The History of a Feud and the Future of Wiglaf’s Geats: Book XXXIX – Book XLI

A Viking Age battle involving, no doubt, a king like Beowulf and a feud.

Thorir Hund dressed in a reindeer-hide tunic kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Image from


That which had happened was painfully felt
by the young man when he on the ground saw
that dearest one pitiably suffering
at his life’s end. The slayer also lay so,
the terrible earth dragon was bereaved of life,
overwhelmed by ruin. In the hoard of rings no
longer could the coiled serpent be on guard,
once the sword edge carried it off,
felt the hard, battle-sharp remnant of hammers, just so
the wide-flier was stilled by its wounds and
lay where it had fallen near the treasure house. Never
after did it move about through the air by flight
in the middle of the night, glorying in its rich possessions,
never could it make more appearances,
since it had fallen to earth at the war leader’s deed of the hand.

Indeed few mighty men on earth
have so succeeded, as I have heard,
though every deed they did was daring,
few of them would make a rush against the breath of the
fierce ravager or could disturb a hall of rings by hand,
if he discovered the ward awakened and
dwelling in the barrow. Beowulf had paid
for his share of the noble treasures with his death;
each had reached the end of
their loaned lives.

          It was not long then
before the laggards in battle left the wood,
ten cowardly traitors together,
those that dared not fight by the spear when
their liege lord was in greatest need;
but they were ashamed when they came bearing shields,
dressed in clean war garments, to where their lord lay.
They gazed on Wiglaf.

          The thane sat exhausted,
the warrior on foot near his lord’s shoulder.
He still tried to revive him with water — thought not at all did that speed him.
He might not on earth make that chieftain keep his life,
though he wished well to,
nor could he at all change the decree of the Ruler;
God’s decree would rule over the deeds
of each man, as it does yet.
Then from that young warrior a grim answer
was easy to obtain for those who earlier had lost their courage.

Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son,
the man sad at heart — he saw those gathered as not dear:

“Lo! It may be said, by he who will speak truth,
that the liege lord, he who gave you that treasure,
that military gear, that you there stand in,
when he at ale-bench oft gave
to sitters in the hall helms and byrnies,
the prince over his retainers, the strongest that he could
find either far or near, all that he may
as well have furiously tossed away, that war gear
that he from battle won.
Not at all did that folk-king have cause to boast
of comrades in arms. Yet god allowed him, the
victorious ruler, so that he himself could drive forward
with his sword alone, when he had need for courage.”

“I could offer but little of life protection
to him in the fray, and yet I felt my limits
lessen when I strove to help our lord.
It was ever weakening, when I landed sword blows
on the mortal enemy, the fire from his head then
grew sluggish. As he became desperate, too few rallied
around the prince, at the time of the beast’s final
thrashing. Now shall the sword-gifting and treasure
sharing, all the native-land joy of our people,
our hope, be subdued. Each of us will have
our land-right become idle
among our people, afterwards princes from afar
will come seeking, driving us all to flee,
an inglorious deed. Death is better
to every warrior than a life of dishonour!”


Wiglaf then bade that the battle work be
reported to those encamped on the cliff-edge, where the
noble warrior host had sat sorrow-hearted all through that morning,
the shield bearers, entertaining both possibilities:
that it was the end of the dear man’s days,
that the prized prince would return again.

          The messenger
kept little silent in his story, so that naught was left
unsaid, and so he spoke truth to them all:

“Now is the Weder’s gracious giver,
the lord of the Geats, fast in his deathbed,
gone to the grave by the dragon’s deed:
Beside him, in like state, lay the
mortal enemy, dead from dagger wounds; for his sword
could not work any wound whatever on
that fierce foe. Wiglaf sits
by Beowulf’s side, the son of Weohstan,
a warrior watching over the unliving other,
holding vigil over the Geats’ chief,
he sits by the beloved and the reviled.

          “Now our people may
expect war-time, once the king’s fall
becomes widely and openly known
among Franks and Frisians. The fury of the Franks
was hard rattled, after Hygelac sailed from afar
in a war fleet to Frisian lands, there
Hetware harried him on the field, zealously came out
against him with overpowering might so that the
corseleted warrior was made to give way,
he fell among foot soldiers; not at all did that
lord give treasures to his troop. Ever since then
the Merovingian have shown us no mercy.

“Nor do I expect the Swedes to hold us as kin
or remain peaceful; for it was widely known
that Ongeontheow slew Haethcyn,
son of Hrethel, in the strife at Ravenswood,
when for arrogance the Geats first
sought to strike the Scylfings.
Old and terrible, Ohthere’s wise father
gave the return assault,
destroyed the sea king, kept his bride,
deprived his aged wife of gold,
the mother of Onela and Ohthere.
then he followed the mortal foe,
until they showed themselves
in great leaderless hardship in the Ravenswood.

“Beset he then with an immense host the remnant
wearied by war wounds; all the night
long he twisted their tender spirits with vile boasts,
he said that he would destroy them with the
sword’s edge come morning, that he would hang them
on gallows-trees to feed the birds. Yet joy again
existed in their sorrowful hearts just as day dawned,
for then came Hygelac with his horn and its call,
a sound they recognized, knew that it meant a troop
of great allies had arrived in their final moment.”


