Saturday, 23 February 2013

Beowulf and Sigurd the dragon slayer

Sigurd the dragon slayer

Once more I have read Beowulf by Seaumus Heaney, a very good reinterpretation of the Old English poem. Unlike many readers of the old story who are preoccupied with Grendel, the monster, I am most fascinated by the description of the dragon and the final underground fight in which both the serpent and Beowulf dies. What intrigues me with the poem’s depiction of the battle is the important part played by Wiglaf, Beowulf’s brave and loyal retainer. He stood the ground when the other followers fled at the sight of the flame-spitting dragon, and without Wiglaf Beowulf would never been able to kill the ravaging “sky-plague”, the burner of homesteads and humans. If you google or browse the Internet in search of pictures of the famous fight, you will very seldom see Wiglaf play any part in the slaying of the dragon.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

It is also fascinating to reflect for a moment on the prominent part dragons play in popular culture: in fantasy literature, in movies ( +The Hobbit ) and in TV series (in these days of course everyone is waiting for Daenerys Targarien’s dragons to grow large ( +Game of Thrones )). Much of what is hot today, is in fact very old, especially have characters and beasts from the old legends and in particular from +Norse Mythology  an enduring grip on the modern imagination. The image on top I got from +Google Plus Book Club. In the picture the dragon sits on a bridge before the gates of an ancient city. In Beowulf the fatal struggle is fought underground, in a claustrophobic burial mound where the dragon is guarding his hoard of gold.

In the beginning of The Awful Saga, when he is still young, the main character is called Sigurd before he gets his epithet and new name, Sigve the Awful. Sigurd was a common name in The Viking Age, and also the name of the famous hero Sigurd the Dragon Slayer (Sigurd Fafnir’s bane). In Beowulf the protagonist is compared with Sigurd, the greatest of all the legendary Northern heroes. Sigurd the Dagon Slayer’s tale is told in Volsunga saga, and his adventures, his love for Brynhild, and the slaying of Fafnir has inspired people for more than a milennium. Of modern artists it is enough to mention Richard Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien. Quite recently, in Quintin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, the hero is a Sigurd-like character who fights to set free his beloved Brynhild (or Broomhilda as she is called in the movie), a slave held by a plantation owner.

In Volsungsaga, by the way, Sigurd gets a daughter, Aslaug, with Brynhild, and she later marries Ragnar Lodbrok, the hero in a new series from History Channel, Vikings.

Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir
Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir

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  1. Seamus Heaney without a doubt has created the finest English version of Beowulf.
    What did you think of the film version?

    1. The one with Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother? I was actually a bit disappointed (not that I remember it too well). They had changed the story a bit too much and wasn’t the ending rather strange? But Grendel was a nasty piece of work though, and it did have quite a lot of good action (even if they let the dragon out in the open to fight in the air).

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    3. Hi Amy. I have read your paper on modern dragons and found it very interesting. (She describes how descriptions of dragons and their function in stories have change dramatically in modern fantasy as compared to the legendary sagas of old.) Even your footnotes are stuffed with interesting referenses and reflections.

      Maybe you should make the paper available to more people?