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As Grendel tormented the Danish people in part one, so the dragon vents its anger on the Geats in part two. Like Grendel, the dragon strikes only at night, burning houses so that "the signs of its anger flickered and glowed in the darkness." Nothing is spared, not even Beowulf's hall and throne.
When Beowulf learns that his own house has been destroyed, his first thought is that he did something to anger God, and he feels guilty. (The poet never makes it clear whether an offense against God actually did occur.)
Does Beowulf's reaction seem in keeping with what we know about his character? As king his main function is to protect his people. This is different from the role of warrior that he played in part one. Consequently, he himself must accept the blame for all acts of evil that are performed by or against his country. The stealing of the dragon's cup becomes Beowulf's responsibility, whether he likes it or not.
Beowulf prepares to fight the dragon. At this point the poet again foreshadows the outcome of the poem. Beowulf will die soon, the poet tells us, "but would take the dragon/With him, tear it from the heaped-up treasure/It had guarded so long" (2343-45). Beowulf's youth is evoked by a brief retelling of his battles against Grendel and Grendel's mother, and of his exploits fighting side by side with Higlac during the war with the Frisians.
In part two the poet effortlessly blends past and present events. In retelling Beowulf's exploits against the Frisians during which Higlac was killed, the poet describes Beowulf as "the only survivor," relating him to "the last survivor" whose treasures fell into the hands of the evil dragon. The connections between present events and the historical digressions are much more evident in part two than in part one.
After the Frisian War Beowulf is offered the leadership of the Geats. He turns it down, however, preferring to support Herdred, Higlac's son, and the rightful heir to the throne. In the course of his kingship, Herdred offers to harbor a group of Swedish exiles-rebels, we are told, against Onela, the Swedish king. Onela invades Geatland in search of the rebels, and Herdred is slain, forcing Beowulf to assume the position he didn't originally want, king of the Geats. Beowulf leads the Geat army in a battle against Sweden, during which Onela is killed.
Again, notice the way the poet moves from the past to the present. You learn that two major events occurred during Beowulf's reign as king-the Frisian War and the Geats' feud with Sweden. It's natural, now that Beowulf is an old man, for his memories of the past to play such a large role in the story, that the memories, in fact, are the story. We know that Beowulf will defeat the dragon and die in the process. It's how Beowulf views his entire life that's most important in part two.
The thief who stole the dragon's cup leads Beowulf and his men to the dragon's castle. As Beowulf rests on the shore outside the castle, he has a premonition of his own death. He realizes that he's not as strong as he was when he fought Grendel; the risk of dying is more than a vague possibility. The poet takes this opportunity to allow Beowulf to review his life. We learn how Hrethel took him from his father when Beowulf was seven and treated him like a son, reviving the theme of kinship, and the search for the lost father that recurs throughout the poem.
Hrethel, we are told, has three sons of his own-Herbald, Hathcyn, and Higlac. Beowulf recounts the story of how Hathcyn killed Herbald in a hunting accident, and of Hrethel's sadness at the loss of his son. Old age, as depicted in the poem, seems to be a time of great unhappiness, when all the success and pleasures of a long life are undermined by the loss of strength and power. Hrethel is powerless to avenge his son's death: a problem within one's own family is different from a feud between countries. Consequently, he can do nothing to relieve his grief.
Beowulf's meditation on his life is one of the most moving sections of the poem. Though old age has robbed him of his physical strength, his courage is truly heroic-he still thinks like a hero. His recitation is a study in contrasts between the sad and the joyous, as well as being a chronological history of what he considers his immediate family.
After Herbald dies, Hathcyn inherits the throne, only to die in yet another battle between the Geats and the Swedes. The tone of Beowulf's meditation changes once Higlac becomes king. As long as Beowulf was there to fight at his side, it was unnecessary for the Geat king to enlist help from other tribes. Beowulf's presence alone, so he tells us, was enough to ensure the success of the Geat nation. He sees himself as being "alone, and so it shall be forever." It's the hero's fate, as one whose courage is so much greater than anyone else's, to move through the world alone, to fight alone against the monsters, to stand alone at the front of every battle. His memories of his previous accomplishments give him the courage now, as an old warrior, to proceed with his endeavor against the dragon.
Compare this speech with Beowulf's speeches preceding his battles against Grendel and Grendel's mother. Now that he's an old man has Beowulf's confidence in himself decreased?
Beowulf turns from his meditation on the past to address his fellow warriors. His accomplishments fill him with pride-but of a different sort than the negative pride Hrothgar warned him against earlier in the poem. He will fight against the dragon in the same way he fought against Grendel. As a hero it's his job to accomplish the impossible; as an old man he still wants one last moment of glory.
It's Beowulf who initiates the battle, waking the dragon with "a call so loud and clear that it reached through/The hoary rock, hung in the dragon's ear" (2552-54). During the first confrontation the dragon's flames melt Beowulf's shield. The aged warrior realizes now that fate is against him, but it doesn't prevent him from striking out against the dragon with his sword.
Beowulf manages to wound the dragon, but not fatally. The dragon responds by engulfing Beowulf with his fiery breath. Now that Beowulf appears to be losing the battle doesn't it seem to you that his comrades would come to his assistance? But the bonds of loyalty and kinship have broken down, a foreshadowing of the chaos that will befall the Geats after Beowulf dies. His fellow warriors flee, thinking only of saving their own lives. Individual survival has become more important than the code of honor and bravery-the bond of comitatus-that held society together. The response of the warriors to Beowulf's plight indicates that the values of this world are changing rapidly. Without the bond of comitatus, without a great leader to guide them, the state will surely fall apart.