Last Updated on January 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
A slave, trying to find a hiding place to avoid the master who beat him, stumbles across a dragon’s lair. He steals a jeweled cup from among the treasures he finds there and flees when he realizes where he is. The treasure belongs to an ancient, lost race. The last remaining member of the race built a stone tower without doors or windows, near the sea beneath a cliff, in which to house the treasure of gold, jewels, swords, armor, and precious cups before his death. It is this tower the slave stumbles upon. After the ancient race became extinct, a flaming dragon discovered the tower and has been sleeping there for hundreds of years before the slave disturbs him.
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The slave brings the cup to his master, who is well pleased with it. However, the dragon becomes enraged at being awakened and robbed, and tracks the slave. Having no success at finding the thief, he attacks the village, burning down the houses with his fiery breath once night arrives. He returns to his tower as daylight breaks. His people come to tell Beowulf that the dragon has burned down his hall. A miserable, guilt-ridden Beowulf immediately begins plotting the Geats’ revenge.
Knowing that wood will be useless against the dragon’s fiery breath, Beowulf orders an iron shield made for himself. He also knows he has not many years remaining to his life, since he has already ruled for fifty years and was not a young man when he became king. Yet, he plans to take the dragon’s life as his own ends (presumably in battle with the dragon) and to do so alone. Escorted by a dozen of his men, he follows the slave, who fearfully leads the way to the tower. A weary Beowulf rests on the shore before entering the tower. He explains that he will not fight the dragon barehanded as he had done with the previous monsters because, this time, he is engaging a fire-breathing dragon and will need to protect himself long enough to kill the beast.
He strides to the entrance of the tower and becomes angry, roaring out a battle cry loud enough for the dragon within to hear. Beowulf waits at the entrance with his shield in front of him as the dragon spits fire and approaches him. Beowulf’s shield holds for a while, then melts under the dragon’s fire, and his sword cracks as he attacks the dragon. Although Beowulf draws blood, the dragon wraps him in fire; and Beowulf knows he is dying as all his men but one run away.
In this particular section of the poem, Beowulf summarizes his life. It seems he is not doing this so much for his people as he is for himself. He is older, has ruled for fifty years after refusing the throne when it was offered to him the first time, and is weary. Rather than seeking fame and glory, although he pays lip service to fame in this battle, Beowulf is being methodical and sensible. He realizes barehanded combat makes no sense against a fire-breathing dragon and that he will need a shield to protect himself while battling the dragon, in order to stay alive long enough to kill the dragon. He also realizes that flammable wood will not do. While he is careful to have an iron shield fashioned for this confrontation, he does seem to be resigned that this will be his final battle. He is tired and acknowledges this to himself as he rests on the shore before facing the dragon.
He is angry, as well, as exemplified when he roars at the entrance of the tower. While this can simply be read as anger at the dragon for burning his hall and his people’s homes, if it is kept in mind that Beowulf is resigned to this being the end of his life, it may also be anger at never having had a wife, a family, or an heir.
Beowulf was brought up in Hrethel’s home from the time he was seven; Hygelac, Hathcyn, and Herbald lived there, also. He had the opportunity to see Hrethel’s grief when Hathcyn killed Herbald and may be wondering who will grieve for him as he faces his impending death. Hrethel and his sons treated Beowulf as family, but it is mentioned that Beowulf was regarded as lazy and slow at court; was this, perhaps, a young boy’s attempt to prevent any relationships in a strange situation after being taken from his parents without any resistance on their part? At Hrothgar’s court, while the Danish king treated him as a son, Beowulf had the comfort of knowing he would be leaving as soon as the monsters were killed and did not need to worry about any lasting relations with yet another man who wanted to treat him as a son.
Returning to his native Geatland, he refused to take the throne when Hygelac was killed, insisting Herdred must be the king. Gallant, loyal, and correct as this action was, it also afforded Beowulf the opportunity to avoid having to take a queen, sire princes, and interact closely with his court members for a few more years.
He is a warrior and prefers the company of other soldiers. This fact implies that he prefers the intimacy of an enforced “family”: his band of followers. The quests and wars are the subjects of their time together, and the membership of this family is constantly changing due to death in battle or sons joining their king’s band as their fathers have done. It seems Beowulf was more comfortable avoiding intimacy and keeping people at an emotional distance from him. Yet, while he is ready to meet his death, he appears sorry he must do so without the ties he had previously spurned.