By Deirdre Byrne
Lecture delivered at the University of South Africa, March 3, 2011
Introduction: The Old English epic poem, Beowulf, establishes the heroic status of its protagonist through the traditional method of vanquishing enemies. As the culminating feat of his career, the hero, Beowulf, ageing King of the Geats, tackles a dragon who has found the treasure of a long-extinct race, buried in a barrow. The poet fills in the background:
Then an old harrower of the dark happened to find the hoard open, the burning one who hunts out barrows, the slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky with streamers of fire.
The dragon is described in resonant images: the ‘old harrower’, ‘the burning one’ and ‘the slick-skinned dragon’. He is both glamorous and highly dangerous. He possesses fire, an insatiable and baseless hatred for humans, and a fondness for destruction and chaos, as well as his love of gold. The dragon does not collect the gold himself, but having found it, he is very happy to make it his home, and stays there for three hundred years, until he is disturbed by a miserable thief who steals a golden cup from the hoard, seeking to regain his lord’s favour. The dragon knows his treasure well, and the theft awakens his fury, so that he explodes from the barrow, wreaking revenge in a fiery streak of destruction as he destroys whole villages in a single incandescent night.
Seamus Heaney, whose translation of Beowulf I am quoting here, comments in the Introduction:
Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests himself, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him. He is at once a stratum in the earth and a streamer in the air, no painted dragon but a figure of real oneiric power, one that can easily survive the prejudice that arises at the very mention of the word ‘dragon’. Whether in medieval art or modern Disney cartoons, the dragon can strike us as far less horrific than he is meant to be, but in the final movement of Beowulf he lodges himself in the imagination as wyrd rather than wyrm, more a destiny than a set of reptilian vertebrae.