THE DRAGON’S MATERIALITY
The dragon is the third component of the burial mound, a monstrous flying and fire-breathing creature described as a ‘sky-roamer’ (line 2830), ‘sky-winger’ (line 2314) and a ‘fire-dragon’ (line 2333). Yet primarily the beast is described as a watchful but sleeping subterranean resident and guardian. For Anglo-Saxon literature in general, Semple outlines the association of Old English draugr with mounds and treasure, but also clefts and other subterranean spaces that together she regards as hellish and wild, associated with exile and torment, but also concepts of the ‘heathen’ (the godless) (Semple 2013, 153, 178-9). In the poem, the dragon is ‘the burning one who hunts out barrows’ (line 2272), repeatedly described in relation to its subterranean presence near, but not upon, the treasure: as the ‘guardian of the mound’ (line 2302), ‘hoard-watcher’ (line 2303), ‘cave-guard’ (line 2525), ‘mound-keeper’ (line 2580), ‘hoard-guard’ (line 2594), ‘barrow- dweller’ (line 2841) and ‘treasure-minder’ (line 3133). The beast dominates the dark (line 2212) and only appears to cause fiery aerial destruction at night. Thus the dragon is a thief of sorts: the keeper of the mound is an uninvited resident and guardian for over three centuries, not the rightful owner of the treasure (line 2278). In searching for the treasure, the dragon encircles the mound’s exterior (line 2296).
Yet the dragon is also an agent of death, seeking vengeance on those bound to the act of disturbing the treasure. The dragon’s fiery breath and poisonous bite enact the first of two ‘cremations’ that Beowulf endures: the hero is consumed by fire through his skin and blood twice over; by dragon and by pyre. This duality is paralleled with the deposition of artefacts upon the pyre and in the mound built in Beowulf’s honour.
Upon death, the dragon disappears, only to appear later to be hauled out of the mound and tipped over the nearby sea-cliff (lines 3118-20). Its corpse is an embodiment of the sinner’s soulless cadaver; its fate worthy of a ‘heathen’ burial placed on the boundaries of territories and upon the foreshore (Reynolds 2009; Semple 2013, 195-203). It is also reminiscent of the fate of the ‘pagan’ inhabitants of Sussex (as described by the Venerable Bede) who in famine cast themselves over cliffs (Sherley-Price 1990, 226). Cliffs are thus a cursed place for heathen burial and dishonourable treatment of the unsaved dead.
Semple (2013, 145) notes a small selection of place-names that show that a connection between dragons and barrows was being mapped out in select parts of Anglo-Saxon England. Reynolds and Langlands (2011) suggest that the Oxfordshire linear earthwork, Grimesditch, and possibly the Uffington White Horse, were also interpreted as dragonesque. Wyrms certainly pervaded the Anglo- Saxon world and imagination. As Thompson (2004, 135) succinctly states: ‘the dragon in Beowulf inhabits an ambiguous moral space: he is powerful and he may be inimical, but he is not diabolical’. Not wholly negative, Thompson suggests that ubiquitous serpentine imagery upon metalwork and sculpture suggests that wyrmas might be apotropaic through their intertwining bodies but also their watchfulness (Thompson 2004, 134; see also Williams 2011b). Thompson’s study of literary evidence reveals the complex and varied natures of the wyrm from maggots to winged serpents, and this ubiquity and diversity is seen in the variety of media—including metalwork and stone sculpture—upon which dragons appear between the seventh and eleventh centuries ad.
