, Research Paper
Grendel and the Dragon in Beowulf
“In my youth I engaged in many wars” (59), Beowulf boasts to his warriors, which is certainly true. Throughout his life, he faces many deadly foes, all of which he handily defeats, save one. His story focuses on the most challenging, as well as morally significant of foes, Grendel and the dragon. These creatures reveal much about society as well as Christian virtue at the time. Even after Grendel and the dragon are defeated physically, the two monsters pose a new threat to the hero on a higher plane. Beowulf is not only at risk of losing his life, but his humanity, virtue, and even spirituality.
The first beast the hero faces is the wicked Grendel. At first he appears to be a demon, a “hellish enemy” (28). However, it is soon revealed that he is human, the “kin of Cain” (28). This is a crucial detail involving the lesson Beowulf will learn from this battle. The man-beast always strikes at night while his prey is fast asleep. He has no respect for the fight, preferring to attack the unwary and defenseless. On the night Grendel attacks Heorot with Beowulf lying in wait, Grendel’s most horrid of traits is learned: “He suddenly seized a sleeping man, tore at him ravenously, bit into his bone-locks, drank the blood from his veins, swallowed huge morsels; quickly had he eaten all of the lifeless one, feet and hands” (36). This utter disrespect that the supposed ‘man’ shows for human life is a testament to his complete lack of humanity. Any such qualities have rotted inside of him, replaced by hatred. He delights in slaughter, killing not out of necessity or for God or country: “His heart laughed: dreadful monster, he though that before the day came he would divide the life from the body of every one of them . . .” (36).
However, the truly frightening thought behind Grendel is not his bloodlust or cannibalism, but the fact that any man could become such a beast. After Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar warns him of such a fate though a tale of the warrior Heremod. When a mighty warrior kills, he loses a fraction of his humanity. The more he kills, the more he develops a killer instinct. Unless he keeps this instinct in check and reminds himself that he fights and kills for a cause, he becomes a monster. In the case of Heremod, “he grew great not for their joy, but for their slaughter, for the destruction of Danish people” (49). Hrothgar knows a mighty warrior such as Beowulf will take the lives of many in his time, and urges him to be mindful of his tale. This knowledge, not the defeat of Grendel and his mother, is Beowulf’s true victory.
One would argue that Beowulf was noble and wise enough to realize such a lesson on his own. However, there are several passages in the text where Beowulf bears a resemblance to not only Grendel, but Heremod as well. Before his first meeting with Grendel, the hero is “lying awake for the fierce foe, with heart swollen in anger . . .” (36). In the following paragraph, Grendel himself is described as “driven by evil desire, swollen with rage . . .” (36). Finally, in Hrothgar’s tale, “with swollen heart he [Heremod] killed his table-companions . . .” (49). This is not mere coincidence, but proof that Beowulf has that bloodlust and his humanity is endangered. However, through the wise words of Hrothgar, he is saved.
The next great foe Beowulf faces poses a much greater threat to Beowulf in a spiritual sense. Once again, he faces another heartless foe with no regard for human life. When the worm attacked, it would “leave nothing alive” (57). With its “cruel malice”, it “hated and hurt the people of the Geats” (57). Like Grendel, slaughter is its passion. However, the dragon represents the sin of greed as well as the bloodlust and sheer hatred Grendel possesses. It sits atop a horde of “heathen gold” for which it has no use for other than to satisfy its greedy nature. More importantly the gold is stolen; unlike Beowulf, who “repaid in war the treasures” (59) given to him, the worm has done no work to earn his treasure hoard.
Against the dragon, Beowulf is judged. Unlike Grendel and Beowulf’s many other foes, the dragon reveals the mighty hero’s only flaw. To understand this judgement, one must look at the dragon symbolically – not as a beast, but as greed itself. Beowulf’s final fight is against greed, the love of gold. While Beowulf does, with the help of Wiglaf, slay the beast, he is mortally wounded. The dragon’s greed, as well as its talons, scars Beowulf. On his deathbed, he thinks of treasure, wishing to “see the ancient wealth, the golden things, may clearly look on the bright curious gems, so that for that, because of the treasure’s richness, I may the more easily leave life and nation I have long held” (62). And so the dragon is not entirely defeated; it reveals Beowulf’s only imperfection before he meets his maker. The dragon, greed, is truly Beowulf’s greatest foe: the hero needs assistance in defeating the worm (Wiglaf), and defeats it only at the cost of his life.
It could be argued that Beowulf’s greed was not a relevant flaw. He distributed his wealth among his people, and what he amassed he earned. Also amassing many great treasures could be seen as a sign of a great warrior in those times. However, the narrator denounces the power of wealth when Wiglaf looks upon the treasure hoard. The treasure has a lonely quality to it – “vessels of men of old, with none to polish them . . . many a helmet old and rusty” (63). This description is an implication that when man passes on, his treasure does not come with him, but instead sits suddenly meaningless. The narrator even goes on to write “Easily may treasure, gold in the ground, betray each one of the race of men, hide it who will” (63). The fact that these passages come directly following Beowulf’s desire to spy the treasure hoard is not coincidental.
To say that this one glimpse of Beowulf’s greed spells his failure as a hero is untrue. One must look at why he went to face the dragon in the first place. Before departing for battle, Beowulf speaks: “Old guardian of the people, I shall still seek battle” (59). He is not facing the worm to plunder its treasure hoard, but to once again perform his duty as defender of his people. And, as he takes his last look at the dragon’s mound of gold, he shows his intentions of sharing it with his people: “I speak with my words thanks to the Lord of All for these treasures . . . that I might get such for my people before my death-day” (63). While Beowulf could not resist the calling of the riches, his intentions were good. Protector of his people for fifty years, he is remembered as a brave and just king.
Beowulf’s life was truly epic struggle. The monsters he battled made it so. Grendel and the dragon, capable of crushing men physically, stood for evils that could just as easily crush men in spirit. These two beasts represented society’s greatest fears, as well as detriments, and Beowulf fearlessly took them on. Grendel taught the hero a valuable lesson about maintaining one’s humanity in a world dominated by the dogs of war. The dragon, showed Beowulf’s mortality, his imperfection, but the hero eradicates it nonetheless, saving his people from not only physical threat, but sin. Bringing in such spiritual and moral dimensions, these two beasts certainly give the story of Beowulf depth.