Welcome back to the third and last part of the discussion of Beowulf, everyone's favorite Old English heroic fantasy epic! I presume I don't need to spend much time going over the story and its background: if you've read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, you already know, and if not, you know how to click on links and find them. So let's head right back into this magical epic set in fifteen-hundred-years-ago Scandinavia, and get back to talking about its magic swords, monsters, and dragons—and, because it's my pet geek, about its influences on what we affectionately refer to today as "fantasy." With a particular emphasis—because that really, definitely is my geek—on how it shines through those well-known fantasy works of J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In previous installments, we've discussed the pagan ideal of the warrior hero—our good pal Beowulf himself, of course—and how it coexists somewhat uneasily in the poem with the Christian ideas that had entered England by the time the story was written down. We've also talked about mead-halls and banquet tales, minstrels and sea monsters, haunted lakes, swords and armor forged by legendary elf-kings, and, of course, the monster Grendel. Ah, Grendel—the only monster of the story's three ghastlies to get a name!
We've seen the young Beowulf leave his uncle's kingdom, the Geats's homeland in Sweden, and cross the sea with a few trusted retainers. In Denmark, we've seen Beowulf offer his services to King Hrothgar, whose palace (actually a mead-hall—these are hard-drinking people) is being ravaged by a monster. We've watched Beowulf lie in wait for Grendel in the mead-hall, and fight him single-handed without armor or weapons. So strong is he—so mighty, so heroic—and so obviously favored by God that he wins the confrontation by the brutal expedient of ripping off Grendel's arm.
Bleeding and cowed, Grendel runs back to the marches to die. And . . . is that the end of the story?
Well, of course not. The poem would be a rollicking good tale even if that were the end, but it wouldn't be an epic. All it is is, as we might call it, the end of Level 1. This story has three levels, and they are each a little tougher than the last.
Now, what I'm really interested in in this last installment is talking to you about The Dragon, who is the boss of Level 3, so I'll have to ask you to excuse me as I hurry you through a quick recap of Level 2. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, he is showered with praise and the thanks of the Danes. There's a huge banquet, Beowulf is laden with gifts (golden treasure, arms and armor, horses), and everyone drinks and sings into the night. But after dark, tragedy strikes again: not Grendel this time, but Grendel's mother! She kills a warrior, snatches the arm of her dead son that Beowulf has mounted as a trophy, and then flees back to her home in the marsh. All that remains for Beowulf, the next morning, is to follow the spoor of her blood, dive into the villainous lake where she lives, and battle her to the death underwater with a magic sword. (I realize this might sound slightly less oversized-ly heroic than what's gone before, so in Beowulf's defense let me specify that it takes all afternoon to swim from the surface to her cave; that he's assaulted by sea monsters that almost tear off his armor; and that the sword he eventually seizes from her armory and uses to kill her, a relic from the age of giants, reacts to the monster's acidic blood by "wilt[ing] into gory icicles" and melting (1606 ff).)
And then, for the next 800 lines—nearly a quarter of the poem—nothing much happens. That is, not much in the way of action. Beowulf returns to Hrothgar's hall, tells his story, and shows his spoils. There are more thanks; there is more feasting; more rewards are given, sermons offered, oaths of friendship sworn. Then the Geats sail back across the sea to Sweden, where they tell their story again and the same things happen all over again.
And then there's a jump in the narrative. It's interesting, really, how it occurs; we've gotten so used to being in real-time, to being immersed in the dialogue among these people, these warriors and kings, and then suddenly there's a big leap in time that's covered by about ten lines of summary. Here's what happens: King Hygelac of the Geats dies in battle, as does his son Heardred. Beowulf becomes king of his people, and "ruled it well / for fifty winters, grew old and wise / as warden of the land" (2208-10). And then something else happens. A new threat appears in the land. A dragon appears; and fighting him will be Beowulf's third and final battle.
Before we get into the battle, though, I'd like to share a couple of thoughts on a couple of concepts that figure largely in this part of the poem: wyrm and wyrd. Wyrm, as you can probably guess, means a dragon, of the particularly well-known northern European kind that Beowulf will find himself battling. Its resemblance to "worm" is no coincidence: the Old English word can mean both, as well as a creeping insect or a snake. Wyrd, on the other hand, is a philosophical or metaphysical concept that figures prominently in Beowulf. It is considerably harder than wyrm to translate. Wikipedia gives a sort of explanation: "Wyrd is a concept in Old English and Old Norse culture roughly corresponding to Fate or Karma . . . In a simple sense, Wyrd refers to how past actions continually affect and condition the future, but also how the future affects the past." That's not entirely clear, but then metaphysical concepts often aren't. "Fate" is a reasonably good way to think about it.
