foreshadows that such shall be the case when his enemies hear of his own passing. But he is nonetheless resolved to do battle with the serpent alone, as he battled the monsters of his youth alone, and he forbids his men from coming to his aid in the fight. Making his customary boast not to yield to his foe, he proclaims his trust in his strength, his courage, and his “wyrd”.
Shouting out challenges to the beast, the aged warrior strides valiantly into the barrow. He wakes the sleeping dragon and soon feels the biting sting of its flames. He is protected from the inferno for a time by his heavy iron shield, and he stabs at his enemy with his sword. Once again we see how swords always seem to fail Beowulf, as the dragon remains unharmed. The battle continues as the flames grow more intense and Beowulf is hard pressed. Outside of the barrow, the Geatish warriors who had accompanied Beowulf have fled into a nearby wood out of terror of the beast. Only one of them desires to fight at Beowulfs side and aid him in his task. Wiglaf, a young cousin of Beowulfs, who has never been tested in combat, upbraids the cowardly thanes who would leave their valiant King to burn in dragon-fire. He recalls aloud the many favors and gifts which Beowulf has paid them in the past and shames the other warriors for their weakness and impotence. Rushing into the flames, Wiglaf encourages his King to fight hard and gain the ultimate honor. Beowulf takes heart when he sees this young man, the next generation of Geatish noblemen, disdaining danger and playing the manly part. Grasping hold of the great iron shield, Wiglaf covers both men as Beowulf strikes at the dragon with his sword. But we learn that Beowulf is in fact too strong for the weapons of men, as his ancient sword, Naegling, shatters in his hands. Wiglaf plunges his own sword into the throat of the beast and quenches his deadly flames. The dragon then seizes Beowulf about the neck in its fierce jaws and poisons his blood with its venom. Undaunted, the mighty King, renowned slayer of monsters, draws forth his dagger and guts the fire-serpent from his naval upwards, until at the last it lies down defeated.
Beowulfs wound from the dragons bite quickly begins to burn and swell so that both men know the hour of his death is at hand. He sits himself down beside the barrow and commands Wiglaf to bring as much of the treasure before him as he could manage, so that he could appreciate the vast wealth that he has gained for the good of his people. Lamenting that he has no heir to bequeath the treasure and the throne to, he bequeaths it instead to all of his tribe, that they may benefit from his labour. He orders Wiglaf to gather men who have been tried in warfare to build a great mound on a headland overlooking the sea, and atop there to lay his body to be burned in the heathen custom of old. He gives his armor and golden torc to his young cousin as a sign that he should inherent the throne and rule now as the new king. The last of his house, Beowulf gives up his life, and goes on the Helway down into death.
Wiglaf grieves at the side of his fallen lord and hero, a man whom all men looked up to and honored. No wars were waged against the Geats during the kingship of Beowulf. No enemy raided his lands or attacked his ships, such was the fame of his deeds and his esteem in the eyes of his neighbors. Now the kingdom lies in the hands of Wiglaf, who is young and little experienced in war and in justice. When the blaze at last burns low, the other warriors, cowards and laggards all, slither into the barrow and behold the lifeless body of their King. Having broken their vows to fight for him because their hearts gave in to fear, they move in shame like men without purpose. Seeing them thus, Wiglaf, now their King, scolds them as useless wastrels and hangers-on at their lords feasts. He strips them of all land, titles and wealth which had been previously granted to them by Beowulf, and orders them to begin work on the great barrow wherein they would lay their fallen heroes remains. Townspeople and craftsmen and women are summoned to attend the burning of the great Kings body. Bitter of heart and forlorn with grief, Wiglaf nonetheless retains his senses enough to realize the dire peril that his people now find themselves in. Bereft of the unbreakable might of Beowulf, who was feared and honored by all, there exists now a power vacuum which other kings will attempt to fill. War will come to the Geatish lands when neighboring tribes learn of the weakness of their warriors, and covet the great hoard of wealth that they now possess. Having gone so long without a war in which to hone their manhood, his warriors have proven themselves to be cowardly and unwilling to fight. Wiglaf correctly recognizes that the history of the once proud Geats is coming to an end. He addresses his people and assembles a party to begin Beowulfs funeral. First they cast the body of the dragon over the cliffs edge, into the endless sea. Next they prepare a great pyre and lay thereon the body of their King, now dead. As the flames rise and burn away Beowulfs remains, so too rises the lament of some unnamed woman, possibly the Geatish Queen Hygd. As she sings a mournful song foretelling dark days to come, the heavens look on indifferent, and swallow the smoke.
