Soon it is Geatland’s turn to face terror. A great dragon lurks beneath the earth, jealously guarding its treasure, until one day a thief manages to infiltrate the barrow, or mound, where the treasure lies. The thief steals a gem-covered goblet, arousing the wrath of the dragon. The intruder, a slave on the run from a hard-handed master, intends no harm by his theft and flees in a panic with the goblet.
The poet relates that many centuries earlier, the last survivor of an ancient race buried the treasure in the barrow when he realized that the treasure would be of no use to him because he, like his ancestors, was destined to die. He carefully buried the precious objects, lamenting all the while his lonely state. The defeat of his people had left the treasures to deteriorate. The dragon chanced upon the hoard and has been guarding it for the past three hundred years.
Waking up to find the goblet stolen, the dragon bursts forth from the barrow to hunt the thief, scorching the earth as it travels. Not finding the offender, the dragon goes on a rampage, breathing fire and incinerating homes and villages. It begins to emerge nightly from its barrow to torment the countryside, still seething with rage at the theft.
Soon, Beowulf’s own throne-hall becomes the target of the dragon’s fiery breath, and it is burned to the ground. Now an old king, Beowulf grieves and wonders what he might have done to deserve such punishment from God. He begins to plot his revenge. He commissions a mighty shield from the iron-smith, one that he hopes will stand up against the breath of flame. He is too proud to assemble a huge army for the fight, and, remembering how he defeated Grendel single-handedly in his youth, feels no fear of the dragon.
The poet recounts the death of King Hygelac in combat in Friesland. Hygelac fell while Beowulf survived thanks to his great strength and swimming ability. Upon returning home, Beowulf was offered the throne by the widowed Hygd, who knew that her own son was too young and inexperienced to be an effective ruler. Beowulf declined, however, not wanting to disturb the order of succession. Instead, he acted as protector and guardian to the prince and supported his rule. Only when Hygelac’s son met his end in a skirmish against the Swedes did Beowulf ascend the throne. Under Beowulf’s reign, the feuding with Sweden eventually ceased when Beowulf avenged Hygelac’s death.
Now, ready to face one last adversary, Beowulf gathers eleven men to investigate the area. They discover the thief who stole the dragon’s goblet and press him to take them to the barrow. They wish each other luck in the fight that will follow, and Beowulf has a premonition of his own death. On the cliff outside the barrow, Beowulf speaks to his men, recounting his youth as a ward in King Hrethel’s court. He tells of the accidental killing of one of Hrethel’s sons by another and attempts to characterize the king’s great grief. He describes the wars between the Geats and the Swedes after Hrethel’s death, recalling his proud days as a warrior in the service of Hygelac. He then makes his final boast: he vows to fight the dragon, if only it will abandon its barrow and face him on open ground.
This section moves us into the third part of the poem, which centers around the aged Beowulf’s fight with the dragon. From beginning to end, the tone of this section is one of death and doom. The unknown ancestor who buries the treasure, for example, behaves as mournfully as if he were actually burying his deceased kinsmen—or, indeed, himself. Also, there are repeated hints that Beowulf will not survive this encounter. Much of this section is retrospective and nostalgic, as Beowulf, sensing that his end is near, feels compelled to rehearse the story of his distinguished life.
The emphasis on the treasure itself in this section rehashes the moral ambiguity of materialism caused by the overlaying of a Christian value system on a pagan story. As translator Seamus Heaney points out in his introduction, the idea of gold in the Sigemund episode is associated almost entirely with goodness and honor, while here it is also associated with greed, theft, evil, and death. But the anecdote of the Last Survivor, which tells how the gold came to be buried in the barrow, demonstrates a different ethos. The survivor seems to realize that the treasure is meaningless without a community in which to circulate. This realization isn’t exactly a Christian lesson in the transience of earthly things, since no alternative spiritual world is proposed; neither, however, does it reflect a greedy, purely materialistic lust for gold. In this anecdote, the Beowulf poet seems to have given the pagan ethos a fairly sympathetic and even-handed treatment.
The lengthy passages of recapitulation and reminiscence fill in the details of Beowulf’s political biography. In the previous section, the reader learns only that Beowulf came to the throne after Hygelac’s death and ruled for fifty years. Now, however, we find out about a significant gesture of generosity on Beowulf’s part toward Hygelac’s son. By declining the throne and taking on the guardianship of the young heir until the heir comes of age, Beowulf shows that his attitude toward power is neither ambitious nor mercenary. He thus stands in contrast to the power-hungry usurper Hrothulf. In proclaiming of Beowulf that “He was a good king,” the poet echoes his praise of the venerable Shield Sheafson and of Hrothgar (2390).
The tragic story of the death of Hrethel’s son at the hands of his own brother offers an echo of the earlier case of divided loyalty in the Finnsburg episode. There, the Danish princess Hildeburh was distressed by the fact that her son and her brother were at war, fighting on opposite sides, and that ultimately both were killed. Here, the tension is similar but even more frustrating. Hrethel’s grief at the accident is great, but because of the peculiar circumstances surrounding his son’s death, Hrethel is locked in inaction. Under the heroic code, grief is something to be purged through vengeance, but vengeance here would mean the death of another son—an excruciating and unsatisfying prospect.
The circumstances surrounding and leading up to Beowulf’s confrontation with the dragon prepare us for a climactic spectacle. The poet has aligned Beowulf with the force of good throughout the story, and the dragon’s direct attack on Beowulf’s hall renders this imminent encounter an inevitable clash between good and evil. The contrast drawn between Hrothgar, who earlier calls on the young Beowulf to eradicate Grendel, and the now old Beowulf, who enlists no such help against the dragon, accentuates Beowulf’s valor and instills in us a confidence that Beowulf is still mighty enough to eradicate a menacing foe. The poet’s explicit comparison between Hygelac, who died, and Beowulf, who lived, in the combat in Friesland similarly builds our expectations that Beowulf will succeed in his quest.
Yet Beowulf’s premonition of his own death attests to his strong sense of fate, an important component of these characters’ self-conceptions. Beowulf’s reminiscences about his glory days and the narrator’s mention of Beowulf’s old age reinforce the reality that every life—even that of a legendary warrior—must come to an end. Thus, the poem gives us the feeling that this clash can end only in total destruction. Beowulf’s call for the dragon to face him on open ground has the same primal feel to it as his youthful decision to fight Grendel unarmed. Whereas the earlier clash establishes Beowulf’s reputation as a hero, we know this last clash must seal Beowulf’s heroic reputation forever.
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