Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll, , at sacred-texts.com
WELSH ROMANCES AND ENGLISH LEGENDS
SUPERNATURAL BEASTS abound in the traditions and early records of the British Isles, and stand as ominous shades in the background of modern rural folklore, especially where the population is predominantly of Celtic descent. Celtic invaders from the continent possessed themselves of Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and western Scotland, even before the beginning of the Christian era, expelling or absorbing the previous native occupants, also many savage notions. They brought with them, and all sections share the substructure of, a body of faiths and fancies, poetic and superstitious, engaging demonic creatures, supermen and personifications of nature, that form a more or less unified mythology known to antiquarians as the great Celtic dragon-myth. Its stories, in which prehistoric fiction and legendary or real incidents and personages are inextricably mingled, abound in giants, semi-human ogres, serpents and dragons of land, water and air, sea-monsters, mermaids and fairies. J. F. Cambell has devoted a whole book to this matter, and an awesome belief in much of its mystery still lingers among the peasantry about the Irish lakes, in the glens of wilder Wales, and among the lochs and sea-isles of Scotland. Dreadful 'warrums,' half fish, half dragon, still inhabit some Irish lakes, while on others the boatmen will speak with bated breath of monstrous beasts that formerly lurked in their depths; and the 'water-horses' of certain Scottish lochs are near cousins to them.
Dragon or demon, raven or serpent, eagle or sleeping warriors, Mr. Wirt Sikes declares in his British Goblins, the guardian of the underground vaults in Wales where treasures lie is a personification of the baleful influences which reside in caverns, graves and subterraneous regions generally. It is something more than this when traced hack to its source in the primeval mythology; the dragon which watched the golden apples of Hesperides, and the Payshthamore, or great worm, which in Ireland guards the riches of O'Rourke, is the same malarious creature which St. Samson drove out of Wales. According to the monkish legend this pestiferous beast was of vast size, and by its deadly breath had destroyed two cities. It lay hid in a cave near the river. Thither went St. Samson accompanied only by a boy, and tied a linen girdle about the creature's neck, and drew it out and threw it headlong from a certain high eminence into the sea. This dreadful dragon became mild and gentle when addressed by the saint. . . . The mysterious beast of the boy Taliesin's song in the marvelous legend of Gwion Bach, told in the The Mabinogion, is a dragon worthy to be classed with the gigantic conceptions of primeval imagination, which sought by these prodigious figures to explain all the phenomena of nature. "A noxious creature from the ramparts of Santanas," sings Taliesin, "with jaws as wide as mountains; in the hair of its two paws there is the load of 900 wagons, and in the nape of its neck three springs arise, through which the sea-roughs swim."
Cuchulain, the supreme Irish hero, who had to undergo Herculean tests of fortitude, was once attacked by such a beast of magic, which flew on horrible wings from a lake. Cuchulain sprang up to inect it, giving his wonderful hero-leap, thrust his arm into the dragon's mouth and down its throat and tore out its heart. With figures from such legends as these Spenser embellished his Faery Queene, picturing an
". . . ugly monster plaine,
Half like a serpent horribly displaide
But th' other half did woman's shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine."
A very ancient fragment of the Celtic myth still remembered among Scottish Gaels is the tale of Froach and the Rowan Tree, preserved in the Book of Linsmore, a Gaelic text of the sixteenth century. There was a king in the land whose wife was named Meve, and they had a marriageable daughter, the princess. The rowan (our mountain ash) stood among the ancient Celts as 'the tree of life' because wondrous medicinal virtues were believed to reside in its red berries; and the lesson of the tale exhibits the sin and dire consequences of disturbing its growth. The king with Queen Meve and their daughter lived near a lake in the midst of which was an island on which stood a rowan-tree guarded by a dragon, as is told in Henderson's translation in verse of the old 'grete':
A rowan tree grew on Loch Meve--
Southwards is seen the shore--
Every fourth and every month
Ripe fruit the rowan bore:
Fruit more sweet than honeycomb,
Its clusters virtues strong,
Its berries red could one but taste
Hunger they stand off long.
Its berries' juice and fruit when red
For you would life prolong:
From dread disease it gave relief
If what is told be our belief.
