Monsters and Dragons and Dinosaurs, Oh My: Creationist Interpretations of Beowulf
There is no field of inquiry that young-Earth creationists can’t distort. In the area of literary and linguistic studies, they misinterpret, misrepresent, and mistranslate Beowulf to fit their agenda.
Most skeptics are familiar with the questionable nature of the scientific arguments made by young-Earth creationists—those who take the Bible literally and believe that Earth is less than ten thousand years old. What is less often appreciated is the violence some creationists wreak on works of literature and fine art, especially those that feature dragons and other monsters. In particular, Beowulf has recently enjoyed great popularity with creationists. For instance, Kent Hovind’s now-defunct Dinosaur Adventure Land featured a Beowulf display,1 and the Creation Museum in Kentucky has a statue of Beowulf over the door of its Dragon Hall Bookstore.2 Curiously, creationists not only interpret the Bible as the literal, inerrant word of God, they read fictional works like Beowulf as literal, if not inerrant, accounts of actual events.
The most thorough creationist treatment of Beowulf appears in the book After the Flood: The Early Post-Flood History of Europe Traced Back to Noah by Bill Cooper, a trustee of the Creation Science Movement, the “oldest creationist movement in the world,” according to its website (https://www.csm.org.uk/index.php). Cooper’s primary purpose is to test the accuracy, veracity, and validity of the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 and 11 and, by extension, the rest of the Bible. He compares the Table of Nations, which describes the descendants of Noah’s sons, with Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian genealogies that trace various European dynasties back through a collection of pagan heroes and gods to a son of Noah, often one born on the ark. Cooper argues that these genealogies more or less accurately preserve pre-conversion traditions that are independent of the Bible. However, since they mention Noah, his sons, and the ark, Cooper interprets them as independent corroboration of the biblical account. In fact, the evidence suggests that Noah and his sons were a late addition to the genealogies.3
In the last two chapters, Cooper shifts from genealogies to stories of monsters and suggests that these monsters were actually dinosaurs. To Cooper, tales of dragons and sea monsters provide evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time and that Earth is therefore much younger than scientists will admit. Beowulf ties his themes together: it mentions the Flood and Cain; it refers to some of the characters who appear in the genealogies; and it contains monsters. As in the case of the genealogies, Cooper finds it necessary to move the date of Beowulf back to a time before the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity. Indeed he argues that the “poem pre-dates the migration of the Saxons to these isles” (147). While the date of Beowulf is controversial,4 such an early date is impossible. For one thing, the Anglo-Saxons began arriving in Britain in the fifth century, slightly before the main events of the poem unfold. Furthermore, if Beowulf is a continental composition, it is in the wrong language. Since it focuses on Scandinavian tribes, one would expect it to be in Old Norse or perhaps even Proto-Norse, but it’s not: it’s in Old English, a language that evolved in England after various tribes had migrated there from their continental homelands.
Cooper needs to push the date of Beowulf as far as he can into the past, partly so he can argue that the poem is independent of the Bible and Christian thought and therefore confirms the biblical account of the Flood, and partly so he can argue that it is a poetic but basically historical account of real people, real events, and real animals. He notes that the poem preserves “not just the physical descriptions of some of the monsters that Beowulf encountered, but even the names under which certain species of the animals were known to the Saxons and Danes” (150). In an appendix, he includes a list of “Zoologically applied terms in the Beowulf epic” (Appendix 10, 238–40). None of these resemble what we usually think of as zoological descriptions, and many of Cooper’s translations, such as “devil,” “demon,” “fiend,” “evildoer,” “night evil,” “wicked destroyer,” “wicked ravager,” and “unholy monster,” belie his argument that Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem.
While Beowulf recounts stories of feuds, battles, and alliances, the poem focuses primarily on the protagonist’s encounters with monsters. In his youth, the Geatish hero travels to the court of the Danish king Hroðgar to fight Grendel, who has been ravaging the hall and killing and eating the men. When Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son’s death, Beowulf tracks her to her lair and kills her as well. In his final battle, Beowulf, now an old king, faces a dragon that is attacking his own homeland. In addition to his main antagonists, Beowulf also encounters a number of sea serpents.
