In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which was written around 850 C.E, we have the traditional story plot of an almost fairytale like adventure. We have a hero who comes to save the town in times of trouble, and with every hero, there has to be monsters. However, I feel that the monsters in this fairytale like poem play a much larger role than just being the evil that clashes with the good, and needs to be destroyed to restore order in the civilization. I am arguing that in the poem Beowulf, the three monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon, symbolize Beowulf’s fate, as well as the fate of the Danish civilization, and each battle between Beowulf and the monsters foreshadow future events.
Beowulf, the almighty hero of Heorot, the slayer of demons, and the strongest man in the world, takes on three deadly monsters not knowing that he shares many of their characteristics. Beowulf’s first monster, Grendel, is the outsider; the meanest, deadliest, most undefeatable monster in Heorot, which is evident in lines 527-528, “this time you’ll be worsted; no one has ever outlasted an entire night against Grendel.” However, Grendel and Beowulf share many characteristics. Both Grendel and Beowulf have immense physical strength, and just as Beowulf is famous for clearing out every monsters home, Grendel is infamous for clearing out the Viking’s homes, which is evident in lines 143-145, “So Grendel ruled in defiance of right, one against all, until the greatest house in the world stood empty, a deserted wall stead.” Beowulf too “ruled in defiance of right,” and stood “one against all” in his battles with the three monsters. He cleared out all the monsters homes until “the greatest house in the world stood empty,” which would be the dragons cave, because there was no longer anything, or anyone, protecting and hoarding the cave, and the lost civilization’s treasures; it now “stood empty” and “deserted.” Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel foreshadows the coming of more battles for Beowulf, which is evident in lines 752-756
Every bone in his body
Quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
With the devil’s litter, for in all his days
He had never been clamped or cornered like this.
These lines tell us that Grendel lives with more evil monsters like himself. It was not a smart move on Beowulf’s part to only badly injure Grendel, leaving him for death, because he can “flee to his den and hide with the devil’s litter” and relay his story back to the monsters, which will only make the monsters more angry. We know that Grendel does indeed return to his den in lines 818-822
Grendel was driven
Under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,
To his desolate lair. His days were numbered,
The end of his life was coming over him,
He knew it for certain;
Just as suspected, after Grendel returns home to die amongst his heathenish friends, more attacks lurk not far behind. Beowulf is met with a second defeat by an angry monster, Grendel’s mother.
Grendel’s Mother is the second monster defeated by Beowulf. In line 1349 of the poem, there is a similar characteristic between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. The line states “the other one arrives…driven to avenge her kinsman’s death.” Just as Grendel’s mother is driven to avenge the death of Grendel, Beowulf is driven to avenge the death of all the friends and loved ones that Grendel has murdered. However, the monster and Beowulf share a greater element. The death of Grendel’s mother ends all possibilities for future generations of those monsters, and the family line ends with her death. The ending of Grendel’s lineage foreshadows the fate of Beowulf. In the end of the poem, Beowulf’s death leaves Heorot without a king or any successors. Beowulf did not have a son or anybody at all, to rule over the kingdom. It is because of this, that the killing of this second monster foreshadows his fate. The fate of the Danish civilization is also foreshadowed in this defeat, because the end of the monsters lineage also mocks the possibility of the current civilization becoming as the lost civilization mentioned in the the poem. The only evidence in the poem of this lost civilization is the mound of gold and goblets that it left behind by them. However, this mound of ancient treasure is strongly protected by yet another monster.
The third monster that Beowulf defeats, which is the dragon, is the strongest representation of Beowulf’s fate of all. The dragon also foreshadows what may happen to the Danish civilization if fighting is to continue to occur. If one pays attention to the plot throughout the poem, one would notice that the poem begins when Heorot is under attack; Beowulf comes to the rescue, defeats a monster, wins a trophy, defeats a monster, wins another trophy, defeats the dragon, and dies. The Dragon hoards mounds of gold and goblets, which are ancient treasures from the lost civilization that lived in Heorot before. We know nothing about the lost civilization, except that they were good warriors, much like the Vikings, and “they looked their last on sweet life in the hall” (lines 2251 and 2252). It is not ironic that this civilization ended in the hall, which is the same place that the Vikings’ continually are attacked. It is also not just ironic that when Beowulf dies after defeating the dragon, that he “foresaw that his joy in treasure would be brief,” (2239) just like the “forgotten someone” who “long ago, with deliberate care… had buried the riches of a highborn race in his ancient cache” (2234-2235). The passage of the poem, lines 2232 through 2240, is a major foreshadowing of Beowulf’s fate. The poem states,
There were many other
Heirlooms heaped inside the earth-house.
