What is the symbolism of the dragon in Beowulf?

The dragon in Beowulf symbolizes the forces of darkness, destruction, and avarice which constantly threaten to overwhelm the world.

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When he is a young man in search of glory, Beowulf travels to Daneland to kill Grendel as the champion of King Hrothgar. He succeeds magnificently, killing not only Grendel but also his mother, and he returns to Geatland in triumph.

Fifty years later, Beowulf is a king himself when...

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When he is a young man in search of glory, Beowulf travels to Daneland to kill Grendel as the champion of King Hrothgar. He succeeds magnificently, killing not only Grendel but also his mother, and he returns to Geatland in triumph.

Fifty years later, Beowulf is a king himself when a dragon attacks the Geats. Unlike Hrothgar, he cannot call upon a young hero to defend his people, and has to fight the dragon himself. Even worse, the Geats have deteriorated from the heroic warriors who traveled to Daneland with Beowulf. Now, only Wiglaf has the courage to face the dragon alongside him.

The dragon is worse than Grendel, who was something between man and beast. It represents darkness, destruction, and avarice. Since it kills Beowulf, it also represents the victory of these forces, a victory which Wiglaf predicts will soon be complete because the Geats will not survive for long without Beowulf. In the world of the Beowulf poet, civilization is always precarious, apt to be overwhelmed by the darkness at any moment.

The dragon kills Beowulf, but Beowulf also kills the dragon. The Geats are not yet wiped out, only placed in greater danger. If they could find the courage and heroism they once displayed, they might save themselves again. Here, the ambiguous Christian element in the poem comes to the fore. The forces of darkness, symbolized by the dragon, always threaten to overwhelm the world, but their victory is never quite complete.

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As has been mentioned by the other answers, the dragon in Beowulf represents absolute evil. It is greedy (hoarding a trove of gold) and destructive (killing many people). This is the opposite of Beowulf's conduct as a king. Beowulf is generous in sharing wealth with his warriors, and he loves his people enough to put his life on the line to save them, even though he is, at this point in the epic, an old man.

The dragon is also Beowulf's antithesis because it is essentially an antisocial creature. Unlike Beowulf, who is a generous king willing to die to save his people from destruction, the dragon lives alone and only seems to prize its treasure hoard. This quality links the dragon with the other two monsters Beowulf faced in his youth: Grendel and Grendel's mother. Both of those characters were outcasts descended from Cain, who was cursed to wander the earth after murdering his brother, Abel, out of jealousy. However, the dragon is, in a way, worse than Grendel or his mother, since at least those two characters (violent outcasts though they were) had one another as a small family and therefore deserve a little sympathy, even if their actions were evil. The dragon has no sense of community at all, making it even more unsympathetic.

So in the end, the dragon is the ultimate threat to Beowulf's community and represents pure evil.

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The dragon in Beowulf symbolizes malice, destruction, and death. In the poem, the dragon is characterized as being malicious. Even the roof of the dragon’s barrow is described as malicious. The destructive and horrific actions of the dragon are evident when it burns the homes of the Geats. The dragon also symbolizes death. In the poem, the dragon kills people and completely razes homes. When Beowulf embarks on a mission to kill the dragon, he dies together with the creature. The fact that Beowulf dies when fighting the dragon symbolizes the inevitability of death (Beowulf's just happened to come in the form of a dragon). Everyone has to die at some point in time, one cannot fight death and emerge victorious—not even Beowulf.

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In addition to its avaricious symbolic significance, the dragon is wholly representative of absolute evil.

To explain this, one must consider that the dragon is Beowulf’s ultimate adversary that he must face at the end of the epic. Just prior to Beowulf killing the dragon, the dragon’s lethal venom courses through his veins. Knowing that his death is imminent, Beowulf musters all of his might to kill the dragon, thereby vanquishing evil.

While it is certainly true that the dragon is a miserly beast, its final battle with Beowulf represents the triumph of good over evil. If Beowulf represents good in this situation, then the dragon represents evil.

If one considers the Christian influence on medieval literature, then this final battle is analogous to the triumph of God over Satan in the Christian Bible.

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The dragon in Beowulf could be said to symbolize several things, but many readers have noted that it likely symbolizes abstract ideas like greed, hoarding, and destruction. Indeed, the dragon is the opposite of the generous and kind Beowulf, who benevolently gives gifts to his loyal followers and rewards virtue and good actions. The dragon, on the other hand, greedily amasses gold and riches and refuses to share its vast store of wealth. Even worse, the dragon does not use this hoarded wealth in any constructive fashion. Rather, the dragon sits on its hoard and guards it jealously simply because it doesn't want others to have a share in its riches. In this way, it's easy to see how the dragon symbolizes negative qualities in opposition to Beowulf's just and benevolent reign. 

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