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I’d like to discuss in this paper the poem Beowulf and pay attention on dragon which he fights with. Without any doubt we can say that Beowulf was the greatest poem in Old English literature. It is necessary to discuss it with more details and explain symbolism connected with dragon in the poem. In my opinion it will be interesting to discuss also the dragon symbol in another countries and even cultures , because like any symbol it has own roots and their analysis will help us to understand actions in Beowulf much better. The poem was written many centuries ago and it was done in the heroic style that it seemed even to be like an elegy to the hero’s exploit.
Let’s begin our work from the poem discussion and then we will mention dragon in our describing and will research it symbolism in the frame of our work. According to North we can mention that there are many different questions connected with this poem: “What can be known about a unique poem in a unique manuscript, dated around the year 1000 a.d.? What do we know about the circumstances of its composition? Is it literary, oral, or something in-between? What can we never know? Beowulf is both strange and familiar: it has some links with ancient classical poems like Homer’s; 19thc ideas of it have been received and reworked in the course of the 20thc in academe, children’s literature and adult popular culture; and yet it remains an ancient artifact of a culture whose world we can never share.” (North, 2006) I know that Beowulf is an Old English poem of unknown author, unique saved monument of Anglo-Saxon epos. Most scientists meet on that Beowulf was created in 8 century by English monk, knowing and Old British, and Latin literature. A poem reached in the unique manuscript of an end 10 century in Old English language. The study of Beowulf began in 1815, after the output of the first edition. A poem contains 3182 lines, written with alliteration verse. The title to this poem was given in an honor of the main hero.
Analyzing the poem Beowulf from different sides I understood that Beowulf very substantially differs from ordinary heroic poems both by volume of and complication. In English tradition heroic ballads rarely contained more than five hundred lines and described the unique event (for example, battle) or row of the events closely associated between each other. For the plot of a story of Beowulf two contrasting series of events were required, and a poet described both series in very detailed way, sparing large attention to cultural surroundings (for example, to court life in Denmark). Frequently it abandons both a hero and monsters aside, speaking to the episodes, information or illusions, to touching other characters of traditional narrations. Such retreats must were somehow co-ordinate battles with monsters with the world of North Europe in 6 century. It is talked in a poem, that prominent force of Beowulf, equal to the force of thirty ordinary people, was given to him by God, and from a notable fragment (lines 2177-2189) clears that a hero would not begin to use this gift unworthy appearance, but saved it for the high performing.
The unique existent manuscript of Beowulf is dated approximately by 1000 years, as we understood it was so many time ago that we can’t state that some events were true or some of it was a real false. But an epic belongs, in opinion of most specialists, to the end of VII century or to first third of VIII century. In that period Anglo-Saxons experienced the beginning process of origin of feudal connections already. To the poem, however, the epic archaizing is inherent. In addition, it draws reality from the specific point of view: the world of Beowulf is the world of kings and combatants, world of feasts, battles and duels.
Plot of a story from Anglo-Saxon’s epics simple this largest. Beowulf is a young knight from the people of Gauts took participants in all possible battles and tries to help different nations to protect themselves from different creatures. He killed various creatures and winning over them, he returns back with different rewards and fame. Here at home he accomplishes new exploits, and afterwards becomes king of Gauts and well governs a country during fifty years. After expiration of this term Beowulf enters into a fight with a dragon which devastates environs, being infuriated encroaching upon guarded by it ancient treasure. It is succeeded to win over Beowulf and this monster, but by the cost of own life. In acknowledgement of these words we can quote the next abstract from the poem Beowulf where the main character speaks to Wiglaf, entreating him to collect the dragon’s gold at his feet before he dies: “My days/ have gone as fate willed,…/ As I knew how, swearing no unholy oaths,/ Seeking no lying wars. I can leave/ This life happy; I can die, here,/ Knowing the Lord of all life has never/ Watched me wash my sword in blood/ Born of my own family.” (Beowulf, pg. 108, lines 2735-6, 2638-2743) A canto is completed the stage of the solemn burning on the funeral fire of body of hero and building of burial mound above his ashes and treasure conquered by him.