“The gory track Geats and Swedes left there,
from the widely seen onslaught,
was easy to follow back to the erupting feud.
Then he knew the good men among his comrades,
the old sorrowful man sought to secure his soldiers,
Ongeontheow the chief turned to higher ground.
For he had learned first hand of Hygelac’s battlecraft,
his splendid war strength and he trusted not to resistance,
the hope that he might rout those seafarers,
those sea-borne warriors, resist that horde,
protect his son and wife. After that the aged one’s
banners went behind the earthen wall. Then the
persecution of the Swedish people was commanded,
Hygelac’s sign rushed forward into the peaceful plain.

“Afterward the Hrethlings thronged around that fortified enclosure.
There by the sword’s edge Ongeontheow,
the grey-haired lord, was left to suffer at
Eofor’s command alone. Angrily against him
Wulf son of Wonred reached with a weapon,
so that his sword swing struck, sending blood
forth from under his hair. Yet he was
not frightened, the old Scylfing,
he paid him back double for that blow,
turning a far worse death strike against that one,
After the king had turned thither.

“Yet the bold son of Wonred could not
land a blow against that aged man,
for he had sheared the helm from his head,
so that Wulf had to bow his bloodied head,
fell to the ground. But fate called not yet to him,
and he recovered himself, though he fully felt his wound.
Eofor, that hardy thane of Hygelac, then hoisted
his broad blade, as his brother lay there,
an antique edge of giant design, his stroke caught the giant’s helm,
cut through Ongeontheow’s shield wall; then bowed that king,
the people’s protector, he was struck through to his soul.

“There were many then, those who bandaged Wulf,
swiftly raised him up, since it had been cleared,
since they ruled that bloodied field.
At the same time, winning warriors stripped those who lost,
from Ongeontheow went his iron mail,
his hard sword hilt and his helmet also.
These old ornaments were brought to Hygelac.
He accepted these treasures and himself fairly stated
among the people that reward would be had, and so he did.
He paid them for their battle-rush, the Geat lord,
Hrethel’s son, when they arrived home,
Eofor and Wulf were overloaded with gifts;
he gave them lands and linked rings
of great value in gold — no man on earth
need reproach him for that reward — after they
forged their glorious deed;
and to Eofor he also gave his only daughter,
a tender home-shaper, his loyalty to lock.

“That is the root of our feud and foe-ship,
this very deadly hostility, which, as I truly believe,
means that we shall be sought by the Swedes,
after they hear of how our lord is now lifeless,
the one who in earlier days defended
our people and treasures against our enemies,
after our warriors fell, a prelude to the Scylfings,
worked ever for the people’s benefit and went further
than any other to be like a true lord. Now haste is best,
that we our king go to see,
he who gave us rings, and then go with him
to the funeral pyre.

          “None shall match
what will melt amidst his glory, for there shall be the
treasure’s hoarded gold untold, bought at so grim a cost;
and now at his departure those rings bought
with his own life: the fire shall consume them,
all swallowed in the searing heat, no man shall
wear that treasure to remember, nor may
any woman wear those costly rings as shining adornment,
but they shall be sad-hearted, bereaved of gold,
for oft, not once alone, shall they tread foreign lands,
the leader’s laughter now having been silenced,
sport and mirth ceased.

          “The future will see hands habituated to hoisting
morning-cold spears, heaved by hand, not at all shall
the harp’s sweep stir warriors, but wan on the wing
the raven flying over the doomed will speak,
tell the eagle how he vomited and ate,
when he and the wolf tore and tasted the dead.”

Such was the sentence of that speaker’s
dire speech; he did not deceive in
what he told and read of fate. The troop all arose,
went without joy beneath Eagle Cliff,
faces tear-torn, the terrible scene to see.

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.

Beside it stood beakers and cups,
plates laid about and dear swords,
rusty, eaten through, as only those who live
in the embrace of earth for a thousand winters
can be. Yet that huge cache,
the hold of gold of men of old, was spell-bound,
so that no man might enter
that ring-hall, save god itself,
Ruler of Triumph, give its approval
— for god is humanity’s handler — to open that hoard,
even then only for such a man as the Ruler thought fit.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

Wiglaf Rises, Beowulf Poisoned, Dragon Dies: Book XXXVI – Book XXXVIII

Beowulf and Wiglaf, each a hero, after the fierce fight against the dragon.

Wiglaf and Beowulf at the end of the fierce fight with the dragon. Image from


Wiglaf was his name, son of Weohstan,
a beloved warrior, man of the Scylfings,
kinsman of Aelfhere. He saw his liege lord
under the battle mask hot and suffering.
Then he remembered that bounty which he had earlier given,
how he lived in the rich dwelling place of the Waegmundings,
a place granted to each by common right, as his father had enjoyed.

Then Wiglaf could not restrain himself, He grasped and raised his shield,
a yellow shield, the ancient sword he drew,
that which was, according to men, Eanmunde’s heirloom,
the sword of the son of Ohthere. It was brought back from battle,
while Weohstan was in friendless exile, he was that man’s slayer
with the sword’s edge, and to his kinsmen he bore
a shining helm, ringed mail shirt,
and that ancient sword of giant’s craft. Onela had given it to him,
his kinsman’s war garments,
the ready war garb, no feud was there to speak of,
though he his brother’s son had killed.
He kept the adornments for many half-years,
sword and mail-shirt, until his son could
perform the same heroic deeds as his late father.
Then he also gave the Geats one of the countless number
of war garbs when he departed from life,
old and on his way forth. This was the first time
for that young warrior to advance himself
in the onslaught of battle for his noble lord.
His spirit was not melted by what he saw, nor did
his kinsman’s heirloom fail in the conflict. This the serpent discovered
after the two Geats had come together.