It is a concept that is particularly important in this, the third and final section of Beowulf, for this is the section that brings Beowulf to the end of his life. This section is particularly heavy on foreshadowing, and is pervasively elegiac in tone; its battles are still bloody and glorious, but the aging hero is no longer invincible. The reason wyrd matters here is that Beowulf's death is not exactly framed as a tragedy, nor would it be right to look at the dragon as some representation of Satanic evil that works to destroy a formerly invincible champion. Instead, Beowulf's eventual fall feels more like the inevitable conclusion of his—or any—story: the final working out of a pattern whose broad lines have been drawn since the beginning. Wyrd and wyrm: what a splendid pair of words! (Which, just at this moment, I am tempted to write as "wyrds"; but that would be etymologically inane.) And it is generally thought that the concepts, like the words, are linked in this poem. As Seamus Heaney writes in the introduction to his translation: "[T]he dragon has a wonderful inevitability about him and a unique glamour. . . . He is . . . no painted dragon but a figure of real oneiric power, one that can easily survive the prejudice which arises at the very mention of the word 'dragon.' . . . [I]n the final movement of Beowulf he lodges himself in the imagination as wyrd rather than wyrm, more a destiny than a set of reptilian vertebrae" (xiv-xv).
So there we've got the basic concepts behind the last section of the poem: fate, or destiny, and a dragon. And now, if you don't mind, I'd like to jump on my pet hobbyhorse and draw into the conversation one of my other favorite books (which I have loved even longer, because it was first read to me when I was eight): The Hobbit: or, There and Back Again, which was first published in 1937 by a certain J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford professor, philologist, and scholar of Old English who happened to be a pretty much rabid fan of Beowulf. (I discussed Tolkien's Beowulf scholarship in the previous column.)
I won't assume that all of you have read The Hobbit, but I won't assume that the book's completely unfamiliar to most readers either. If you are interested in reviewing the plot in detail, you can ask the Internet about it. (Because if there's anything the Internet knows, it's Tolkien! Wikipedia would probably be helpful here.) In broad terms, however, the plot of The Hobbit centers on an attempt to recover a hoard of stolen dragon gold. Our hero, Bilbo Baggins (the titular hobbit), somewhat against his will ends up accompanying a group of thirteen dwarves on this mission to the distant Lonely Mountain, where a vast red dragon named Smaug has taken up residence. The group is led by Thorin Oakenshield, "an enormously important dwarf" (TH 18), whose grandfather was once King under the Mountain before the dragon drove Thorin's people out of their underground palaces and appropriated their treasure. Having devastated the region and destroyed the human town of Dale that used to lie in the foothills—the nearest surviving settlement is Lake-town, which lies some distance away down a river— the dragon these days spends most of his time curled up on his heap of gold and smoking out his nose, when he isn't off desolating someplace.
It was when, years ago, while studying the book for college, I began reading the third section of Beowulf, that I first began to think of The Hobbit. It brings up this business of a wyrm, you see—a dragon—and his hoard, and his cave. And then there's the origin of Smaug's gold, which he acquired by destroying the people who used to live in the mountain, which the dwarves now refer to as their vanished "kingdom of old" (TH 290).
Now, the way the dragon is introduced in Beowulf evokes some very similar ideas. Beowulf's dragon, you see, lives in a barrow. Barrows are burial mounds, in which the people of various northern European cultures used to inter their noble dead; our word "bury" is related. In Beowulf's time, and for quite a while after, a king would sometimes literally be buried inside a ship, along with many treasures. Such barrows are found not only in the Scandinavian lands, but also in the countries they colonized or conquered. The fabulous hoard unearthed in the 1930s at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia is perhaps the most famous of those discovered in the British Isles.
Tolkien was interested in barrows himself, as witness the scene of the Barrow-Wight in the early part of The Fellowship of the Ring. What I find so fascinating about the dragon's barrow in Beowulf, though, is the way it's introduced. The Beowulf poet begins by explaining that, a long time ago, a great treasure was interred in the barrow by somebody who was the last of his race. The name of this person has now been forgotten; even the people he belonged to, "a high-born race," has disappeared into the oblivion of time (l. 2235). This curious and eloquent passage, sometimes referred to by critics as "the Lay of the Last Survivor," is a remarkable detour out of the poem's own timestream into the deep past, and a moving meditation on time's erasure of human life and civilizations. Here's how the poet puts things:
[L]ong ago, with deliberate care,
somebody now forgotten
had buried the riches of a high-born race
in this ancient cache. Death had come
and taken them all . . .
and the only one left to tell their tale,
the last of their line, could look forward to nothing
but the same fate for himself . . .
