Beowulf bids farewell to his men and sets off wearing a mail-shirt and a helmet to fight the dragon. He shouts a challenge to his opponent, who emerges from the earth. Man and dragon grapple and wrestle amid sheets of fire. Beowulf hacks with his sword against the dragon’s thick scales, but his strength is clearly not what it once was. As the flames billow, Beowulf’s companions run in terror. Only one, Wiglaf, feels enough loyalty to come to the aid of his king. Wiglaf chides the other warriors, reminding them of their oaths of loyal service to Beowulf. Now the time has come when their loyalty will be tested, Wiglaf declares, and he goes by himself to assist his lord.
Beowulf strikes the dragon in the head with his great sword Naegling, but the sword snaps and breaks. The dragon lands a bite on Beowulf’s neck, and blood begins to flow. Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf’s aid, stabbing the dragon in the belly, and the dragon scorches Wiglaf’s hand. In desperation Beowulf pulls a knife from his belt and stabs it deep into the dragon’s flank. The blow is fatal, and the writhing serpent withers. But no sooner has Beowulf triumphed than the wound on his neck begins to burn and swell. He realizes that the dragon bite is venomous and that he is dying. He sends Wiglaf to inspect the dragon’s treasure and bring him a portion of it, saying that death will be easier if he sees the hoard that he has liberated. Wiglaf descends into the barrow and quickly returns to Beowulf with an armload of treasure. The old king, dying, thanks God for the treasure that he has won for his people. He tells Wiglaf that he must now look after the Geats and order his troop to build him a barrow that people will call “Beowulf’s Barrow.” After giving Wiglaf the collar from his own neck, Beowulf dies.
The dragon is the poem’s most potent symbol, embodying the idea of wyrd, or fate, that imbues the story with an atmosphere of doom and death. Whereas Beowulf is essentially invulnerable to Grendel and his mother, he is in danger from the beginning against the dragon. As Beowulf feels his own death approaching, the dragon emerges from the earth, creating the feeling that the inevitable clash will result in Beowulf’s death. The poet emphasizes Beowulf’s reluctance to meet death, to “give ground like that and go / unwillingly to inhabit another home / in a place beyond” (2588–2590). This poetic evocation of death as constituting movement from one realm to another—from the earthly realm to the spiritual one—reveals the influence of Christian ideology on the generally pagan Beowulf. It is also poignant from the perspective of the warrior ethos, in which leaving one’s homeland, the anchor of one’s entire identity, is a very serious and significant undertaking.
That Beowulf should be so adamant in his desire to see the treasure before he dies has puzzled many readers. It is important to remember that treasure objects often function as symbols of the transmission of values through generations or of bonds of kinship and loyalty. Beowulf recognizes this symbolic function when he reflects that he would pass on his armor to his own son if he had one. His relief upon seeing the treasure demonstrates his desire to leave something to his people—a sort of surrogate offspring—when he dies. He knows that, even though he has slain the dragon, his victory will feel hollow if there is no subsequent enactment of the ritual of reward and gift-giving. Looking upon the treasure—ensuring himself of its physical reality—eases Beowulf’s mind before death.
That the treasure that Wiglaf finds is rusty and corroded, however, adds a pathetic, ironic quality to the scene. Whereas Beowulf’s first two encounters with monsters end with him being granted treasures whose splendor represents his valor, the final encounter ends with Beowulf clutching objects whose decaying state epitomizes his own proximity to death. Furthermore, these riches will be entombed with Beowulf, so that the treasure will be hoarded, in effect, rather than redistributed, as the heroic code normally demands. In a way, Beowulf is like the original burier of the treasure, who realized that he was the last of his line—he knows that his lineage will not continue. Because the nature of Beowulf’s fight with the dragon is so different from that of his fights with Grendel and his mother, some critics choose to see the poem as having a dipartite, or two-part, structure rather than a tri-partite one. In the first two fights, we see a warrior confident in his indestructibility; in the last fight, on the other hand, we see a warrior aware of his mortality.
The treasure also stands for the growing bond between Beowulf and Wiglaf, the old hero and the new. Of Beowulf’s men, Wiglaf is the only one who conforms to the heroic standards of loyalty and valor. Wiglaf, in this section, establishes himself as the legitimate successor to Beowulf, who has no natural heir. In this way, he is similar to the young Beowulf, who becomes Hrothgar’s adoptive son. Wiglaf fiercely swears that he would rather die than return home without having protected his leader. This vow, too, reminds us of the young Beowulf, who is so eloquent in enunciating the code of honor and so perfectly epitomizes its values. The continuity of honor from one generation to the next is ratified when Beowulf takes the collar of gold from his own neck and, as his final act, gives it to his young friend. In Old English, a laf is an heirloom or remnant, and Wiglaf means “war survivor.” The poet equates Wiglaf with the treasure (and, of course, the poem)—he will survive Beowulf’s lifetime and carry on the great hero’s legacy.