Any pre-Christian connotations of the serpent aside, this was a beast that was clearly multivalent and powerful and survived and expanded its repertoire of use across the conversion period (Hawkes 1997). Catherine Hills (1997, 297) astutely notes that archaeologists tend to focus on the ‘real world’ elements of the poem: ‘No one has tried to dig up Grendel, his mother, or the dragon.’ Still, she goes on to note that the dragon in the poem chimes with the serpentine art of the Early Middle Ages, yet I would suggest this falls short of the potential for archaeology to ‘dig up’ the dragon. Early Medieval zoomorphic art is assumed from this perspective to be simply representations of imaginary monsters. In some instances, however, the art was more than that, the decoration held an agency through its animated, multi-sensory, tactile, and embodied qualities. Animal art afforded real beastly presences on the surfaces of artefacts and architectures, watching, biting, encircling, and hence guarding them as apotropaic and empowering agencies, demonstrating the power, authority, and identities of those commissioning, wielding, and exchanging them (Williams 2011b).
It is from this perspective that we can understand the dragon as more than imaginary beast, but as a key ingredient of the materiality of the stone barrow in Beowulf. The dragon’s symbolic ambiguity is manifest on a wide range of stone sculpture from across England. For example, there is an early representation of St Michael slaying the dragon from Stinsford, Dorset (Cramp 2006, 113-14) and the rood screen at Bitton (Gloucestershire) shows a snake beneath the crucified Christ (Bryant 2012, 147-8). On cross-shafts, we have the reptilian beasts on the base of Ramsbury 3 (Wiltshire) dated to the ninth or tenth century ad (Cramp 2006, 230) and the snakes threatening a human figure on two faces (A and C) of the Masham 3 (North Yorkshire) shaft fragment (Lang 2001, 172, pls. 646 and 648).
More overtly commemorative contexts display serpents prominently, including the cross-shaft Sockburn 3A (Cleveland), upon which a serpent looms over a rider holding a bird of prey—perhaps a secular portrait honouring the dead (Cramp 1984, 136-7, pl. 710). Meanwhile the bound serpents from Ryedale: Middleton 1C and 2C (Lang 1984, 181-4, pls. 672, 674, 678, and 680) and Sinnington 3A (Lang 1984, 208, pl. 804), both East Yorkshire, are juxtaposed with images of lordly ideals: seated in his hall or hunting. Two serpents intertwine up the tenth-century cross-shaft (1A) from Lastingham, also East Yorkshire (Lang 1984, 167). The world serpent of Norse mythology is depicted on the tenth-century Gosforth cross (1D), Cumbria (Bailey and Cramp 1988, pls. 305 and 306), and a serpent dripping poison on Loki also appears on this monument (1C) (Bailey and Cramp 1988, pls. 301 and 304). Together, these examples reveal the serpent as agent of death and destruction, but also prefiguring redemption and resurrection.
Upon grave-slabs of the tenth century ad, we find an overtly mortuary association with serpents guarding the bodies of the dead. As Thompson (2004) shows, dragonesque winged end-beasts frame the crosses on grave-slabs from York Minster (e.g. Minster 35A, 36A, 38A and 39A: Lang 1991, 72-4, pls. 148, 152, 159, and 165; see also Thompson 2003; see also Shrewsbury Saint Mary 3: Bryant 2012, 79-81, 310-11). A weapon-bearing human figure (often identified as the dragon-slayer SigurS) battles with two serpents on York Minster 34D (Lang 1984, 71-2, pl. 147). Also, serpentine end-beasts adorn some of the tenth-century ad hogback stones—mortuary monuments that embody complex skeuomorphic transformations of architectural spaces—as upon Lythe 25, North Yorkshire (Lang 2001, 162-3, pls. 553 and 556; see also Williams forthcoming), while serpents battle humans on Gosforth hogback 5C (Bailey and Cramp 1988, pl. 327).
