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cic2007-12-04.jpgOne of this column’s frequent subjects, Neil Gaiman, and Roger Avary, best known as the co-writer of the 1994 film Pulp Fiction gave collaborated on the screenplay for the new Beowulf movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis. IDW has been publishing a four-issue comics adaptation of the movie. Zemeckis’s Beowulf is a sort-of-animated movie, employing the “performance-capture” he previously used for his 2004 Christmas-themed film The Polar Express (see “Comics in Context” #66: “A Christmas Potpourri”).

Their Beowulf movie is based on the epic poem of the same name which was written by an unknown author between the seventh and tenth centuries A. D. in Anglo-Saxon, also known as Old English. Hence Beowulf is one of the earliest known works in the history of the English language. The title character is the first great hero of the adventure genre that critic Northrop Frye calls “romance” in the English language. Beowulf therefore is our language’s first great example of the kind of character whom I call a “megahero,” who can justly be regarded as a forebear of the superheroes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, Beowulf’s ability to hold his own in hand-to-hand combat with Grendel, a monster who is described as larger than human. may even suggest he possesses superhuman strength, as Samson and Hercules did.

Therefore, for many reasons, the Beowulf movie is a proper subject for this column.

Certainly Beowulf is a considerable advance over The Polar Express in utilizing performance capture technology to translate the performances of real actors into the actions and facial expressions of persuasively realistic computer-generated characters onscreen. Whether or not this technology will continue to advance, and Beowulf will one day look comparatively primitive, remains to be seen. Watching the film I was usually impressed by its mimicking of reality, although there were still many times throughout the film when the characters looked to me too much like waxen figures, breaking the illusion.

In retrospect, perhaps the technology’s limitations were most exposed by the notorious depiction of Grendel’s mother as a nude version of Angelina Jolie, the actress on whose performance the character was based. (Hereafter I shall refer to the movie’s Ma Grendel as Grendelina Jolie. Readers with time to spare are encouraged to write her a theme song to the tune of Frank Loesser’s song “Thumbelina” from the 1952 movie musical Hans Christian Andersen.) I didn’t find the sight of Grendelina as erotic as it should have been, and I believe that the difference is that the sight of actual flesh can be considerably more sensual than Zemeckis’s cinematic wax.

Although there are film critics who argue that a movie must diverge from a literary work that it adapts, I suspect that the general public assumes that a
movie adaptation is faithful to the original book. Moreover, a movie adaptation may displace the original work in the public imagination: I expect that more people know MGM’s Wizard of Oz than L. Frank Baum’s book.

Neil Gaiman confronted these problems in discussing an “educational pack” for the Beowulf movie in the Tuesday, November 6, 2007 entry in his blog: “Incidentally, I think the educational pack done for Beowulf is simply wrong. Part of the point of the Beowulf movie that Roger and I wrote is the places it diverges from the story of Beowulf, and the ways it explores the relationship between a person and a story about a person. I don’t think they should be putting the stuff we made up on material intended for schools — it seems like a way of justifiably irritating teachers, who have enough to put up with when they try to teach Beowulf without us making their lives harder. It would have been much more interesting to have put up either the original, or one that talked about the differences — I’d absolutely encourage high schoolers to see our version and talk about what changed and why.”

I didn’t encounter the original Beowulf until I was in college, and it is a subject that has occupied scholars who are long past their student days. One of my regular strategies in writing “Comics in Context” is to compare an adaptation to the original work to discover what has been changed, what hs been gained, and what has been lost. In the case of Beowulf, I turned to poet Seamus Heaney’s recent verse translation of the original Old English poem, which, surprisingly, became a best seller in 2000. I obtained a copy of the 2002 Norton Critical Edition of Heaney’s Beowulf: A Verse Translation, which includes numerous critical and historical essays, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s celebrated “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”

The poem begins by speaking of the Danes, “and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness” (Heaney translation, line 2; Norton edition, p. 3). Among those kings was Shield Sheafson, whom the poet describes thus: That was one good king” (Heaney line 11, p. 3).

Shield had a son, Beow, who was “a comfort sent by God to that nation” (Heaney lines 13-14, p. 3). The poet praises Beow for his “prudent” course of action:
“giving freely while his father lives
so that afterward in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behavior that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.” (Heaney lines 21-25, p. 3)

Thus in the first page of the translation, the Beowulf poet establishes some of the work’s major themes. One of them is to describe and commend the behavior of the “good king,” the good leader of men, and, perhaps, the good man in general. The poet points out that “behavior that’s admired” wins the loyalty of others.

