Now Beowulf must face the dragon. He takes eleven men with him, as well as the reluctant slave, since he is the only one who knows the location of the dragon's den.
Beowulf sits on a cliff-top, sensing that this will be his last battle and that he will be killed. He recalls his early life. At the age of seven he was sent by his father as a ward at King Hrethel's court, where he was well treated. There was tragedy in the house, though. Hrethal's eldest son, Herebeald, was accidentally killed by his brother, Haethcyn, with an arrow. Hrethel was devastated by his son's death, which could be compensated for by an act of revenge, as would normally have been the case. Heartbroken, he ceased to want to live, and soon died.
Beowulf then tells of the wars between the Swedes and the Geats, which began after Hrethel's death. The Swedes, led by the sons of Ongentheow, refused to make peace and frequently ambushed the Geats. The Geats in turn took their revenge, although their king, Haethcyn, was killed. Eventually, Hygelac avenged the death of his brother Haethcyn by killing Ongentheow.
As a loyal subject of Hygelac, Beowulf was rewarded with gifts and land, and always fought bravely. He recalls how he killed Dayraven the Frank with his bare hands. He says that now he will fight again if the dragon will forsake his lair and meet him in the open.
Then he turns to his warrior companions. He says he would sooner not use a weapon, but because of the heat from the fire the dragon breathes forth, he will put on a mail-shirt and carry a shield. He tells his men to remain where they are. This is his battle alone, and he will either be victorious or die.
He goes down to the dragon's den, which gives out deadly heat, and shouts out a challenge to the dragon. The fight begins. Beowulf slashes at the dragon with his sword but it does little damage. It is the first time his sword has failed him. The dragon recovers from the blow and counter-attacks.
Beowulf's men are frightened and run away, except for Wiglaf. When he sees his king tormented by the heat of his own helmet, he cannot hold back. He is young and this is the first time he has been tested in battle. He takes his shield and an ancient sword that has been handed down to him by his father and prepares to enter the fray. He speaks to the other warriors, telling them that their lord needs help. He remembers how good Beowulf has been to them all. He gave them gifts and picked them out of the army as being worthy of this great enterprise. Wiglaf says he would rather die in battle than go home without slaying the enemy and defending his king's life.
Wiglaf calls out to Beowulf that he will stand with him. The dragon hears him and attacks again. Wiglaf's shield is burned to ashes, and Beowulf protects him with his own. Beowulf aims his sword with all his strength at the dragon's skull. But the sword snaps.
The dragon attacks for a third time. He clamps his fangs around Beowulf's neck. Wiglaf thrusts his sword into the dragon's belly. Then Beowulf thrusts his knife deep into the dragon's flank. This is the death blow.
But Beowulf is also mortally wounded. He sits down on the rampart, and Wiglaf bathes his wounds. Beowulf knows he is close to death. He thinks back on his life, and is satisfied because he knows that he always acted rightly. He tell Wiglaf to go and get the dragon's treasure; he wants to examine it.
Wiglaf does as he is asked, and finds the treasure trove. He gathers it up and returns to Beowulf, hoping to find his leader still alive. Beowulf is still alive, but he is bleeding profusely. When he sees the treasure he gives thanks to God that he has been able to leave his people so well provided for. He orders that after his body has been cremated, a barrow be constructed for him on a headland on the coast. (A barrow is a mound of earth marking a grave.) It will remind his people of him, and be called "Beowulf's Barrow." He removes the gold collar from his neck and gives it to Wiglaf. Then he dies.
Beowulf shows himself to be a true hero because he does not fall into despair, even at the approach of death. He shows that performing his duty as a king is more important to him than his own life. He lives and dies by the values he believes in.
The bravery of Wiglaf is contrasted not only with the cowardice of the other warriors, but also with that of Unferth in the fight with Grendel's mother. (Unferth lent Beowulf his sword rather than do battle himself.) Wiglaf fulfills his responsibilities because he remembers the gifts and favors he has received from Beowulf. He lives up to the honor of the heroic code, while the other warriors find it convenient to forget.
Before he describes how Wiglaf jumps into battle, the poet is also careful to describe Wiglaf's sword in detail-who owned it before, how it came down to Wiglaf. The sword, its prowess and its history, are vital for the heroic society, because it is the chief means by which the society maintains itself. It is as sacred to their society as,
say, the bal
lot box is to a modern democracy.