Dragons: ancient creatures in modern times
By Deirdre Byrne
Lecture delivered at the University of South Africa, March 3, 2011
Introduction: The Old English epic poem, Beowulf, establishes the heroic status of its protagonist through the traditional method of vanquishing enemies. As the culminating feat of his career, the hero, Beowulf, ageing King of the Geats, tackles a dragon who has found the treasure of a long-extinct race, buried in a barrow. The poet fills in the background:
Then an old harrower of the dark happened to find the hoard open, the burning one who hunts out barrows, the slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky with streamers of fire.
The dragon is described in resonant images: the ‘old harrower’, ‘the burning one’ and ‘the slick-skinned dragon’. He is both glamorous and highly dangerous. He possesses fire, an insatiable and baseless hatred for humans, and a fondness for destruction and chaos, as well as his love of gold. The dragon does not collect the gold himself, but having found it, he is very happy to make it his home, and stays there for three hundred years, until he is disturbed by a miserable thief who steals a golden cup from the hoard, seeking to regain his lord’s favour. The dragon knows his treasure well, and the theft awakens his fury, so that he explodes from the barrow, wreaking revenge in a fiery streak of destruction as he destroys whole villages in a single incandescent night.