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.


AnFranBryl said...

Well, how big is Grendel, who on ræste genam þrítig þegna, but whose hand a human (Beowulf is tall but not gigantic) can hold in his?

Evan F. said...

Well, I would say your thought that the poet maybe doesn't have a real great mental picture of what he's describing it as likely an explanation as we may be able to get. I mean, we could try to look at dragon motifs, such as are available, in Anglo Saxon art, to see if we could get to what the culture might have had in mind when it said "dragon," but really, who knows what the poet was exposed to.

Still, it is very odd to try to conveive of a really big creature (50 feet long) with a small snake-like head and not very impressive jaws, as THE Beowulf dragon.

All of the real world analogies work in that direction. Certainly the way the bite and poisoning might work.

But then, what coult the poet know of snakes, venoms, etc. Where did the narrative and imagery come from? It does seem to be a conundrum.

Certainly would help if some more variants of the tale could be unearthed, but I am sure scholars have been wishing that for the last severl hundred years.

Jason Fisher said...

Maybe the head has the long, narrow shape of a crocodile's?

Stephen Smoogen said...

Would Beowulf had a leather neck guard or similar acruement? I think some viking armour had it and others did not.. so not exactly sure if it was common in that time frame.

Of course he might have been thinking of a creature without a lot of biting power.. if the dragon ate its food whole like a snake its jaws might not be strong enough to break apart a neck.

N.E. Brigand said...

England has three native snakes: two harmless Colubrids, the grass snake and (uncommon) smooth snake, and one venomous Viperid, the adder. The adder rarely approaches three feet in length; the grass snake very occasionally grows twice as large. The poet is unlikely to have known of rear-fanged snake envenomation, but since a front-fanged adder bite isn't usually fatal, maybe he simply imagined its painful, sickening effects amplified due to the dragon's size. Alternately, since the bites of many animals, including otherwise harmless snakes, can occasionally lead to death from infection, maybe that's inspired him.

Michelle Ziegler said...

Dragons are sometimes referred to as great serpents, especially in Celtic literature. I imagine the size is exaggerated but the shape may have been similar to a komono dragon which has a very long tail and a relatively small head.

Dr. Andrew Higgins said...

Dr Drout

Interesting one. Perhaps in the orignal version it was a long python serpent creature in the final fight but in the transmission of the story (perhaps harkening back to the Fafnir story) this was changed to a dragon to make the battle sound more noble/heroic (Beowulf is felled by a dragon not a big snake) but not all the details were modified by the transmitters?


Anonymous said...

Hey,keep on with this. Have thrilled family and friends with this--all jumped and laughed. Do you suppose dragons a variety of dinosaur? After a young earth theory? Have dragged out Beowulf from the local library to reread.
Love your blog.
An illiterate friend with a $63,000 student loan debt.

John Cowan said...

Offtopic for this post:

"Quantitative Tolkien Studies" by Darius Bacon is a list of the most anomalously common words in each chapter of the L.R. I find it oddly evocative: for example, "Flight to the Ford" is "troll Glorfindel Ford clippety trolls bone Loudwater boot", and "The Voice of Saruman" is "Unsay rail injuries unmoved spell Orthanc remains Eorl".

The Red Witch said...

I would imagine that a third of the 50 foot length would be his tail, if Beowulf story began with a real dragon. Otherwise I imagine the dragon is like the Northumberland dragon - a Viking ship - and Beowulf had his own Battle of Maldon.

Andy said...

This is a very interesting question.

Dragons certainly have universal appeal as most cultures have "their" version of a dragon. Still, I cannot help but wonder just what was the mental image inside the poet's head as the poem was being written down. Jason Fisher surmised "Maybe the head has the long, narrow shape of a crocodile's?". I can certainly "see" that being the case. Of course, it would help to know where the inspiration for dragons in Anglo-Saxon England come from in the first place? Certainly Norse Mythology has the Midgard Serpent and Fáfnir...As Evan noted,"(it) would help if some more variants of the tale could be unearthed."

Helen said...

Truly brilliant ... maybe the author, like all authors, was expecting to move quickly, create drama and hoping not to have his listeners join up all the dots between the head and the body. Knotwork does show a lot of "creatures" with long thin snouts, though. Its possible python-like qualities, small jaws and underground dwelling do raise the question of what the dragon normally ate. Mice?

Anonymous said...

You need to look at the work of S R Jensen entitled 'Beowulf and the Swedish Dragon'. This work argues for an identification of the 'Dragon' as Onela, king of the Swedes. The Dragon does not look like anything.

Anonymous said...

"Warning: spoilers."

Depends on what you don't want spoiled. A major award for something outmoded and worthwhile only for its curiosity value?

Keep up the good work, Michael.