Years pass. Hygelac is killed in battle. His son, Heardred, inherits the throne, with Beowulf's support, but is also slain. Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and rules well for 50 years. To everyone's alarm, however, a terrifying dragon begins to stalk the countryside at night, destroying homes — including Beowulf's great hall — with his fiery breath. For 300 years, the dragon has peacefully guarded a treasure-trove, originally the riches of a now-defunct tribe but long hidden in a "high barrow-hall, / towering stone-mound" (2212-13). A lone Geat fugitive, apparently a servant or slave escaping a cruel master, has stolen a single flagon from the hoard, outraging the dragon and inciting him to vengeance.
When Beowulf hears of the dragon's night raids, the king initially wonders if he could have angered God in some way, bringing this trouble to his people. Before long, however, the aging warrior focuses on his responsibility as protector and prepares to face the monster in battle. Although he is now an old man, Beowulf believes that he can defeat the dragon by himself. He remembers victories against Grendel and Grendel's mother, as well as a heroic escape from Frisia after Hygelac was killed. Always conscious of weapons and tactics, Beowulf prepares by ordering a new shield, made of iron, since the dragon-fire would make short sparks of his usual linden-wood. Courageous and determined, if not quite the man he once was, the old warrior sets off.
The mutability of time is central to Hrothgar's sermon (1700-84), and it provides the framework for the final third of the poem. The passing of time brings changes to the lives of the Geats as it does to everyone. As Hrothgar warned, and as the Beowulf poet reminds us throughout the epic, all glory is fleeting.
Time is out of joint as the poet reveals the events leading up to Beowulf's becoming king. (For a chronology of the Geats' feuds, see Chickering, pp. 361-62.) At this point, we only know that the king and his heir have been killed in separate conflicts. Beowulf could have become king sooner but was more loyal than ambitious. Queen Hygd offered Beowulf the throne after her husband (Hygelac) died, thinking that her young son (Heardred) was unable to protect the kingdom; Beowulf refused but served the young king faithfully. After Heardred's death, Beowulf did become king and ruled his people well for 50 years. Fortunes, however, do change, as Hrothgar predicted.
The dragon is the final test for Beowulf, a test of his wisdom as well as his courage. The problem starts when a fugitive, apparently a runaway slave, stumbles across the dragon's treasure-trove. The ancient treasures in the hoard once belonged to a regional tribe of warriors; almost the entire tribe was killed in battle some 300 years previously. One sole survivor, who is called the "keeper of rings" (2244), hid the treasures in the high barrow-hall and soon died.
As poetry, one of the most moving passages in the epic is the Keeper's invocation as he leaves the gold and other items in the barrow (2247-2266). He speaks of the mutability of time and the loss of the good men, heroes, and princes, who no longer have any use for the treasure. They took the metals from the earth, and the Keeper now returns the treasures to it. He tells us that the stewards sleep who once burnished battle-masks. The chain-shirts can no longer protect their owners because the warriors will fight no more battles. There will be no more songs from the scop. The tribe's fortunes have turned. Everyone is dead. All glory is fleeting.
The dragon's motivation is vengeance even though the poet makes it clear that the fire-breathing reptile, like the deceased warriors, has no use for the cup or any of the rest of the treasure. He originally discovered the secret entrance to the barrow by chance, just as the fugitive does. Raiding at night, the dragon reminds the reader of Grendel, the monster who haunted Hrothgar in his old age and changed the Scylding king's fortunes. In a parallel that cannot be missed, the dragon does the same, in a slightly different way, to Beowulf.
Interestingly, Beowulf's initial reaction is a feeling of guilt. He believes that he has somehow offended God. However, Beowulf is nothing if not devoted to God, country, and duty. He is the protector of his people and almost immediately begins preparations to fight the dragon. Always aware of his battle gear, he orders a new shield to replace his old linden-wood protector; this one is to be covered with the strongest iron. Because Beowulf's own hall was one of the homes destroyed by the dragon, the king, too, will seek revenge.
The poet has no reservations about giving away his ending. He repeatedly tells us that Beowulf is about to meet his death. For example, in line 2311, he tells us, in the understatement of litotes, that the termination of the dragon raids will be "hard for their [the Geats'] ring-giving lord." The foreshadowing is even more specific immediately after Beowulf orders his new shield; the poet bluntly reveals that the king is "to reach the end of his seafaring days, / his life in this world, together with the serpent" (242-43).
We might question Beowulf's wisdom in deciding to fight the serpent alone, rejecting the assistance of his trained warriors. He could approach with a full army but supposedly bases his decision on former triumphs over Grendel and the mother. He also put up quite a fight when Hygelac died in Frisia; Beowulf escaped by defeating many of the enemy in close combat, carrying off the war gear of 30 men. The problem is that Beowulf was a young man during those glorious battles. At least 50 years have passed. Beowulf now is clearly an old man. Is he driven by vanity? False pride? Did not Hrothgar warn him of this in the sermon? Not just Beowulf's own life is at stake. If he dies, his people will be lost.
Battle-Scylfings Swedes. The Geats have a long feud with the Scylfings.
Hereric Queen Hygd's brother.
swift roan Horses played an important role among the royalty, but most of the fighting was executed on foot.
dawn-scorcher, flame-snake, the worm epithets for the dragon.
Ruler's favor God's preference. Sometimes God and wyrd are virtually interchangeable in the poem, possibly the result of Christian substitution.
Frisia Hygelac was killed in an apparently ill-conceived battle with the western Frisians (allies of the Franks), not by King Finn's people of the Finnsburh episode. Hygelac's death (c. 520 AD) is one historical event in the epic; it was recorded by Saint Gregory of Tours in his Historia Francorum.
Hetware technically, the Chattuarii; here indistinguishable from Frisians; joined with Franks against Hygelac.
Ongentheow Scylfings' (Swedes') king killed by Hygelac's warriors Wulf and Eofor.
Ohthere and Onela Ongentheow's sons, Swedes. Onela killed Geat King Heardred.
Eadgils and Eanmund Ohthere's sons, Swedes. They had a feud with their uncle, Onela, and were temporarily sheltered by Heardred. Eadgils, supplied by Beowulf, later killed Onela.