This monster provides the ultimate challenge for Bevis but it is not the fire-breathing dragon of myth, legend and medieval chronicle. Dragons, like giants, appear in Anglo-Saxon poetry and were traditionally thought to have particular characteristics, particularly the danger they present because of their greed for gold and treasure. In the Old English Beowulf the dragon is ‘a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life)’ [Tolkien 2006, p.17], while in the Gnomic Verses we are told that ‘[d]raca sceal on hlæwe / frōd, frætwum wlanc’ (a dragon should reside in its barrow, cunning on its precious treasure). In the Germanic Volsunga saga, a dragon’s greed arises from its origin as the giant Fafnir. Because he murders his brother to gain gold his wickedness transforms him into a dragon. The similarity between this dragon and the dragon Bevis confronts has long been acknowledged, but the origins of the dragon Bevis fights give the beast extraordinary Christian significance. Far from being a giant, it had once been one of a pair of vicious human warlords, both of whom eventually died unrepentant and were consigned to Hell. There they continued their wickedness until the Devil transformed them into dragons and sent them back to cause more trouble on the Earth. One lodged under a bridge in Rome where it infected the air, while the other dwelt under the cliff near Cologne where Bevis encounters it.
When Bevis confronts it, the dragon gapes at him ‘Ase he wolde him swolwe’ (as if he intended to swallow him). It then kills Bevis’s horse, splits his shield and injures his shoulder with blows from its tail. In pain and thirsty, Bevis drinks from a holy well, which restores him. During the next part of the fight the dragon spits venom over him. This dissolves his armour and corrupts his skin until he looks like a ‘foule mesel’ (a foul leper). Although leprosy was conventionally interpreted in the Middle Ages as a sign of sexual sin, Bevis is quickly healed by immersion in the water of the holy well.
Bevis’s monstrous opponent is not it protecting its treasure. In addition, for a medieval audience dragons could be disquietingly real. Furthermore, Bevis’s dragon has characteristics which are not those described in the medieval Bestiary, which declares that a dragon ‘has no harmful poison’ , because its strength ‘lies not in its teeth, but in its tail, because having lost his power, the devil can only deceive with lies’. An emphatic connection in medieval minds between dragons and devils is referred to explicitly in another romance when the eponymous hero of Sir Tristrem confronts a dragon described simply as ‘þe deuel dragoun’.
The biblical origins of the Devil himself as a dragon lie in the account in the Apocalypse in which war in heaven ends when proiectus est draco ille magnus serpens antiques qui vocatur Diabolus et Satanas qui seducit universum orbem (the dragon, that great serpent who is called the Devil and Satan who seduces the whole world, was thrown down). Because of the indisputable belief in the historical truth of the Bible in the Middle Ages, the Devil was regarded as an historical being who was ubiquitously present in everyday life, causing all the ills that afflicted people.
After his conquest of the Saracen giant, the dragon fight tests and illuminates different aspects of Bevis’s character as a Christian warrior. The dragon’s attack which wounds him exposes his vulnerability to the temptation of martial glory, but after being restored from this wound and the contagion of the dragon’s venom, Bevis:
On is knes he gan to falle,
To Jesu Crist he gan to calle:
“Help, … Godes sone,
Þat þis dragoun wer ouer-come!
Boute ich mowe þe dragoun slon
Er þan ich hennes gon
Schel hit neuer aslawe be
For noman in Cristenté”.
(Fell on his knees and called on Jesus Christ: Help … God’s Son, so that this dragon may be overcome! Unless I am able to slay the dragon before I go from here it shall never be slain by any man in Christendom.
The dragon flees, hearing this prayer for aid, but it does not escape, and during the ensuing fight, action focuses three times on the dragon’s mouth. Initially it gapes, not to spout flame, but as if to swallow Bevis, reiterating the image, familiar in medieval paintings, carvings and illuminated manuscripts of the mouth of hell as the gaping maw of a dragon into which sinners are swallowed. After being contaminated by its venom and restored by the virtue of the well, Bevis attacks the dragon slicing through its ‘throte boll’, its Adam’s apple. This unusual physical detail recalls the beast’s former identity as a human with the power of speech, although unlike the transformed Fafnir in the Volsunga saga, the Cologne dragon does not speak to its opponent.
Once he has killed the monster, Bevis beheads it and cuts out its tongue. The removal of the tongue from this demonically transformed dragon symbolises Bevis’s disarming of the Devil’s ability to corrupt through speech. Notorious in the Middle Ages as the ‘father of lies’, the Devil was believed to deceive humankind through speech. The dragon’s venom thus symbolises not the usual leprous contamination of sexual sin, but the destructive power of demonic persuasion which may be likened to leprosy in its effect on the soul. The excisions therefore signify Bevis’s power to overcome the monstrous power of the Devil’s lies and incitements to sin through the aid of baptism and the power of prayer.
The Devil as cause of sin is clearly promoted in this romance over folkloric association of dragons with greed. Tolkien asserted that the effect on a hero of overcoming a dragon renders him ‘[s]omething more significant than the standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy’. In Bevis’s case, the transformed dragon personifies both human and demonic evil so his victory over it enhances his heroism because he withstands both through his own valour and faith strengthened by symbolic ‘baptism’ in the well.