Yet though it proved a means of life
Peril lay closely nigh;
Coiled by its root a dragon lay,
Forbidding passing by.
In the neighbourhood dwelt a young nobleman named Froach, the suitor of the king's daughter, who tells him that her mother, the queen, is ill, and that her only cure is in the berries of the rowan growing on the island as gathered by Froach's hands. Froach protested a little at the extreme peril of the task given him, but bravely agreed to try, and stripping off his clothes plunged in. Swimming to the island he gathered and brought back a goodly quantity of the ripe berries, unnoticed by the dragon. But Meve declared that they were useless--to cure her she must have a branch of the tree bearing fruit.
Froach gave consent; no fear he knew
But swam the lake once more;
But hero never yet did pass
The fate for him in store.
The rowan by the top he seized,
From root he pulled the tree;
And the monster of the lake perceived
As Froach from the land made free.
The dragon then attacked the hero, who had no weapon, "and shore away his arm." The princess seeing his plight, ran into the water and gave the man a sword, with which he ultimately killed the brute; but his wounds were fatal, and he reached the shore only to deliver the tree and the dragon's head to the women, and to die at their feet. In another version, however, Froach is nursed in the palace to recovery, outwits a rival, and obtains the princess despite Queen Meve's illwill.
Very similar and more famous is the romance of Tristan and Iseult, which was written out by Gottfried Strasburger, a German poet who lived early in the thirteenth century. In Ireland, his poem tells us, was once a dreadful dragon wasting the land. The king swore a solemn oath that he would give his daughter, Princess Iseult, to whatever man should slay it. Many knights tried the feat, but lost their lives: always with the candidate rode the seneschal of the palace, but always at sight of the beast he ran away to safety. At last the knight Tristan offered himself, and rode toward the dragon's den, accompanied by the seneschal, who turned back the moment danger appeared, but Tristan rode on steadily. "Ere long he saw the monster coming towards him breathing out smoke and flame from its open jaws. The knight laid his spear in rest and rode so swiftly, and smote so strongly that the spear . . . pierced through the throat into the dragon's heart." The beast was not yet quite killed, however, and fled with Tristan's spear sticking in its vitals. The knight followed fast, overtook the brute, and a long and terrific fight ensued, "so fierce that the shield he held in his hand was burnt well-nigh to a coal" by the flames from the dragon's nostrils. Struggling painfully back to the king's city, the exhausted hero fell into a pond and would have drowned had not Iseult and her mother come by and dragged him out. Then the cowardly seneschat asserted he had done the glorious deed, whereupon Tristan shows the tongue of the dragon as evidence of his own claim to the reward. This is an example of the many mediaeval stories of later birth (progeny of Perseus), in which some untoward circumstance prevents the hero establishing his claim before an impostor has run before him to the court, yet wins in the end by means of concealed evidence.
The terms dragon, drake, serpent, worm, were more or less interchangeable in northern Europe, where even now you may hear described to you a fabulous wurm-bett, or serpent's bed, as the place of gold with a dragon-guardian. So it was in Britain, where this creature was associated with the exploits of the Round Table; for we find the following among the Arthurian legends which are more particularly Welsh: Merlin, the magician, was asked by King Vortigern (fifth century), how to render stable a tower of his castle which thrice had tumbled down. Merlin explained that the trouble lay in the fact that the tower had been built over the den of two immense dragons, whose combats shook the foundations above them. "The king ordered his workmen to dig," as Bulfinch tells it, "and when they had done so they discovered two enormous serpents, the one white as milk, the other red as fire. The multitude looked on with amazement till the serpents, slowly rising from their den, and expanding their enormous folds, began the combat, when every one fled in terror except Merlin, who stood by, clapping his hands and cheering on the conflict. The red dragon was slain, and the white one, gliding through a cleft in the rock, disappeared."
This incident is reputed to have taken place on an isolated rocky eminence in Carnarvonshire, where remains of extensive prehistoric stone-works are still to be seen, says Rhys; in truth it is, of course, purely mythical.