Moreover, whereas the Beowulf legend has its roots in pre-Christian culture, the poem Beowulf, as it has come down to us, was written from a Christian perspective. A benevolent God, “the Lord of life, the glorious Almighty” (Heaney lines 16-17, p. 3), watches over the human race, and sent Beow into the world to be a “leader” to the Danes.

Beow was the grandfather of Hrothgar, the king who commanded the construction of Heorot,
“a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense
his God-given goods to young and old–
but not the common land or people’s lives.” (Heaney lines 69-73, pgs. 405)

I assume that in choosing the phrase he did, Heaney sought to link Heorot with the legendary Seven Wonders of the World, of which the Great Pyramid of Giza is the sole survivor. So Heorot is presented as a great monument of civilization. Presumably it is also a triumph of art, as a work of architecture.

Moreover, Heorot is Hrothgar’s “throne-room”; it symbolizes Hrothgar’s government, as, say, the White House does the American presidency. Hrothgar is a good king. Rather than hoarding his wealth (like the dragon later in the epic), Hrothgar would “dispense his God-given goods to young and old.” A Norton edition footnote points out that Hrothgar could not “dispose of land used in common” or “unlawfully kill his subjects” (Norton p. 5): again, Hrothgar is a good king. Moreover, he is a king who follows God’s will: his goods are “God-given,” and in distributing them to his people, he performs the Christian act of charity. Hrothgar is “the wise king” (Heaney, line 1400, p. 38).

Hrothgar intends Heorot to be “a wonder of the world forever” (Heaney line 70. p. 5). But here, at the outset of the work, the Beowulf poet introduces another of his major themes: that no one and nothing lasts forever in this mortal world.

“The hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
bit in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.” (Heaney lines 81-85, p. 5).

A footnote (Norton p. 5) explains that Heorot is doomed one day to be burned as a result of a feud between the Danes and the Heatho-Bards. Neither man nor his works are immortal in this world. The foretold destruction of Heorot may parallel Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, with the destruction of Valhalla, or the Christian concept of the Apocalypse, the end of the world.

Heorot will eventually meet its end as a result of “barbarous” action, resulting from “the blood-lust rampant.” The nature of the good king and the true hero seems to be important to the Beowulf poet because he is well aware of the evil of which humanity is capable. Through their good and wise reigns as rulers, Hrothgar and later Beowulf triumph over the dark side of humanity. Their reigns represent the victory of civilization–and Christian virtue–over barbarism and “blood-lust.” But that triumph, too, will not last forever. Hence Heorot is also like King Arthur’s Camelot, a mythic high point of Western civilization that was doomed to fall.

That barbarism and blood-lust is incarnated in the monstrous figure of Grendel, “a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark” (Heaney line 86, p. 5). That description links Grendel to both the Jungian shadow and the Christian concept of hell.

In the movie it seems that Grendel has super-sensitive hearing, so that even though he dwells miles away from Heorot, he can hear the noise from the partying in the mead-hall. The sound infuriates Grendel, as if he were the stereotypical cranky old man insisting that the kids next door turn their stereo down.

Perhaps, too, he is like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, living on his mountaintop, angered by the sound of the Whos down in Whoville celebrating Christmas. (Wait a minute: “Grinch” and “Grendel” start with the same letters. You don’t suppose that Dr. Seuss [aka Theodor Seuss Geisel] was inspired by Beowulf in creating the Grinch? A quick Google search demonstrates that the idea has occurred to other people as well: see Robert L. Schichler, “Understanding the Outsider: Grendel, Geisel, and the Grinch,” Popular Culture Review 11.1 [Feb. 2000], 99-105. and here)

But there’s more to Grendel’s motivation than overly sensitive ears.

“It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendor He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men. . .
. . .and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.” (Heaney, lines 87-98, p. 5)

The banquet represents civilization and community as well as happiness, all of which the monstrous outsider Grendel opposes. But notice that Grendel also hates the music of the harp and the “song of a skilled poet,” who is not unlike the author of Beowulf itself. In other words, Grendel is opposed to one of civilization’s achievements, the arts. Further, the poet’s song recounts how the benevolent God, who conforms to the Christian image of the deity, created the earth, at least in large part as a home for humankind. Like the devil, Grendel is opposed to God. We can also see that Grendel opposes creation in any form, whether it is the idea of God creating the world, or humanity’s artistic creation. The song is also about how God “quickened life in every other thing that moved.” Ultimately, Grendel is opposed to life other than his own: Grendel is the bringer of death.

