THE DRAGON’S MOUND IN BEOWULF
For those unfamiliar with the story, it is important to begin with a brief account of how the dragon’s mound is key within the structure of the poem. As a young hero, Beowulf travels over the sea to
Denmark, where he defeats the monster Grendel who had plagued King Hrothgar’s hall: Heorot. The hero then defeats Grendel’s mother within her cave. As an old king, having ruled his land for fifty winters in Geatland (line 2209), a new subterranean threat emerges from the wilderness surrounding his own kingdom: a dragon. The dragon’s mound is the setting for Beowulf’s third and final encounter with a monster and his subsequent death and funeral (lines 2200-3182).
The poem Beowulf tells us that the dragon’s lair was a stony barrow (Old English: stanbeorh) built by an ancient race of giants on a headland by the sea, subsequently sought out and guarded by the dragon. The barrow was disturbed by an exile from Beowulf’s kingdom who retrieved a goblet to use as a gift for Beowulf, his lord, to appease and atone for unnamed crimes. As recipient of the cursed gift, Beowulf and his kingdom receive the wrath of the dragon who, upon waking, realizes the treasure is missing and exacts revenge through aerial fiery destruction of the kingdom’s halls (lines 2312-24). Guided by the thief and accompanied by a small retinue, Beowulf goes to the barrow and, leaving his companions above ground, alone enters into the mound via a hidden path to slay the dragon. His companions flee but one of them, Wiglaf, enters the mound to assist his lord in the fight. Beowulf and Wiglaf slay the beast but the hero dies from his wounds. Under Wiglaf’s direction, Beowulf is cremated on a nearby headland and a mound is raised over the pyre-site as a landmark for seafarers. The cursed treasure from the dragon’s mound—described as consisting of weapons and armour, feasting gear and a standard—is buried with the hero and king; the riches are not divided and circulated among Beowulf’s people.
Since the Victorian era, it has been recognized that the poem might be describing a Neolithic passage grave or chambered tomb. This interpretation has received repeated but brief commentaries by many discussants of the relationship between the poem and archaeology (e.g. Wright 1847; Cramp 1957; Hills 1997; Webster 1998). Most recently, Semple (2013) cites Beowulf as a key source in relation to a range of other literary, documentary, visual, and toponymic evidence that reveals how ancient monuments were perceived as places of both fame and infamy in the Christian later Anglo-Saxon landscape (here taken to refer to the late seventh to eleventh centuries ad). The argument that the dragon’s mound might be a Neolithic monument finds support from the concrete evidence that Early Medieval burials of the late fifth to the late seventh centuries ad were often deliberately inserted into, and situated around, Neolithic long barrows, a practice that was part of a wider funerary reuse of prehistoric and Roman- period ruins and monuments (see Williams 1998; 2006; Semple 1998; 2013). Furthermore, toponymic evidence reveals how striking mega- lithic monuments, notably Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire, could be afforded ambivalent legendary associations (Grinsell 1991; Owen- Crocker 2000, 62-3). Beowulf is thus taken to provide a key case- study of a wider phenomenon: the mythological and legendary afterlives of megaliths in the Medieval world, places of fear rather than veneration (see also Holtorf 1996; Hutton 2009; Vejby 2012). The remainder of this chapter seeks to query and enhance this well-established argument by exploring the biography and materiality of the dragon’s mound as portrayed in the poem.