"Whence came the red dragon of Cadwaladar? Why was the Welsh dragon in fables of Merddin (Merlin), Wennius, and Geofrey described as red, while the Saxon 'fenris' was white?" asks Mr. Sikes. He expresses his belief that there is no answer outside the realm of fancy, but notes that in the Welsh language draig means 'lightning,' while the Welsh-English Dictionary asserts that it symbolizes the sun. These might account for the ruddiness, but the facts are needless, for blood-red is the natural choice of warriors, and these fiery Welshmen seem to have preempted it in Britain. The dragon itself was perhaps that of Froach, the great Celtic hero--at any rate it was the device on the banners of the old Welsh kings, legendary and real, and was carried by Cadwaladar (or (Caedwalla), king of North Wales, in his battles with Northumberland in the seventh century A.D. Those old warrior-kings had the title Pendragon, as Tennyson knew when in Guinevere he referred to the royal headquarters in the field--
The dragon of the great Pendragon
That crowned the state pavilion of the king.
And Shakespeare writes: "Peace, Kent. Come not between the Dragon and his wrath."
This is the red, or sometimes golden, dragon that has been so closely associated with British royalty. The Black Prince flourished it over the heads of his soldiers at Crecy, and so it came to be recognized for many years as the badge of the Principality. New honours for the historic symbol naturally followed the accession of the Welsh Tudors to the English throne, for Henry VII, on his entry into London after his victory on Bosworth Field, offered at the altar in St. Paul's cathedral a standard with the fiery dragon of Wales "beaten upon white and green sarcener." This king then granted formally to King George, then Prince of Wales, and to his successors, a second badge, namely: "A red dragon with elevated wings, passant thereon, for difference a silver label of three points." This grant was continued by Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth--the last named preferring as the supporter of her arms a golden figure with a narrow red back.
But the device on the Welsh flag was not invariably red--or perhaps the variation to be mentioned designated the South Welsh as distinct from those of the North; at any rate we read among the Arthurian legends that in the time of Arthur's father, Uther, there appeared a star at Winchester of wonderful-magnitude brightness, "darting forth a ray at the end of which was a flame in form of a dragon." Uther then ordered two golden dragons to be made, one of which he presented to Winchester, and the other he carried with him as a royal standard. Arthur himself, it is stated, wore a dragon on the crest of his helmet--a tradition Spenser knew:
His haughty helmet, horrid all with gold,
Both glorious brightness and great terror bred,
For all the crest a dragon did enfold,
With greedy paws.
In historic times, the Roman soldiers in England carried images or pictures of dragons as ensigns in their wars with the native Britons. If these were mainly white that fact might account for the whiteness of the emblems used by the 'Saxon' armies of the South (Sussex), with which, after the Roman troops had quit England, the west-central kingdom, Wessex, was incessantly in conflict. Wessex, supported by the southern Welsh, fought under a 'golden' banner, and the adoption of a white-dragon flag by the Sussex men may have been merely a matter of useful distinction between the opposing forces.
It was the Wessex men under Harold that finally expelled the Norsemen by the victory gained at Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire, in September, 1066. Hardly had the young king of the united English accomplished this momentous task when he was called upon to defend his country against the invasion of a new foe--the Normans led by that William who so soon was to become 'the Conqueror.' Harold had been preparing to resist William's threatened landing. The time had arrived, and when ready to march towards Hastings, he enters the headquarters of the army, where his officers are assembled, and issues the orders so picturesquely phrased by Tennyson (Harold, Act iv, Sc. 1)--
Set forth our golden Dragon, let him flap
The wings that beat down Wales!
Advance our standard of the Warrior,
Dark among gems and gold; and thou, brave banner,
Blaze like a night of fatal stars on those
Who read their doom and die.
Alas for the outcome of this brave boast!
But we have run somewhat ahead of the historic march of events. Long before the rise of Wessex to the control of all England, the 'Anglo-Saxon' settlers from northern parts of the continent had begun to cross the channel and recover from the barbarous Britons the fertile fields abandoned by the Romans. They brought with them many a wonder-story and superstition to add to the native stock and Celtic accretions, among them the narrative of the exploits of that noble and romantic Jutish hero Beowulf, who thus became an English hero by adoption; but of him I shall speak more fully in the next chapter. Hardly emerging from the legendary obscurity of Beowulf and his time--say in the fifth century--one finds traces of several other imported dragon-tales inherited from remote Teutonic sources and more and more tinctured as the centuries advanced with the theological notions and interpretations brought by early Christian missionaries to the British people. Thus in The Antiquary (vol. 38, 1902) I find an account by E. Sidney Hartland of such a trace in Gloucestershire.
