The Allegory of the Dragon in Beowulf
In the Book of the Apocalypse, Rome is represented by several allegories: the beast of the land, the beast from the sea, the harlot, Babylon, and the dragon. The Beowulf-poet also manipulates the dragon allegory to represent Rome, but his dragon represents not Rome, pure and simple, but a hostile area of the (former) Roman empire, the Romanized Britain or the Roman-British .
There is increasing consensus among critics--against Tolkien's views--that the dragon is "a different sort of creature from the Grendel tribe" (Gang 6) and that among the innumerable dragon stories "there is probably not one which we can declare to be really identical with that of Beowulf" (Chambers 97). Of course, nobody denies that the dragon is like the Germanic worm that dwells in a barrow and guards treasure. He does not symbolize evil like Grendel of the devilish brood of Cain; he is merely provoked to deeds of slaughter and destruction. The dragon, unlike, Grendel, is given no clear ancestry, no companion; he is not an ellorgæst (807), though an attorsceatha (2839); he is autochthonous; he is kind of ageless (wintrum frod, 2277); he has been keeping the treasure for a long time (2277-78); the messenger in the poem thinks that the dragon belongs where he dwells: "We could not give our beloved prince ... the good advice not to attack the guardian of the gold, but let him lie where he had been so long and remain in his own abode till the world's end" (3079-83). Though the dragon is not God's foe--it is good to remember that the British people were already Christians in the fifth century--, yet he is the enemy of the Geatish nation (theodsceatha, 2278, 2688); therefore, a confrontation is bound take place between the shepherd of the kingdom (rices herde, 3080) and the kingdom's enemy(theodsceatha), who is mindful of past enmity (fæhtha gemyndig, 2689). Therefore, there are several reasons for Beowulf's taking up of arms against the dragon: defense of the country, vengeance, and punishment: "With his live coals the fiery dragon had utterly destroyed all the coastline and nation's impregnable fortress, the stronghold of that region; the warlike king, the prince of the Wederas, planned to take revenge on him for this" (2333-36).
Though the dragon is in many ways different from Grendel, he is in some ways very much like Grendel: he too hates the Geats and humbles them (2318-19); he, too, harms the Geats and even destroys the royal hall of Beowulf (2325-26), while Grendel is not allowed to approach Hrothgar's gifstol (168-169). The dragon, like Grendel (166-167), is also a ruler of the land only during dark nights (2210-11). Both have "heathen" associations: Grendel is heathen (852, 986); the dragon, though not called "heathen" specifically by the poet, guards, however, the treasure of the heathen (2276-77, 2216).
The poet indicates the quasi-indigenous character of the dragon by saying that he has guarded...