Maybe it’s possible that, ceolocanth-like, one or two species of dinosaur lived on into the ancient Greek world. Maybe one even made it far enough to meet a knight or medieval king. Although, if the stories are to be taken literally, any dinosaur in such a situation would be summarily slain.
As an explanation for the dragon in fiction, the idea that some giant lizard from a long lost age doesn’t seem too far fetched if you limit it to the stories that early sailors no doubt told about giant sea serpents. These kinds of stories could have easily inspired the the water-based dragons of stories like Perseus and Andromeda. From there, poets and artists could have easily added their own twist to the terrible monster of the deep by bringing it onto land, letting it breathe fire, and having it fly on enormous leathery wings.
But to think that the flying dragon of medieval Europe was itself a dinosaur is a little too much. And claiming that the dragon that terrorizes the Geats in the last third of Beowulf is an eye-witness account of a dinosaur is downright dumb. Yet, according to this article, that’s exactly what geologist Andrew Snelling claimed when reporter Charles Wolford asked about the matter.
Now, Snelling is a staunch creationist. Wolford caught up with him at the Noah’s Ark theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. So Snelling’s understanding of the world’s history is necessarily compressed. But to think that a dragon’s being in Beowulf is eye-witness proof is problematic on two levels.
First, there are no fossils (as far as I know) for a dinosaur that’s long and serpentine like a Chinese dragon but that also has wings like the dragon on the Welsh flag. Even setting that aside in the “physical evidence category,” I also know of now dinosaur which paleontologists believe could breathe fire. There are a lot of “what if” books about this point of dragon physiology, and many of them try to be as “scientific” as possible. But these books, like Beowulf, are fiction.
Which brings me to my second point. The use of Beowulf‘s dragon as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together at some point in the past is a fantastic example of people picking and choosing what they want to get out of a story. Because if the dragon is a real monster, then so too must Grendel and Grendel’s mother be based on real monsters.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time making the case that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are sympathetic characters, maybe even the remnants of a displaced clan of people. But even if they were inspired by such, the details that we’re given about them in the poem are far from being based in reality.
Grendel is immune to weapons made of iron. But I can guarantee that 10 out of 10 people who try to nick themselves with an iron knife will bleed – humans are not iron resistant.
Along similar lines, Grendel’s blood melted the blade of an ancient sword. I’m guessing that most people who are reading this have bled before, and probably didn’t have the bandage or tissue they used to staunch the bleeding melt away as the red stuff spilled out onto these pads.
So if people like Snelling want to say that Beowulf is proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then they must also believe that there are humanoids on earth that bleed a kind of acid and who are immune to iron weapons.
Now, I feel like I’ve come down a little hard on Snelling. And I kind of mean to.
After all, I think that there is some truth both philosophical and historical in Beowulf.
The prevalence of trolls and dragons in stories suggests that they were popular for a reason, though I don’t think that it’s because they were ever real in the way that ancestral swords were. I understand Beowulf as being historically reflective of tropes and metaphors and ideas that were popular when it was written.
It’s one thing to say that, for example, Beowulf took on the people of early Sweden and died in a pyrrhic victory, but it’s much more interesting and hardcore to say that he fought a dragon that was terrorizing his people and died doing so. Making a battle with a dragon the climax of a story about a man whose power makes him as monstrous as the monsters he fights is just far more suiting than saying that he died fighting some war.
Likewise, let’s say that there’s a historical analogy for the first two thirds of the poem. If so, then it’s much more heroic and exciting to read about a man defeating two monsters that no one has even got close to scratching for twelve years than to read about a bully from Geatland coming in and killing off the last two of a tribe of people who have an ancestral claim to the lands where Heorot stands.
Part of the power of fiction is embellishment, and when we forget that, we leave ourselves open to looking very foolish indeed.
But that’s also what makes knowing the difference between fiction and fact and knowing how fiction can be given the sheen of fact (think fake news) that makes thinking critically about what we read incredibly important. And what Snelling’s interpretation of Beowulf teaches us here is that it’s important to think just as critically about what gets written today as what was written 1000 and more years ago.