By Paul McDorman
The 3182 lines of the Beowulf poem survives in a single manuscript copy that was made about 1000 AD. Rediscovered in the early 18th century, modern scholars say that it is a copy of a mid-8th century Anglo-Saxon original that is now lost. Nowhere in the poem, however, is there any reference made to the British Isles. Nearly every edition of the Beowulf epic, and virtually every commentary on the poem will take great pains to assure the reader that what he is reading is not a historically accurate account of real events or people, even though the names of many of the characters can be found in the ancient documents of northern Europe. Amazingly, the poem is described as an essentially Christian poem, even though there are no allusions whatsoever in the poem to any event, person, or teaching of the New Testament. However there are definite allusions to certain facts and personages contained in the Old Testament, namely to God, the Creation, to Abel, and to Cain. The sentiments of the poem however are strongly pagan, extolling the virtues of Viking vengeance, the accumulation of plunder, and the boasting of and reliance upon human strength and prowess. Allusions are also made to pagan oaths, sacrifices, and forms of burial. According to Bill Cooper, in his book, After The Flood, this epic poem is most likely a history of actual pagan life in northern Europe around the 6th century. A well known character in this poem is Grendel, described as a young "troll" in most translations. Grendel lives in the marshes, and for 12 years goes around terrorizing people by grabbing them and eating them in the middle of the night. Other strange creatures are also described as well. Translators persist in translating them all as trolls, even though the word "troll" is not used in the poem. The word "troll" is of Nordic origin and is supposed to be a human-like, mischievous and hairy dwarf (or giant) who swaps troll children for human children in the middle of the night.
The words used for the "trolls" in this epic are zoological terms: "wyrmcynnes" (wormkind - serpent); "sacdracan" (sea-drakes or sea-dragons); "nicor" (water-dwelling monster); "wildeor" (wild beasts); "lyftfloga" (air-fliers); etc. None of them have anything to do with dwarves, giants, trolls, or fairies. It is thought by scholars that the name Grendel was merely a personal name by which the Danes knew this particular creature. But the evidence shows that grendel was an animal. King Athelstan of Wessex describes a certain lake in Wiltshire as grendles mere. Interestingly, the grendle in Beowulf lived in a mere. Other place names mentioned in old writings are Grindles bec and Grendeles pyt, which had been, or were this particular species of animal lived. Grindelwald (lit. Grendelwood) in Switzerland is another such place.
Grendel is described in the poem as a mearcstapa (lit. A marsh-stepper), or one who stalked the marshes.) There are also several Anglo-Saxon words that share the same root word as "Grendel". The Old English word grindan, for example, and from we derive our word grind, is used to denote a destroyer. The Old Norse grindill, means a storm. And grenja means to bellow. The word grendel is strongly reminiscent of the deep-throated growl that would be emitted by a very large animal. The Middle English usage of grindel means angry. After 12 years of killing people, Beowulf conceives of an unusual plan to do Grendel in. After he finally meets up with this teenage monster, he does a quick maneuver by suddenly moving in close to his chest and grabbing one of his arms, which is described as small and weak. He quickly puts the creature in an arm lock and with his brute strength, rips open his arm at the shoulder. The creature then goes away and bleeds to death.
It seems strange that after 12 years of knives, arrows, and swords, no one could kill Grendel, but the monster is then killed by simply tearing his arm off. How could Beowulf accomplish such a feat? Grendel is described in one passage as having the physical appearance of a man, "though twisted" This could possibly be where the troll idea is obtained, but it could also be a rough description of a medium sized bipedal dinosaur, which from fossil evidence is know as having small weak arms. Other evidence in the poem is that Grendel is described as a muthbona, or one who slays with his mouth or jaws, and can eat his prey with great speed in large "gobbets".
Of course, from reading Beowulf by itself, one can never know for sure what the many strange creatures were that are described therein. But some of the accounts and descriptions are consistent with human and dragon interactions as in hundreds of other ancient stories and accounts that span the globe. And from Genesis 1, we know that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time since they both were created on day six. Therefore, scholars should take seriously the written accounts of man and dinosaur-like creatures.
Dragons In Legend
"Dragon was the name given to the most terrible monsters of the ancient world. Dragons did not really exist, but most people believed in them. They were huge fire-breathing serpents with wings like those of a great bat, and they could swallow ships and men at one gulp. Maps of early times represent unknown parts of the world as being the homes of these mythical creatures. The dragons of legend are strangely like actual creatures that have lived in the past. They are much like the great reptiles which inhabited the earth long before man is supposed to have appeared on earth...."
"Dragons were generally evil and destructive. Every country had them in its mythology. In Greece dragons were slain by Hercules, Apollo, and Perseus. Sigurd, Siegfried, and Beowulf killed them in Norse, German, and early English legend."
Lindall, Carl, "Dragon," World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (1996), p.
The above article was adapted from, Cooper, Bill, After The Flood, New Wine Press, England, 1995