The Personal Confrontations in Beowulf That Are Essential in the Progress of the Narrative
Throughout Beowulf, the hero must prove himself by conquering a number of monsters which imperil the order of the Anglo-Saxon world. The poet uses Beowulf’s battles with Grendel’s mother and the dragon to emphasize values and traditions of Anglo-Saxon culture, providing an effective template for the warrior and respectable civilian. While these scenes have manifold similarities, the scene wherein Beowulf defeats the dragon is more significant in the development of the epic and in understanding Anglo-Saxon cultural values, as depicted by the poet. In Beowulf, physical confrontations are essential in the progress of the narrative.
Victories in combat bring the titular hero, Beowulf, considerable social gains and cement his legacy as an esteemed leader. During the final battle, Beowulf is murdered and his kingdom turned over to Wiglaf. Beowulf’s clash with the dragon is vital as it brings a close to his story. Though the slaying of Grendel’s mother is depicted as necessary, it is far less fundamental to the central story arc. The complete episode in which Beowulf battles with Grendel’s mother can be considered an extension of the conflict with Grendel. Had Grendel’s mother never sought retribution, Beowulf’s story would have been principally unchanged.
Beowulf would nevertheless have established his reputation by trouncing Grendel and saving Hrothgar’s kingdom. He would have acquired comparable rewards, excepting the enchanted sword hilt. It could be argued that Beowulf’s recovery of Grendel’s head was made possible by this encounter and that said retrieval was compulsory in proving Grendel’s destruction at the hands of Beowulf. This line of thinking is erroneous, as Hrothgar had already promised patronage to Beowulf and his compatriots. Had Beowulf failed to defeat the dragon, it presumably would have persisted in “compass[ing] the land with a flame of fire”(1524) and laying waste to Geatland.
Consequently, Beowulf would have expired in despair and humiliation, having allowed his kingdom to collapse. Had the dragon been in no way provoked, Beowulf would not have had an opportunity to die as a warrior in combat or reaffirm his ability in battle. In any case, without Beowulf’s final battle, a crucial element of his legend would be lost. Beowulf’s battle with the dragon is more significant than his battle with Grendel’s mother in that the dragon represents an extreme threat to humanity and Anglo-Saxon civilization. Before fleeing Heorot, Grendel’s mother dispatches a resting thane and steals Grendel’s severed hand.
These acts are disruptive to Hrothgar’s kingdom but do not constitute as dire a threat as that posed by the dragon, which is described as an unstoppable force of fire and death. (1410-1419). In the last episode, Beowulf is bound by kingship to defend his entire kingdom from an awesome threat embodied by the dragon. In the second passage he is merely tasked to remove a nuisance for the sake of honour. This distinction is most evident in Beowulf’s speeches before each assault. Prior to taking on Grendel’s mother, Beowulf addresses Hrothgar: “Protect my kinsmen, my trusty comrades, If battle take me.
And all the treasure You have heaped on me bestow upon Hygelic” (984-986) Beowulf uses a rather detached tone in discussing his potential death, focusing on the procedures that must be undertaken to protect his companions and king. This customary rehearsing of Hrothgar’s obligation reflects Beowulf’s confidence in himself to succeed in the effort. Previous to challenging the dragon, Beowulf employs a different tone: “By deeds of daring I’ll gain the gold Or death in battle shall break your lord” (1506-1507). Beowulf depicts the situation as desperate, indicating only two potential outcomes: glory or doom.
He is evidently less assured of triumph against the dragon despite his bluster. As acknowledged by Beowulf the dragon represents a greater threat to the kingdom than Grendel’s mother represents and presented a more important target to eradicate. Critical in understanding the battles of Beowulf is an analysis of the poet’s purpose in devising each adversary challenged by the hero. Each opponent faced by the protagonist embodies distinct characteristics portrayed as unfavourable by the poet. This allegorical device enables the poet to clearly communicate his opinions concerning individual virtue.
Grendel’s mother represents the use of underhanded tactics and cowardice in war. She attacks only in the dark of night, once Hrothgar’s thanes have fallen asleep (819). By assailing a sleeping and defenseless adversary, Grendel’s mother creates an unjust advantage. Likewise the dragon uses “baneful venom”(1634) to slay Beowulf, reflecting a shameful refusal to accept just defeat. The tactics used by Grendel’s mother are borrowed from Grendel himself, diminishing her importance as an individual symbol. The dragon, however, is distinguished as the sole symbol of rampant greed and contemptibility in the poem.
It is depicted as lazy, mainly spending its life “cozened in sleep”(1381), secure in a massive hoard of pilfered wealth. The Beowulf poet warns against this sort of lifestyle and portrays the dragon as abhorrently sub-human, describing it as a “great worm” (1535). The degree of inhumanity which is attached to the dragon differentiates it from the relatively humanoid Grendel and his mother. This special concentration emphasizes the horrendous nature of the dragon’s ways and establishes him as an incarnation of the greatest threats to order and individual honour and a more powerful symbol of moral decay than Grendel’s mother. Battle scenes in Beowulf share parallels, however, the second episode: in which Beowulf vanquishes the dragon, is more essential than the second episode. It provides a suitable ending to Beowulf’s life and legend, allowing him to, once again, prove his martial worth and virtue. The dragon is also depicted as far more potent than Grendel’s mother, both as a representation of immorality and as a physical threat. Battles within the Beowulf epic are used to add blazing support for the poet’s arguments and none is more incendiary than Beowulf’s encounter with the dragon.