The church at Deerhurst in that county, he informs us, is one of the oldest in western England; its tall square tower may have "witnessed the Norman conquest, is it unquestionably heard the clash of arms . . . on that bloody field by Tewkesbury." Two stories in the tower still bear some uncouth resemblance to the head of a mythical monster, and may be connectcd with a legend of a local dragon-- "a serpent of prodigious bigness" that plagued the neighbourhood, poisoned the inhabitants and slew their cattle. The people petitioned the king, who offered a crown estate to anyone who should kill the beast. This was achieved by John Smith, a blacksmith. He put a large quantity of milk in a place frequented by the monster; and the 'snake' having swallowed the whole "lay down in the sun with his scales ruffled up," whereupon John advanced and, by striking it between its scales with an ax, chopped off its head. Mr. Hartland "believes that the protruding, jaw-like figures set in the tower of this Deerhurst church have reference to this legend; he refers to several similar carvings in continental- churches that are known to commemorate the local deliverance of communities from dragon-rage. "One of the most ordinary Anglo-Saxon sculptures," he remarks, "is that of a dragon. All sorts of Anglo-Celtic work bear this figure."
Scandinavians strengthened the general belief in reptiles as demons by inventing the theory of a great world-serpent, stories of which abound in the Edda and the sagas of old Norseland, and many evidences remain that this notion was well domesticated in Britain during the long domination of the 'Danes' in the north and east of that island. The 'Pollard Worm,' described so fully by Henderson is an example, although this demon was a wild boar--all such pests in the 'north countree' were 'worms'!--killed by a member of the Pollard family. A similar tradition belongs to Sockburn, and here the offender had the form of a serpent. Galloway has a legend of a snake which was accustomed to lie coiled around Mote Hill at Dalry--probably the site of an early Norman palisaded fort--a folk-tale outlined by Andrew Lang (Academy, Oct. 17, 1885) as follows:
The lord of Galloway offered a reward for its destruction; but one of his knights was swallowed up by the monster, horse and armor and all, and another was deterred by evil omens. The adventure was then attempted, as at Deerhurst, by a blacksmith, who devised a suit of armor for himself covered with long, sharp spikes, which could be drawn in or thrust out at the wearer's will. The snake of course swallowed him whole, like his predecessor, but as the smith slipped down his throat he suddenly shot out his spikes, and rolled about violently; nor did he cease until he had torn his way out through the monster's carcass!
This is not the only nor the earliest example of conquering the dragon from the inside: it was thought of hundreds of centuries before that. When Heracles undertook the deliverance of Hesione, daughter of Laomedon, king of Troy, from the sea-monster to which her father had exposed her, he sprang full-armed down the creature's gullet and hacked his way out of its maw. A similar folk-tale is related by Rumanian gypsies. One such story, indeed, has received ecclesiastical sanction to the extent, at least, of being incorporated in The Golden Legend and represented in stone among the sculptures adorning many European sacred edifices. The heroine here is that St. Margaret who was thrown into a dungeon after tortures of the kind that churchmen ascribe to their martyrs and have with equal piety and relish inflicted upon their opponents. "And whilst she was in prison she prayed our Lord," as Caxton recounts in his translation of The Golden Legend, "that the fiend that had fought with her He would visibly show unto her. And then appeared a horrible dragon and assailed her, and would have devoured her, but she made the sign of the cross and anon he vanished away. And in another place it is said that he swallowed her into his belly . . . and the belly broke asunder so she issued out all whole."
