Here Be Dragons
“Ahead of him he could see the dragon’s fiery breath illuminating the storm clouds rolling overhead, a fire accompanied by pale blue lightning that danced in jerky streaks down from the clouds. Then she folded her huge wings and plummeted down toward the farmstead with billows of fire preceding her…at the last instant, the dragon extended her vast pinions and settled into the farmyard, still belching fire and smoke. She swung her snakelike neck around sending incandescent billows of flame into the wooden structures…” (Eddings, 234).
Dragons are mysterious monsters of old that have existed only in the human mind for over 2000 years. The Western version of a dragon is categorized as being extremely large, thick, long-bodied, and serpent-like. They have two bat-like wings and a triangular or wedge-shaped head; their long powerful tails have either spikes or spades angling down toward the tips. They are mystical animals that breathe fire, fly, and wreak havoc on all human beings and their conventions. They traditionally capture maidens and hoard tremendous amounts of treasure (draconian). Dragons have made appearances in Western literature throughout history from the time of Beowulf to the modern day.
The concept of this particular type of dragon is originally pagan. It represented power and sovereignty, and had magic that was as elemental as the earth. Early Scandinavian works often described a dragon as being a worm: wingless, long, and instead of breathing fire, and poisonous. Almost all Celtic types of dragons were worms and have many characteristics that are similar to the dragon we know today. They are both scaly, treasure hoarding, princess stealing, and are terribly difficult to kill. It is thought that the idea of a dragon was probably born out of early dinosaur fossil findings, and mankind developed these bones into full-grown beasts (Savage).
Beowulf incorporates many of these ideas. The story of the dragon begins with a tribe that dies, leaving a tremendous amount of treasure behind for the “last survivor” to watch over. After delivering a moving elegy to his lost kinsmen similar to the Ubi Sunt passage in the “The Wanderer,” he dies:
So, sad of mind, he spoke his sorrow, alone of them all, moved joyless through the day and night until death’s flood reached his heart. The ancient night ravager [a dragon] found the hoard-joy standing open…He it is who must seek a hoard in the earth where he will guard heathen gold, wise for his winters, he is none the better for it. (Beowulf, 38).
According to the text, a dragon then discovers this lonely treasure and stands watch over it for over 300 years. Then a slave in a tribe nearby is in a little predicament. He has killed someone and needs to pay his wergild; however, he does not have the money to pay. So, he goes in search and comes upon the dragon’s treasure hoard. Before he realizes who owns the gold, he picks up a cup, admiring it. As his eyes drift around the cave, they fall upon the sleeping monster. Terrified to his very soul, he flees the cave with the cup still in his hands. With this “precious cup” he pays he wergild and then some. The dragon awakes soon afterward and begins to take inventory of his riches; he soon discovers the cup missing and falls into a blind rage. As soon as night envelops the earth, he terrorizes the people and destroys all the areas that belong to them, searching for his cup and seeking revenge.
It has been 50 years since the heroic Beowulf has held his position as king; he is now 80 years old. He does not realize the destruction that was being done all around him until his own home was engulfed by the beast’s flame. It was then that he knew his fate. Beowulf was going to fight and kill this monster, and probably leave this world with it, as fate desired, “The prince good from old times was to come to the end of days that had been lent him, life in the world, and the worm with him…” (Beowulf, 40). Beowulf knew his fate; this fight with the dragon was to be his last. Fate has determined that this was his time to fall, and he does.
Dragons and other mythical monsters have long captured our interest as human beings. Although the belief in them ended with the growth of Christianity, we are still fascinated with these fire-breathing serpents. Whether it is the pagan ideal of a worm, or the Western standard of a vicious flying monster, dragons will continue to fascinate and entrance our imaginations for centuries to come.
Donaldson, T.E., Beowulf: A Prose Translation. Nicholas Howe, ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002
http://www.draconian.com/ downloaded 2/25/02
Eddings, David. Sorceress of Darshiva. Ballatine Books, New York: 1989.
Savage, L. Celtic Dragon History http://www.ealaghol.demon.co.uk/celtenc/celt_d3.htm
Image borrowed from ljubljana