Interesting facts are included in the poem, because in a spirit theories, dominating in science in the middle of XIX century, some interpreters of Beowulf asserted that a poem had arisen up as a result of association of different songs; it was accepted to dissect it on four parts: duel with Grendel, duel with his mother, returning of Beowulf on a motherland, duel with a dragon. The point of view spoke out, that originally cleanly a heathen poem was partly processed in a Christian spirit, because of what in it and there was interlacing of two world views. Then most researchers began to consider that a transition from verbal songs to the “book epos” was not taken to outage of their fixing; these scientists examined “Beowulf” as single work the “editor” of which one’s own way united and processed present in his order material, expounding traditional subjects more extensively. It is needed, however, to acknowledge that about the “Beowulf” formation process is known nothing.
Describing this poem and looking for different information about it I understood that the representatives of “mythological school” in literary criticism of the last century tried to decipher this epos in the next way: monsters personify the storms of the North sea; Beowulf is a kind deity, restraining elements; his peaceful rule is a beneficial summer, and his death is an offensive of the winter. Thus, the contrasts of nature, growth and fading, are symbolic represented in an epos, ups and downs, youth and old age. Other scientists understood these contrasts in an ethics plan and saw the theme of fight of good and evil in “Beowulf”. Those researchers, which in general deny its epic character and consider it making of clerk or monk, knowing and using early Christian literature, are not alien symbolic and allegoric interpretation of poem. These interpretations to a great extent abut against a question about that, whether the “spirit of Christianity” is shown in “Beowulf” or before us is a monument of heathen consciousness. Supporters of its understanding as a folk epos the beliefs of heroic pore of Great migrations living in which, naturally, found in it German paganism and took the value of church influence to the minimum. Opposite, those modern scientists which add a poem on the digit of writing literature carry the centre of gravity on Christian reasons; in paganism “Beowulf” we see no more than stylization under old times. In the newest criticism a tendency is noticeable to moving of attention from the analysis of maintenance of the poem to the study of its invoice and stylistics. In the middle of our age the denial of connection of “Beowulf” prevailed with epic folk-lore tradition. Meantime in the last few years the row of specialists is inclined to count prevalence in text of poem of stereotype expressions and formulas by the certificate of its origin from verbal creation.
If to be honest and based on last researches we could say that in science there is no the generally accepted conception which sufficiently explains “Beowulf’s” content. Meantime, without interpretation we can’t understand any work of literature, because many authors put in their works hidden sense and the main aim of interpreters is not to translate the work of literature, but also find this sense. Frankly speaking, “Beowulf” is difficult for a modern reader, educated on quite to other literature and inclined, let involuntarily, to carry and on ancient monuments presentations, formed with an acquaintance with artistic creations of new time.
In the ardor of scientific disputes researches forget at times: regardless of what way there was a poem, whether there was it made from different pieces or not, it was perceived by a medieval audience as nothing unit. It touches composition of “Beowulf”, and interpretation in it of religion. An author and his heroes often mention God’s name; in an epic there are hints on biblical subjects, apparently, clear of that time “public”; paganism is obviously reprobated. At the same time “Beowulf” makes gaudy references on Fate, which both comes forward as an instrument of creator and identical to divine Providence and appears as independent force. But a faith in Fate occupied a central place in pre-Christian ideology of the German people. Family blood feud which a church reprobated, although quite often forced was to stand, in a poem glorified and considered an obligatory debt, and impossibility to sweep is considered as the greatest hoodoo. In short, an ideological situation, appearing in “Beowulf”, is contradictory enough. But it is contradiction of life, but not simple inconsistency between more early and by the subsequent releases of poem. Anglo-Saxons of VII-VIII centuries were Christians, but Christian religion at that time not so much overcame heathen perception of the world, how many drove back it from an official sphere on the second plan of public consciousness. A church succeeded to destroy old heathen temple and worship heathen gods, offerings by it, as for the forms of human conduct; here business was much more difficult. Reasons which move the acts of characters of “Beowulf” are determined the not at all Christian ideals of humility and obedience to will of divine.
