Dragons in Beowulf and in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene
When one usually thinks of a dragon, one thinks of dragon-slayers, adventure, damsels in
distress, and cheap fantasy novels. Dragons in literature have not always been used for such meaningless
entertainment. There are many precedents for dragons in medieval literature, two of the most prominent
being in the Old English poem Beowulf and in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In both of these
epic poems, dragons play major antagonistic roles. The foe of Beowulf and the two dragons in The
Faerie Queene serve as important symbolic parts of the story and as reflectors that bring out the good, or
bad, qualities of the hero. Although each dragon represents specific things in its particular context, all
three are used in the same manner to effect a meaning from their symbolic existence. The three dragons
serve to point out the negative aspects of humanity, or those that plague humanity, and thus function as
critical turning points in each story.
In these two poems dragons are featured as negative creatures and are associated with the evil
side of the good vs. evil battle. In both Beowulf and The Faerie Queene, all three dragons are shown
with images of fire surrounding them constantly. This is evocative of evilness, hell, and thus, of Satan.
By using the fiery imagery, the dragons automatically become evil and threatening to the heroes of the
various plot-lines. In Beowulf, our hero is called upon to defend his helpless people from a dragon that
has been awoken by a thoughtless peasant’s theft of a golden cup. The dragon is then enraged with greed
and goes on a rampage, destroying village after village by night. When this “ancient evil” is woken he is
filled with “glowing wrath”, the first of the fire imagery (Beowulf 74). During the ensuing battle the
dragon is constantly emitting “fierce battle fire” and “fatal flames” that “light the land” (Beowulf 80).
Christine Rauer, author of Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues, says that Beowulf is in fact
fighting fire and heat and that with the especially serpent shaped dragon, he is in fact fighting an
incarnation of the devil, or more likely, what the devil represents (Rauer 33). The first dragon from The
Faerie Queene enters in Canto Eight, also full of fire and hell imagery: “the proud Duessa came high
mounted on her manyheaded beast, and every head with fyrie tongue did flame, and every head was
crowned on his creast" (Spenser 875). The third dragon is perhaps the most fiery of all: “swolyne with
wrath and poyson, and with bloudy gore" and with “roused” and “brazen” scales, it seems to personify
the king of all evil: Satan (Spenser 914). As his “red and black” body descends upon his foe, “blazing
eyes...did burne with wrath, and sparkled [with] living fire” (Spenser 915). He is so evil...