In his analysis of Beowulf, Cooper discusses words, phrases, and passages in some depth, giving the impression that he has some familiarity with Old English. In one instance, he provides his own translation of a short passage. The passage is not particularly difficult, and the gist of his translation is accurate enough but reveals that he does not actually understand how the language works.5 Elsewhere, he relies on the translation by Michael Alexander, although it is not always clear from his citations when he is using Alexander’s translation. He calls Alexander’s translation “the best translation” of the poem (154).6 To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Alexander’s translation, but it is a verse translation, and Alexander uses poetic license in adapting the story. For a discussion of precise word usage, a verse translation is largely useless. For such a discussion, a fairly literal prose translation is necessary—at the very least. Much better would be a text in Old English that has a good glossary, such as an edition by Frederick Klaeber. Cooper cites and quotes Klaeber—and in places criticizes Klaeber’s commentary—but to a large extent, he ignores Klaeber’s glossary in favor of Alexander’s translation. In doing so, he ends up making mistakes, such as discussing at some length the name of a sea serpent “species,” unaware of the fact that the word he’s discussing, yðgewinn, does not refer to the creature but to its movement.7
Cooper turns Beowulf’s three main antagonists into dinosaurs by interpreting poetic descriptions as zoological terms and cherry-picking details of a poetic translation, while giving the impression that the Old English text backs up his argument. Unsurprisingly, Cooper identifies the dragon as a pterosaur. More specifically, he believes the use of the term widfloga (far-flyer, ll. 2346, 2830) “would have distinguished this particular species of flying reptile from another similar species which was capable of making only short flights” (152). He therefore concludes that it is a pteranodon, despite the fact that pteranodon remains have been found exclusively in North America. In addition, the word pteranodon means a winged, toothless creature, while the dragon in Beowulf definitely has teeth. More importantly, he assumes that the creature can be identified as a specific animal based on a poetic description. Old English poetry is based on alliteration rather than rhyme. A poet may use many different terms to refer to the same creature, person, or object, often choosing the term that best fits the alliteration and meter. Occasionally, this can lead to confusion for the reader. For instance, in Beowulf, the terms “East Danes,” “West Danes,” “North Danes,” and “South Danes” are all used to describe the same people. Both times widfloga occurs, it alliterates and fits the meter of the line.8
Cooper also mentions that the poet calls the dragon ligdraca or fire-dragon (ll. 2333, 3040),9 but he does not explain how this appellation is appropriate to a pteranodon. The poet repeatedly associates the dragon with fire. It uses fire to wreak its vengeance on Beowulf’s land, burning homes and killing people, and Beowulf has a shield of iron prepared to protect him from the dragon’s flames. Yet the paleontological record is conspicuously silent about pterosaurs’ ability to breathe fire. Another notable characteristic of the dragon is its inordinate love of treasure. It had spent 300 years in its barrow, lying on its treasure until the theft of a single cup spurred it to fury. The love of treasure is common among Germanic dragons, mentioned in many Old English and Old Norse works. If the Beowulf poet were describing a real animal as Cooper claims, we would expect to find pteranodon bones on top of or near treasure hoards, yet the massive Anglo-Saxon treasure trove recently discovered in Staffordshire, England, is surprisingly free of pterosaur remains, as are the great ship burials, such as Sutton Hoo in England and Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway.
While the association between dragons and dinosaurs is common among young-Earth creationists, Cooper goes a step further and argues that the other monsters in Beowulf are dinosaurs as well: “Our attention must now be drawn towards another reptilian monster which was surely the most fiercesome [sic] of all the animals encountered by Beowulf, the monster called Grendel” (152–53). In the poem, the Danish king Hroðgar provides the following description of Grendel and his mother:
Ðæra oðer wæs,
idese onlicnæs; oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer. (ll. 1349b-1355)
Cooper then provides Alexander’s translation of the passage:
[A]nd one of them
was in woman’s shape, but the shape of a man,
though twisted, trod also the tracks of exile
—save that he was more huge than any human being. (ll. 1348-52)10
“But,” asks Cooper, “what exactly do the descriptive terms tell us that is of such importance? Simply this: that the female was in the shape of a woman . . . and the male was in the shape of a man. . . . In other words, they were both bipedal, but larger than any human” (155, emphasis in original). Actually that’s not really what the description tells us at all. Alexander, presumably for poetic reasons, leaves out one word: oðer, “other” (l. 1355b). Grendel was larger than any other man. Cooper’s entire argument hinges on the omission of one little adjective.11 Grendel was abnormally large, but he was man-shaped, and his mother had the likeness of a woman. Twice the Beowulf poet connects the Grendel-kin to the race of Cain (ll. 104–114, 1256–68), and several times he either calls Grendel a giant or associates him with giants.12 Never does he describe them in a way that would suggest that they are reptiles. He calls the dragon wyrm (serpent) and draca and repeatedly refers to it as “coiled.” Similarly, the water monsters (that are not called yðgewinn) are called wyrm and draca. No such terms are applied to Grendel or his mother.
