For years, Beowulf continues to support Hygelac and his successors, until a series of events leads to his installation as ruler of the Geats. Late in his life, Beowulf learns that his country is being terrorized by a dragon that is guarding a treasure horde. He assembles a raiding party to assault the dragon at his lair. Unfortunately, all but one of his warriors deserts him at the battle; only the faithful Wiglaf remains to help slay the dragon. The fight is costly for Beowulf; the dragon inflicts a deadly wound, and the renowned chieftain knows he will not survive. Before he dies, he gives instructions to Wiglaf regarding the disposition of his possessions and the organization of his funeral. Beowulf’s body is carried to a peak overlooking the sea and is burned on a magnificent pyre on which numerous precious objects have been placed.
The Beowulf story has its roots in a pagan Saxon past, but by the time the epic was written down, almost all Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity. As a result, the Beowulf poet is at pains to resolve his Christian beliefs with the often quite un-Christian behavior of his characters. This tension leads to frequent asides about God, hell, and heaven—and to many allusions to the Old Testament throughout the work. In the end, however, the conflict proves simply irresolvable. Beowulf doesn’t lead a particularly good life by Christian standards, but the poet cannot help but revere him. Though some of Beowulf’s values—such as his dedication to his people and his willingness to dole out treasure—conceivably overlap with Christian values, he ultimately lives for the preservation of earthly glory after death, not for entrance into heaven. Though his death in the encounter with the dragon clearly proves his mortality (and perhaps moral fallibility), the poem itself stands as a testament to the raw greatness of his life, ensuring his ascension into the secular heaven of warrior legend.