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.