Having turned more or less human creatures into mere bipeds, Cooper twists the description of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel into something quite different from what the poet describes. Cooper says that the Danes “had themselves attempted to kill Grendel with conventional weapons. . . . Yet his impenetrable hide had defied them all, and Grendel was able to attack the Danes with impunity. Beowulf considered all this and decided that the only way to tackle the monster was to get to grips with him at close quarters” (155–56). In fact, Beowulf chooses to fight unarmed because he knows that Grendel does not use weapons. He regards it as a matter of honor (ll. 433–40).13 It is only during his battle with Grendel’s mother, to which he does bring a sword, that he discovers that the two are invulnerable to ordinary weapons.
Despite Beowulf’s explanation for his actions, Cooper argues that it was a strategic position because “the monster’s forelimbs . . . . were small and comparatively puny. They were the monster’s one weak spot, and Beowulf went straight for them. He was already renowned for his prodigious strength of grip, and he used this to literally tear off one of Grendel’s weak, small arms” (156). Cooper is coy about identifying what kind of dinosaur Grendel is. “Is there,” he asks “a predatory animal from the fossil record known to us, who had two massive hindlegs and two comparatively puny forelimbs?” (159). He answers that there are several. After describing the species he refers to as “the Grendel” for another page, he concludes, “I doubt that the reader needs to be guided by me as to which particular species of predatory dinosaur the details of his physical description fit best” (160). Though he refuses to say it directly, he clearly means to imply that Grendel is a Tyrannosaurus Rex.14
The problem is that his description is inaccurate. The poet never says that Grendel’s arms are puny, weak, or small, or that his hind legs are massive. As Cooper says, Beowulf’s strength is prodigious: he is said to have the hand-grip of thirty men (ll. 379–80). Grendel immediately recognizes Beowulf’s strength and wants to get away (ll. 750–56). Strictly speaking, Beowulf does not tear off Grendel’s arm at all. Rather, it is the combined strength and determination of the two combatants that results in Grendel’s injury. Beowulf is determined to retain his grip on Grendel, while Grendel is desperate to escape. In the end, both achieve their goals: Grendel flees to the mere, and Beowulf is left holding his arm.
Although Cooper misidentifies Grendel as Beowulf’s most formidable foe (each fight is more difficult than the previous one),15 he diminishes Grendel’s significance and Beowulf’s accomplishment by continuously misrepresenting the text. Cooper’s Grendel is not only puny-armed but is “only a youngster, and not by all accounts a fully mature adult male of his species” (156). I’m not sure what “accounts” Cooper is reading, but the poem in no way supports his assertion. Grendel, as we have established, is much larger than any other man and unusually strong. He is not an immature, puny-armed T-Rex; he is a large, strong, man-shaped creature who has a taste for Danish.
Cooper’s book may seem a slightly silly contribution to the creationist arsenal. Certainly, it is easy for anyone with a background in medieval history, languages, or literature to refute many of his arguments. Unfortunately, his target audience probably does not include many medieval scholars. Very few people have expertise in the medieval genealogies of Wales, Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, or Scandinavia, for instance. The scholarly trappings of Cooper’s work give it an air of authority, and it has become extremely popular among creationists. A Google search of the words “Beowulf” and “dinosaurs” returns over twelve million hits. Some of these sites refute creationist claims, but many are verbatim copies of all or parts of After the Flood or adaptations of it.
Most disturbingly, Cooper’s ideas are repeated in works intended to educate children. Ruth Beechick recycles Cooper’s arguments in “Beowulf: Fiction or History” on Crosswalk.com, a homeschooling site.16 Although her language is geared toward young children, she follows Cooper’s arguments very closely, occasionally adding her own errors.
Also aimed at homeschooled children is the “audio adventure,” Jonathan Park and the Hunt for Beowulf. The Hunt for Beowulf is volume IV (of eight) of the Jonathan Park Adventures, radio dramas that are also sold as CD sets. The series is sold by Answers in Genesis17 and the Creation Museum gift shop (as is After the Flood), was originally developed by the Institute for Creation Research,18 and is currently produced by Vision Forum Ministries.19 The series follows the Creation Response Team, led by Jonathan’s father, Kendall Park, a paleontologist who, based on “scientific evidence,” has converted from a belief in evolution to strict adherence to young-Earth creationism. In The Hunt for Beowulf, the Creation Response Team seeks to recover the stolen Beowulf manuscript, “the oldest English manuscript ever discovered.”20 The team is eager to find the manuscript (far more eager than either the British police or the British Library, apparently) because it contains evidence that dinosaurs and man lived together. As in Cooper’s book, Grendel has been added to the list of (comparatively) modern dinosaurs. In the Jonathan Park adventure, he has also become a dragon. Each audio adventure comes with a substantial study guide that includes fun activities and much false information and pseudoscience. Earnest advertisements after each installment also encourage listeners to find more study material at www.jonathanpark.com.
