What does Grendel's mother symbolize

The Dragon ( Beowulf ) - The dragon (Beowulf)

Dragon from the Beowulf poem

The 17th act of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf includes Beowulf's battle with a dragon, the third monster he encounters in the epic. On his return from Heorot, where he killed Grendel and Grendel's mother, Beowulf becomes King of the Geats for fifty years and rules wisely until a slave awakens and angered a dragon by stealing a jeweled cup from its hiding place. When the enraged dragon mercilessly burns the Geats' houses and lands, Beowulf decides to personally fight and kill the monster. He and his Thanes climb to the dragon's hiding place, where the Thanes, when they see the animal, flee in horror and only let Wiglaf fight at Beowulf's side. When the dragon fatally injures Beowulf, Wiglaf attacks him with his sword and Beowulf kills him with his dagger.

This illustration shows the growing importance and stabilization of the modern dragon concept in European mythology. Beowulf is the first piece of English literature that introduces a dragon slayer. Although in Scandinavian and Germanic literature many dem Beowulf Dragons common motives existed was that Beowulf Poet the first to combine features and present a distinctive fire-breathing dragon. The Beowulf Dragon was adapted for Middle-earth in Tolkien's JRR The hobbit (1937), one of the forerunners of modern high fantasy.

The dragon fight that takes place at the end of the poem is hinted at in earlier scenes. The fight with the dragon symbolizes Beowulf's stance against evil and destruction, and as a hero he knows that failure will bring destruction to his people after many years of peace. The dragon itself acts as a replicated "gold king"; one who regards the attack on Beowulf's kingdom as adequate retaliation for the theft of even a single cup. The scene is structured in thirds and ends with the death of the dragon and Beowulf.


After his fight against Grendel's mother and Grendel, Beowulf returns home and becomes King of Geats. Fifty years go by with Beowulf in charge, when a local dragon is upset, when a slave enters his hiding place and takes a cup from his treasure. The creature attacks the neighboring cities in revenge. Beowulf and a band of men go to find the dragon's hiding place. Beowulf tells his men to stay outside that this fight will be his only one, but the dragon turns out to be too strong and mortally wounds Beowulf. Meanwhile, his relative Wiglaf scolds the other members of the troop for failing to help before he comes to Beowulf's aid. He cuts the dragon in the stomach to reduce the flames and Beowulf deals the fatal blow. In his death speech Beowulf named Wiglaf as his heir and asked him to erect a memorial for him on the coast.


Beowulf is the oldest surviving hero poem in English and the first to introduce a dragon slayer. The legend of the dragon slayer already existed in Norse sagas such as the story of Sigurd and Fafnir, and the Beowulf Poet incorporates motifs and themes that are common to the dragon tradition in the poem. Beowulf is the earliest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature featuring a dragon, and it is possible that the poet had access to similar stories from the Germanic legend. In secular Germanic literature and in the literature of Christian hagiography, dragons and dragon fights have been shown. Although the dragons of hagiography were less fierce than the dragon in Beowulf , there are similarities in the stories, such as depicting the voyage to the dragon's lair, the spectators crouching, and the sending of messages relaying the outcome of the battle.

The dragon with its treasure is a common motif in early Germanic literature, with the story existing to varying degrees in the Nordic sagas, but in the Völsunga saga and in Beowulf is most notable. Beowulf preserves the existing medieval dragon lore, especially in the extensive excursus that tells the Sigurd / Fafnir story. Still, comparative contemporary narratives do not have the complexity and formative elements written in Beowulf 's kite scene. Beowulf is a hero who previously killed two monsters. The scene includes extended flashbacks to the Geatish Swedish Wars, a detailed description of the dragon and dragon lair, and ends with intricate burial imagery.

The Beowulf Scholar JRR Tolkien looked at the dragon in Beowulf as one of only two real dragons in Northern European literature. In Nordic literature there are only two that matter ... we only have the dragon of the Völsungs, Fáfnir and Beowulf's curse. "In addition, Tolkien believes that the Beowulf Poet emphasizes the monsters that Beowulf fights against in the poem, and claims that the dragon is as much an instrument of action as anything else. Tolkien expanded Beowulf The dragon in its own fiction, which shows the lasting effects of the Beowulf Poem. Within the structure of the plot, the dragon functions in Beowulf but different from Tolkien's fiction. The dragon fight ended Beowulf , while Tolkien used the dragon motif (and the dragon's love for treasure) to create a chain of events in the Hobbit trigger.


