LINES 2,402 – 2,710 : The dragon’s barrow
With his eleven comrades Beowulf travels to the dragon’s barrow.
They are guided by the thief who knows where the dragon guards its treasure.
Beowulf spies out the dragon and concludes that his fate lies in this challenge.
Before meeting the beast he engages in a long speech to his men going right
back to the time when he first arrived in the Geatish court as a young boy of seven years of age. He covers subjects such as the battle with the Swedes, the slaying of the Frankish hero Daeghrefn, and the
conflict between Herebeald who was killed by his brother Haethcyn, both being brothers of Hygelac.
He resolves that the fiery dragon will not emerge from its cave again.
He decides to face the dragon on his own while his men surround the
barrow. As he approaches the worm, the heat is almost unbearable and Beowulf shouts a challenge at the dragon.
He advances towards the creature and strikes it with his sword, but the cut is not deep enough, and the narrator indicates that all is not going to plan for Beowulf.
He becomes almost enveloped in flame, but his companions run for their lives
to the forest seeing their leader in distress. However, Wiglaf a young warrior joins Beowulf at his side and Beowulf is able to strike again with his sword Naegling, but the sword breaks because of Beowulf’s
The dragon clutches Beowulf around the neck with his talons, and Wiglaf inflicts a telling blow on the dragon, and its fire is extinguished. Beowulf draws his dagger and slits the monster a final time. Between them, the two heroes have killed the dragon.
The build-up to the battle continues at the start of this section of the
poem, with Beowulf recounting his past glories in order to bolster his own confidence and to make sure his companions don’t forget his prowess in the past.
Just as Hrothgar was haunted by Grendel, so Beowulf faces being haunted by
the dragon unless he can kill it now.
Again, like Hrothgar, Beowulf is now an aged King and in the end it is the
intervention of a young warrior, Wiglaf that will rescue Beowulf, just as he rescued the grey-haired Hrothgar fifty years earlier.
Part of this build-up concerns the history of the dragon’s treasure horde,
but eventually the poet brings us into the conflict with the dragon, and Beowulf’s battle-shield enables him to get close to the dragon and to strike it with his sword.
The reader suspects that this is a more formidable adversary than Grendel,
and perhaps Beowulf underestimates the strength of the dragon’s hide, for his first strike is only a superficial wound. At this stage, the audience wonders why Beowulf has been foolish enough to take on the
The answer is simple – Beowulf has led a long and adventurous life and wishes to die like a warrior with a sword in his hand, but he still needs to die with the knowledge that the dragon will no longer intimidate his people.
With this in mind, he tells his companions about his distinguished past, not
because they are not aware of his deeds, but this is a part of a test he is giving them. He is more or less asking whether they are worthy of this challenge. All but one fails the test by showing
cowardice and running away. Wiglaf will inherit Beowulf’s throne because he has passed the test, and this youth will mature in order to take on the Kingship, but at the last, it is Beowulf’s shield that
protects Wiglaf, his own being consumed by the dragon’s flames. Together, the wise King and the intrepid youth slay the dragon, but at the cost of Beowulf’s life.
So comes to the end the third great battle-scene of this epic poem.
The first two encounters involved the young hero Beowulf who was in search of fame and fortune.
The last battle is by the aged heroic King, protector of his realm, who sacrifices himself for the benefit of his people.
The poet is at pains to emphasize the cowardice of the men who deserted
Remember these had been handpicked by Beowulf, but they were still no match for the final test. This offence of cowardice in the face of danger was considered by this society as a most heinous offence, and they would be left without honor, lands or fortune.
Wiglaf is in many ways very similar to the young Beowulf, except that he
does not possess the superhuman grip, but nevertheless he is honest and a true man of action.
The poet demonstrates Wiglaf’s character as follows:
“This was Wiglaf, Weoxstan’s son,
well-loved shieldsman, a Scylfing prince
of the stock of Alfhere; he could see his Lord
tormented by heat through his mask of battle.
He remembered then the favors he had formally bestowed on him,
the wealthy dwelling-place of the Waymundings,
confirming him in the land-rights his father had held.
He could not then hold back: Hand gripped the yellow
linden-wood shield, shook out that ancient
Wiglaf’s only concern is to aid his leader. This is not blind heroism,
but genuine concern for his King, and the poet’s characterization of Wiglaf is one of the most important in the whole poem. Although the poet eloquently describes Wiglaf’s goodness, it is more clearly shown by
the actions that Wiglaf takes.
It is clear that Wiglaf is fairly young as “this was the first occasion when
he was called to stand at his dear Lord’s shoulder in the shock of battle.”
Wiglaf’s courage is demonstrated thus,
“Mail-shirt did not serve
the young spear-man; and shield was withered
back to the boss by the billow of fire;
but when the blazing had burnt up his own,
the youngster stepped smartly to take
the cover of his kinsman’s.”