Because long ago, with deliberate care,
Somebody now forgotten
Had buried the riches of the highborn race in this ancient cache Death had come
And taken them all in times gone by
And the only one left to tell their,
The last of their line, could look forward to nothing
But the same fate for himself: he foresaw that his joy
In the treasure would be brief.
The description of the lost civilizations end is a major foreshadowing of future events of the Danish civilization, and specifically Beowulf’s death. In the end of the poem, Beowulf is indeed the last of the line. Just as the “somebody who was forgotten” Beowulf has “nothing to look forward to but the same fate for himself.” Proof for this is in lines 2743 through 2750 when Beowulf says,
…Go now quickly,
Dearest Wiglaf, under the gray stone
Where the dragon is laid out, lost to his treasure;
Hurry to feast your eyes on the hoard.
Away you go: I want to examine
That ancient gold, gaze my fill
On those garnered jewels, my going will be easier
For having seen the treasure…
In this part of the poem, Beowulf’s wishes, before he dies, to see the treasure, the giant mound of gold representing the lost civilization. I think that seeing the treasure makes Beowulf’s death easier, because he knows that there in front of his eyes is evidence that when he leaves this life, he will not be alone, and that he is not the only one who has ever left this life without lineage. Seeing the treasure rids some of the guilt that he feels for leaving his people without a king.
The treasure also foreshadows the possibility of the Danish civilization becoming like the lost civilization. If you think about it, every defeat that Beowulf claims, he is awarded with a trophy, the civilization of Heorot is filled with ring-givers, and there are treasures for every battle. The lost civilization must have been this way also. All that treasure that the dragon was hoarding could have been built up over time through battles upon battles, which inevitably ended their civilization. The more battles there were, the more gifts that were given, until all that was left was the treasure, and man had been wiped out; killed by one another. The proof for their self-destruction can be found in lines 2251 – 2254, where the last person of the lost civilization speaks,
My own people
Have been ruined in war; one by one
They went down to death, looked their last
On sweet life in the hall. I am left with nobody
To bear a sword or to burnish plated goblets,
Put sheen on the cup. The companies have been departed.
When I read this part of the poem, it made me realize something very important. The dragon is not only hoarding the treasure of the lost civilization, but he also hoards the secret of their fate. It is almost as if the Dragon was hoarding the treasure as a way of protecting the Danish civilization, and he got very angry and violent when the treasure was stolen, as in lines 2287-2293
When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again.
He rippled down the rock, writhing with anger
When he saw the footprints of the prowler who had stolen
Too close to his dreaming head.
So may a man not marked by fate
Easily escape exile and woe
By the Grace of God.
Some readers may take the dragon’s actions as greed, but I feel that the Dragon was angry because he knew of what really happened to the lost civilization, and did not want to expose the current civilization to the harm that gold and goblets can bring. Just as Beowulf had spent his life protecting his people from the monsters, the dragon too spent his life protecting the people from becoming so wrapped up in gold and goblet, and working toward their own extinction, as is suspected by the lost civilization.
At the end of the poem, the reader is not told whether the Danish civilization of Heorot prevailed or not. However, when reading lines 3163- 3168, we can assume that longevity was in their favor. The lines state
And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels
And a trove of such things as trespassing men
Had once dared to drag from the hoard.
They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure,
Gold under gravel, gone to earth
As useless to men now as it ever was.
I feel that the Danish people buried the treasure as a way to bury the past. By putting the treasure into the earth where it belongs, back with the lost civilization, it is almost as if they are starting over. They no longer feel that they need the gold; instead, they consider it “as useless to men now as it ever was.” Perhaps the battles will stop, and the treasures will not be needed, because after all, the gold and goblets were always their rewards for defeating the monsters and winning battles. In the end, the monsters were simply a way for Beowulf to come to terms with his fate, and for the civilization to come to mends with what they feel is most important, life…or death.