Whatever the non-Christian origins of the Beowulf myth, the Beowulf poet certainly roots Grendel firmly in the Christian mythos. Grendel is described as “a fiend out of hell” (Heaney, line 100, p. 5) who once dwelled among “the banished monsters” who are the descendants of Cain, the Biblical first murderer. Thus the poet links Grendel with both Cain and Satan. (Lines 1265-1266, on page 34, clearly establish Grendel as Cain’s descendant.)

Grendel invades Heorot, killing Hrothgar’s people, not just once, but over and over, for a dozen years. The poet depicts Grendel not just as a killer but as a usurper.

“So Grendel ruled in defiance of right
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.” (Heaney, lines 144-146, p. 6)

Not only is Grendel the enemy of civilization, but he also represents a nightmarish vision of the bad king or leader. The poet condemns Grendel for his refusal to negotiate with his adversaries or pay reparations to the families of his victims!

“Sad lays were sung about. . .
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war; how he would never
parley or make peace with any Dane
nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price,
No counselor could ever expect
fair reparation from those rabid hands.” (Heaney, lines 151-158, p. 7)

Hearing of what Grendel had done, Beowulf, “like the leader he was” (Heaney, line 206, p. 8), gathers together men in his country of Geatland and sets sail to go to Hrothgar’s aid. Beowulf seeks glory, which is a virtue in the world of this poem, but he is also extending help to people in distress, a Christian virtue. As we shall see, Beowulf is the poet’s foremost example of the good man, the good leader, and, eventually, the good king. Upon landing, Beowulf and his men “thanked God for that easy crossing on a calm sea” (Heaney, lines 227-228, pgs. 8-9), demonstrating their allegiance to a deity whom the poet surely intends to be the Christian God, even if the poem is set in a time before Christianity came to Denmark.

Then they are confronted by Hrothgar’s watchman, who “challenged them in formal terms” (Heaney, lines 235-6, p. 9). The formal language of the watchman’s speech and Beowulf’s response demonstrates that they are highly civilized men, more comparable to Arthurian knights than to barbarian warriors. Even before Beowulf speaks, the watchman recognizes that “he is truly noble” (Heaney, line 250, p. 9).

Impressed by Beowulf’s heroism, the watchman escorts him to Heorot, which seems nothing like the gray, dark, depressingly primitive structure in Zemeckis’s movie.

“. . .till the timbered hall
rose before them, radiant with gold.
Nobody on earth knew of another
building like it. Majesty lodged there,
its light shone over many lands.” (Heaney, lines 307-311, p. 10)

Why, it seems like an earthly heaven, even despite Grendel’s assaults. Whereas Grendel embodies darkness, Heorot shines with golden light. Moreover, it seems that the civilization that Heorot represents inspires the people of many lands. Again I am reminded of King Arthur’s Camelot.

Beowulf undergoes another challenge in formal language from another Campbellian threshold guardian, Wulfgar, and responds eloquently. Then Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf, recognizing him as an emissary of God:

“Now Holy God
has, in His goodness, guided him here
to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel.” (Heaney, lines 381-383, p. 12)

Beowulf asks Hrothgar for “the privilege of purifying Heorot” (Heaney, line 431, p. 13); the choice of words conveys a religious subtext. Indeed, Beowulf acknowledges his belief in God: “And the Geat placed complete trust in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor” (Heaney, lines 669-670, p. 19).

By the way, in Heaney’s version, Beowulf removes his armor and says he will not use weapons against Grendel (who turns out to be magically invulnerable to them, anyway), but there is no indication that Beowulf is actually naked during the battle with Grendel, as he is in the movie, wherein Beowulf’s nudity seems, shall we say, ostentatiously odd.

Beowulf wrenches off Grendel’s arm. fatally wounding the monster, who retreats to his lair to die. Soon afterwards, a singing storyteller delivers a recitation about another legendary hero, Sigemond, the slayer of a dragon, to whom Beowulf is compared. (Beowulf will also slay a dragon later in the epic.) The recitation ends with what may seem an inexplicable reference to another monarch: “But evil entered into Heremod” (Heaney, line 914, p. 24).
But since the Beowulf poet is out to describe the “good king” and the great hero, it makes sense that he invokes not only another great hero of the past, Sigemund, who parallels Beowulf, but also Beowulf’s opposite, the evil Heremod, an example of a bad king.

