For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from the concluding fight in the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles cover almost the third part of the poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.

Student rendition of Beowulf’s fight against the dragon. Note the hash tags and the Viking horns on the dragon!

Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In recent years, I have decided to turn the tables on my students and, for a bonus point (worth 1% of the exam grade), I have them draw scenes from Old English poems, discussed in class.

While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all.  In a previous blog post, I shared their renditions of The Battle of Maldon (The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition) . Below follows a selection of my students’ drawings that deal with the fight between Beowulf and the dragon, along with some commentary.

i) A stolen cup

The theft of a cup – student with “non-existent drawing skills”

In the third and final part of Beowulf, the dragon is roused from his lair by the theft of a cup, as this student well remembered. Upon discovering the theft, the dragon became “gebolgen” [enraged; Beowulf, l. 2220) or, as this student put its, he was like: “I’m mad! Gimme that cup back! Imma go kill some people now!”

Another student recalled that the thief was a slave -and- that there were some striking resemblances with a scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Hence, the slave was given a “Bilbo nose” in this rendition:

“Slave stealing golden cup from dragon. I tried to give him a Bilbo nose”. Also note the rather tiny dragon sleeping with “a diamond teddy bear, lying on a bed of rupees because I can’t draw coins” [or spell ‘rubies’]

ii) A special shield

In lines 2522-2524, Beowulf announces that he will not fight the dragon unarmed (as he had done with the monster Gendel), since he expects “heaðufyres hates” [the heat of hateful fire]. Thus, he uses a special shield, as illustrated by this student:

Beowulf and the musicians’ shield


Naturally, Beowulf’s shield did not have any musicians attached to it (for as far as we know). The student explains that these are “the annoying musicians who are inflicting horrible violence on their instruments in the adjoining class room, keeping me from concentration”.

iii) Beowulf as an old man

When the dragon harassed Beowulf’s people, the king had been on the throne for fifty years. Thankfully, some students recalled this and, therefore, depicted the hero as an elderly man. One of them, apparently, came prepared for the bonus question and even used several colours:

Beowulf and the multi-colour dragon


iv) The breaking of Beowulf’s sword and his company’s morale

“Bad luck Beowulf”


The dramatic scene of Beowulf’s sword breaking in the heat of the battle, causing his companions to flee to the woods, appears to have left an impression on several students; even though they seem to have a hard time remembering the name of the retainer who left behind:

Nope, not Walder!


Unferth? Wháááá!


 v) The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck

“Oh no! The dragon bit my neck!”


Another dramatic scene is when the dragon clamps down on Beowulf’s neck, inflicting a mortal wound.

Good attention for detail: “useless sword”; “old king Beowulf (beard for oldness, wrinkles also)”; “angry dragon” says “grrr”


vi) Beowulf and Wiglaf stab the dragon in the gut

The following student remembered that it was Wiglaf (not Walder or Unferth!) who stayed behind to aid his king. They also remembered how the dragon was stabbed in the gut, though I doubt the dragon would have complained about its abdominal muscles as this one does, shouting “Oh no! My beautiful stomach! I had just started working out for the summer. Noooo!”

“Dragon blood is green, obviously…”


vii) Rebuking the oath-breakers

Following the defeat of the dragon, Wiglaf condemns the retainers who fled. They broke their oath of loyalty to their rightful lord: “Shame on you”, indeed!

“You cowards! Shame on you!”  – Team Beowulf


viii) The dragon’s treasure and Beowulf’s barrow

“fremmað gena leoda þearfe” [Beowulf, ll. 2800-2801: Tend to the need of my people], Beowulf tells Wiglaf with his dying breath, while he glances upon the dragon’s treasure that he has just secured for his nation. Wiglaf, however, decides to bury the riches along with Beowulf’s body. The dragon’s treasure, the poet tells us, remains “eldum swa unnyt swa hit æror wæs” [Beowulf, l. 3168: as useless to people as it was before]. At least one student appears to have caught on to Wiglaf’s denying his lord’s last request:

“Even though my master said I should take the gold back to our city, I’m going to bury it with him”

ix) An encore: Browulf and Swaglaf fight the dragon

After having been confronted by so much artistic talent and inspiration by my students, I could not lag behind. So, I used the whiteboard in my office to produce my own doodle: here are Browulf and Swaglaf fighting the dragon.

Office art: Browulf and Swaglaf fight the dragon

If you want more student doodles, check out The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition

10 thoughts on “Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition

  1. This was just the most delightful read for an early Sunday morning! Your students are so inventive – as are you! I enjoyed the variations on the tale and their artful translations of the text. Thank you so much for this and huzzah to your students!

    Liked by 2 people

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