Dragons and Death (ll.3120-3136) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Dead Become Dragons?
Dealing with Dragons
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf and several other Geats raid the hoard, and then bring Beowulf and their haul to Hronesness for the hero’s funeral.

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Translation

Indeed the wise son of Weohstan
summoned a band of the king’s thanes,
seven together, those who were best,
he went with seven others, warriors,
under the evil roof; one bore in hand
a flaming torch, the one who went at the front.
There was no drawing of lots for the plundering of
that hoard, when the men saw that all parts of
the hall remained without a guardian,
for he lay wasting away; few of them grieved
as they hastily carried out those
dear treasures; the dragon also was pushed,
the serpent they slid over the sea cliff, let the waves
take him, the sea enfolded that guardian of precious
things. Then was wound gold loaded onto wagons,
everything in countless numbers, then was the prince borne,
the old warrior brought to Hronesness.
(Beowulf ll.3120-3136)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Dead Become Dragons?

There’s something to be said for efficiency. And, here efficiency could be something pointing towards a parallel that’s merely been suggested beforehand.

As far as the poem describes it, the Geats move Beowulf over to Hronesness in the same load, or at least trip, as the gold that they’ve taken from the hoard. Beowulf is certainly worthy to ride with such treasures, but laying him on this heap of heirlooms is really quite strange, especially if you consider what happens to the dragon.

It’s a small act, but there’s so much going on in it. The projection of value onto wealth, the equation of treasured objects with treasured people, perhaps even a glimpse into a philosophy of the soul. For, the Anglo-Saxons might have regarded the body as merely a vessel, much like the cups found in the hoard, something that can be shining and gold adorned, but that maybe has its greatest value when it is filled with mead, just as a body might have its greatest value while it still holds a soul.

Among the strangest of the things that it suggests (and this is something suggested by the act of burying people of high esteem with objects of high esteem), is that in death great people are made into what, if living, could be considered a dragon. They’re in a barrow, surrounded by gold, and, in the case of Beowulf, there is always flame nearby. Even in the case of people like Scyld Scefing, who were pushed off to sea in ships ladened with treasure and then put to flame, all of the key aspects of a dragon can be found.

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Dealing with Dragons

Yet, what do the Geats do with a proper dragon? They just dump it over the cliff and let it fall into the water. Keeping the written Beowulf‘s Christian influences in mind, I wonder if doing so is as bad as dying in a fire is to the Greeks. In either case your body isn’t being properly preserved, which, strictly theologically speaking, means you will not be able to be judged come the second coming.

Moreover, though, it’s also a denial of the cyclical nature of life as laid down throughout the Bible: ‘people are dust and unto dust they will return.’ Perhaps, in a way, destroying a body but not burying it was intended as a way to keep another manifestation of that thing from appearing. If such is the case, then the ceremonial funerals of great figures from this period and earlier could be explained as a means of propagating greatness, or re-introducing it into the life-cycle.

But then, for a people like the Geats, who face difficulty on all sides and even among themselves believe they’ll be wiped out, what does such a funeral mean? Is it merely to be a monument to the greatest of a long forgotten people? Is it, in the case of Beowulf, just a convenient excuse to build a lighthouse?

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf burns.

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