In the case of Beowulf, the dragon to be met kept guard of a hoard of gold. In a stone barrow, on a high heath above sea-waves, below which lay a path not known to men, a weeping prince of yore had stowed his battle gear and cups of gold, with prayer to the protecting earth.
"Hold these, thou Earth, this wealth of earls; for in thee did good men first discover it. None have I more, to wield sword or burnish gold. Battle-death has taken every one of my folk."
And this evil, naked dragonb, twilight-spoiler, which by night flew folded in fire, had one day found that joy-giving hoard, to which he had settled on watch. And he there remained three hundred years, no whit the better for it, until some man or other with his hand took from that hoard a golden cup. Waking, wrathful, the dragon snuffed along the rocks, finding his track, but not the man. And fearful then for the people of the land was that feud's beginning.
By night the angered barrow-warden flew: bright homesteads burned. He shot back before day to his hoard. And so again, night after night. Then Beowulf, now an old king, foreknew that death was next before him. He ordered a shield made marvelously of iron; the man who had taken the cup was forced to serve as guide. With eleven others, himself as twelfth, the guide thereto thirteen, the old king then sat him on the foreland and spoke his hearth-companions farewell. "His heart was sad, uneasy and death-ready wyrd immediately nigh."
Now, thgis Anglow-Saxon word wyrd has about it a sense of haunting doom that is recaptured in Shakespeare's three Weird Sisters. These are transformations into witches of the Norns of old Germanic myth, who (as described in the Old Norse "Wise Woman's Prophecy," Voluspo) dwell by Urth's well, from which they water the roots of the World Ash. Shakespeare's trio, on a "desert heath," amid thunder, lightning, and rain, conjure from their witches' caldron prophecies that are heard as though from outside by Macbeth, yet are of deeds already maturing in his heart. In Old Norse the Norns' three names are given as Urth, Verthandi, and Skuld: Become, Becoming, and Shall Be," Past, Present, and Future, which appear to be a late invention, however, inspired perhaps (twelfth century A.D. ?) by the model of the Greek three Graces. For there seems to have been originally but one Norn: called Urth in Old Norse, in Old High German Wurd, and in Anglo-Saxon Wyrd. The word may be related to the German werden, "to become, to grow," which would suggest a sense of inward inherent destiny, comparable, essentially, to Schopenhauer's concept of "intelligible" character. Another association is with the Old German wirt, wirtel, "spindle," by which the idea is suggested of a spinning and weaving of destiny. The classical triad of the Moirai may have contributed to this image; namely of Clotho, the "Spinner," who spins the life thread; Lachesis, "Disposer of Lots," determining its length; and Atropos, "Inflexible," who cuts it. And so the symbol of the spindle became significant of destiny, and the woven web, of life.
One recalls the fairytale of Little Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), who in her fifteenth year was pricked by the spindle of a cruel hag, whereupon she fell asleep for a century, until kissed by a king's son who found his way through briars to her slumbering castle. And there is the comical tale of Three Spinners, "the first of whom had a broad flat foot, the second such a great underlip that it hung down to her chin, and the third a great broad thumb," respectively, from treading the wheel, wetting the thread, and twisting it.
Returning, however, to the Voluspo---which Wagner took as inspiration for his Gotterdammerung---we find that there the universe itself unfolds from within, organically, to its day of doom, when Garm, the dog of Hel, howls before the "Cliff-Cave," Hel's gate, giants, dwarfs, and elves break free, and the gods (already knowing, as they do, the destiny before them) go to meet in mutual slaughter those monsters of the deep, at the close of the age.
And so too the old King Beowulf, and the dragon of his doom, at the close of his life:
"Not a foot's length," he said, "will I give back from the keeper of the barrow, but as Wyrd may grant, the ruler of all men, so shall it befall us in the fight." And rising, strong beneath his helm, he carried his battle sark to the stony steps, where beneath a wall and arch of stone, a stream, steaming with battle fires, was pouring from the barrow. The old King let sound his voice, and for the treasure warden within there was time no more for peace.
First the monster's breath, fuming hot, broke forth; the earth resounded; and the warrior, strong of heart, swung up his battle-shield for what was destined. The dragon coiled and came: at first slowly moving, then hastening, until, smitten by the sword, he cast forth a deadly fire and the blade gave up its strength. (No easy journey is it now to be for that old King of the Geats, who must leave this earth plain unwillingly to make his home in a dwelling somewhere else. And so must every man lay aside the days that pass.) Again the two become engaged.)
And it was then that a young shield-warrior, Wiglaf, perceiving his lord hard laboring, moving into the slaughter-reek, bore his helmet to his lord's side. But his shield immediately melted, and the spioler of people, with bitter fangs, took Beowulf's whole throat, whose blood gushed forth in waves. Wiglaf struck the dragon's neck; his sword sank in, the fire failed: the old King drew from his burnie a dagger, and those two together cut the worm in two.
But that was the last triumphant hour that the King in this world; for the poison within was rising in his breast. "Dear Wiglaf, quickly now," he said, "help me to see this old treasure of gold, the gladness of its bright jewels, curiously set, that I may yield my life the more easily and the lordship I have held so long." As a number of commentators have remarked, there was nothing of the Christian spirit in this noble death: no thought of sin, forgiveness, or Heaven, but the old Germanic virtues only of loyalty and courage, pride in the performances of duty, and, for a king, selfless fatherly care for his people's good. Beowulf's joy furthermore, in the sight of the earthly treasure is even decidedly un-Christian; for the work is everywhere alive with love for the wonder of life in this world, with not a word of either anxiety or desire for the next.
The concluding scene is of the burning of the heroes body, then the building of the barrow. And as at Sutton Hoo, so here in the barrow they placed all the rings, jewels, and trappings taken from the dragon hoard; whereupon, twelve sons of nobles, brave in battle rode about the mound, while they framed in sorrow words of praise.
The name Beowulf itself, "bee-wolf," apparently meaning bear, suggests affinities with a widely known folktale figure of prodigious strength, the Bear's Son, the distribution of whose appearances, in North America as well as Eurasia, points to a background in that primordial cult of reverence for the bear discussed in Primitive Mythology, and which is still observed among the Ainus of Japan.
(from "Creative Mythology the Masks of God" by Joseph Campbell)
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