A newly constructed
barrow stood waiting, on a wide headland . . .
Into it the keeper of the hoard had carried
all the goods and golden ware . . .
His words were few:
"Now, earth, hold what earls once held
and heroes can no more . . . My own people
have been ruined by war; one by one
they went down to death . . . I am left with nobody
to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets,
put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed."
That's kind of enough to give you the shivers, isn't it? But it moves even higher, augmenting the theme with haunting images:
[T]he coat of mail that came through all fights . . .
decays with the warrior. . . . No trembling harp,
no turned timber, no tumbling hawk
swerving through the hall . . . Pillage and slaughter
have emptied the earth of entire peoples."
And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death's flood
brimmed up in his heart.
It's a remarkable passage, I think, and very effectively evokes the transitoriness of earthly wealth and of civilizations: a memorable passage, which helps to establish the section's pervasive elegiac tone.
Now, it's a bit of a stretch, possibly, for me to wonder if The Hobbit's background story of the civilizations destroyed by Smaug—the dwarves' lost "kingdom under the Mountain," the ruined town of Dale at the mountain's feet—evoke an echo of the Last Survivor's lament, giving poignance and resonance to the dragon's hoard. But the stories really do start to resonate with one another as they move forward! Because, in Beowulf, just as in The Hobbit, the dragon is wakened to anger by the theft of one of its treasures. The Beowulf story runs like this:
The intruder who broached the dragon's treasure
and moved him to wrath had never meant to.
. . . [T]here was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but [he had] managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet . . .
the wretch [. . .] panicked and ran
away with the precious [. . .] metalwork . . .
[W]ith a thief's wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon; that drove him into rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover.
Now, if you remember The Hobbit, this might ring a few bells for you—as it did for me. Bilbo Baggins, we may recall, was originally brought on the adventure by the party of dwarves to act as their "burglar." Their plan of action was to try to avoid facing the fearsome dragon Smaug directly ("'That would be no good,'" as Gandalf tells them, with typical dryness, "'without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero . . . but warriors are busy fighting one another . . . and in this neighbourhood, heroes are scarce'" (TH 30)). Instead, the dwarves enter by a "Side-door" or "secret entrance"—a "hidden passage," if you would, unknown to men or dragons, and cleverly concealed by elaborate dwarf-magic: it can only be opened using a special key, on a certain day of the year, at a certain time of day. So cleverly concealed is it indeed that not even the dwarves are able to figure it out until a wise bird comes to their aid (TH 28-30; 63-64; 222-223).
Once the party has managed to get inside the secret door, Bilbo creeps down into the dragon's cavern. (He is supposed to be a burglar, remember, and also he has a magical ring that makes him invisible.) There he finds Smaug, asleep: "a vast red-golden dragon . . . a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber" (TH 227). The dragon is curled up atop his fantastical hoard of treasure, "countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems, and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light . . . coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging . . . and . . . great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed." Bilbo is overwhelmed, "pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves," and, hungering to prove his usefulness to the party, he pilfers a piece of treasure from the nearest heap. And what should it be but "a great two-handled cup, as heavy as he could carry"? Finally, Bilbo "cast one fearful eye upward" and "fled . . . back up the long tunnel . . . His heart was beating and a more fevered shaking was in his legs than when he was going down, but still he clutched the cup, and his chief thought was: 'I've done it! This will show them.'" (TH 227-28).
It's really interesting, I think, how the passages echo each other. It makes me imagine that I can get inside of Tolkien's mind; I imagine him reading the theft scene in Beowulf, for the hundredth time, and this time feeling the desire to transform it and flesh it out in the children's adventure book he's writing—to bring to a much more vivid and realized life the details of the hidden passage, the slumbering dragon, the treasure hoard, and, most especially, the unwilling burglar, pressed into a situation he hadn't wanted and, in a single moment of decision, performing the decisive act that will wake the sleeping worm: seizing a single piece of treasure, a precious cup, and then staggering away with it back up toward the light.
