A BIOGRAPHY FOR THE DRAGON’S MOUND

While archaeologists have tended to explore the archaeological biographies of megalithic monuments (e.g. Holtorf 1996), I here want to apply this approach to the poem itself. The dragon’s mound is portrayed as on the periphery of Beowulf’s kingdom—like Grendel and Grendel’s mother’s mere was for Hrothgar’s—a liminal place physically and conceptually on the very edge of the human world, ‘on a wide headland/close to the waves’ (lines 2243-4) near the cliff top (line 2417). The mound and its landscape setting reveal its multitemporal quality in the poem; we are told of at least six phases of use:

i. the location was selected and the stone barrow made by the Last Survivor—the only remaining member of the ancient race—as a cache to contain his dead people’s treasures (lines 2242-69);

ii. some time later, it was sought out and became the habitation for a sleeping dragon guarding the treasure (lines 2270-5);

iii. three hundred years later it became the landscape where only an exile dared to venture to steal a goblet, thus rousing the dragon to vengeance (lines 2214-18);

iv. in response, it became a place of conflict and death where Beowulf and Wiglaf encountered the dragon and both the dragon and Beowulf perished (lines 2410-820);

v. it became a funerary landscape comprised of at least three commemorative foci:

a. the empty stone barrow from whence the dragon’s corpse and the treasure were taken (lines 3129-31);

b. the site of Beowulf’s cremation over which a mound was raised and in which the dragon’s treasure was interred: a landmark for seafarers (lines 3136-82);

c. the sea-cliff over which the dragon’s body was consigned to the waves (line 3131).

vi. at Beowulf’s funeral, a lamenting woman foresaw a future in which the Geatish kingdom was destroyed: imagining cataclysmic events that created an abandoned set ofmonuments on the headland: the dragon’s mound and Beowulf’s counterpoised (lines 3150-5).

This ‘monument biography’ rendered the dragon’s mound a mnemonic time-mark—simultaneously famous and infamous—linking together each biographical stage from its building to the poet’s present: a cache of giants’ treasure, a dragon’s den, a place of exiles and theft, a place for heroic conflict and death and finally a component in the mortuary drama of the hero’s funeral. For the poet and his audience, the mound is situated in a literary topography of memory in the Scandinavian past and simultaneously tangible through innumerable prehistoric monument complexes within the environs of Early Medieval ecclesiastical and aristocratic central places across Anglo-Saxon England (Semple 2013, 108-42). Hence, the mnemonic power of this poetic landscape lay, not in its specificity, but in its mutability and replication across the coastal and maritime Anglo-Saxon royal and ecclesiastical landscapes. In these environments, ancient monuments were suitable settings for legendary hagiographic and heroic deeds against demonic forces and understood relationally with regard to contemporary megalithic architectures of mausolea, crypts and other hypogeal and semi-hypogeal structures (Williams 2006; Semple 2013).

 
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