This miracle was denounced as apocryphal by critics centuries ago, yet the same set of adventures are related of Saints Martha, Veneranda, and Radegund. What troubled the minds of the monks was the difficulty of believing that the Devil had ever been killed! A ridiculous, but celebrated yarn of this class is that of the Lambton Worm, which I quote from the concise narrative by Hartland:
This was a creature caught by the heir of Lambton (in England on the banks of the Weir) one Sunday morning when fishing, and, to add to its iniquity, using very bad language. He threw it into a well, where it grew and grew until it outgrew the well and resorted to the river, lying coiled by night thrice around a neighbouring hill. Meantime, the heir of Lambton, having repented of his evil life and spent seven years in the wars, returned, and determined to rid the land of the curse his wickedness had inflicted upon it. A wise woman whom he consulted advised him to get his suit of mail studded thickly with spearheads, and required him before going forth to the encounter to vow to slay the first living thing that met him on his way homeward, warning him that if he failed to perform the vow, no lord of Lambton for nine generations would die in his bed.
He met the worm and challenged it to the conflict by striking a blow on its head as it passed. It turned upon him and, winding its body around him, tried to crush him in its folds; but the spikes pierced it, and the closer its embrace the more deadly were the wounds it received, until with the flowing blood its strength ebbed away, and the knight with his sword cut it in two.
The knight failed to fulfil his vow because his eager old father was the "first living thing met," and he could not bear to strike him down, so the curse remained on the Lambton family until worked out nine generations later by the death of Henry Lambton, M.P., in 1761.
Another and more burlesque comedy identified with a place and local families in England, and frequently spoken of, is that of The Dragon of Wantley. Its history is preserved in Bishop Percy's Reliques under the title--An Excellent Ballad of that most Dreadful COMBATE FOUGHT Between Moore of Moore Hall, and the Dragon of Wantley.
This title-page bore also a picture of a scaly, lion-bodied monster "sharp, fierce and hungry-looking, with wings at his sides, an enormous tail, and two of his feet are hoofed, while the other two are strongly 'clawed'!" When the ballad was written is not known, but it refers to Sir Thomas Whortley, who aroused the hatred of the people by destroying a village on a hill at Wharncliffe in Yorkshire. He was a great aristocrat, serving as 'body-night' to Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and Henry VIII, and died in 1514. He was vastly wealthy, jovial and hospitable, and was extravagantly fond of stag-hunting for which he kept a pack of hounds widely admired. Among his possessions was the village of Wantley, which gave him only partial satisfaction, for, as we read: "There were some freeholders within it with whom he wrangled and sued until he had beggared them and cast them out of their inheritance, and so the town was wholly his, which he pulled quite down and laid the buildings and town fields even as a common, wherein his main design was to keep deer, and make a lodge, to which he came at the time of the yere and lay there, taking great delight to hear the deer bell." Remains of this destroyed town were said to be visible not long ago on a lofty moor between Sheffield and Peristone, including the romantic cavity still known as the 'dragon's den,' and near it are a 'dragon's well' and a 'dragon's cellar.' The cruel and highhanded ejection of farmers, and destruction of good houses, just for sport, so disgusted and angered the people that they cast about for some means of redress. Near the castle of the wicked Whortley was Moore Hall (still standing), whose owner was far from friendly with the Whortleys. To the head of the Moore family, therefore, the distressed people went for a champion--
Sighing and sobbing, came to his lodging
And made a hideous noise,
Oh, save us all,
Moore of Moore Hall,
Thou peerless knight of the woods!
Do but slay this dragon--
He won't leave us a rag on--
We will give thee all our goods.
Thee champion refused the goods, but asked for
A fair maid of sixteen, that's brisk
And smiles about the mouth,
. . . . . . .
To 'noint me o'er night ere I go to fight
And to dress me in the morning.
This is rather a reversal of the rescuing of maids customary in dragon-stories! The ballad--which is given in full in The Reliquary (vol. 18, London, 1878), and is discussed in Yorkshire local histories--relates the amazing combat in which the dragon was killed. Briefly, Moore, the doughty knight, clad in a suit of armour studded with long, sharp spikes, hid in a well to which the dragon was wont to come when thirsty; and when the beast arrived, and lowered its head into the well, Moore kicked it in the mouth, where alone it was vulnerable, and so accomplished its death. This method reminds us how, according to one account, Siegfried managed to kill the Nibelungen serpent Fafnir by hiding in a pit over which it must pass, and stabbing its belly as it crawled across the trench over the hero's head. In all these stories the dragon appears to be a wofully stupid and defenceless beast, agreeing with the foolish Devil of folklore.
