Thursday, March 08, 2012

How big was the dragon's head, anyway? 

At the end of Beowulf

[ Warning: Spoilers ]

                                     , the dragon attacks the hero and Wiglaf for the third time.  Hot and grim in battle, but apparently not spewing as many flames as it had in the previous two attacks (because then the heroes had to crouch behind an iron shield), it rushes on Beowulf and seizes him around his neck with bitter teeth (literally " with bones," which we reasonably take as "with teeth" and some translators use "with tusks").   Blood wells out of Beowulf's wounds.

But Wiglaf and Beowulf work together to kill the dragon: Wiglaf stabs it in the belly, which reduces the fire, and Beowulf cuts or pierces it in the middle to finish it off.

Unfortunately, the dragon turns out to have had poison venom, and so Beowulf's wound swells and swells some more, and the poison enters into the king of Geats and eventually kills him.

So my question is: How big was the dragon's head, and how long were it's teeth?  Because I'm having trouble picturing a 50-foot long dragon (we learn of this length when the Geats tip its body over the cliff ) that can get its teeth near someone's neck without just taking the head right off.

The largest Tyrannosauras rex ever found is 42 feet long.  So this dragon is longer than a full-grown T. rex. Picture the head: how do  you put a couple of teeth into Beowulf's neck and not--even by accident--just gobble him up?  The teeth are the size of bananas: if they are touching his neck, his head is coming off.

So we can conclude that the dragon must have a much smaller head and much shorter teeth.  I'm picturing something like a really large python, like the dead one in this video:

Pythons have short, needly little teeth for gripping rather than killing, so if the dragon had teeth like a python, it could latch on to Beowulf's neck without taking his head off.  My guess is that the venom must have been delivered not by injection through a hollow fang (like snakes in the families Viperidae or Elapidae), but through abrasion of the skin allowing the entry of venomous saliva (as is done by the Colubridae, most of which have back fangs and often don't inject venom but just cut the skin with sharp teeth--which is why of all the colubrids--about 67% of all snake species--only the boomslang regular kills humans).

It's still difficult to picture a 50-foot long creature that can bite a neck and not sever a head, and it makes me wonder how clear a picture the poet had in mind when he was creating the scene.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Can Grendel Talk? Does he have Pockets?

This isn't as obvious a question as it might at first appear (I assume the obvious answer would be "No, or he'd say something in the poem"), because, if Grendel can't talk, how can he put a spell on weapons so that they won't bite him? 

Now I'm not suggesting that all spells require words. In not even sure that what Grendel has done in line 804b-805a is necessarily a spell. 

But see for  yourself.  The poet says: þone synscaðan ænig ofter eorþan irenna cyst, guðbilla nan, gretan nolde, ac he sigewæpnum forsworen hæfde ecga gehwycre."

Not one of the war-swords on the earth, made of the choicest of iron, was able to greet the enemy, for he had *forsworen* victory-weapons, each of edges." 

What does this mean, exactly?

Almost every other place it appears in Anglo-Saxon,  "forsworen" means "renounced" or "gave up," so at first it's tempting to find an analogy to Beowulf, who has given up his weapons to fight Grendel.  But the problem, then, is to explain why the swords of the Geats aren't able to strike ("gretan") the monster.

Editors have solved this problem by taking "forsworen" not as "renounced," but as "enchanted with magic" or "cursed." There aren't a lot of unambiguous examples in the corpus, however, where the word works this way. In fact, the whole argument seems to be based on the context and one instance where the word glosses "devotabat" (put a spell on, cursed). But ok, let's go with "put a spell on."  How did Grendel do it? Words? Hand gestures? A magic staff? Tarot cards? 

Everywhere else in the corpus that I've had a chance to look at, when it's not obviously giving up or renouncing something (and even many times when it is), "forswor" is some kind of verbal action: I haven't yet found a single instance where the word means something physical or mental.

Hence my question about whether or not Grendel can speak: if he's casting some kind of spell that is described by "forsworen," then it seems he would have to talk in some way.

Perhaps similarly, I always wonder about the assertion by the poet that Grendel won't pay compensation for the men he killed.  Did someone ask him to?  Does he have money to pay with? Where does he keep it? We know he has a dragon-skin bag, for bringing victims back to his underwater lair, but it seems unlikely that he uses it as a purse and carries his gold with him when he goes to visit Heorot.  I can never decide if this point is a joke by the poet: he chews up and swallows people, slaughters many, wrecks the hall... oh, and he won't even pay a wergeld for it (because you know if he did, then we could all be friends...).

Reading that line as litotes help explain the lack of wergeld payment, but it doesn't bring us closer to understanding whether or not Grendel can talk. One way to read the whole situation is to say that the poet deliberately wants to make Grendel more human than his original trollish conception might have been.  That's somewhat consistent with current monster theory, which immediately makes me think it is wrong (I try to use Diax's Rake as much as possible nowadays; thanks, Neal Stephenson).

But I think I can see a way that we can deal with the "can Grendel talk problem" and the "wouldn't pay wergeld."  The latter can be a litotes.  The former could be a form of berserkr behavior. 

I was just teaching Egil's Saga, and my students noticed that in one battle King Harald has Thorolf in the prow of his ship with Brand, but the sides of the vessel are manned by the king's twelve berserks.  After the battle, Brand is mortally wounded and Thorolf is badly hurt, but the saga author (Snorri?) tells us, that all twelve berserks were unharmed, "because no iron could strike them when they were in their battle frenzy." 

Hmmmmmm.  Maybe to get into that berserkr battle frenzy, one has to give up armor (though not weapons), and then when you do, you become impervious to weapons.  Could something like this be the idea behind Grendel's having "forsworen" weapons? By giving them up, he makes himself immune to their blows, and the audience might expect this if they already had an idea that berserks could do something similar.  Then we could dispense with talking Grendel and not worry about whether or not he had pockets.

(Though I still do worry about these things).