But unusually, Wiglaf is not so enamored of the cursed hoard as others have been upon beholding its golden beauty. For Wiglaf has seen the doom that awaits his people and knows that their civilization will not live long enough to enjoy the prosperity that the wealth might bring. So just as it was once before, the treasure is buried in the earth, inside Beowulfs Barrow, as useless now as it ever has been. None shall profit from the sacrifice of Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow. Wiglaf regrets that the old King ever went to face the dragon. He thinks that by letting the serpent sleep in its den, this doom could have been avoided. But he is young and idealistic, and he underestimates the destructive effect of tolerating a dragon in your society. Now the men begin to grieve their loss and with gloom in their hearts they carry out the customary funeral rites. Beowulf is remembered of all the kings of men as the most gracious, most generous lord. The kindest to his people and the keenest for fame and glory.
So ends the tale of Beowulf, and also the tale of the Geats as a whole. For the people of the Geats did not exist in legend alone, but rather they were an historical tribe who dwelt near the southern coast of Sweden. All records and remains of the culture vanished mysteriously around the 6th century CE, and it seems that Wiglafs prediction came true. In many ways it is only right and fitting for Beowulf to be slain by a dragon. Had he lived, he would have eventually grown old and frail and the Swedes on his borders would have taken advantage of his weakness. Had they invaded, Beowulf, never one to back out of a fight, would no doubt have donned his armor once more and challenged the enemy Chieftain to single combat. He may possibly have won, but soon or late as Hrothgar predicted all those winters past, fire or a weapon or hideous old age would steal the light from his eyes and send him into a sleep from which he would never wake. But instead of that ignoble fate, he chooses to go down in glory to meet a death that can never be rivaled by men of this earth. For a man such as he, there was no enemy more suitable to fall to than the dragon. It was the slaying of monsters that won Beowulf his fame in youth, but these monsters were not so far removed from humankind as to be unrecognizable. Our hero triumphed over them with ease, but he is hard pressed in his battle with the primordial beast that is the dragon. For dragons in all forms in the myths are not mere serpents or animals, they are forces of nature and symbolic of the wild destructive indifference of life in this world. No man can avoid his death when he wages war on the forces of nature.
“Beowulf” is no mere folk-tale or legend or historical reimagining, though it bears similarities to all of these things. It stands above these lesser forms of allegorical wisdom and touches on universal truths. I have always found it difficult to penetrate the shell of this myth because of the many difficulties that it presents, but once you manage to get inside the tale you find yourself swimming upon an open sea of pure human insight and understanding. As in all good seas there are monsters to be found there, but there is also glory and honor and power and wisdom and demons to slay and kingdoms to win and women to wed and mighty heroic deaths to die. These are the tales that tell us what it is to be human, regardless of what period or age you have been born into. I have not yet presented much interpretation to you, as I have dedicated these first two posts to a simple retelling of the tale in my own words. But the final part of this series will be devoted entirely to the enlightenments that I have attained as a result of studying this myth. It is my own interpretation and I am but a layman in this business, so it is not to be taken as the definitive interpretation. I have been lucky enough to get my hands on numerous works relating to “Beowulf” which have given me valuable insights, and a full list of references will be listed at the end of Part 3 of this series.
July 22nd, 2015. Dublin.