Wiglaf spoke, many true words were
said by the companion (though at heart he was sad):

“I that time remember, when we drank his mead,
when we pledged ourselves to our lord
in the beer hall, he who to us these rings gave,
promised that we the war-equipment would repay
if such need to him befell, fight for him with
helms and hard swords. For that reason he chose us
from all the army, handpicked us for this expedition by his own will,
considered us worthy for glory, and to me this
treasure gave, because he judged us good spear-fighters,
valiant warriors in helmets. Though the
lord intended to do this courageous deed alone,
the herder of our people, because he
among men a glorious deed would accomplish,
we must do our own deeds audaciously.

          “Now is the day come
that our liege lord needs strength,
good warriors. Let us go to,
let us help the leader in battle while it is possible,
fight with him against the fierce terror of fire. God knows
that it is much dearer to me that my body
be with my gold-giving lord while fire should enfold him.
Nor does it seem to me fitting that we shields
bear back to home unless we first may
kill the foe, by life defend
the Weder’s prince. I know well
that it is not merited by past deeds, that he alone must
suffer affliction without the Geatish host,
fall at the battle. Nonetheless, both of us shall sword and helm,
mail coat and battle garment, share together.”

Advanced he then through that deadly smoke, in helmet
he bore to the lord his help, a few words he spoke:

“Dear Beowulf, perform all well,
just as you in youth long ago said
that you would not allow while you are alive
your glory to decline. You shall now in deed be famous,
resolute prince, use all strength
to defend your life; I shall help you.”

After that word the serpent came, scaly and angry,
the terrible malicious alien from another time
glowing in surging fire attacked his enemy,
hateful of men.

          Flame in a wave advanced,
burned the yellow shield up to the boss; mail coat could not
provide help for the young spear-warrior,
but the man of youth under his kinsman’s shield
valiantly went on when his own was
burned by the dragon’s many tongues.

          Then the war king again set
his mind on glory, struck with great strength
with the war sword, so that it in the dragon’s head stuck
and impelled hostility; Naegling broke,
failed at battle the sword of Beowulf, ancient
and grey-coloured. To him it was not granted by
fate that his sword’s edge may be a help at battle.
It was in his too-strong hand, he who did so with
every sword, as I have heard, the stroke overtaxed
it, whenever he to battle bore any weapon wondrously
hard. Such was not for him at all the better.

Then the ravager of a people for a third time,
the terrible fire dragon intent on a hostile deed,
rushed on that renowned one when for him the opportunity
permitted, hot and battle fierce. All of his neck was
clasped by sharp tusks; he was made to become bloody
with heart’s blood, gore in waves surged out.


Then, as I have heard, the soldier by his side showed
known courage for his liege lord,
strength and boldness, as was inborn.
He worked not upon the head, but the hand of that daring
man was burned when he helped his kin, when he struck
a little lower at the strife-stranger with a blade full
of cunning, when he stabbed with the decorated sword, gleaming and
gold-adorned, stuck it in the beast’s stomach so that afterwards the
fire began to abate. Then, once more, the king
himself wielded his wit, brandished a hip-blade, bitter
and battle-sharp, that he wore on his byrnie;
the protector of the Weders cleaved the dragon down its middle.

The fiend had fallen — courage punished his life —
and those two both had killed it,
brother nobles. So should every man be,
loyal thanes ready for the need! Yet for that king it was
the final hour of victory for his own deeds,
his works in the world. Then that wound began,
the one the earth-drake had earlier dealt him,
to sear and swell; soon he discovered that
poison welled forth from within the wickedness that
marred his chest. At this sight the prince went
to him that was by the wall, wise at heart.
Beowulf sat on the stone, looked upon the work of giants,
how the stone arches were secured with columns,
beheld what the cave-dwelling held within.

Then Wiglaf with blood-stained hand,
the now-famed lord, a man unmatched for good,
washed his dear lord with water,
battle-worn, and unclasped his helm.

Beowulf spoke — he spoke through the pain,
the ache, of his miserably vexatious wound. Well he knew
that he had fulfilled the days of his life,
of earthen joy; that all of his life-time had
fled — that death was immeasurably near:

“Now I to the son of mine would give
war garments, if it had been so granted
by fate that I any heir had,
flesh of my flesh.

          “I this people have ruled
for fifty winters; never was there a king of the people,
any of the neighbouring folks,
who would dare attack with war-friends,
threaten terror. I in my homeland awaited
destiny, it guarded me well,
I did not seek contrived hostility, nor swore I many
oaths in unrighteousness. In all of this
infirmity of a mortal wound I have joy;
because the Lord of men has no cause to accuse me
of murderous killing of kinsmen, when my
life passes from my body.

          “Now go you quickly
to see the hoard under the grey stone,
dear Wiglaf, now the serpent lay dead,
sleeping in death sorely wounded, deprived of treasure.
Be now in haste that I ancient riches,
the store of gold may see, clearly look at
the bright finely-worked jewels, so that I may the more
peacefully after witnessing this wealth of treasure leave my
life and lordship, that which I have long held.”