When creationists co-opt Beowulf as a tool for their agenda, they contribute to the misinformation they are providing their homeschooled children. Beowulf is twisted and mangled to accommodate pseudoscience and pseudo-history. Almost as disturbing is the way it limits the appreciation and understanding of one of the earliest masterpieces of our language. Literary criticism allows multiple interpretations of any work, as long as those interpretations can be supported by textual and contextual evidence. Creationists allow only one interpretation of Beowulf, and it is one that is in direct conflict with textual and contextual evidence. By trying to force the poem to fit a rigid and fallacious understanding of world events, creationists also ignore the literary merits of the work. Cooper condescendingly describes the poetic language of Beowulf: “The Anglo-Saxons (like the modern Germans and Dutch) had a very simple method of word construction, and their names for everyday objects can sometimes sound amusing to our modern English ears when translated literally. . . . It was thus an intensely literal but at the same time highly poetic language possessing great and unambiguous powers of description” (150). This definition of the language of Beowulf fits Cooper’s agenda: the word construction is simple, and the descriptions are unambiguous, making his interpretations self-evident. In reality, there is much in Beowulf that is obscure or ambiguous, and the cultural and linguistic gap between modern readers and the poet makes interpretation all the more challenging. In addition, it is difficult to see how a poem that heavily employs kennings, a type of metaphor, can be considered “intensely literal,” though Cooper’s view may help us understand why he mistakes poetic descriptions for “zoologically applied terms.”
Though Cooper and his followers may occasionally give lip service to Beowulf’s poetic power, it is clear that to them, its only value is as a tool of indoctrination, and children cannot be trusted to interpret it for themselves.
1. See G. Martinez, “Stupid Dino Tricks: A Visit to Kent Hovind’s Dinosaur Adventure Land,” Skeptical Inquirer (November/December 2004): 47–51. Available
online at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/stupid_dino_tricks_a_visit_to_kent_hovindrsquos_
2. K. Ham, “Serbia and Beowulf,” Around the World with Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis (September 30, 2008). Available at http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2008/09/30/serbia-and-beowulf/.
3. In particular, most of the Old English accounts seem to date to the reign of Alfred the Great, the Christian king of Wessex in the late ninth century, and the Norse accounts are based in part on the English genealogies. See Anlezark (2002) and Faulkes (1983). Anlezark traces the Anglo-Saxon tradition of an ark-born son of Noah, and Faulkes traces the complex history of the Norse genealogies.
4. Most scholars place the composition somewhere between the eighth and late tenth or early eleventh centuries. Robert E. Bjork and Anita Overmeier discuss the dating in “Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences” in Bjork and Niles (1997).
5. Cooper translates lines 815b–818a as, “Searing pain seized the terrifying ugly one as a gaping wound appeared in his shoulder. The sinews snapped and the (arm-)joint burst asunder” (155). He assumes that the noun that precedes the verb in the first clause is the subject, and the noun that follows it is the direct object; in fact, the second noun is in the nominative case and must therefore be the subject. To accommodate the reversal of subject and direct object, he changes the meaning of the verb. Later he makes a plural noun singular. A more accurate translation of the passage is “The terrible, ferocious fighter experienced bodily pain; a very great wound became apparent on his shoulder; the sinews sprang asunder; the joints burst.”
6. He says this specifically about the passage that describes Grendel and his mother. We will see why he favors Alexander’s translation of this particular passage.
7. Cooper translates yðgewinn as “wave-thrasher” (51, 61 n. 9). It actually means “wave-strife,” a kenning or short metaphor for “swimming.” When shot with an arrow, the creature is “deprived of life, of wave-strife” (ll. 1432–35). “Wave-thrasher” comes from Alexander (l. 1433), although Cooper does not cite him in this instance. Alexander’s version poetically captures the feel of the passage, but it is far from being a literal translation.
8. Beowulf, l. 2346: “þæt he þone widflogan weorode gesohte” ([Beowulf scorned] to attack the far-flyer with a war-band); l. 2830: “þæt se widfloga wundum stille” (. . . so that the far-flyer, still from wounds. . .). Emphasis added to highlight alliteration.
