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Beowulf has triumphed over all his enemies—but finally there comes a day when he has to face his last and most difficult adversary: the dragon. Da da dum.
With eleven other warriors, Beowulf goes to investigate the dragon's attacks. He discovers the original theif that enraged the dragon.
Beowulf and his warriors force the thief to join them—after all, he's the only one who knows where the dragon's lair is. The thief becomes the thirteenth member of their group. (If you've read The Hobbit, or seen The 13th Warrior, this might sound familiar.)
Beowulf and the Geats threaten and cajole the thief into showing them the barrow where the dragon lurks, guarding the treasure.
The Geats pause on top of the cliff. Beowulf is sad, sensing that his death is near.
Beowulf gives a long speech, recalling his past achievements and his path to kinghood. Here are some of the things he remembers:
As a seven-year-old boy, Beowulf was sent by his father to the court of King Hrethel. Hrethel treated him like one of his own sons, and Beowulf grew up alongside the three princes of the kingdom, Herebeald, Haethcyn, and Hygelac.
The eldest prince, Herebeald, was killed in a hunting accident by his brother, Haethcyn. King Hrethel was completely devastated. He couldn't bring himself to punish Haethcyn, but couldn't forgive him, either. King Hrethel abandoned his kingdom, leaving it to his sons, and retired into a quiet, God-fearing life.
The Swedes and Geats, two different tribes of Swedish descent, continued their feuding. (Beowulf and his people are Geats, and the Swedes are their enemies.) When Hrethel died, the feuds became worse. Many of Beowulf's family members fought in the feuds and one of them was killed. Haethcyn was also killed. Eventually, one of Hygelac's followers, Eofor, killed the king of the Swedes, Ongentheow. The feuds were ended for a time.
Beowulf became one of the lords in King Hygelac's retinue. Hygelac gave him land and wealth.
As one of Hygelac's lords, Beowulf killed a great Frankish warrior, Dayraven, with his bare hands.
At the end of his speech, Beowulf makes his last boast. Boasting was a formal part of warrior culture and especially important for great men. Beowulf's last boast is that he won battles often in his youth and that even in his old age he is going to fight the dragon "for the glory of winning" (2514).
Before leaving them, Beowulf says a few words to his followers. He tells them that he wishes he could fight the dragon hand-to-hand, the way he fought Grendel when he was young, instead of using his sword. However, even Beowulf realizes that would be suicide, so he goes out to fight with a sword, a mail-shirt, and a shield.
Beowulf orders his men to stay on top of the barrow in safety, observing the fight rather than participating in it. (This is a little confusing: it's a larger group of men that he orders to stay behind, while the group of eleven comrades goes with him a little further.)
Beowulf steels himself and goes into the barrow to fight the dragon. He shouts out a challenge and the dragon, recognizing a human voice, bursts forward, breathing fire.
There is a crazy battle scene, Beowulf trying to use his shield, the dragon writhing around and trying to burn him to a crisp.
Beowulf swings his sword, but only gives the dragon a minor cut. The wound angers the dragon, and he steps up his attack.
Beowulf's sword fails for the first time; he has to retreat. He's humiliated.
The dragon takes a deep breath and hits Beowulf with another blast of fire. Beowulf is close to being defeated.
Ten of Beowulf's hand-picked men break ranks and run for their lives into the woods nearby. Only one remains—Wiglaf, who remembers how well Beowulf has treated him and his family.
The narrator describes Wiglaf's father, Weohstan, who earned a sword and mail-shirt in battle and passed them on to his son.
Wiglaf, bearing his father's sword and mail-shirt, will enter battle for the first time at Beowulf's side, fighting the dragon.
Before rushing to Beowulf's aid, Wiglaf lectures his companions, reminding them of how good a king Beowulf has been and how generously he rewarded them for their loyalty. Wiglaf says that, even though Beowulf wanted to face the dragon alone, he clearly needs their help. Wiglaf also says that he would rather die fighting the dragon than go home to the rest of the Geats in cowardly safety. (Again, this is a little confusing, because it seemed like the other ten guys already ran away, but this must happen before they skedaddle.)
Wiglaf goes to Beowulf's side and encourages him, reminding him of his boasts, his great deeds, and his fame.
The dragon attacks again, charring and destroying Wiglaf's shield. Beowulf shares his shield with Wiglaf.
Inspired by Wiglaf's encouragement, Beowulf swings his sword at the dragon again—and it snaps. The narrator explains that Beowulf is fated to have bad luck with edged weapons in battle because he's too strong and his powerful strokes are too much for the weapons to bear.
The dragon attacks a third time, biting Beowulf in the neck. Blood rushes everywhere.
Seeing Beowulf in danger, Wiglaf lunges forward, stabbing the dragon in the belly. Its firepower lessens.
Beowulf draws a knife from his belt and stabs the dragon in the side. This wound finally kills it. The narrator praises Beowulf and Wiglaf for their courage.