I have heard that then the son of Weohstan quickly obeyed
the spoken word of his lord while he was in wounds and
war weariness, bearing his mail-coat,
the broad ring-shirt, under the barrow’s roof.
He, the triumphant in victory, when he beyond the seat
went, the young brave thane, saw many precious jewels,
glittering gold lay on the ground,
wondrous objects on the wall, and in that dragon’s lair,
daybreak-flier of old, cups stood,
vessels of men of old, now lacking a burnisher,
deprived of adornment. There were many a helmet,
old and rusty, a multitude of arm-rings
skilfully twisted. Treasure easily may,
gold in ground, overpower each one of
mankind, though one may hide it.
Also hanging he saw a standard all of gold
high over the hoard, greatest of marvels made by hand,
woven by skill of craft; from there light
shone out, so that he might see the surface of the floor,
could look at every part of those ornate objects. None of that sight there
was for the serpent, when the blade carried him off.

Thus left guard-less, as I have heard, the hoard in the barrow, ancient
work of giants, was ransacked by one man: he loaded
his lap with drinking vessels and dishes of his own
choosing, the standard he also took, brightest of banners.
The one now stuck with sword and split — soft to the iron blade’s bite, that
of the aged lord — that was the treasure’s guardian for
a long time, though it only ever brought forth terrifying fire
from the hoard, fiercely willing to spread death in
the middle of the night, until it a violent death died.

The messenger was in haste, eager in the journey back
By precious things he was urged on, anxiety oppressed him,
whether he would meet Beowulf bold in spirit and alive
in that place, the prince of the Weders,
or one deprived of strength, where he had earlier left him.
He then found the renowned prince,
found his lord bleeding,
his life at an end. Wiglaf then again began the
sprinkling of water, until the beginning of words
broke through Beowulf’s heart.

          The warrior king spoke,
old in sorrow — looked at the gold:

“I for all of these precious things thank the Lord,
spoke these words the king of glory,
eternal lord, that I here look in on,
for the fact that I have been permitted to gain
such for my people before my day of death.
Now that I the treasure hoard have bought
with my old life, still attend to the
need of my people, for I may not be here longer.
Command the famed in battle to build a splendid barrow
after the pyre at the promontory over the sea.
It is to be a memorial to my people,
towering high on Whale’s Ness,
so that seafarers may later call it
Beowulf’s Barrow, those who in ships
over the sea mists come sailing from afar.”

Beowulf did off the golden ring about his neck,
the brave-hearted prince, gave it to the thane,
the young spear warrior, his gold adorned helmet,
ring and mail shirt, commanded him to use them well:

“You are the last remaining of our kin,
the last of the Waegmundings; fate has swept away all
of my line as per the decree of destiny,
warriors in valour. I after them now shall go.”

That was the old one’s last word,
the last of his thoughts of the heart before he chose the pyre,
the hot final battle flame. From Beowulf’s breast went
his soul to seek the judgment of the righteous.

Want more Beowulf? Continue the poem here!

Wiglaf: The right hero in an ever-changing world? (ll.2602-2630)

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf and Wiglaf, each a hero, after the fierce fight against the dragon.

Wiglaf and Beowulf at the end of the fierce fight with the dragon. Image from

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Last week, Beowulf did what he said he would never do. He backed down.

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Wiglaf, the new Geat hero, is introduced.

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The Original Old English

Wiglaf wæs haten Weoxstanes sunu,
leoflic lindwiga, leod Scylfinga,
mæg ælfheres; geseah his mondryhten
under heregriman hat þrowian.
Gemunde ða ða are þe he him ær forgeaf,
wicstede weligne Wægmundinga,
folcrihta gehwylc, swa his fæder ahte.
Ne mihte ða forhabban; hond rond gefeng,
geolwe linde, gomel swyrd geteah,
þæt wæs mid eldum Eanmundes laf,
suna Ohteres. þam æt sæcce wearð,
wræccan wineleasum, Weohstan bana
meces ecgum, ond his magum ætbær
brunfagne helm, hringde byrnan,
eald sweord etonisc; þæt him Onela forgeaf,
his gædelinges guðgewædu,
fyrdsearo fuslic, no ymbe ða fæhðe spræc,
þeah ðe he his broðor bearn abredwade.
He frætwe geheold fela missera,
bill ond byrnan, oððæt his byre mihte
eorlscipe efnan swa his ærfæder;
geaf him ða mid Geatum guðgewæda,
æghwæs unrim, þa he of ealdre gewat,
frod on forðweg. þa wæs forma sið
geongan cempan, þæt he guðe ræs
mid his freodryhtne fremman sceolde.
Ne gemealt him se modsefa, ne his mæges laf
gewac æt wige; þæt se wyrm onfand,
syððan hie togædre gegan hæfdon.
(Beowulf ll.2602-2630)

