Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday's Dragon

Beowulf's Bane

He doesn't have a name. He doesn't need one. When one proves to be the death of the greatest warrior king in known literature, one needs no other name.

 Though this dragon will have his moment of fiery glory and terror, he begins as a more subtle danger in the dark. While Beowulf, victorious from two previous battles, first with the Grendel, then with its monstrous mother, rules his kingdom for fifty prosperous winters, the dragon sleeps fitfully in his barrow.

                        He ruled it well
For fifty winters, grew old and wise
as warden of the land
                        until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard
                                                            (lines 2208-2214)

Like Fáfnir, this dragon has a treasure he loves with consuming passion. Perhaps he too was once a dwarf or even a man, turned to this dreadful state by his own greed. We cannot know for certain.

What we do know is that the epic Beowulf, though British, is heavily influenced by Germanic mythology, though the author himself is distinctly Christian. The earlier battles the hero fights are heavy with Christian symbolism. The Grendel is said to be a descendant of Cain, the first murderer.

                        he [Grendel] had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price
                                                            (lines 104-108)

 Obviously, the author is more than happy to insert Biblical allusions within his story, possibly in an attempt (and a grand one at that) to bring Christian doctrine to the Germanic people now dominating Britain. Due to this previous use of symbols and allusion, it would seem natural for this author to make his dragon dragon a symbol of the Devil.

However, this is not the direction the poet takes the story. This dragon bears a much closer resemblance to Fáfnir, the greedy hoarder, than to Satan, the liar and deceiver.

Perhaps what the poet's hero is fighting is the clinging darkness of older beliefs. The subversive "dragon" that lurks beneath an otherwise prospering society. Perhaps the poet, through his tragic tale, is trying to warn his own people against the danger of falling back into the old beliefs and practices of Germanic tradition and religion.

But, this isn't a college paper, so I won't pursue that train of thought just now. Back to the dragon himself!

The dragon discovered this hoard while burrowing in the dark. The gold once belonged to a heathen king, long dead. The dragon doesn't care! Finders keepers, thank you very much, says he, and happily goes to roost.

But he wasn't the only one to find that secret passage. A poor man, a slave we are told, desperate to escape "the heavy hand of some master, guilt-ridden and on the run, going to ground." (lines 2223-2225), found his way to the dragon's lair. There he saw so many jewels, so much treasure, it dazzled him! Surely the dragon wouldn't notice if he took one gem-studded cup?

But, as Smaug would prove to us later in The Hobbit, a dragon knows every last piece of his hoard.

When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again.
He rippled down the rock, writhing with anger
when he saw the footprints of the prowler who had stolen
too close to his dreaming head.
                                                            (lines 2287-2290)

Beowulf had faced the Grendel, the ogre, and sea monsters already. Though old and gray now, he was not about to turn back from facing the dragon! But though he fought valiantly:

                         So the king of the Geats
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper [dragon]
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed.
                                                            (lines 2575-2583)

How's that for a descriptive battle scene? Gives me the chills!

Seeing their brave leader failing, all Beowulf's men deserted him, save one. Young Wiglaf, son of Woehstan, stood firm. And in the end, it was he who enabled the king to kill the dragon.

They had killed the enemy, courage quelled his life;
that pair of kinsmen, partners in nobility,
had destroyed the foe.
                                                            (lines 2706-2708)

Yes, it is the fate of dragons in epics to be slain. But not all of them kill their slayers in return! For though young Wiglaf survived the battle, Beowulf was dealt a mortal blow.

This dragon has found his way into many depictions. The version I have been quoting is Seamus Heaney's translation of the original text . . . which has been called, truth be told, "Beowulf Lite." So, not the very most accurate translation in the world! But it's a fun read. I've read at least three different translations of Beowulf, and honestly enjoyed this one the most (don't tell my professors!).

This dragon was also in the movie Beowulf, written by Neil Gaiman. I haven't seen it. Heard it was pretty dreadfully altered from the original, so I didn't bother. But the dragon looks relatively frightening.

Most movie versions leave the dragon out. After all, isn't it better to end with the hero victoriously killing ogres than to see him vanquished by the dragon?

And, of course, he made his way into comic book world!
Godzilla's baby, maybe?

And he was obviously another huge influence on Tolkien's Smaug, who, centuries later, would also sleep on a hoard and have a gem-crusted cup stolen from him, inciting his fury.

Beowulf's Bane on a scale of 1-10

 Evil:  4
This dragon is a bit more animalistic, not really evil. Not saying I'd try to keep him as a pet or anything! But I don't think basic dragon-y behavior counts as evil, per se.

Scariness:  9
Definitely a scary dragon! Some of those descriptions are breathtakingly frightening! Just because he isn't evil doesn't mean he can't terrify.

 Poison:   7
There is "molten venom in the fire he breathes." So his breath is poisonous, but the battle described is much more concerned with the heat than the poison.

Hoard:   9
From the descriptions of gold-crusted weapons, masks, and goblets, I don't know if a dragon could find a much better hoard!


Jenny Freitag said...

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him. Dragons may not have much real use for all their wealth, but they know it to an ounce as a rule, especially after long possession: and Smaug was no exception."

Hurrah, I hoped you would do Beowulf's dragon. I am very, very fond of the story of Beowulf, in particular his encounter with the dragon. Of course it's heart-breaking, but in the midst of all that heart-break there is loyalty and victory. Not to put you on the spot or anything, but I noticed these notions in your works: that you may not live to tell about it, but at least you took a stand against the dragon.

I have only read Burton Raffel's translation, and that twice, though I have Seamus Heaney's as well and a battered old copy in the Anglo-Saxon which is largely commentary with the text slipped (almost by accident) somewhere between a hulk of notes and appendices.

Having written Adamantine which concerns Wiglaf (and Beowulf by extension) I find it difficult to look at the story from the perspective of the dragon. This is a rather new angle you've set for me. And perhaps I had better stop now before I lose myself in singsong praise over the warriors and lose sight of the content of the dragonable post. Thanks for posting on this one!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Anne! It's so interesting to read about different dragons, and the roll they play in mythology:) I have one version of Beowulf (although I'm not sure which one) and really enjoyed it!


Galadriel said...

I really enjoyed reading this for Brit Lit class.

Jenny Freitag said...

I hate to admit it, but it was British Literature class which introduced me to Beowulf as well. The book had sat long on the shelf in my house (and they say familiarity breeds contempt) and I had judged it by its cover (which really was atrocious) so it took that forceful push of a class-room setting to make me crack the cover. But that slight twinge of embarrassment aside, it is nice to discover (by means of Tuesday's Dragon) that other people have read it and, what's more, enjoyed it too.

(I must say, the title of these installments reminds me of the rhyme "Monday's child is fair of face, Tuesday's child is full of grace..." so that I am always expecting Anne Elisabeth to write that "Tuesday's dragon is full of grace, Wednesday's dragon is full of woe..." Which is probably about as preposterous as it is ridiculous, but that's what one gets for reading nursery rhymes as a child.)

Miah said...

Ugh, I never did like Beowulf... I had to read the entire poem and answer all those silly Lit. questions.