I want to discuss the symbol of dragon in the next part of this paper. I’d like to use different cultures and nations for this analysis, because the symbol of dragon was very popular in ancient times and even now many people use it for their aims. For example, on the east a faith in dragons is strong till today. In a most degree it behaves to China, Tibet, Japan and Korea.
In China of legend about dragons ascend by 5000 years to our era. The Chinese people honored and worshiped a dragon from times of deep antiquity, and gradually its appearance took the central place in beliefs and myths of China. Numerous legends were saved about that, how at the court of some mythical sovereigns saw to the dragons, and also – about filiations of legendary rulers and heroes from the union of woman and dragon. There is also legend, that ancestor of all objects and people – Nyuy-va, was a woman-dragon.
Dragons in China symbolize by itself a valor and nobleness and considered creatures wise, possessing magic and secret knowledge. In “Book of Changes” a dragon means a hieroglyph “sage”. The pictures of dragons are closely related to the weather and harvest. Most dragons patronize some certain natural phenomenon. More frequent than all east dragons are attributed to positive or neutral forces, but, equally with kind, there are wicked dragons, ruining a harvest and sending down illnesses. Such happens usually, when a death man inflicts a dragon an insult. Revenge of the infuriated dragon will be terrible and then. There are legends and about by an evil, Black dragon to which, in order that to cajole it, in a victim brought young girls. And however more frequent people behaved to the dragons, as to the defenders.
Unlike east, western dragons usually presented as spiteful, thirsty murder and blood, by creatures. About the mountains of gold and jewels, hidden in their caves, legends walk. Getting treasures of dragon is possible, only putting to death their owner. Western dragons are dangerous and cruel and, as well as east, quite often possess magic force. It is talked that at meeting with a dragon it is never impossible to look it in eyes, otherwise it will find lordship over you and will subordinate you. Often dragons are considered the servants of Satan or even its embodiment. There is a popular belief that, who will eat the heart of dragon, will find knowledge of bird language, than, who will eat the tongue of dragon, will be able to win in any dispute, blood of dragon protects from wounds and any weapon. Murder of dragon was considered for a knight an obligatory exploit; therefore almost all dragons were destroyed in middle ages.
In the West dragon always presented spiteful. One of classic exploits of heroes there was the victory over a dragon. In “Beowulf”, written in England in seventh or eighth age, a dragon stayed three hundred years on the guard of treasure. An eloping slave had hidden in his cave and steals a cup. Waking up, a dragon notices a theft and decides to put to death a thief, but from time to time goes back into a cave – to check, whether he did not put cup not into its place. (It is surprisingly, that a poet adds a monster with pure human uncertainty.) Then a dragon begins to beggar a kingdom, Beowulf searches for it and, battling with it, kills, soon whereupon dies from a vital wound, inflicted by the dragon’s fangs.
Also I can add to the above stated the next description said by Puhvel & Laurier: “The author describes the thief as “someone’s slave”. The thief is the first character in Beowulf that is not a warrior or a king. The dragon is guarding a treasure hoard left by “the last survivor of a noble race,” who, before he died, locks his gold and jewels in a stone fortress. After that Last Survivor dies, his treasure-hoard is guarded by a dragon for whom the treasures are useless. The thief angers the dragon by stealing a single cup from the treasure-hoard.” (Puhvel & Laurier, 1979)
Character of dragon was brought to Britain Romans which carried its image on the colors; ancient Britons did a dragon the character of fight against Saxon invaders; at Celt it symbolized ability to suggest horror, and also invincibility, and from here is independence. National character of Wales is a red dragon of the Wales hero 7 centuries of Kadvallader (on the Wales flag a red dragon is represented on the green-white field); Henry VII adopted a red dragon, to underline resulting from Kadvallader.