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My Translation

“Wiglaf was his name, son of Weohstan,
a beloved warrior, man of the Scylfings,
kinsman of Aelfhere. He saw his liege lord
under the battle mask hot and suffering.
Then he remembered that bounty which he had earlier given,
how he lived in the rich dwelling place of the Waegmundings,
a place granted to each by common right, as his father had enjoyed.
Then he could not restrain himself, by hand his shield was grasped,
a yellow shield, the ancient sword he drew,
that which was, according to men, Eanmunde’s heirloom,
the sword of the son of Ohthere. It was brought back from battle,
while Weohstan was in friendless exile, he was that man’s slayer
with the sword’s edge, and to his kinsmen he bore
a shining helm, ringed mail shirt,
and that ancient sword of giant’s craft. Onela had given it to him,
his kinsman’s war garments,
the ready war garb, no feud was there to speak of,
though he his brother’s son had killed.
He kept the adornments for many half-years,
sword and mail-shirt, until his son could
perform the same heroic deeds as his late father.
Then he also gave the Geats one of the countless number
of war garbs when he departed from life,
old and on his way forth. Then was the first time
for that young warrior to advance himself
in the onslaught of battle for his noble lord.
His spirit was not melted by what he saw, nor did
his kinsman’s heirloom fail in the conflict. This the serpent discovered
after the two Geats had come together.”
(Beowulf ll.2602-2630)

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A Quick Interpretation

Well, it looks like Beowulf’s successor is pretty much set up.

Wiglaf enters the scene, bearing some pretty hefty gear. It’s the equipment of Onela’s nephew. So it’s from the Swedes; a bit of treasure from a successful Geat raid or battle. And this gear comes from his own dad, which makes its appeal something of a double whammy, I would think. Not only does this gear have history, but it’s something that Wiglaf inherited, adding to its reputation.

So he’s well-equipped to help Beowulf out. I guess all the other Geats Beowulf brought with him just had the small fortune required to pick a few things up from the local blacksmith. That’s got to be why they all ran off, right?

Actually, thinking of things that way, why are swords and helmets and armour with a history so valuable and confidence-bestowing?

Sure, swords and armour that have lasted for generations must be made of some tough stuff.

But if you have this ancestral sword that’s totally bad-ass and practically never fails you, when you’re slain and your sword is taken as war booty, was the sun in your eyes as your opponent came down with a slash to end you or did your sword screw up?

I guess that’s part of why there would be that belief that certain pieces of equipment had “proper” users. Beyond being form-fitted, the right swordsman with the right sword must’ve been believed to be unstoppable.

Interestingly, Beowulf puts the lie to that way of thinking, though. Beowulf’s ultimate weapon is his bare-handed physical strength. But something like the dragon can’t be beaten by brute force or wrestling holds alone. So maybe it’s less about the right piece of gear for the right user, and, in line with the Anglo-Saxon idea of the world being an ever-changing place, more about that right fit changing every few years.

Hopefully, for Beowulf’s sake, Wiglaf is the “right” wielder for the sword his dad gave him.

What’s your take on the importance of ancestral swords or on war gear plundered from fallen foes? Is it a guarantee of quality or just a cheap way to get some things that would have been prohibitively expensive?

Feel free to share your theories in the comments!

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In the next post, Wiglaf makes a speech to stir his comrades to Beowulf’s side. You can find that post, and the rest of my translation, starting here.

Yep! Perhaps a little confusingly, this is the last of my translation posts. The entries aren’t in perfect chronological order as far as when I wrote them, unfortunately. But now the entirety of Beowulf is on this blog!

Thanks for following this project as I’ve slowly released pieces of it over the years. And in the coming weeks, look forward to more coverage of Beowulf related news and media!

A bit further down the road, look for reworked, standalone chapters of the poem as I prepare my translation for publication.

And, of course, if you enjoyed this post, please give it a like. And, if you want to keep up with my Beowulf coverage, please do follow this blog!

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A thoughtful shore guard and Anglo-Saxon karma? (ll.229-236) [Old English]

Why so curious?
Anglo-Saxon Karma

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This week, we’re offered a look into the head of a Danish shore guard as he sees the Geats land.

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“Then from the cliffs the Scyldings shore guard saw them,
the one who was to hold the sea-cliffs,
men carrying bright shields across a ship’s gangway,
bearing ready war gear; his curiousity overpowered
his thinking, the need to know what these men were.
Then rode out the thane of Hrothgar
to the shore, powerfully shook the
spear in his hand, asked in a querying tone:”
(Beowulf ll.229-236)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Why so curious?

The core of this short passage is the shore guard’s inner conflict. From “his curiousity overpowered/his thinking” (“hine fyrwyt bræc/modgehygdum” (ll.232-233)) we can see that he’s generally a cautious, thoughtful sort of guy (possibly an introvert?), but his curiousity overpowers him. What marks this as the core of the passage is what this conflict can tell us about the current feeling among the Danes more generally.

There are a number of things that the man could wonder or assume about those he sees trundling onto the shore, armed and ready for war. But of them, there are two that seem most likely to be in there.

One of these is the possibility that this band of warriors is here to fight Grendel. The other thought is the possibility that the band is an advance party sent to scout out (maybe even take on?) the Danes in open war. Word had spread about their predicament with Grendel, after all. And such word would draw those who wanted to help the Danes as much as those who wanted to take advantage of them. Even fiend-harried, there would no doubt be some gain to be had from taking the storied hall of Heorot.

If we assume that the first possibility is what eggs the man on, then there’s not too much more to write on it. He’s hopeful that the Danes will be saved and that Grendel will be dealt with. This feeling among the Danes is already well-established in earlier passages. However, if it’s the second possibility, that this band of men has come to cause further trouble for the Danes, then things get more interesting.