Hrothgar makes it clear that the Christian God worked through Beowulf to rid them of Grendel:

“First and foremost, let the Almighty Father
be thanked for this sight. I suffered a long
harrowing by Grendel. But the Heavenly Shepherd
can work his wonders always and everywhere.” (Heaney, lines 927-930, p. 25)
“But now a man,
with the Lord’s assistance, has accomplished something
none of us could manage before now. . . .(Heaney, lines 938-940, p. 25).

The word “harrowing” reminds me of Christ’s “Harrowing of Hell.” Hrothgar also reminds me of the mythic Fisher-King, the wounded monarch who is figuratively impotent, and whose realm declines into a wasteland. Beowulf is the younger, more virile hero who saves the kingdom. Hrothgar adopts Beowulf as a son, making him heir to the restored kingdom.

Indeed, later, the poet describes how Beowulf behaved as a Christian hero in defeating Grendel:

“The monster wrenched and wrestled with him,
but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
he relied for help on the Lord of All.
on His care and favor. So he overcame the foe. . . .” (Heaney, lines 1269-1273, p. 35)

Beowulf is rather like the Biblical Samson, combining his great strength with his faith in God.

In a seeming digression, “the king’s poet”–notice how frequently poets and storytellers turn up in Beowulf–tells the story of “the gallant Finn slain in his home” (Heaney, lines 1147-1148, p. 31). Amidst the celebration of Beowulf’s victory this comes a memento mori, a reminder that even heroes can eventually fall victim to the violence of the world.

And the Beowulf poet considers his title character a true hero. He tells us, simply, “that good man, Beowulf the Geat, sat between the brothers,” Hrothgar’s sons (Heaney, lines 1189-1190, p. 33).

Yet the poet even restates his theme of inevitable mortality by putting it in the mouth of his victorious young hero. Before setting out on the trail of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf observes that “For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death.” (Heaney, lines 1386-1388, p. 37).

According to the poem Ma Grendel may be a “monstrous hell-bride” (Heaney, line 1259, p. 34), but she also “as far as anyone ever can discern looks like a woman” whereas Grendel was “warped in the shape of a man” (Heaney, lines 1350-1352, p. 36), so Zemeckis is justified in making Grendel’s mother look like Angelina Jolie rather than a repellent monster.

Again, in the poem Beowulf fulfills the role of the Christian hero in defeating and beheading Grendel’s mother: “holy God decided the victory” (Heaney, lines 1553-1554, p. 41).

During the celebration of Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar returns to the subject of the evil king Heremod, who “killed his own comrades, a pariah king who cut himself off from his own kind” (Heaney, lines 1714-1715, p. 45). Hrothgar argues that a leader who loses sight of his own mortality will be corrupted by power:

“He [God] permits him to lord it in many lands
until the man in his unthinkingness
forgets that it will ever end for him. . . .
The whole world
conforms to his will, he is kept from the world
until an element of overweening
enters him and takes hold. . . .” (Heaney, lines 1732-1734, 1739-1741, p. 45)

Hrothgar them warns Beowulf:

“Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly. . . .
. . . and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.” (Heaney, lines 1759-1762, 1767-1768, p. 46)

The corruption of power and of heroes is a theme of Zemeckis’s Beowulf, but in the poem Beowulf never succumbs to this temptation. Soon after Hrothgar’s speech comes another reference to a bad monarch who did, Queen Modthyth, and who provides yet another contrast with the incorruptible leaders Hrothgar and Beowulf.

Beowulf eventually becomes king of his homeland Geatland (whereas in the movie he becomes king of Denmark): “He was a good king” (Heaney, line 2390, p. 60).

But outside Beowulf’s realm violence and evil still ravage the world: “Pillage and slaughter have emptied the earth of entire peoples” (Heaney, lines 2265-2266, p. 58). Not even Beowulf’s counterpart to Heorot (and Camelot) is permanent. A dragon, another monster that embodies the world’s violence, devastates Geatland, and even incinerates Beowulf’s own home, “the best of buildings” (Heaney, line 2326, p. 59).

Moreover, Beowulf recognizes that even his long, heroic life has come to its end, and that he will not survive his combat with the dragon: “He was sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death” (Heaney, lines 2419-2420, p. 61). He cannot escape the inevitability of old age and death.