There are, of course, many differences between the two stories. But the similarities run deep, and go beyond Tolkien's nostalgic evocation of the dwarves' "kingdom of old," destroyed by the dragon over a hundred years ago, symbolized by the treasure that Thorin and his company will risk everything to regain. As for the hoard's respective pickpockets, of course, one is a hobbit and one isn't; and yet they have a few things in common, as well. The Beowulf thief, we learn, is a runaway slave, who stumbles across the dragon's hoard and steals the cup in hopes of buying back his master's favor. Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins, while hardly in the same predicament, also needs to prove his worth—and (of all unlikely things for a Tolkienian hobbit) he wants to prove his skill as a "burglar"! The dragons' reaction to their looted hoards are also similar, and catastrophic. In both cases, as soon as the dragon wakes up, he misses the vanished cup—small though it may be in relation to the totality of his treasure—and its loss drives him to a destroying rage. Like Tolkien's Smaug, the dragon of Beowulf must wait until nightfall to leave his lair. Then he circles in the air, "hot and savage," searching the surrounding wasteland for the thief; and, full of "pent-up fury," flies to the nearest human habitation and
began to belch out flames
and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow
that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger
would leave nothing alive in his wake. . . .
Far and near, the Geat nation
bore the brunt of his brutal assaults
and virulent hate.
I won't give a detailed recapping of the parallel scenes in The Hobbit, but, in that story, Smaug flies to attack the nearby human settlement of Esgaroth, which lies in the middle of a lake (and is built entirely of wood). The scene involves lots of excitement, escapes by boat, and archers shooting back at the dragon as their homesteads burn. (Tolkien, of course, once again goes into much greater length and detail about this than the passages in Beowulf suggest. And his dragon is not killed by a sword, as is the Beowulf dragon, but by a heroic human archer with the assistance of the previously mentioned wise bird.) But the upshot, of course, is the same: the dragon meets its end, at the cost of great destruction, and its hoard is redistributed to the victors. A happy ending, in a certain sense, and, of course, only what the reader would expect from such a story.
Consider, though, a particularly interesting element of the Beowulf story, which is not reflected in The Hobbit but which, for me, makes the ending of the poem particularly provocative. Beowulf's final battle with the dragon does not come out an unqualified success for the hero. He kills the dragon, true, with an invaluable assist from his young thane and kinsman Wiglaf; but the dragon has inflicted serious wounds upon the hero, and, feeling the effects of the battle—he has been seared, envenomed, and bitten in the neck—Beowulf feels himself dying. Contrary to what one might expect, this comes as no great surprise to the reader, as it has been telegraphed from the beginning of the episode that Beowulf is coming to the end of his life. From nearly the first introduction of the dragon, the poet drops heavy hints. "The first to suffer / were the people on the land, but before long / it was their treasure-giver who would come to grief," he says; and, "After many trials, / he was destined to face the end of his days / in this mortal world; as was the dragon, / for all his long leasehold on the treasure" (ll. 2309-11, 2341-44).
This is an interesting phenomenon, I think, especially compared to what we tend to expect from so-called action stories or fantastic tales—don't we expect that the hero will make it through? And that we won't be told in advance whether he will live or die. But Beowulf lives in a world of wyrd. And for peoples who thought in terms of wyrd, the story of a life may be less about moments of suspense and self-determination than it is about patterns, inevitability, the unfolding of a fate. Not, maybe, a very modern mode of thought—or at least, not a very American one!—but fascinating, as much for what it tells us about the distant time and culture of the people who created this story as for the story's own inherent fascination. And one of its effects, I think, especially in this third and last section, is to create an elegiac feeling, haunting and sorrowful.
Compared to the first and second parts of the poem, so full of strong ships and bright swords and battles won and gifts of gold, the third section shifts to a definitely minor key. This is presumably linked to the age that has come upon Beowulf—after ruling for fifty years, he must at least be pushing seventy—and it manifests in many ways, not only in the foreshadowings of his death in battle with the dragon, but also in poetic asides like the Lay of the Last Survivor, or another digression known generally as "the Father's Lament." This one is a sort of reverie spoken aloud by Beowulf, just after he has girded himself up to fight the dragon, as he (and the reader) feel his end approaching. "He was sad at heart," the poet tells us:
unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.
His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain:
it would soon claim his coffered soul
. . . Before long
the prince's spirit would spin free from his body.
