Dragons define ruthlessness, producing fear whenever and wherever they render themselves present. The imagery of a fire-breathing dragon in various works of literature is the epitome of a fear-mongering monster. In Beowulf, the dragon’s greed urges it to sweep through towns and villages, destroying everything in its path. Acting as the third and final obstacle for the namesake main character in Beowulf, its awakening and enragement begins through the actions of a petty thief who stole the hoard of treasure it was guarding and leads to destruction in Geatland.
Beowulf, the king, makes the decision to save his people.
Ultimately, Beowulf’s fight for himself and his people results in his own death, the dragon’s death, and most importantly, the death of the Geatish people. The postmodern retelling of Beowulf, Grendel by John Gardner, utilizes elements from Beowulf and embodies a heightened mythical atmosphere to portray the dragon as a nihilistic being. This portrayal of nihilism alludes to the consequences of internal expressions of pride.
In Beowulf and Grendel, the characterization of the dragon explores the origins, consequences, and the very essence of internal and external assertions of pride and avarice within humans.
In Beowulf, the dragon heavily guards its treasure, and these protectionist actions represent the greed within humans. The dragon’s treasure had been buried by “somebody now forgotten… Death had come and taken them all in times gone by…” (Heaney 153) Left behind by a lost race, the treasure suggests that any extent of human greed that tries to obtain it results in a loss, perhaps even extinction.
Furthermore, the dragon’s main purpose is to defend the treasure, and Beowulf fights to defeat the dragon and obtain the treasure. Although it has no material use for it, the dragon still guards the old treasure, implying that the treasure represents the fate of selfishness and the uselessness of human actions, and the dragon thus depicts evil and pride plaguing the human condition. This is again evident when “… the prince of the rings [Beowulf] was too proud to line up with a large army against the sky-plague [dragon]” (Heaney 159). Beowulf goes against the earlier advice of Hrothgar and believes that his match against the dragon will be easy.
His lack of preparation offers foreshadowing of his defeat. When he chooses not to take a large army, he makes a poor choice that not only results in the death of the Geatish people but also delineates the flaws in human character. The dragon as the obstacle suggests that humans underestimate their power and pride can take over. In Beowulf’s fight, the dragon indeed renders itself too powerful and all but one of Beowulf’s own men abandon him: “… that hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood” (Heaney 175). Beowulf’s men also show the dangers of pride and greed. They are too scared to defeat their enemy, and instead of helping their king, their selfishness overcomes the better part of themselves. The dragon represents the selfishness inside every human, therefore, by preventing the men from fighting. The dragon’s excessive greed for its own treasure hoard alludes to not only the evil opposing humans but also the malevolence of hubris within humans themselves.
Grendel furthermore characterizes the dragon as a catalyst for human self-destruction, albeit in a heightened postmodern manner. Aspects of nihilism and hatred suggest the desolation of humans caused by pride comes from within. Rather than being a physical character, the dragon exists as a state of mind of Grendel. Before his encounter with the dragon, Grendel “… made [his] mind black and fell, [and] sank away like a stone through earth and sea, toward the dragon” (Gardner 57).
The dragon is the product of Grendel’s mind and imagination rather than a real monster, indicating that the dragon’s thoughts and actions are core to the mind of Grendel. Rather than Grendel hearing and receiving the dragon’s advice, the advice lives inside his brain and defines him. The dragon compares the relationship between itself and Grendel homologous to the relationship between Grendel and humans. Therefore, the dragon’s actions portray the degeneracy of human beings and the cause of such actions coming from humans internally. The dragon also tells Grendel that “it’s all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex. No difference, finally. Death, transfiguration” (Gardner 73).
The dragon points out to Grendel that anything he does has absolutely no use in the matter of time. Similar to how Grendel relies on the dragon for advice, the dragon suggests that humans rely on Grendel to improve themselves. Along with its other nihilistic points of view, the dragon’s advice helps to define Grendel and represents the insecurities and flaws within humans. The dragon recognizes that human beings’ pride and hubris need subjugation and acts as a warning for the evil within humans and its repercussions. Hence, the dragon and its actions suggest strongly of the various consequences of the natural flaws within the human condition.
The dragon represents much more than a plot development; rather, it symbolizes various elements of human nature and the repercussions of human desire. In both Beowulf and Grendel, the dragon is a powerful character that offers insight to other humanly characters about their emotions, actions, and resulting consequences. It asserts the poor choices of human beings and reveals the true human nature of hubris and greed of material possessions. The dragon represents pride as a universally destructive element. If misused, this internal expression of pride leads to death and annihilation. Similar to the assertion of the dragon to Grendel, one truly wonders the causes and insecurities of the human condition.