The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done [referring to anonymous author of Beowulf]. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected. It is possible, I think, to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else ( that is also present: to metrical art, style, or verbal skill. Correct and sober taste my refuse to admit that there can be an interest for usthe proud we that includes all intelligent living people-in ogres and dragons; We then perceive its puzzlement in face of the odd fact that it has derived great pleasure from a poem that is actually about these unfashionable creatures. Even though it attributes 'genius',
It does not seem plain that ancient taste supports the modern as much as it has been represented to do. I have the author of Beowulf, at any rate, on my side: a greater man than most of us. And I cannot myself perceive a period in the North when one kind alone was esteemed: there was room for myth and heroic legend, and for blends of these. As for the dragon: as far as we know anything about these old poets, we know this: the prince of the heroes of the North, supremely memorable - hans nafn mun uppi, meðan veröldin stendr* - was a dragon-slayer. And his most renowned deed, from which in Norse he derived his title Fafnisbani, was the slaying of the prince of legendary worms. Although there is plainly considerable difference between the later Norse and the ancient English form of the story alluded to in Beowulf, already there it had these two primary features: the dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes - he wres wreccena wide mrerost**. A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.
Beowulf's dragon, if one wishes really to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon. There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind - as Pa se wynn onwoc, wroht wees geniwad stone refter stane*** - in which this dragon is real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the l undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or , bad (the evil aspect of all life). But for Beowulf, the poem, that is as it should be. In this poem the balance is nice, but it is preserved. The large sybolism is near the surface but it does not break through, nor become allegory. Something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and yet incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North. And this, we are told, is the radical defect of Beowulf, that its author, coming in a time rich in the legends of heroic men, has used them afresh in an original fashion, giving us not just one more, but something akin yet different: a measure and interpretation of them all. We do not deny the worth of the hero by accepting Grendel and the dragon. Let us by all means esteem the old heroes: men caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall. But Beowulf, I fancy, plays a larger part than is recognized in helping us to esteem them.
When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hafað under heofonum may have meant in dictionary terms 'heroes under heaven', or 'mighty men upon earth', but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky's inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat. That even this 'geography', once held as a material fact, could now be classed as a mere folk-tale affects its value very little. It transcends astronomy.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 1936. Extracts from a lecture by Tolkien on literary criticism om the Old English heroic epic poem Beowulf.
Beowulf and the Dragon John Howe.
*"And his [Sigurd's] name will endure while the world remains", The Saga of the Volsungs.
**He was the most famous of exiles," Beowulf, lines 898-99.
***"When the dragon awoke, strife was renewed; he sniffed along the stone," Beowulf, lines 2287-88.