It is probable that this Wantley ballad is founded on some incident of long-past feudal oppression, vengefully perpetuated by the Yorkshire peasantry by aid of this allegorical narrative --safer as a form of publication than would be an accusing statement in bald prose. Evictions of that sort have occurred far more recently than in the reputed era of the master of Wantley; and disagreements between neighbours still arise, leading third persons to take up arms in behalf of the oppressed, especially when the oppressor happens to be a rival or enemy of their own. So here was a nice dramatic situation ready to be turned into a pathetic (and saleable) ballad by some would-be historical verse-maker clever enough to invent a 'dragon' to carry the somewhat dangerous burden of his song.
But the best of these legends, and one which carried nothing burlesque in the estimation of its hearers, or to the minds of those who now read its 'saga,' is the story of Beowulf. It is true that its scenes have not the background of British landscape or habits; yet, as Bulfinch has said, "The splendid feat of Beowulf appeals to all English-speaking people in a very special way, since he is the one hero in whose story we may see the ideals of our English forefathers before they left their continental home."
Beowulf, a prince of the Greatas (probably a Swedish coast tribe, but possibly Jutes) gathered a band of dauntless vikings and sailed away to offer aid to Hrothgar, king of the Western Danes, who was in great distress because of the long-continued ravages of an unconquerable dragon--an allegory that seems to refer to certain historical happenings on the lower Rhine in the sixth century, A.D.
Grendel this monster grim was called,
match-reiver mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness; fief of the giants
the hapless wight a while had kept
since the Creator his exile doomed.
On kin of Cain was the killing avenged
by sovran God for slaughtered Abel. . . .
Of Cain awoke all that woful breed,
etins and elves and evil spirits,
as well as the giants that warred with God
The 'etins' mentioned here (Norse, jotuns) were giants, or ogres; and ancient tradition says they descended from the murderous Cain, whose progeny were thus cursed for his sin. This Grendel, whose home was in a great morass, is imagined as a nocturnal, man-eating monster in human form, with diabolical strength and ferocity. At frequent intervals he came in the night to Hrothgar's palace-hall, 'gold-bright Hereot,' where his Danish warriors slept, and seized, killed, and carried away as many men as he pleased as food for himself and his even more savage mother.
The Danes were cowed to powerlessness, and welcomed Beowulf and his band with a royal feast, where Beowulf declared his purpose to kill the giant, and to do it unarmed by wrestling-strength alone, boasting of past deeds of victory so obtained. The feast over, Hrothgar and his gracious queen retired to safer quarters, and the wine-bemused courtiers lay down to sleep on the benches and floor of the great hall. Grendel had knowledge of these doings, and gloating over the increased food supply, came that very night on one of his raids. Bursting the 'forge-bolts' of the door with a blow of his fist, he seized, tore to pieces and devoured the first man he came to, then advanced upon another victim--the watchful Beowulf, who sprang up and clutched the cannibal's arm. Grendel tried to escape, but Beowulf held on:
The house resounded,
Wonder it was the wine-hall firm
in the strain of their struggle stood, to earth
the fair house fell not.
A hundred lines of the saga scarce suffice to tell of that prodigious, weaponless, struggle of hero against fiend; but at last Beowulf tears the giant's arm from its shoulder, and Grendel creeps away to die in the noisome fen. Great rejoicings and rewards follow, but the glorification is short-lived, for a few nights later Grendel's mother, burning with ferocious vengeance, murders in the midst of the slumbering Danes the King's favourite sage and warrior, and terror returns to the kingdom. Thereupon Beowulf prepares to finish the job by extinguishing this dam of a hellish brood. Sword in hand, this time, he marches to the 'horrid mere' where she hides, walks alone into its loathsome depths, and in a magical, submarine hall finds and destroys in a magical combat the last of the murderous tribe.