On East the «winged snake» possesses space, supernatural force; dragons guard treasures, they serve as characters of fertility and force. In China it is a creature, having most spiritual force, character of life and light; the emblem of the Chinese emperor’s family is a gold dragon. On east horoscopes a dragon is the happiest sign. In 1988, year of Dragon, the Chinese parents ignored a law, prescriptive to give twins the different names, and named them the sons of dragon.
Biggs pictured the part of Beowulf in the next way that acknowledges above stated information with academic source: “The story is that the dragon finds a hidden barrow, filled with treasure, which it takes as its own. A slave who has run away from his master find the hoard, and steals a cup. When the dragon awakes, he realizes the cup is missing. He searches around until he sees the footprints of the culprit. Realising that humans took the cup, he ravages the local area with fire in revenge. This is set many years after the fight with Grendel, when Beowulf is King of the Geats. Accompanied by various nobles, he sets out to fight to dragon.” (Biggs, 2001)
Saying about the symbol of a dragon in the poem Beowulf it is necessary to mention that Dragon – is universal and very difficult character. A dragon, or «winged serpent», unites in itself a snake and bird, spirit and matter. In the beginning its symbolism was wholly favorable and meant waters, bearing life, and breathing of life (bird). It was identified with celestial gods and their earthly representatives – by emperors and kings. Afterwards its symbolism became ambivalent, designating beneficial rains, followings after thunderstorms, and, at the same time, destructive forces of lightning and flood.
Playing role of monsters, dragons are indigenous «rulers of the earth», with which it is necessary to fight to heroes, conquerors and creators, to take or master the earth. They are the keepers of treasures and access to secret knowledge. A battle with a dragon symbolizes those difficulties which must be overcome, to capture treasures of internal knowledge. Victory over a dragon personifies permission of conflict between light and darkness, destruction or destructive forces of evil, or victory over own dark nature of man and achievement of self-possession. To rescue an innocent maiden from the paws of dragon, means to free good forces, smashing wicked.
In modern world religions evil, as well as good, arrives at the perfection. Thus self personification of evil is Devil – also frequently provided with many external signs of Serpent-dragon. It should be noted that in the described transformation of role of Serpent-dragon interesting conformity to law is revealed in mythology: what less than age of myth, the more so the bad are become by Snakes-dragons and the worse their relationships become both with people and with anthropoid gods.
The earliest myths, get-away roots in grey old times, do not divide bad and good, good and evil in the usual our understanding. Gods in these myths possess all qualities simultaneously: it can be both kind and wicked, to change a mood, the attitude toward people etc. There is Serpent-dragon in the same myths – foremost character of wisdom and knowledge, bearing obviously positive tint. In more late myths gods are divided on bad and good, good moved away from an evil. There already Serpent-dragon acquires negative qualities, personifies evil, and good anthropoid gods and positive heroes battle against it.
In more late myths about creation of the world dragons in most cases appear cruel primordial creatures which have to be overcame gods. Later the role of winners of dragons was undertaken by heroes and founders of nobiliary births (victory of standing at high spiritual level man over the unbridled world of nature). An inflicting such monster defeat is in fairy-tales and legends often by the trial test of hero which as a result labors for riches (obtains treasure) or frees the captivated tsar’s daughter. In this sense a dragon is a symbol of wild energy inherent to the animal, which has to be, overcame long-cultivated force.
Thus, taking into account all above stated we should conclude that the symbol of dragon has different interpretations in different ancient times and cultures. In the poem Beowulf it was described as a monster, but in other readings we found that it is not only bad creature, but also good creature with peaceful nature and its descriptions proves such position. During discussing of the dragon’s symbolism we also analyzed the poem Beowulf and it helps us to define dragon’s character with more details in our paper. In my opinion the symbol of a dragon has dual character and maybe by the author another sense was given to it, but in our times we can understand it in the way which we consider the right and nobody can say that it is wrong position.
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