Perhaps, none have tried to take advantage of the Danes’ weakened state just yet, but Hrothgar, king that he is, is well aware that people will do so. As such, maybe this is even the assumption the man has been commanded to make in this sort of situation. Or, perhaps such attempts have already been made and repelled, making this shore guard wary of such parties of warriors.

The latter situation is more likely to generate inner conflict since hope for help would clash with a learned dread of outsiders. As such, the latter situation is more strongly implied here, which means that a whole lot more has been happening in Daneland than the poet’s told so far. Not that the poet finds such inter-human conflicts as interesting as those between people and the supernatural.

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Anglo-Saxon Karma

Combining the possibility that over the course of Grendel’s twelve year reign of terror people came to challenge the Danes as well as Grendel with Beowulf‘s cyclical and interwoven nature creates a very strong through-line.

Is Beowulf later visited by a supernatural fiend of his own because he freed Hrothgar from another?

Perhaps, buried in old books and found among words told to children beside winter fires, there is a long since dead belief that whatever you helped to rid one person of would come back in a greater form to challenge you directly. Thus Beowulf‘s supernatural element moves from a pair of ogres/goblins/monsters to a single fire-breathing, night-flying dragon.

Because I’ve always read Beowulf as a story about the broken link a long chain of events, the end of a way of life, this reading of the poem adds further depth to Beowulf’s failure against the dragon.

Hrothgar prospers, or at least survives, because his help is from outside of his group. As such, the group itself is not weakened internally and is able to re-emerge from a lengthy oppression. On the other hand, the dragon that terrorizes the Geats isn’t dealt with by some warrior from another group but is finished off by another Geat: Wiglaf.

Because it’s a member of the group in peril that saves the group from that peril, by whatever mechanic the matter of disasters works in the world of the poem (and maybe its originator?), the Geats are left permanently weakened.

The Geats’ position is also not helped, of course, by the death of their leader. Perhaps the Geats fall not because of the loss of Beowulf alone but because the the outcome of a supernatural revenge system is heaped on top of it.

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Next week, we hear what the shore guard says. Listen up come next Thursday!

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wiglaf Organizes and Eulogizes (ll.3110-3119) [Old English]

Picking through a Jumble
Wiglaf’s Word(s)

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Wiglaf commands the wood for Beowulf’s pyre to be gathered, giving a curious measuring of his strength.

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“Commanded then the son of Weohstan, gave
the fighters orders, bold in battle, warrior among many,
the one who owns a hall, that they might
bring wood for the pyre from afar, for the good man
the leader of a people: ‘Now shall fire consume
– he shall grow dark by the flames – the ruler of warriors,
he who often endured the shower of iron
when the arrow storm was from the bow impelled,
over the shield wall, the shafts their duty fulfilled,
arrowheads aided by hasting feather fletching.'”
(Beowulf ll.3110-3119)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Picking through a Jumble

The descriptive lines of this week’s extract sound jumbled. This is not just a result of translation, but a reflection of the original Old English text. For this extract stands out in these last few hundred lines as one of the most eccentric.

From clause to clause, it seems as if the speaker is alternating between Beowulf and Wiglaf, but not settling on either. Or, it appears that the speaker is trying to address Wiglaf with the same sort of accolades normally reserved for Beowulf (“bold in battle,” (“hæle hildedior” (l.3111)), “the one who owns a hall” (“boldagendra” (l.3112))).

In either case, there is a great deal of frantic uncertainty in the speaker’s voice at this point, directly after Wiglaf has taken the Geats through the hoard. A sound theory is that the poet composed this section to reflect the Geats’ disorientation after having seen such a sight. They could very easily have vaguely forgotten that Beowulf was dead and mistaken Wiglaf for him, or temporarily felt the wild need to afford Wiglaf the same praise as their king of fifty years deserved.

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Wiglaf’s Word(s)

More often than not in Beowulf whole adjectival clauses are bandied about where simple adjectives might do in modern usage. Wiglaf’s words to the Geats are an incredible example of such elaborate speech at work.

Wiglaf’s describing Beowulf by his evasion of the arrow storm on the battlefield is unique at four lines long.

Taking a zoomed out look at this bit of information about the Geat reveals that Beowulf fought near the front, in the section of any army harried by the defending (possibly besieged) army’s ranged defenses. It also suggests that the Geats used such tactics in their fighting, since the arrows are hastened to their marks. Perhaps they go so quickly that they are unable to fly true and strike only the enemy? If such is the case, then perhaps this lengthy dwelling on archers and arrows is a reflection on the thinning ranks of Geats – there are simply fewer and fewer of them to absorb the missiles from their hurried archers.

Much more likely, given the constant note of fate and wyrd running through the poem, this lengthy description of Beowulf’s battle actions reflects on his luck. He was often the one at the fore of battle, where not only would there have been showers of arrows falling (shot, perhaps by both sides), but also a host of swords and spears probing the air, hungry for human life.

Yet, he “often” came out of such situations okay. Taking a closer look at Wiglaf’s speech, that one word becomes incredibly curious. Were there times when Beowulf was sorely wounded? When his plans did not go as smoothly as had been hoped? Or is this word just an example of Anglo-Saxon understatement, meant to mean that he always came back hale and hearty except for when he tangled with the dragon?

