Wanner, Kevin J.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 16 (1999)
In the history of Beowulf criticism, the dragon episode has been subjected to wildly differing interpretations involving a wide set of elements, including character motivation, the symbolic significance of the dragon and its hoard, the degree of Christian revision of pagan source material, and, most importantly, the moral appraisal given to the title character’s actions and temperament. In general, it is agreed that Beowulf was produced by a Christian poet (however the role and identity of that person or persons may be defined) who utilized narrative sources that pre-dated the introduction of Christianity into Anglo-Saxon England. My purpose here is not to discern this Christian artist’s primary motivations or intended messages, both highly-contested matters, but rather to examine the dragon-fight’s symbolism, and by extension the motifs of dragons and dragon-slayers, in terms of what this inquiry may reveal about the sociopolitical ideologies of pre-Christian Germanic society. Accordingly, I will argue that Beowulf’s dragon-fight episode originated as an expression of a major contradiction inherent in pagan culture, an expression which was given shape through the vehicle of mythic narrative.