Indeed, the aged Beowulf, like Hrothgar before him, has, to an extent, become the impotent king: look what happens in the battle with the dragon to that obvious phallic symbol, his sword:

“The glittering sword
infallible before that day,
failed when he unsheathed it, as it never should have,
For the son of Ecgtheow [meaning Beowulf], it was no easy thing
to have to give ground like that and go
unwillingly to inhabit another home
in a place beyond [meaning heaven]; so every man must yield
the leasehold of his days.” (Heaney, lines 2584-2591, p. 65)

As the battle continues, Beowulf’s “ancient iron-gray sword” even “snapped” in two (Heaney, lines 2680-2681, p. 67).

Out of pride, Beowulf insisted on battling the dragon alone. The troops who accompanied him fled the scene of the battle out of cowardice. The sole exception was a young warrior named Wiglaf, who goes to Beowulf’s aid, and who clearly is intended by the poet to be Beowulf’s spiritual heir, a hero of the next generation. Working together as “partners in nobility” (Heaney, line 2707, p. 68), Wiglaf and Beowulf succeed in killing the dragon.

Mortally wounded in his combat with the dragon, the dying Beowulf reflects on his life:

“I took what came,
cared for and stood by things in my keeping,
never fomented quarrels, never
swore to a lie. All this consoles me,
doomed as I am and sickening for death;
because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind
need never blame me when the breath leaves my body
for murder of kinsmen.” (Heaney, lines 2736-2743, p. 68)

In a mark of honor, Wiglaf and others burn Beowulf’s body on what the poet calls simply “the good man’s pyre” (Heaney, line 3113, p. 77). In Beowulf’s final lines, the poet sums up,

“They said that of all the kings upon earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.” (Heaney, lines 3180-3182, p. 78)

So, yes, indeed, the Zemeckis-Avary-Gaiman Beowulf certainly “diverges from the story of Beowulf,” the original poem. (And here I issue a spoiler warning for those who have not yet seen the movie.) Rather than depicting a proto-Christian hero, the movie indicates that the rise of Christianity put an end to the age of heroes. Although the movie’s Beowulf grows older, the film fails to convey the sense that age has weakened him, that his death in combat with the dragon is inevitable, or that his tragedy is that of all humanity: the inevitability of old age and death.

Moreover, the Beowulf poet is clearly intent both on creating images of the ideal hero, leader and ruler and on urging his readers to aspire to the high standards that his ideal leaders set. But the Beowulf movie refuses to believe in the poet’s “good kings,” instead depicting both Hrothgar and Beowulf as deeply, morally flawed men. The Hrothgar of the movie is a drunken boor, who can barely manage to keep his clothing on during the celebration at the film’s start, and whose young wife shrinks from his touch. The Beowulf poet tells us that his title character “never swore to a lie,” yet the triumphs of the Beowulf of the movie in slaying monsters are marred by the fact that he is a liar. The movie’s Beowulf claims to have slain Grendelina, whereas he instead became her lover and let her live, thereby not just compromising with evil but becoming its enabler. He follows a pattern set by Hrothgar, who has likewise concealed his own tryst with Grendelina, which spawned the monstrous Grendel, a living representation of the consequences of his liaison with evil. Similarly, the dragon proves to be the son of Beowulf and Grendelina, representing his own dark side, unleashed to wreak destruction. In the movie Beowulf perishes not so much due to the inevitability of human mortality but because he cannot destroy the evil he has created without destroying himself. And is there any hope for the future? At the film’s end, Wiglaf, who is not depicted as a young man, is left staring at Grendelina, leaving the audience to wonder of he will continue the cycle by becoming her lover and fathering yet another monster.

Neil Gaiman says that the Beowulf movie “explores the relationship between a person and a story about a person.” But why should the movie’s deeply pessimistic and cynical depiction of Beowulf be more credible than the original poet’s portrayal of Beowulf as a truly good and noble man? Over a millennium ago the Beowulf poet could extol the human potential for moral greatness. The Beowulf movie dismisses the possibility. This is not progress.

Besides, the original Beowulf is a fictional character as depicted in the epic poem. It is that poem that defines Beowulf’s character. The Beowulf of the Zemeckis movie may have the same name and perform many of the same actions, but he does not have the same personality, and certainly not the same moral code, as the Beowulf of the poem. To put it another way, the Beowulf of the movie has a different characterization than the Beowulf of the poem. Or to put it bluntly, the movie’s Beowulf is not the same person as the poem’s Beowulf.

You cannot faithfully adapt or interpret a work if you turn the central character into a different person. However interesting the Zemeckis movie may be, it might as well be called something like Fred the Dragon-Slayer; it’s not about the Beowulf readers have known for centuries.

-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson


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