I’ve always been a sucker for a good monster story. As a boy, I would browse through my parents’ books, especially the encyclopedias, and stop whenever I saw an illustration of a monster. This was particularly true of dragons, of which I was specially fond. This was also how I first encountered Beowulf: as a story in which a hero fights a dragon. It was many years before I actually read Beowulf, of course, but my first knowledge of that Old English epic was as a dragon story.*
When I finally got around to reading Beowulf—years later and at the instigation of Tolkien—I naturally focused on the end: Beowulf’s last great monster fight against the dragon. It’s a particularly satisfying example of the dragon-slayer’s tale, both heroic in tone and dramatic in action. There’s also a note of tragedy, though: the dragon is slain, but so is the hero, who is old but goes down fighting. (Hopefully I’ve spoiled no-one’s Beowulf experience by revealing this: it’s over a thousand years old, after all.) It is the fitting last movement of a heroic life, one last act of bravery and sacrifice, but—alas—only a temporary solution, for Beowulf’s people are doomed to suffer and be scattered.
This theme in Beowulf—the balance of triumph and tragedy—is one of Tolkien’s chief concerns in his magisterial essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” For Tolkien, in fact, it is what the poem is about: “[M]an at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time.”
[A]s in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat. (67)
Inevitable defeat—yet the hero goes anyway. But why do it? Is it merely foolish bravado? Should not the hero rather be wise than brave, yield to the natural order, and treat dragons with sensible caution? Better a live dog than a dead lion, after all! This is sometimes the rejoinder to Tolkien’s model of heroism, and other readings of Beowulf have been suggested, that cast Beowulf’s last fight as foolish error, or vainglorious bravado, or even ill-considered mercenary greed. (The dragon did have a treasure, after all.)
I’m sure it will surprise no-one to learn that I favor Tolkien’s perspective over the others. This is not, however, out of a naïve acceptance of the inherent heroism of hopeless last stands. Instead, Tolkien’s perspective (and my acceptance of it) arises from a prior belief in human dignity—even humans after the fall. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien shares a poem, written in a letter to a friend, which describes his view of postlapsarian humanity:
[…] Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned.
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned […] (74)
This image of mankind appears in the Lord of the Rings in the character of Aragorn: the crownless king who wanders as a vagabond, his broken sword the sign of ancestral rank and ancestral failure. But before that, it appeared in Beowulf, in Beowulf himself:
To Beowulf the news was quickly brought
of that horror—that his own home,
best of buildings, had burned in waves of fire,
the gift-throne of the Geats. To the good man that was
painful in spirit, greatest of sorrows;
the wise one believed he had bitterly offended
the Ruler of all, the eternal Lord,
against the old law; his breast within groaned
with dark thoughts—that was not his custom. (2324-32)
This is Beowulf after the dragon attacks: old Beowulf, fifty years after his youthful adventures in Denmark, now a venerable king. Only, now his hall is burned, along with his throne, “the gift-throne of the Geats.” And in this moment, his first anguished thought is of God, of divine justice, and of his own sin—but still he fights the dragon.
But let us proceed to a reason—at least, a reason I find plausible and personally compelling. (Caution! This is not peer-reviewed scholarly content, but the romantic musings of a student. Also, they’re my unpublished first thoughts, and they may end up being useful down the road, so don’t jack my style!) In my pursuit of all things Old English, I encountered an Anglo-Saxon homilist named Ælfric of Eynsham. His sermons are lucid, rhetorically sophisticated, and often nearly lyrical. One in particular has drawn me back repeatedly: “De Falsis Diis,” or “Regarding the False Gods.” The purpose of this sermon is two-fold: to contrast the true God with his false rivals, and to explain the origins of idolatry. To introduce his subject, though, he explains the nature of the true God, according to the ecumenical creeds accepted in the West in that era, and then describes the primal relationship between humanity and their Creator. Why do I bring this up? Because here there be dragons:
… [I]t is better for us to believe truly in the Holy Trinity (halgan þrynnysse), and to profess belief in them, than it is for us to ponder excessively about it. The Trinity made the shining angels, and Adam and Eve afterward as humans, and gave them authority over the earthly things of creation; and they did not break that single command of God (an Godes bebod). Then Adam lived carefree in bliss, and no creature could injure him, while that he kept that heavenly command (heofonlice bebod). Fire did not harm him, though he stepped his feet into it, nor might any water drown the man, even if he ran suddenly into the waves. Nor could any wild beast, nor any kind of serpent (wurmcynne), dare to injure the man with its mouth’s bite. Neither hunger nor thirst, nor grievous cold, nor any extreme heat, nor sickness was able to trouble Adam in the earth, while he with faithfulness kept that little command (lytle bebod).
