03-14-2010 09:30 PM
First a summary: Beowulf, recalling his early adventure against Grendel, decides to face the dragon. He brings with him a cadre of men, just as he did in the earlier battle, but these men, except for the young Wiglaf, fail to support their leader. He is determined to face the foe alone, as he had with Grendel, even suggesting he would like to face him without weapons, if he could. Beowulf manages to kill the dragon, but not by sword -- his super grip that served him so well with Grendel apparently has been a problem for him with broadswords -- he slices too heavily and the swords break. He kills the dragon with a dagger, but not before the dragon has wounded him fatally. Beowulf asks to see some of the dragon's hoard before he dies, a symbol of his victory. Wiglaf and others prepare Beowulf's body for funeral and raise a great barrow that will be a visible sign of the dead man's final resting spot. A funeral is held, and the Geats await a grim future -- Beowulf has kept them safe for 50 years, but, with the great man gone, the Geats know that their enemies will take advantage of the situation and likely win.
As you read this final section, you might notice how the author (and the hero) hearkens back to that earlier battle with Grendel, which suggests we have in this curiously constructed epic (Beowulf at the start of his career, Beowulf at the end of his career, with little in the middle) the author's intent (rather than something excerpted from a larger epic).
What about Beowulf as a king? He is praised by Wiglaf, and the final lines of the work, in Donaldson's translation, reiterate that sentiment: "They said that he was of world-kings the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people, and most eager for fame." Has he shown himself to fit this evaluation? To what extent has his desire for fame perhaps hurt his people? And why is it that Beowulf, king for 50 years, has not provided better for the future?