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Next week, Wiglaf chooses warriors to help him in the work of clearing the hoard and bringing Beowulf to Hronesness.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wiglaf Guides Geats to Gold (ll.3101-3109) [Old English]

Venturing into the Gold Vault
The Geats Choose Glory over Gold?

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Wiglaf invites the Geats to step into the hoard before they prepare for Beowulf’s funeral.

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“‘Let us now hasten to another time,
to see and seek out the pile of finely worked jewels,
the wonder under the wall. I shall guide you,
that you shall look upon abundant
rings and broad gold near at hand. Then ready the bier,
swiftly prepare it where we come out,
and then ferry our lord,
beloved of men, to where he shall long
in the Ruler’s protection remain.'”
(Beowulf ll.3101-3109)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Venturing into the Gold Vault

At the center of this passage, Wiglaf invites the gathered Geats to take a look at the treasure. His is a simple gesture, and perhaps what is to be done in the circumstances. But, why does he do it?

As Geats, the gold must be a strange thing. On the one hand the hoard is a vast treasure store full of ancient and shiny things – so it’s any of their dreams come true. On the other, it has the potential to be one of the largest draws for the other nations that are likely to wipe them out.

Their currently being kingless is almost just the second largest draw in comparison, actually. The Geats are currently like a headless dragon, and the Swedes and the Franks and no doubt others are likely to be all too keen to take advantage of their vulnerability.

Which leads to either a flaw in the plan to bury the gold with Beowulf, or the final great (unintended) act of the fallen king.

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The Geats Choose Glory over Gold?

The death of Beowulf isn’t just a great blow to the Geats from a martial perspective, it’s also left them crippled diplomatically. Without a king, there’s no single representative for the people. Thus, without Beowulf, the Geats cannot be dealt with in an easy manner.

Yet, aside from honouring Beowulf by leaving the gold with him in his barrow, it seems that Wiglaf may have another reason for doing so. Or, at the least, another reason can be read out of the poet’s doing so for the sake of a poetically parallel ending.

It’s clear that Beowulf is greatly respected. It’s likely even that, though they bear grudges against him, even the Geats’ foreign enemies respect Beowulf to some degree. So, perhaps Wiglaf planned to bury Beowulf with the hoard with Beowulf as a kind of seal upon it. That is, in connecting the gold to the barrow of a respected warrior, it would become inviolate in the eyes of the honourable.

The question that comes up next, though, is why Wiglaf would want to preserve the hoard.

The Geats go in to take a look at it in this passage- who’s to stop any of them from taking a coin, a sword – a cup? Perhaps the thief who did so and woke the dragon doing so is enough of a warning to them.

Perhaps, more importantly, Wiglaf knows the danger of greed (maybe he’d heard of Heremod?) and is well aware that the hoard could inspire such an end to the Geats? If so, maybe Wiglaf (and the Geats in general?) prefer to go out on a high note, lost to history because of the loss of a great leader.

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Next week, Wiglaf apparently leaves the Geats to their own devices in the hoard, as he gives orders for the construction of Beowulf’s funeral pyre.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Gold from the (Word) Hoard (ll.3087-3100) [Old English]

Golden Standards
Treasured Retellings

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Wiglaf relates how he gathered treasures from the hoard for Beowulf and what the warrior said to him in his grief.

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“‘I was in that place and looked over all that was there;
through that building of precious objects I had to clear a
path. Not at all in a friendly way was I granted passage
in the place under the mound. I in haste grasped
much in my hands of a mighty burden
of the hoarded treasures, out to here I carried it
away to my king. Alive was he yet,
wise and aware; a great many things
the old one said in grief, and ordered me to greet you,
ordered that you should build after the friendly lord’s
deeds a lofty barrow there in the place of the pyre,
mighty and renowned, just as he among men was,
worthiest warrior widely throughout the earth,
while he could enjoy the wealth of a stronghold.'”
(Beowulf ll.3087-3100)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Treasured Retellings

Wiglaf’s account of going into the hoard and then bringing some treasures back to Beowulf in his final moments is straightforward and simple. As far as the retellings of events from the poem within the poem go, it might also be the most honest. However, as with the retellings that come up earlier in the poem, Wiglaf elaborates on what the poet originally told us.

Wiglaf points out, among the other details of his time in the hoard, that he met an unfriendly welcome going through it. The first reaction to this statement, the first imagining, is that this is a way of saying how rich the hoard is: There’s so much gold there that he had to wade through it to get to the things he took. But, bearing in mind the curse that the messenger mentioned earlier in the poem, maybe there’s more to Wiglaf’s addition than a comment on the hoard’s wealth.

Since Wiglaf is not the saviour of the Geats that passage into the hoard would truly herald, he has to struggle through some sort of invisible barrier to get into it. Of course, seeing nothing there, he would mention nothing of such magic. Indeed, he’d likely have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of gold and treasure in the hoard, and would later ascribe his difficulty to having to wade through piles of heirlooms.

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Golden Standards

Along with his additions to the story he tells of the hoard, Wiglaf leaves out some details, as well. An obvious omission of his is of the things that he took from the hoard. As the poet noted between lines 73-75, he took some gold, cups, and a standard. The gold and cups are obvious choices. But the standard is a charged one.

First. whose standard was it? Why was it in the hoard? The answer to both is that it was the ancient people’s, and that it was put there because that people died out.