9. The dragon is also called fyrdraca (fire-dragon, l. 2689).
10. When Cooper quotes Alexander, he prints the lines as prose, as he does with the Old English. This may be a quirk of formatting, but it disguises the fact that Alexander’s translation is a non-literal verse translation. He also leaves out the subtitle “A Verse Translation” when he cites it (Cooper cites the 1973 edition, but it too was subtitled “A Verse Translation”).
11. This omission is particularly glaring because, when Cooper quotes Old English, he transliterates þ and ð as th. Consequently, he includes the phrase, “thonne aenig man other,” which is not difficult to translate into modern English; however, since he prints a large chunk of Old English (ll. 1345–54) as a block of italicized prose, with two phrases bolded (idese onlicness, the likeness of a woman, and weres wæstmum, the form of a man), it’s unlikely that most readers will look too closely at it.
12. Eoten, ll. 761 and 112; þyrs, l. 426. In l. 112, giants (eotenas) are said to have sprung from the race of Cain, along with elves and monsters. The poet says that Grendel lived for a time among the race of Cain.
13. Beowulf says, in part, “I have also heard that the wretch, because of his recklessness, does not care about weapons. Therefore, I . . . scorn that I should bear sword or large shield, yellow shield, to battle, but rather I shall grapple with the fiend with my grasp.” Later he says, “I do not claim for myself any lowlier battle-stature than Grendel [claims for] himself; therefore, I will not put him to sleep with a sword, deprive him of life, although I can” (677–80), clearly indicating that he doesn’t realize that a sword would be useless against Grendel.
14. As with the pteranodon, the T. Rex has only been found in North America. In their book Claws, Jaws, and Dinosaurs (Pensacola: CSE Publications, 1999), born-again cryptozoologist William J. Gibbons and Kent Hovind echo Cooper’s arguments concerning Grendel and the water monster, although they don’t credit him. However, they suggest that Grendel was “the fearsome Megalosaurus, a dinosaur found in Britain and similar to Tyranosaurus-Rex [sic]” (19).
15. Beowulf successfully fights Grendel unarmed, but he brings a sword to face Grendel’s mother. When that sword fails, he uses a magic sword he finds in her lair. For the fight with the dragon, he is fully armed and has a specially made shield. In addition, he is only able to overcome the dragon with the assistance of Wiglaf, and he is mortally injured in the battle.
16. The article is no longer on crosswalk.com’s website. It is, however, available at http://www.christianity.com/1261413/, among other places. It was originally published in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, another homeschooling resource. A review of Beechick’s arguments appears in J.P. Walter, “Dinosaurs, Mnemonic Communities and Rewriting the Literary History of Beowulf,” Machina Memorialis 31 Aug. 2006. Available at http://www.jpwalter.com/machina/archives/352.
18. Jonathan Park behind the Scenes: The Unofficial Website of the Jonathan Park Audio Adventures includes a video of the actors recording an episode at the Institute for Creation Research. Available at http://www.creationadventurefamily.com/jonathanparkbts.
19. Vision Forum Ministries discuss their views on education in “The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy,” http://www.visionforumministries.org/home/about/biblical_patriarchy.aspx.
20. The Beowulf manuscript, written c. 1000, is not the oldest English manuscript. Among the earliest copies of Old English poetry are texts of “Cædmon’s Hymn” included in Latin copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Cambridge, University Library MS kk 5 16 and St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia MS lat. Q.v.I.18. Both date to the eighth century. Possibly even earlier is the Ruthwell Cross, which preserves part of the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood. This, however, is not a manuscript, but a runic inscription on a stone cross. There are prose works that pre-date Beowulf as well. For instance, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was translated into Old English in the late ninth or early tenth century. All four major Old English poetic codices (the Beowulf MS, the Exeter Book, the Vercelli Book and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11) date from roughly the same period.
Alexander, Michael, tr. 2003. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Rev. ed. London: Penguin. Cooper cites the original edition from 1973.
Anlezark, Daniel. 2002. Sceaf, Japheth and the origins of the Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxon England 31: 13–46.
Bjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles, eds. 1997. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Cooper, Bill. 1993. After the Flood: The Early Post-Flood History of Europe Traced Back to Noah. Chichester: New Wine Press.
Faulkes, Anthony. (1978–79) 1983. Descent from the gods. Orig. published in Scandinavia 11: 92–125. Corrected and revised version available from the Viking Society for Northern Research Web Publications at http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Descent-from-the-gods.pdf.
Fulk, R.D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. 2008. Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. University of Toronto Press. All quotations are from this edition. This updated edition is based on Fr. Klaeber’s 3rd edition (1950) with first and second supplements (Lexington, MA: Heath), the edition Cooper cites, although he prints the lines as prose. All translations are mine unless indicated otherwise.