Wondering about the Strange and the Draconic (ll. 3033-3046) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Dragon Gawking
Of Dragonkind
Closing

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Abstract

The Geats come down to where Beowulf died, but are distracted by a more wondrous sight.

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Translation

They found him on the sand where his soul left his body
emptily guarding his couch, he who had given rings
in days past; that was the final day
of that good man’s journey, indeed that great-king,
lord of the Weders, died a wondrous death.
Yet before that they saw a stranger creature,
opposite him there on the strand was the serpent, there
the loathed one lay: it was the dweller of the drake’s
den,the sombrely splattered horror, glowing like an
ember for its flames. It was full fifty feet long,
laying there; just days ago it knew
the joy of night-flight, keeping a searching eye out for
its den down below; it was held there in death,
never again would it know its earth den.
(Beowulf ll.3033-3046)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Dragon Gawking

The first thing to ask after reading this passage is: Why does the dragon get so much attention?

It’s the “loathed” enemy (“laa[th]ne” l.3040), and Beowulf overcame it. So why spend nine lines going into detail about it?

There are a few possibilities here. The Anglo-Saxon audiences of the poem before it was written down probably had a good sense of a creature’s strength. More than likely, simply by hearing about him, her, or it, even. The prevalance and power of boasting among them definitely attests to such an idea. But any culture that can so readily size up opponents needs some sort of metric to go by. So, maybe, all of this extra detail about the dragon is provided to show how Beowulf is at least equal to the dragon, since they mutually slew one another.

Or, maybe the point of having such detail isn’t to compare it to Beowulf in terms of strength at all. Instead, maybe it’s more about their common strangeness. For, whatever a man’s boasts were in those days, few would have crossed paths with monsters as varied and powerful as those that Bwowulf scuffled with. In that sense, then, maybe this passage is suggesting that Beowulf himself should be viewed as a kind of monster. Or, at the very least, a wonder.

Maybe this is why Beowulf was bound together with a life of Saint Christopher, Wonders of the East, and a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. Rather than being about a normal person going around the world and finding oddities, Beowulf offered audiences a glimpse into the perspective of a creature as rare and wonderful as dog-headed men, or a land over which thick darkness has settled.

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Of Dragonkind

Matters of the dragon and Beowulf sharing the page in this excerpt aside, there’s the question of what kind of dragon it is. Given its description here, it sounds more like an Oriental dragon than an Occidental one. It must be rather thin (its fire burning through its skin can be seen long after it’s dead), it can fly but no real mention of wings is made in the poem, and, at least so far as I’m imagining it, it seems like it’s coiled up in death.

Why should the kind of dragon that Beowulf and Wiglaf defeated matter?

Well, one of the biggest influences on Beowulf (particularly its being written down) was Christianity. Of course, Christianity isn’t without its depictions of dragons. These, though, especially up to the early Medieval period, are generally of a serpentine beast that’s supposed to be the devil incarnate. Maybe there’s a bit of that here too, but it seems more likely that having a unique dragon is just another reason that the book was bound with fantastic tales from around the known world.

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Closing

Next week, the poem moves from treasure-hoarder to treasure itself. Don’t miss it!

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