Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon

Recap
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

The kind of dragon perfectly at home in Beowulf.

An Anglo-Saxon dragon, complete with treasure hoard. Image from http://brer-powerofbabel.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html


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Recap

Last week, the dragon started to get furious with the man who stole the golden cup and all his ilk.


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Synopsis

The dragon exacts its revenge the only way it knows how. And things really heat up because of it!


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The Original Old English

Ða se gæst ongan gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan; bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan. No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig wide gesyne,
nearofages nið nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða Geata leode
hatode ond hynde; hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne, ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde, beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles; him seo wen geleah.
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


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My Translation

“Then the stranger among those lands started to spew forth flames,
it burned down all the bright dwellings thereabouts, the glow of fire
turned men stone still in terror. That hateful sky-flier
left nothing there alive.
The serpent’s onslaught was widely seen,
its cruelly hostile malice was clear to all from near and far.
That war-like ravager of the Geatish people
hated and humiliated them. Afterward it hastened to its hoard,
escaped to the secret splendid hall before the sun summoned daytime.
But with that night of ruin the dragon had encircled the people of the land,
ringed them about in burning fire and [b…] fear. While it was emboldened in
the safety of its barrow, his fighting power, his walls. But by that hope he was deceived.”
(Beowulf ll. 2312-2323)


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A Quick Interpretation

Because Beowulf is studied closely by so many people there are a lot of different interpretations out there. And, because monsters were commonly used as stand-ins for various concepts, people, and events in medieval literature this dragon is no exception.

One of the louder interpretations of the dragon that I remember hearing is that it is the Swedes. Yes, those Swedes, the ones that the Geats are in the middle of a feud with.

Before putting this post together, I was never entirely convinced by this interpretation.

Yes, the dragon is the biggest, baddest monster that Beowulf faces. And yes, it does the most damage. But my Catholic-raised brain was busy at work reading the dragon as something demonic or even devilish. Something much bigger than any mere group of people.

After all, how could something as powerful and otherworldly as a dragon represent a country when representing Satan as a dragon has been popular since the middle ages themselves, if not since the conception of the whole Satan/God binary dynamic in Christianity?

I mean, you’ve got the serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden, St. Michael pinning a rather draconic looking Satan (and the myriad saintly copycats, often with actual dragons), and later examples like William Blake’s painting of the Great Red Dragon of The Book of Revelation.

St. Michael binding Satan just like Beowulf will bind the dragon in death.

St. Michael binding a mostly humanoid, but leathery-winged and horned, Satan. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Grand_Saint_Michel,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg

William Blake's Great Red Dragon looming over a woman like the dragon looming over Geatland in Beowulf.

William Blake’s Great Red Dragon standing over the Woman Clothed in the Sun. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reddragon.jpg

Even today, I think that the conspiracy theories involving lizard people are just the modern version of the Western idea of dragons (lizards with human-like intelligence and power) as inherently evil or dangerous.

So why limit the dragon in Beowulf to being just some tribe of people?

But while I was translating and transcribing this week’s passage that interpretation finally clicked.

The utter destruction that the dragon brings. The fire that it leaves in its wake and has encircled the Geatish people with (l.2322). The fact that it “hated and humiliated” (“hatode ond hynde” (l.2319)) the Geats.

All of this sounds like it could be the work of a bunch of warriors.

Plus, reading the dragon as an enemy group works a bit more widely than the moralistic/allegorical reading that I had in mind.

If Beowulf is the hero of good, what does it mean for him to be an old, somewhat world-weary man? And if Beowulf is the paragon of good and the dragon the ultimate evil, then how does the thief and his lord fit into things? Not to mention dealing with all of the citizens of Geatland the dragon’s attack has affected.

So that dragon could be the Swedes. This part of the poem could be about the first massive attacks that start to weaken the Geats.

Once again, more than anything I’m blown away by how many layers this poem has. It’s simply incredible.

If you had come up with a theory for what the dragon ‘really” represents in this part of the poem what would your theory be?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

And, if you enjoyed this post give it a like and consider reblogging it.


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf busts back into the poem! But he’s a changed man.

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