Beowulf’s Lament

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Beowulf. At the end of his life: old and grey, yes, but with a quiet dignity and wizened strength, cutting a still-formidable still-authoritative shadow in your kingly grace. And you’re just about to reach the dragon ravaging the Geatish countryside. This dragon which, as the story goes, will be your final defeat. You don’t know this, of course. You’re a character in that story and the story’s not there yet; you’re marching along with your men and your companion, Wiglaf, assured and confident yet probably also a bit frightened and nervous. It’s tricky to place the psychodramas of epic heroes from The Distant Past, before psychodramas were really acknowledged as a thing that characters could undergo and rather where external exploits and glory are the major focus of the plot &c&c you know how the song goes. And, after days of marching, you finally reach the dragon, the end of your quest (both in the short-and-long run, but again not knowing)—a hulking black wingèd beast standing several stories tall, even on all fours, rippling with muscles and standing atop legs as thick around as any of your swarthy compatriots, times two. You reach into your scabbard and draw out your rune-inscribed and Myth-Protagonist-Approved magical sword, ready to abandon your introspection to a rather thoughtless but fluid moment of single combat with this gigantic, horrible beast, it the Other and you the already beloved and storied Hero of the People, defending them from the front lines as only the most True and Noble kings do. Wiglaf draws his sword too, and though he’ll eventually be the one to kill the thing after it beats you, he’s secondary, because you know that it’s ultimately just you and the dragon here at the end of your travels in this battle of true strength ready to slip into the stuff of legend. The dragon looks down at you with wild eyes; whatever eyelids it has are peeled back into its head exposing black and bulbous orbs shimmering with lightstruck vitreous jelly in the noonday sun, the things looking like they’ll pop out of the dragon’s head at any minute and bounce along the rocky crag like the bouncing ball from singalong music videos into your posse of Very Serious Geatish Warriors standing theoretically-helpfully-but-rather-distantly in the scene’s background. And then the thing’s mouth clanks open. Smoke pours out, and you can see a building redness down its gullet, and you know it’s over and that your adventures are about to end in a pulsing explosion of dragonfire, the kind that all the Geats will be able to see from miles across the water, and you let out a scream and run forward with your sword held aloft above your head for this is the very moment you’ve been anticipating all the way here and your courage cannot—will not—fail you now, and the world around you dissolves into darkness, the only thing left in your sight being the point directly before you, the Death-Angel and its growing flame. But then, you stop. Your vision comes swooshing back. Color fills your sight. You can hear confused muttering and gasps behind you. Your own heart is still racing from the adrenaline. It’s confused too. Yet right now the only thing you can feel is your stomach lurch and your medulla tingle. You stopped, King Beowulf, when you realized that the fire down the dragon’s neck wasn’t going to come out and kill you. It’s not under the dragon’s control at all. Because it’s not dragonfire, it’s just regular old fire. The thing’s burning to death from the inside out. The beast’s stomach and surrounding organs, you smell, have already reduced to charred husks; the rest are on their way. You can almost see the tiny crimson dots beginning to form on the thing’s skin, where the fire’s charred away most of the muscle and fat and started to eat through the skin. The thing’s barely able to manage the barest of twitches at this point, it can’t move otherwise, but it’s still alive—as you can see in its eyes, unable to understand what’s happening to it and incapable of stopping it. More smoke, ranging in color from light gray to pitch, billows out of its mouth and sinks downward, pervading a stench whose only lesser benchmark for you is that emitted from the mass grave of those killed by Grendel and his mother three to four days after the ceremony. Honestly you can’t even tell if the thing’s occasional switches and spasms are its attempts at willed motion at all now or if it’s just the fire’s changes in heat affect the air pressure inside the creature and make the skin flap around, or if its subcutaneous fat has begun to melt and boil. At this point your sword is at your side digging into the dirt, held there by shock and confusion instead of fear and Wiglaf’s at your side equally perplexed as you watch this poor beast cooking in front of you, tiny squeals escaping from its mouth as those crimson dots from earlier grew and began to punch through the dragon’s flesh in quick bursts and let the remnants crumble to the ground like ash, and none of the backup Geats really get what’s going on either as you can tell from what you hear of the sporadic comments they’re mumbling at each other, and your noble courage has slunk away to hide as you’re struck by a feeling of pure revulsion, disgust, and base pity as this thing that’s been destroying your people and stoking their fear and against which you were fully prepared to give your life—dies. And then, all of a sudden, a high-pitched squeal, sounding like a rabbit when its neck is crunched in a bobcat or wild dog’s jaws and definitely not a colossal and powerful and evil mythical beast, flies from the tongue as fire erupts from its eyesockets and blows out those sad, panicked eyes in a hasty POP! and the thing, finally allowed to take its leave of the world, tips over and crashes into the rocky soil. Melted skin shoots off and splatters over the stones, Wiglaf, you, and even your companions who are completely baffled and horrified. Its leftover burnt scales come off at impact and scatter and skip over cracks in the crag-face. What’s left is a behemoth carcass shaded a couple of different shades of black and gray and red, eyesockets pooled with blood, and every fly and cockroach from three miles around starting, hesitantly, to clump on whatever well-cooked chunks of meat are still left on the poor creature’s frame. Smoke continues to waft out of the openings in its body, only one of which is its mouth, and your men, every so often and pretty slowly, start to shuffle back in the direction of your warship, no one’s sword heroically covered in crimson dragonblood but only little chunks of fat and the condensation of the dragon’s rapidly-cooling gaseous internal fluids.

And so, who are you then?

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