The Beowulf Dragon is the earliest example in literature of the typical European dragon and the first appearance of a fire breathing dragon. The Beowulf Dragon is used in Old English terms like Draca (Dragon) and Wyrm (Reptile or snake) and described as a creature with a venomous bite. Also created the Beowulf Poet a dragon with certain characteristics: a nocturnal, treasure-hoarding, curious, vengeful, fire-breathing creature.

The fire is likely a symbol of the devil's hellfire, reminiscent of the monster in the book of Job. In the Septuagint, Job's monster is called Draco characterized and identified with the devil. Job's dragon would be the author of Beowulf as a Christian symbol of evil accessible to the "great monstrous opponent of God, man and beast alike".

A study of German and Nordic texts reveals three typical stories for the dragon slayer: a fight for treasure, a fight to save the hunter's people or a fight to free a woman. The properties of Beowulf Dragons seem to be specific to the poem, and the poets fused dragon motifs to create a dragon with specific characteristics that weave together the intricate plot of the narrative.


The third act of the poem is different from the first two. In Beowulf's two previous battles, Grendel and Grendel's mother are characterized as descendants of Cain: "[Grendel] had long lived in the land of the monsters / since the Creator cast them out / as a kinship of Cain" and appear to be humanoid: in When rendering the poet they can be viewed as giants, trolls, or monsters. The dragon is therefore a stark contrast to the other two antagonists. In addition, the dragon is more overtly destructive. He burns huge amounts of territory and the Geats' houses: "The dragon started to emit flames / and burn bright homesteads".

Beowulf's fight with the dragon has been variously described as an act of altruism or recklessness. In contrast to the previous battles, the fight with the dragon takes place in Beowulf's kingdom and ends in defeat, while Beowulf victoriously fought the other monsters in a land far from his home. The dragon fight is mapped out: with earlier events Scyld Shefing's funeral and Sigmund's death of dragons, as if by a narrated bard in Hrothgar's hall. The Beowulf Scholar Alexander writes that the dragon fight probably means Beowulfs (and thus also the fight of society) against evil. The fate of the people depends on the outcome of the battle between the hero and the dragon, and as a hero Beowulf must knowingly face death.

Wiglaf is the only warrior who returns and witnesses the death of the hero. Illustration by JR Skelton, 1908

Beowulf's ultimate death by the dragon requires "war, death and darkness" for his Geats. The dragon's lair symbolizes the remnant of an older society that has now been lost to wars and famine and was left behind by a survivor of that time. His imaginary elegy foreshadows Beowulf's death and his future elegy. Before he confronts the dragon, Beowulf thinks about his past: his childhood and wars that the Geats endured during this time and anticipated the future. With his death peace will end in his country and his people will again suffer a time of war and hardship. A competitive society devoid of "social cohesion" is represented by the greed of the "dragon jealously guarding his gold treasure," and the elegy for Beowulf becomes an elegy for the whole of culture. The dragon's hoard represents a lost and ancient people who are contrasted with the Geatic people, whose history is new and fleeting. As king of his people, Beowulf defends them against the dragon, and when his thanes abandon him, the poem shows the disintegration of a "heroic society" which "depends on the observance of mutual obligations between Lord and Thane".

Wiglaf remains loyal to his king and stays to face the dragon. The parallel in the story lies in the similarity with Beowulf's hero Sigemund and his companion: Wiglaf is a younger companion of Beowulf and shows himself in his courage as Beowulf's successor. The presence of a companion is seen as a motive in other dragon stories, but the Beowulf Poet breaks the hagiographic tradition with the hero's suffering (chopping, burning, stinging) and subsequent death. In addition, the dragon is defeated by Wiglaf's actions: although Beowulf dies fighting the dragon, the dragon dies at the hand of the companion.

The dragon battle is divided into thirds: the preparation for the battle, the events before the battle and the battle itself. Wiglaf kills the dragon in the middle of the scene, Beowulf's death occurs "after two thirds" of the scene and the dragon attacks Beowulf three times at. Ultimately, like Tolkien in Beowulf writes : The monsters and the critics (1936), the death of the dragon "the right ending for Beowulf" because he claims that "a man can only die on the day of his death".