Could there be some sort of Anglo-Saxon belief that stealing another group’s standard without first besting them in battle?

Or does Wiglaf not mention it because he wants to keep himself blameless in the matter oft he Geats reaching the end of their time?

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Next week, Wiglaf gives the Geats directions regarding Beowulf’s funeral, after, of course, boastng a little more about the treasure in the hoard.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Quest-lust (ll.3076-3086) [Old English]

Quest-lust and Wyrd
The Repercussions of a Lost Act

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Wiglaf speaks to the assembled Geats, recounting Beowulf’s unquenchable fervour for striking out against the dragon.

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“Wiglaf spoke, Weohstan’s son:
‘Oft it happens that one warrior’s wish makes
the many endure misery, just so it has happened with us.
We could not persuade that dear prince,
this guardian of the people would not accept any counsel,
to not attack the gold guardian then,
to let him lay where he long was,
in that dwelling place remain until the world’s end,
to keep his exalted destiny. The hoard is
bitterly won; it was fate that impelled
that king of a people to that hard place.'”
(Beowulf ll.3076-3086)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Quest-lust and Wyrd

It sounds like Geatish kings could be total jerks. Or, at the least, self-centred power trippers.

Whatever the case, Wiglaf’s words are a grand reminder that the system of the comitatus is hardly an equal thing. Based on his opening here, it seems that from time to time one warrior would become obsessed with some impossible goal, and cause the rest of the group to suffer through it. What Wiglaf leaves unsaid though, is whether or not these impossible quests would cost the whole group their lives or only the warrior who proposed them.

In either case, this periodic obsession becomes a curious way that wyrd comes into people’s lives, welling up from within like some sort of fatal disease. However, at least in the case of Beowulf, fate or wyrd‘s presence in the mad desire felt by warriors is able to be read out of the experience. Fate is at the least recognizable in hindsight.

Though, maybe, just maybe, the obsessed warrior was one way in which people thought fate could be seen, they were an expected anomaly that gave the game away, so to speak. That fate could be seen in such a way suggests that preparations could be made for the inevitable, but it needs to be wondered if they were.

Would such preparations tip off fate that its path was known and force it to change?

Or could planning for that inevitability merely be considered as fated as the warrior’s tragic heroic effort?

It seems that no matter how it was construed, this madness could spell the end for whole peoples if the wrong fighter was infected. If, of course, it was a people’s leader who came down with it.

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The Repercussions of a Lost Act

Though, going back a ways in the poem, it needs to be wondered if Beowulf’s fervour for fighting the dragon was less random than some disease can seem.

Beowulf mentions his dark thoughts during the time when the dragon first attacks, how he wonders if he did something wrong in his past and is now paying for it.

So,fate or not, there may also have been some prior causation in Beowulf’s obsession with the dragon. Perhaps, since his obsession is enough to destroy the dragon’s “exalted destiny” (“wicum wunian” l.3084), that earlier causation gave Beowulf the momentum to change destiny. That’s definitely something to create a 3000+ line poem about.

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Wiglaf’s speech to the assembled Geats continues next week, as he speaks of his time in the hoard and Beowulf’s final wish.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Between Religions? (ll.3069-3075) [Old English]

The Ward on the Hoard
Wiglaf: Favoured and Condemned

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A brief passage about the curse laid upon the dragon’s hoard.

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“Just so the renowned princes solemnly declared
a curse upon that which they placed there until doomsday,
that the man would be guilty in sins,
confined in idol’s shrines, held fast in hell-bonds,
tormented in evil, whoever plundered that place;
not at all had he earlier perceived
the gold-giving lord’s favour.”
(Beowulf ll.3069-3075)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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The Ward on the Hoard

One of the strongest arguments for this poem’s being written down for some sort of missionary purpose is its treatment of pagan seeming religions. We get the first taste of this all the way back at the poem’s opening, when the poet describes Hrothgar’s use of strange rituals to try to ward off Grendel. Here, as there, there’s a clear connection between idols and evil.

Though, interestingly, and especially given the poem’s symmetry, in this extract, the poet isn’t condemning the characters to evil and hellbonds, but rather is the poet reporting what the hoard’s original owner did to protect their wealth.

Rather than a mention of religion that condemns people, this is a mention of it that sees people condemning those who seek out worldly wealth, as represented by the impossibly valuble hoard. To do so, the one hurling the curse would need to be invoking an opposite power – or, perhaps that same hellish power that they condemn the hoard’s violator to.

This is where things get complicated in themselves, since the powers invoked could be either or, but also in the broader context of the poem.

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Wiglaf: Favoured and Condemned

It was noted two weeks ago that the poet states that only someone whom god judged worthy would be allowed into the hoard. Wiglaf seems to have passed, since he in fact delved into the hoard. But now, the poet tells us that the hoard’s establisher laid a curse on it that would condemn any looter to hell. Read as a whole, these two parts of the poem say that god wanted the Geats to be destroyed, essentially having set a kind of trap.

Perhaps Beowulf put in a word for Wiglaf, though, and his death has been staid until the last of the Geats has fallen. After all, Beowulf’s soul did go to where the righteous are judged (l.2820).

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Leave your thoughts in the comments. And check back here next week for the first part of Wiglaf’s words about Beowulf and his mad sally against the dragon.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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

Dragon Gawking
Of Dragonkind

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

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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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Old English:


Modern English:


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

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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