Afterward, when he had sinned, and God’s command broken, then he lost that blessing, and lived in trouble, so that the louse bit him boldly and the flea, the one who before the dragon (draca) dared not even touch. Then he needed to be cautious with water and with fire, and to take care warily that he not fall down too hard, and to provide food for himself with proper difficulty; and those natural virtues that God made into him, he had then to keep, if he would have them, with great care, just as yet the good do, that with difficulty keep themselves from sins. (25-55; translation mine)
I hope, dear reader, that you note Ælfric’s careful parallelism and the drastic contrast it creates: humanity before the fall, fearless, untouchable, healthy, happy, and good; humanity after the fall, timid, fragile, frail, desperate, and wicked. And the pivot upon which this inverted world turned upside down was God’s single command—that little command (lytle bebod). I do not think the preacher’s emphasis on the command’s lytlenes is meant to cast God as unreasonable, but instead to heighten the foolishness—and the tragedy—of humanity’s violation of it. Ælfric, in essence, muses with Boromir in Pete Jackson’s version of LotR, that “it is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing—such a little thing.”
But Ælfric’s sermon does not leave man in an utterly wretched state. No, along with the loss of blessedness comes a new duty of obedience for the man: work, labor, to get “for himself with proper difficulty” some remnant of the goods he has forfeited. The obvious one he mentions first, God’s edict that “by the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). The second is less obvious, the hard labor of living rightly and resisting sin. However, there is a third good, other than sustenance and virtue, which Ælfric’s prelapsarian humanity possessed, which Ælfric does not redress: the threat of the natural world against weak, mortal man. The reversal the preacher describes is utterly pathetic—”the louse bit him boldly and the flea, the one who before the dragon dared not even touch”—but he names no labor of man to alleviate it.
But that, I think, is Beowulf’s labor, the hero’s labor: to still face the danger of the world, incarnate in the dragon, and to fight it. Not because the dragon can be beaten for good and all—it cannot, any more than one day’s sweat can make bread forever, any more than one temptation resisted can make a man pure forever. No, Beowulf fights the dragon because it is his duty and his proper labor. He does not to surrender to the natural order because it is not the natural order: we were not meant for this, to be the meat of dragons, to fear the fire that warms us, the water that sustains us, and even the ground that supports us. We were not meant for fear, but we surrendered our primal fearlessness. What remains is courage, and that is Beowulf’s labor.
So, in the end, I see dragon-slaying as more than just a good subject for a ripping yarn: it is the emblem of dignity in fallen humanity. Ceasing to be kings enthroned, we have become knights errant, finding our honor in work, not privilege. We must eat bread with the sweat on our brows, we must labor to keep our virtue, and, yes—we must fight dragons.
* These days my loyalty has shifted from dragons to giants, also because of Beowulf—come for the dragon, stay for the cannibal demon troll. I still have great affection for dragons, though.
Ælfric. Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection. Vol. 2. Ed. John C. Pope. London: Oxford UP, 1968. 2 volumes.
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. R.M. Liuzza. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2000.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame, 1963. 51-103.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” A Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 33-99.