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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Why so curious?
Anglo-Saxon Karma
Closing

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Abstract

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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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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

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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Picking through a Jumble
Wiglaf’s Word(s)
Closing

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Abstract

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

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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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

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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Venturing into the Gold Vault
The Geats Choose Glory over Gold?
Closing

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Abstract

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

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Translation

“‘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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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.

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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Golden Standards
Treasured Retellings
Closing

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Abstract

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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Translation

“‘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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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

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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Quest-lust and Wyrd
The Repercussions of a Lost Act
Closing

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Abstract

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

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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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

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

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Ward on the Hoard
Wiglaf: Favoured and Condemned
Closing

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Abstract

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

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Translation

“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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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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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Closing

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.

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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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