critical reception

Before Tolkien

In 1918, William Witherle Lawrence argued in his article "The Dragon and Its Hiding Place in Beowulf "that the battle between Beowulf and the dragon tends to receive less critical attention than other parts of the poem, and commented that" Grendel and his mother as it were to be loved more by the commentators ". Conversely, Kemp Malone writes in" The Kenning in Beowulf "That Beowulf's battle with the dragon receives a lot of critical attention, but that commentators fail to notice that" the dragon was not a fighter. Not that he refused to fight when challenged, but that he did, "not going to Beowulf or anyone else. It left Beowulf to do the searching." In his 1935 work Beowulf and the seventh century , Ritchie Girvan writes that Beowulf have some degree of historical accuracy despite the presence of a dragon in it should be seen; he argues that "tales of dragons and beliefs in dragons have survived to recent times, and the common sense tends to gullibly accept tales of water monsters. The stories are also often tied to real people and localized at precisely the time and place . The habit is so well known that examples are superfluous ". Raymond Wilson Chambers in his Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a discussion of the stories of Offa and Finn , says that Beowulf 's kite behaves like' the typical kite of Old English proverbial lore 'because it guards treasure. WP Ker criticized the inclusion of Beowulf's battle with the dragon and his subsequent death in the poem, writing, "It's as if to the end of the Odyssey some later books would have been added which fully tell the age of Odysseus, far from "the sea and his death by Telegonus".

Tolkien, 1936: The monsters and the critics

In his 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics JRR Tolkien noted that the dragon and Grendel are "constantly referred to in the language intended to remind the forces of darkness that Christian men felt themselves trapped in you are" inmates. Hell ',' opponents of God ',' descendants of Cain ',' enemies of humanity '.... And so Beowulf is almost a Christian knight despite everything that moves him in the world of the primitive heroic age of the Germans ".

After Tolkien

Peter Gainsford noted in the article "The Deaths of Beowulf and Odysseus: Narrative Time and Mythological Narrative Styles" that " Beowulf in the 21st century there is no shortage of commentators to defend the literary value of the dragon episode. "Adrien Bonjour said in 1953 that the" ultimate meaning of the dragon in poem "remains a" mystery ".

The poet Seamus Heaney, author of an important translation of Beowulf , suggests that Beowulf's stance on the fight against the dragon reflects his "chthonic wisdom refined in the crucible of experience," that is, there is already an "beyond the grave aspect" of determination. When Beowulf dies from his fight with the dragon despite defeating him, James Parker writes about The Atlantic : "There is no transcendence in Beowulf and no redemption, [...] kill the dragon - but the dragon will get you anyway. "Joan Acocella explains in The New Yorker, that "unlike Grendel and his mother [the dragon] is less of a monster than a symbol".


In From Homer to Harry Potter: A Guide to Myth and Fantasy , Matthew Dickerson and David O'Hara argue that the Beowulf Poet added the figure of the dragon to "the pot ... which is drawn from most modern fantasy authors"; she argues that both numerous works with villainous dragons, as well as literature with benign dragons like the Kite my father Books and the Pern Anne McCaffrey's series were influenced by the following factors Beowulf 's dragon. Dickerson and O'Hara went on to explain that Beowulf through his dragon turned the "idea of ​​having a monstrous evil (and not just human enemies) as an enemy" into "a hallmark of the modern imagination" contained in CS Lewis 'Narnia books, Ursula K. Le Guin' s Erdsee books and the Thomas Covenant Series by Stephen Donaldson.

JRR Tolkien used the dragon story from Beowulf as a template for Smaug of The hobbit ; In either case, if the treasure is disturbed by someone who steals a goblet, the dragon wakes up and rages in rage until it is killed by another person. Aia Hussein of the National Humanities Foundation wrote that the battle between Harry Potter and the Hungarian Horntail was in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) by JK Rowling through the confrontation between the dragon and the title character in Beowulf was influenced .



  • Alexander, Michael (2003) [1973]. Beowulf: a verse translation . London: penguin. ISBN.
  • Clark, George (2003) [1998]. "The hero and the subject". In Björk, Robert E .; Niles, John D. (Ed.). A Beowulf manual . University of Nebraska Press. ISBN.
  • Crossley-Holland, Kevin (1999). O'Donohue, Heather (Ed.). Beowulf: The fight in Finnsburh . Oxford University Press. ISBN.
  • Evans, Jonathan (2003) [2000]. "The Dragon Lore of Middle-earth: Tolkien and Old English and Old Norse Tradition". In Clark George; Timmons, Daniel (Ed.). JRR Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth . Greenwood Press. ISBN. Retrieved on May 18, 2010.
  • Heaney, Seamus (2001). Beowulf: A new verse translation . Norton. ISBN. Retrieved May 19, 2010.
  • Rauer, Christine (2003). Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues . Cambridge: Brewers. ISBN. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
  • Tolkien, JRR (November 25, 1936). "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics". Sir Israel Gollancz lecture 1936 . Archived from the original on November 3, 2009. Retrieved May 19, 2010.

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