Beowulf and the Fire Drake

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Beowulf dragon is the first example in European mythology of a fire-breathing dragon. Previously, most dragons had poisonous breath. This might be an early indication of Christianity creeping into the tale, using fire to connect the dragon to Satan, or, just as likely, it highlights the danger of fire at a time when nearly everything was constructed of wood.

The aged king, Beowulf, stood on a hilltop and watched as distant flames consumed both his own hall and the village of his people. For hours he had watched in helpless heartache as a fire-drake, a winged-wyrm, had rained fire and destruction down on his people. The world of the Geats was being reduced to cinder and ash.

His warriors had caught the man who had started it all: a foolish thief who had stolen a golden cup from the dragon’s hoard, enraging the vengeful beast. The thief would now be their guide back to the dragon’s lair, where Beowulf would face his last and greatest battle. He glanced at his companions, all young men and untested in battle; they would be of little help. Beowulf had his smiths bring him a giant shield of iron that could turn aside the dragon’s breath. He strapped the heavy shield upon his time-wearied arm, and nodded for the thief to lead the way.

The thirteen men walked long through the night, the distant fires shining like small candles. In time, they approached the rocky hills. The thief pointed towards a dark archway, the mouth of the dragon’s cave. A small stream of fire trickled out of its open maw, confirming that the master of the hoard was home.

Beowulf ordered his companions to stay where they were; he would face the dragon alone. Drawing a time-tested sword, and walking with his shield held before him, he followed the burning stream up to the mound. Near the entrance, he stood his ground, and let out a mighty battle-roar. The challenging cry echoed from the cliffs and around the stones before the cave mouth. Then a lance of fire jetted out of the cave, and Beowulf caught it on his shield. In a cloud of choking smoke, the dragon emerged, a sinewy, black-scaled monster, covered in the filth of years. It belched forth another blast of flame, which spilled around the iron shield, singeing Beowulf’s helmet and armour.

Then the two combatants, man and monster, rushed together. In a fury of sword, fang and claw, they struck at one another, clashing against shield and scales, but neither could gain the upper hand. They drew apart, the dragon drooling fire, the old king panting in the smoke-thick air.

All around, Beowulf’s men shrank back from this fight, and fled into the woods. All but one; a young warrior called Wiglaf felt a stirring in his heart. Drawing his own blade, he rushed into the fray. Though never before had he weathered the battle-storm, he bellowed his own war cry as he charged into battle.

Undaunted by the appearance of a second foe, the dragon spat forth its flaming breath. The flames consumed Wiglaf’s shield, burning it from his arm. He cast the smouldering ruins aside and took shelter behind the great iron shield of Beowulf. Then those two bold warriors moved forward together, striking at the dragon with their gleaming swords. The dragon sprang forward again, its claws screeching against the iron shield. Beowulf batted aside those fearful claws and brought his blade around to slash against the dragon’s head. But, in that moment, the venerable sword shattered against the dragon’s rock-hard scales.

For a stunned moment, Beowulf gazed at the broken blade in sad amazement. That instant of inattention proved fatal, for the dragon coiled its long neck around the shield and clamped its jaws around Beowulf’s throat. Its fangs pierced the flesh of his neck and lifted him off the ground.

As the dragon reared up with the aged king trapped in its jaws, it exposed its vulnerable underbelly. With a cry of hatred, Wiglaf lunged forward, driving his sword deep into the dragon’s belly. At the same moment, Beowulf drew a dagger from his belt, and, still suspended in the dragon’s mouth, he plunged the knife into the creature’s eye. Twice mortally wounded, the dragon dropped Beowulf to the ground and tumbled backwards in agony. Its fiery breath sprayed in all directions, then went out. It collapsed in a loathsome heap, smoking from its own dying fire.

With the dragon dead, Beowulf struggled to his feet, but his neck was already swelling from the bite of those poisoned fangs. He staggered to a seat by the entrance of the cave, his body clenching in agony. He spoke to Wiglaf through bloodied teeth and asked him to bring the treasures of the dragon before him. Wiglaf went into the dragon’s lair, and found more treasure than an army could carry. He selected some of the best golden cups and gleaming jewels. These he brought back out and placed before his dying lord.

Beowulf smiled and removed his helmet. He gave the royal boar helm to young Wiglaf, his last act as a gift-giver. He commanded that the treasure be buried with him, to remove it from the temptation of thieves. Then with a final breath, Beowulf’s eyes clouded over, and he passed from the world, the last of the great Geatish kings.


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