[The dragon] shook his head. “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.”
Grendel finds himself in the presence of a huge, red-golden dragon that lives in a cave filled with gold and gems. The dragon has been expecting Grendel, and he takes cruel pleasure in Grendel’s fright and discomfort. He laughs obscenely and points out that Grendel’s reaction to him is just like the humans’ reaction to Grendel. Angered by the dragon’s spitefulness, Grendel picks up an emerald to throw at him, but stops at the dragon’s sharp words. Grendel, pausing to consider the dragon’s comparison between himself and the humans, decides to stop scaring the humans merely for sport. Reading his mind, the dragon scoffs at the idea, asking him brusquely: “Why not frighten them?”
The dragon claims to know everything about everything. As a more highly evolved creature than Grendel and the humans, the dragon has a vision of the world that is beyond anything these low creatures can comprehend. The dragon sees both backward and forward in time, though he quickly disabuses Grendel of the notion that this vision gives the dragon any kind of power to change things. The dragon ascertains that Grendel has come seeking answers about the Shaper, and he begins by explaining the flaws in human thinking. Lacking the total vision that the dragon has, humans approximate by gluing isolated facts together and trying to link them into logical chains and rational systems. Every once in a while, the humans sense that their systems are actually nonsense—that is where the Shaper steps in. The Shaper, through the power of his imaginative art, provides the Danes with an illusion that their systems are real. In reality, of course, the Shaper has no broader vision than any other man, and he is still working within the same limited system of facts and observations. His system may be neat and ordered, but it is entirely contrived.
The curmudgeonly dragon launches into a sprawling philosophical discussion, in which he has difficulty making his points understandable to the simple, childlike Grendel. Grendel, for his part, is skeptical about the dragon’s conclusions, but he listens anyway. The dragon explains that humans have a tendency to extrapolate theories and grossly generalize from the limited evidence they have, hampered as they are by their restricted vision of the world. The dragon also explains to Grendel how all nature inevitably moves toward more complex forms of organization. He illustrates his point by comparing a vegetable to an animal. If a vegetable is split into many different pieces, nothing changes from piece to piece; its organization of molecules remains consistent throughout its body. An animal, however, has a center of dominant activity—the head—and if that center is severed from the rest of the animal, the entire coordination collapses. The dragon makes the same comparison between a rock and a human. The rock, a less complex object, makes no distinctions about what it attracts gravitationally. Man, on the other hand, organizes, makes selections, and then acts systematically upon his environment.
Grendel and the dragon reach a frustrated impasse. Finally, the dragon reveals that the world Grendel knows is no more than a small ripple in the stream of Time, a gathering of dust that will fade away completely when enough years pass. All of man’s monuments, systems, and inventions will eventually fade from the world entirely. Even the dragon himself will be killed someday. In light of this vision, the dragon scoffs at Grendel’s attempts to change or improve himself. He grants that Grendel does have a kind of purpose in life: he is man’s “brute existent,” the enemy against which man will come to define himself. Grendel drives man toward the lofty planes of art, science, and religion, but he is infinitely replaceable in this capacity. Whether Grendel sticks with man, helps the poor, or feeds the hungry is irrelevant in the long run. The dragon, for his part, plans only to count all his money and perhaps sort it out into piles. After ridiculing humankind’s theories about God, the dragon gives Grendel a final piece of advice: “seek out gold and sit on it.”
In the words of the crabby but oddly charismatic dragon, Grendel finds a vision as powerful and provocative as the Shaper’s. Indeed, throughout the rest of the novel, the philosophies of the Shaper and the dragon battle against each other within Grendel’s mind. In contrast to the ordered worldview of the Shaper, the dragon sees the world as a chaotic, meaningless place, a vision that speaks to the spiritual disconnectedness that Grendel has been experiencing up to this point. The dragon finds the Shaper’s efforts to impose meaning on an inherently meaningless world to be ridiculous and small-minded. The meaningful patterns and systems that man creates—history, for example, or religion—are hollow and unfounded. In the face of this all-encompassing vision, the most passionate response the dragon can muster is a crankily resigned cynicism.
In philosophical terms, Grendel’s visit with the dragon pushes Grendel’s inherent existentialism to the more extreme philosophy of nihilism. Existentialism is a school of thought that presupposes the absence of God and a total lack of meaning in life. As such, existentialism asserts that there are no intrinsic morals or values in the world: man has complete freedom to assert any meaning—or no meaning—as he pleases. Nihilism takes existentialism a step further, to an even bleaker worldview. Like existentialists, nihilists deny the existence of any inherent meaning or value in the world. Under such a system, meaningful distinctions between things are impossible, and therefore all attempts to make such distinctions eventually come to nothing. To the dragon, the values of piety, charity, nobility, and altruism are totally interchangeable irrelevancies. The dragon’s notion that the passage of time will erase all evidence of mankind speaks directly to one of the anxieties found in the original Beowulf text. As a record of historical acts of bravery, the entire purpose of Beowulf is to ensure the fame of its hero and the culture of warriors he represents. For that community, fame acts as a bulwark against the ravages of time. The dragon, however, would reply that fame, too, must fade with time.