Beowulf speaks aloud, thinking over his life: his childhood in the court of King Hrethel, father of King Hygelac whom Beowulf had served. And he remembers a tragic incident from his youth: Hrethel's second son, Haethcyn, accidentally killed his older brother, Herebeald, the heir to the throne, in a shooting accident. "The offense was beyond redress, a wrongfooting / of the heart's affections; for who could avenge / the prince's life or pay his death-price?":
It was like the misery felt by an old man
who has lived to see his son's body
swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
and weep for his boy, watching the raven
gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone . . .
He gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight,
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.
It's a profound, strange, elegiac moment. It is, to me, one of those moments that suddenly arcs a connection between the reader and the past, the poet who wrote these lines a thousand years ago and the people he had known. People felt the same a thousand years ago about losing a child. The same metaphors came into their hearts: the feeling that the house is too big, that the back yard is too empty . . .
That, I often think, is really what poetry and story are for.
That Beowulf voices such feelings shortly before his last battle is of a piece with the tone of the entire last section of the poem. And it is also not unrelated, I think, to the fact that Beowulf has no son of his own—as we learn only later, after the battle, as the hero lies dying. ("Now is the time when I would have wanted / to bestow this armour on my own son, / had it been my fortune to have fathered an heir / and live on in his flesh" (ll. 2729-32).) No further explanation is given of this. It is, maybe, a reflection of the general tone of ending and elegy—the end not only of a hero but of his line; the inexorable decline of his entire people and way of life, as peoples have withered and vanished before him. If you'll forgive me one more Tolkien parallel, this scene reminds me in many ways of the part in The Two Towers when Théoden, the aging king of the horse-master Rohirrim, mourns the death in battle of his only son, Théodred. In the book, this scene is fairly understated; but in the Peter Jackson film adaptation, it's given new emphasis and emotional heft. Watching Bernard Hill, in the role of Théoden, grieve for his lost son, with the plains of Rohan opening behind and the flowers fresh on Théodred's barrow, made me think of the Father's Lament; and I don't mind saying that it also almost made me cry.
The poem ends with the death of Beowulf. His people cremate his body with a great funeral pyre, among dark forebodings of a coming war, which, the poet-narrator tells us, will soon come to pass, devastating the people. What's more, we learn, startlingly here at the very end of the poem, that the dragon's treasure is cursed. It will do no good to the Geats, since it is under a spell laid on it by the ancient chiefs who buried it. Furthermore, the poet points out, "[w]hat came about brought to nothing / the hopes of the one who had . . . hidden / riches under the rock-face" (3058-60): the hoard had led, even if obliquely, to the death of Beowulf, the greatest king the Geats had known. The final scenes show the smoke from Beowulf's laden funeral pyre; a Geat woman wailing in grief and fear; and the erection of Beowulf's barrow tomb, in which his people bury along with him the treasure from the grave. "They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, / gold under gravel, gone to earth, / as useless to men now as it ever was" (3166-68).
It's a remarkably muted and mournful conclusion—depressing, one might even call it, if one were in the mood. But to me it's always seemed oddly fitting. Maybe that has something to do with the workings of wyrd; maybe it has something to do with the fact that, too often today, fantastic stories set among warring societies or dangerous monsters feature fights that perpetually end in glory, with no real risk or consequence to the "hero" who engages in such hyperbolic violence. In contrast, the final Pyrrhic victory and the elegiac tone at the end of Beowulf seem to add a level of weight or meaning to the story that's gone before, perhaps even a certain kind of truthfulness. It's a point I like to raise in conversations about Tolkien's influences and followers, as well: it seems to me that Tolkien took more than superficial lessons from the Old English poem on which he drew so heavily for his own works. Even if The Hobbit has a relatively happy ending, after all, The Lord of the Rings is decidedly ambivalent concerning the fate of its hero—one reason, I think, for the story's infamously layered and multiplied "endings." Tolkien also echoes Beowulf in setting his great adventure at the dusk of an era, at the conclusion of which certain aspects of a way of life will be set aside forever. I don't mean to suggest that I think Tolkien's perfect, or that everybody ought to go around ripping off Anglo-Saxon epics. But I do find the resonances between his books and the ancient English story perpetually interesting. And, moved anew every time by the curiously dark ending of the poem, and the ambiguities left at the ending of the book, I do often think that the contemporary work drawing on the traditions established by these classics could often afford to temper their heroic battles and epic quests with a little more ambivalence.
Heaney, Seamus (translator). Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. Illustrations edited and with an afterword by John D. Niles. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit: or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966 (third printing).
—- . The Lord of the Rings. Boston and Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin and The Riverside Press, 1965.