While this evidence reveals a range of significances to the dragon upon Anglo-Saxon commemorative stone monuments and architecture, it is sufficient to allow us to rethink the importance of the dragon’s lithic habitation in Beowulf. We are left with the possibility that the materiality of the stone monument is key to the relationship with, and significance of, the simultaneously chthonic and aerial dragon. As well as secular and sacred artefacts bearing dragon designs such as the Anglian helmet from Coppergate, York (Kitzinger 1993, 4), there are a range of stone sculptures that render serpentine beasts as guardians on the thresholds to holy places, such as the western entrance porch to the church at Monkwearmouth built in ad 674 (Figure 5.2) (Monkwearmouth 8a-b: Cramp 1984,125-6, pls. 112-13) and its Late Antique funerary chapel predecessor at Poitiers: the Hypogee des Dunes (Kitzinger 1993, 4). Hence, serpents could be both threatening and binding architectural forces: Christian representations of the devil and/or guardians of the living and the dead in the medium of stone. At Saint Mary Deerhurst and Saint Oswald’s Gloucester, the rare survival of downward- and outward-facing animal heads on label stops and prokrossos (projecting hood above the apex of an arch) strongly suggest that protective beasts were widespread features of Anglo-Saxon church architecture, guarding apertures and thresholds (Bryant 2012, 175-85). This theme seems to
Figure 5.2. The late-seventh-century ad serpentine beasts on the western threshold of the Anglo-Saxon monastic church at Monkwearmouth (Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, England). Photograph by Howard Williams.
extend to mortuary monuments with the tenth-century hogback tombs which display both ursine and serpentine beasts (Williams forthcoming).
Important here is the poem’s impression that the dragon permeates the stone barrow, coming and going at will and apparently using other entrances to that utilized by the thief, Beowulf, and Wiglaf. Seemingly inhabiting the mound itself, encircling, above and below the chamber, the poem implies the dragon lived beneath the earth but separate from the treasure in some fashion (line 2319). This is evident in the fact that the dragon was not an occupant of the chamber in which the thief found a golden vessel but that the chamber was ‘close to his dreaming head’ (line 2290). Perhaps it was from the vaults themselves—like the ninth- century beasts label stops around apertures at Deerhurst or the end- beasts upon hogbacks—that the dragon kept watch before he ‘rippled down the rock’ to discover human footprints ofthe intruder, suggesting a position on the side or above the chamber (line 2288). The beast was said to go ‘back to the hoard’ (line 2319) and to be ‘secure/in the vaults of his barrow’ (lines 2322-3) but this does not necessarily mean upon or among the hoard itself.
Even in death, the dragon does not appear to reside in the hoard, for Wiglaf does not encounter the serpent’s corpse upon re-entering this space (lines 2771-2), despite the beast’s body being subsequently found and cast into the sea prior to Beowulf’s funeral. Hence, we seem to have implied at least two chambers within the mound, one for the dragon, one for the hoard. Or else, alternatively, when hearing Beowulf’s voice, the dragon does not rise up from the floor of the chamber but instead ‘the breath of the monster/burst from the rock. There was a rumble underground’ (lines 2557-8), implying the dragon was outside the chamber, inside the rock itself, seemingly burrowing worm-like through the stony material of the barrow and over its surfaces. Equally, given the aforementioned hot stream issuing forth from the barrow, the dragon might be seen as a water-beast akin to those Beowulf fought previously in his swim against Breca and once again grappled with in the mere before the fight with Grendel’s mother (lines 575,1425-41,1510). After all, the dragon ends up being returned to the water after its death and so it is possible that the dragon is conceived as interchangeably a monster of the dark earth, night-time air and subterranean water: a resident of the barrow, not a resident of the chamber alone.
This leads us to speculate as to whether the very idea of the dragon in Beowulf derives from serpentine sculpture inscribed upon and guarding the stone portals, pillars, and crosses associated with later Anglo-Saxon halls, churches and (given the discussion thus far) perhaps stone subterranean spaces specifically. After all, these are nothing other than real dragons, three-dimensional beasts originally painted in multiple vivid colours that would seem to emerge out of, and moving over, and watch over the spaces and thresholds of churches, chapels, crypts, and tombs. Again, contemporary church architecture might provide a ready inspiration for the dragon’s lair, more than any Neolithic chambered tomb.