The dragon in Beowulf – does size matter?

April 4, 2012 at 1:30 am (Uncategorized)

I can’t get the “prove you’re not a robot” feature to work over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak, so I’m posting what I’d intended to comment here instead of there.  This is in response to some musings on how a fifty-foot dragon could bite Beowulf’s neck without taking his head clean off.

The poem tells us, “heals ealne ymbeféng / biteran bánum” [his whole neck he encompassed/surrounded/seized/clasped with sharp bones] (2691-92). This is usually translated as teeth or fangs.

Two initial thoughts, then, about how a fifty-foot creature could not take someone’s head off with its teeth surrounding/encompassing/piercing that someone’s neck. Maybe there’s something to “tusks” or even fangs – in the sense that we should imagine not “things to bite/chew with” but something more like an elephant or walrus would have – protrusions with which to pierce and prod but maybe not precisely *bite*.  Thing is, while I’m certainly no art historian, I don’t know that that’s any easier to picture than the big dragon with the tiny head. Those would have to be some needle-sharp fangs.. but the danger of the dragon seems to lie in his flame-breathing primarily and his poison secondarily – not his bite. I don’t see why he has to have especially significant teeth in order to be an especially significant dragon.  I dunno.

The elongated snakelike creature seems more likely to me than a bulky dragon that moves about on four feet- I’m thinking of the serpents in the Nowell codex Wonders of the East, right under the Blemmye (they don’t seem to have teeth at all, but they are mostly body and that’s close to what I’ve pictured, I think).  That has always fit, to me, with “scriDan” (2569) and similar slithering/coiling descriptions — while scriDan doesn’t rule out feet (see Grendel at 703),  the sense has always struck me as gliding or slithering or otherwise being serpent-like (though Grendel does complicate matters a bit).  I don’t think being able to glide/coil means feet are out of the question, but I never pictured the dragon as using his feet for much more than clinging to things. I’m not really sure what all has contributed to this mental picture over the years.

But what seems likelier to me is less that the poet didn’t have a clear picture so much as we are maybe taking “fifty feet” too literally – maybe it’s meant more as a number that suggests fullness, completion, or the pinnacle of something. Beowulf rules fifty winters, Grendel’s mother held sway over the mere for fifty years (1498), Hrothgar ruled for fifty years (1769) – my sense has always been that this poetic rather than literal. Then again, a poetic usage for conveying time doesn’t necessarily prove simple transference when it comes to measuring distance.

So maybe I’ve talked myself out of both my original thoughts :/

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1 Comment

  1. Mark Golding said,

    Fifty feet long seems small for a fantasy dragon. If it seems hard for Beowulf to survive being bitten by the mouth of a fifty foot long dragon, maybe the dragon wrapped part of his neck or tail around Beowulf’s neck, or grabbed the neck with a relatively small but bony claw.

    Ever since I read the Hobbit, I always pictured dragons as looking like J.R.R. Tolkien illustrations of them, four legs, 2 wings, and long narrow bodies, necks, and tails.

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