As this adventure was not the first so it was not to be the last of this righteous hero's battles with supernatural foes. Fifty years later Beowulf, now become a king in his own land, learns that in a certain part of his realm a fiery dragon--now not an anthropomorphic cannibal but an enormous serpenth--has gone on the rampage. For three hundred years it had lain quiet in an antique stone grave, protecting there an immense treasure of heirlooms and coin "which some earl forgotten in ancient years, left the last of his lofty race, heedfully there had hidden away, dearest treasure." In hundreds of vivid verses we read what the old king was told, and how he goes forth to free his land from the rage of the fire-breathing dragon--majestic verse recounting an age-old legend of the guardian-dragon and utilizing it in a drama of heroism as Noldic bards conceived it in the height of its glory. One of the latest editors of this stirring epic summarizes and interprets this part of the narrative thus:
We have the old myth of a dragon who guards hidden treasure. But with this runs the story of some noble, last of his race, who hides all his wealth within this barrow and there chants his farewell to lifes glories. After his death the dragon takes possession of the hoard and watches over it. A condemned or banished man, desperate, hides in the barrow, discovers the treasure, and while the dragon sleeps makes off with a golden beaker or the like, and carries it for propitiation to his master. The dragon discovers the loss and exacts fearful penalty from the people round about.
These burial-places of the inhabitants of western Europe, or of their chiefs, at least, known in Britain as barrows, and on the continent as dolmens, are small grave-chambers sunk in the ground and walled and roofed with stones; or, as in many cases, built on the surface of huge stone-slabs, the whole structure finally concealed beneath a mound of earth. Hundreds of such interments have been exposed by the washing away of the soft or by the sacrilege of robbers, as in the famous necropolis of Karnac in Brittany; and it is plain that many of them had a secret entrance into the tomb, as intimated in the poem. It was customary to bury with a great man not only his arms and accoutrements of war but often much or all of his wealth, and to try to render the sepulchre and its contents safe from molestation by publishing fearful curses and fictions about guardian spirits of frightful mien, usually clothed in dragon shape.
The fiery dragon
fearful fiend, with flame was scorched.
Reckoned by feet, it was fifty measures
in length as it lay. Aloft erewhile
it had revelled by night, and anon came back,
seeking its den; now in death's sure clutch
it had come to the end of its earth-hall joys.
By it there stood the stoups and jars;
dishes lay there, and dear-decked swords
eaten with rust, as, on earth's lap resting,
a thousand winters they had waited there.
For all that heritage huge, that gold
of bygone, was bound by a spell,
so the treasure-hall could be touched by none
of human kind.
The robbery of graves filled with such treasures must have offered a strong temptation, and superstition surrounded the crime with every sort of danger. Lifting buried gold is still an uncanny business, and everywhere folklore teaches that its possession brings the worst of luck.
Old though he was, and feeble as compared with the strength that had torn Grendel's arm from its socket, King Beowulf, despite the remonstrances of his court, goes against the poison-breathing, fire-belching 'worm'--that mighty serpent who nightly 'rages' through the burning grain-fields and at dawn retreats to his castle-like den in the barrow. There Beowulf attacked the beast alone, bidding his followers stand away. The battle was long and terrific, until finally one warrior, Wiglaf, could stand it no longer, but rushed to his sovereign's side, for Beowulf's sword had been broken by a too mighty stroke.
Then for the third time, thought on its feud,
that folk-destroyer, fire-dread dragon,
and rushed on the hero, where room allowed,
battle-grim, burning; its hitter teeth
closed on his neck, and covered him
with waves of blood from his breast that welled.
It was then Wiglaf reached the midst of the fray--
Heedless of harm, though his hand was burned,
hardy-hearted, he helped his kinsman.
A little lower the loathsome beast
he smote with sword; his steel drove in
bright and burnished; that blaze began
to lose and lessen. At last the king
wielded his wits again, war-knife drew,
a hiting blade by his breastplate hanging,
and the Weders'-helm smote that worm asunder,
felled the foe, flung forth its life.
Here, as in many another tale of the period, where the dragon has the form of a serpent, victory is gained by the hero only when he is able with dagger or short sword to pierce the under side of the beast, where the belly and throat are unprotected by the tough scales that make its back and head invulnerable.
Beowulf's noble and unselfish fight for his people is his last. His wounds are fatal, and he dies; and the glittering wealth of gold and polished steel, so hardly won, are buried with him in that royal tomb whose site no man knows.