Beowulf vs. The Dragon

Beowulf is an epic poem that tells the story of a hero on a journey for fame in fifth century Sweden and Denmark. The main character for which the poem is entitled battles three antagonists: Grendel, a giant who terrorizes Heorot, the great hall of the Dane's king Hrothgar; Grendel's mother, who in an attempt to avenge her son's death, murders Aeschere, Hrothgar's best advisor; and a dragon who goes on a reign of terror when its cup is stolen, destroying most of the Geatland including Beowulf's home. Throughout the poem we see that Beowulf is courageous, responsible, generous and tactful. From the beginning of the story to the end, these aspects of Beowulf's strong character stand out. However, in his last words to the Geat soldiers before he goes to fight the dragon, these characteristics are more vivid then anywhere else in the story. Beowulf's strong character combined with his ability to understand the culture and follow the code of his country makes him a successful warrior and king.

The fight between Beowulf and the dragon takes place towards the end of the poem. By this time Beowulf has defeated Grendel and his mother, and has ruled the Geats for fifty years. At this point there are several circumstances which Beowulf must consider primarily his age and his role as the king. As a warrior, Beowulf has followed the comitatus which is the warriors' code that states the warrior will fight alongside the lord in battle and in exchange the lord will compensate him with land and/or money. His willingness to follow this code without protest in every battle helps Beowulf develop a relationship with both the Geatish king before him, Hygelac, and the Danish king, Hrothgar, based on loyalty and trust. This is manifested in the scene where Beowulf and Hrothgar are saying farewell to one another after Grendel and his mother have been slain:
Then the good king, of noble kin, kissed the best of thanes and embraced his neck, the Scylding prince; tears were shed by that gray-haired man…The man was so dear to him that he could not hold back the flood in his breast, but in his heart, fast in the bonds of his thought, a deep-felt longing for the dear man burned in his blood. (1870-1873)

As can be seen from in this episode, as Beowulf's actions and attitude as a warrior during battle have gained him respect and affection of others. We also see this when Hygelac is killed and Hygd, Hygelac's wife, offers Beowulf the throne over her son:

Hygd offered him the hoard and kingdom, rings and royal throne; she did not trust that her son could hold the ancestral seat against foreign hosts, now that Hygelac was dead. But despite their misery, by no means could they prevail upon that prince at all that he should become lord over Heardred…Yet he upheld him in folk with friendly counsel, good will and honors. (2369-2377)

Here again we see the amount of trust that is bestowed on Beowulf as a result of his ability to successfully follow the warrior's code combined with the good nature of his character. This all speaks to Beowulf as a warrior which is his rank throughout most of the poem. However, once we get to the fight with the dragon, he has been king of Geatland for fifty years. As king, he has an obligation that is different from the one he had as a warrior. Now he must protect his people from invading nations and beasts. Moreover, he has a responsibility to serve as a good example for the Geats by showing them that they can not let fear or age hinder their efforts; they have an obligation not only to themselves but to their fellow countrymen.

In his last speech to the Geatish soldiers, Beowulf alludes to his past and future as both a warrior and a king. The way the words are spoken we see not only the change in the relationship between the Geats and Beowulf but also the change in time. In this final speech he does not boast much about his past glories as he did when he first met Hrothgar and later when he returns home and speaks to Hygelac. He does however go back to the central theme of wyrd which is an Old English word for fate and the idea that everything in life is predestined. Earlier in the poem, Beowulf has stated, "Wyrd often spares an undoomed man, when his courage endures" (572-573), meaning that a man who is brave in life is often saved from death. In his final speech he says "From the hoard's warden I will not flee a single foot, but for us it shall be at the wall as wyrd decrees" (2542-2547) meaning that he will not run away afraid but hold his ground against the cave's wall as fate will have it. In these two passages the concept of fate is both significant and stated in the same manner, showing that Beowulf has kept the same mind set throughout his life. Thus he knows that this battle may be his last, but he will not let this break his will-power. Other elements that we get from this speech include Beowulf's sense of responsibility. We see this as he explains to the Geats why this battle is his fight: "It is not your way, nor proper for any man except me alone, that he should match his strength against this monster, do heroic deeds" (2532-2535). He is not telling them that they are weak but that as their lord it is his obligation to save them from this beast. This is similar to how he tactfully approaches Hrothgar at their first meeting stating "I can counsel Hrothgar, advise him how, wise old king, he may overcome this fiend" (278-279). He always makes sure to respect others with his words and avoid debasing them.

Beowulf's final speech is significant in regards to the development of ideas in the poem, for instance, the idea of a leadership and what makes a good leader. The poem begins by talking about Scyld Scefing, the founder of the Danish royal family who is said to be a good king because he conquers the mead-benches of other tribes, causing them to fear the Danes so much they will not attack them. Later in the story, Hrothgar describes to Beowulf the deeds of a bad king named Heremod. Heremod value the lives of his people and did not give them gifts. Hrothgar advises Beowulf against such acts, stating "Defend yourself from wickedness, dear Beowulf, best of men, and choose the better, eternal counsel; care not for pride" (1758-1760). Another important idea in the poem is accountability. It has already been stated that Beowulf fulfills his responsibilities to his people but the entire poem alludes to one's responsibility to others. For instance, the wergild is a fee paid to the family of a man that has been killed. We first encounter this when Hrothgar explains how he paid fee-money to the family of the man Beowulf's father killed and then again when Hrothgar pays the family of the Geat warrior who was killed by Grendel. Then again on Beowulf's side he goes to Hrothgar to fulfill his father's oath of support to the Danes when they needed it. As a whole we see that this passage reflects the main ideas of the poem itself.

Before his battle with Grendel, Beowulf says "Wyrd always goes as it must!" (455). With a combination of this motto and his strong character, Beowulf is able to face many challenges throughout the story and succeed because he does not allow fear to overwhelm him. Furthermore, his ability to follow traditions such as comitatus and wergild increases his visibility among both ordinary men and kings. Thus in the end, Beowulf finds the fame he has been searching for.

Beowulf's Fight with the Dragon Works Cited


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